Picture: Heard Museum. Phoenix AZ.
The big story from the most recent Western Jurisdictional Conference wasn’t the only story from our time in the Arizona heat. Unfortunately some important events will be overlooked as we continue to process the episcopal election that happened. One such event took up an entire afternoon and demonstrated once again that when it comes to sin the West is leading the way.
Too often in the church sin is understood as only an individual thing. However, John Wesley with his focus on personal and social holiness, helps us understand that holiness (and reciprocally sin) is both a personal and communal matter. If our social holiness is to mature we must recognize the sinful practices our community has participated in. Scripture bears witness to the fact that God takes communal sin very seriously. Not every Jew fleeing Egypt actively participated in the making of the golden calf. Not every person actively rejected crossing the Jordan because of the giants. Only a handful were part of the decision making, the rest were simply going along. Yet, it was not just the leaders but the whole community that took another 40 year lap through the desert. By-standing while your community participates in sinful acts is not acceptable to God.
Which brings us to the afternoon at #WJUMC we spent at the Heard museum. This museum dedicated to American Indian Art & History has a large exhibit on the history of Indian schools in our country. These were places where children who were no less than kidnapped by the government were sent to be “civilized”. Meaning, having their families, culture, clothing, and language stripped from them to integrate them into proper, meaning white, culture. People felt these extremes were necessary because 100 years earlier Benjamin Franklin himself remarked at how little interest Native Americans had in assimilating into western culture.
“When an Indian child has been brought up among us, taught our language and habituated to our customs, if he goes to see his relations and make one Indian ramble with the, there is no persuading him ever to return.” [Franklin 1753]
The reality and brutality of the schools is not just a national shame that we choose to ignore, it is also a dark mark on the United Methodist Church. Many of these schools were run by churches and no small number were Methodist. Not only were Methodists standing by as generations of children were abducted and abused, financial and material support flowed to the schools from all over the connection. This is a communal sin of the highest order.
We spent the afternoon at the museum and time later reflecting in small groups on the experience not to put this issue to rest but instead to begin a process of repentance. This is not new work in the West or in my conferences specifically. We’ve been working on acts of repentance and healing relationships with native peoples for years. Those who saw the Sand Creek Massacre report at General Conference saw a piece of that work. If you haven’t, you owe it to yourself to watch at least the authors report. [Starts at 1:27:00.]
The Sand Creek report was not the curtain call on that effort but simply one step in an ongoing process. The Western Jurisdiction, through our Healing Relationships team and by setting aside dedicated time at our annual and Jurisdictional conferences, is leading the entire denomination on how we approach indigenousness people and take seriously the all to common and tragic history of the church’s complicity in near genocidal policies against them. Though we are by no means alone in the work. Faithful people from across the US and the world are part of this effort with many struggling to bring it attention for decades.
Confessionally, I was not a supporter of the work of relationship building with Native Americans when it was begun in our Annual Conference several years ago. I didn’t understand the point of it and I remarked to others that I felt it was a distraction from the important issues of congregational vitality that continue still. I was wrong. What I didn’t see at the time was that moving forward into a truly new place wasn’t possible until we honestly confronted the sins of the past and the harm that we have done and that continues today. Even now, I am not a leader in this work, but as a delegate to #WJUMC I am now a part of it.
While this all may seem like long ago history to some, for indigenous people themselves, many are still confronted with being treated like second-class citizens in their own land. The ripples of our collective sin is still moving through communities that we have physically and emotionally distanced ourselves from as much as possible.
Be they Samaritans, tax collectors, adulterers, women, or children Jesus actively went to the margins of society. The lawyers, scribes, and Pharisees challenged him with the letter of scripture to demonstrate that he was wrong to do it. But, Jesus, over and over again, demonstrated that the spirit of the scripture compelled him to do nothing less.
Jesus called out the church of his time for their attempts to exclude and marginalize. He would not let them brush their communal sin under the rug. Today, our church is rife with those that attempt to use the letter of scripture to defend exclusion of many groups of people in the same ways people in our church used the letter of scripture to defend slavery and assimilation of native peoples not long ago.
We work to repent and heal relationships with native peoples because it is the only way to mature in our social holiness. We also do it so that we may learn a lesson Jesus has been trying to teach us for over 2000 years, if we are using our faith to marginalize and exclude we are simply doing it wrong. Jesus himself erased the boundaries that would have excluded nearly all contemporary United Methodists from being called People of God. Today, as his followers, we must do the same.
Yes, the West is leading in sin. Prayers that others will follow.