“The Act of Repentance toward Healing Relationships with Indigenous People” asks us to “recognize the harm inflicted by the Church and celebrate the gifts indigenous people bring to the Church.” We cannot build bridges of reconciliation without “listening and learning the history between indigenous people and Christian colonizers.”
Many of us recoil from repentance. We don’t want to accept guilt for sins that we think were committed many years ago by people long gone. We don’t like to hear that our Church or our Nation has done wrong.
But repentance is not first of all about guilt and blame. Repentance is about turning back to God, turning back to the right way because we see and long for a new future.
We can approach repentance with joyful anticipation. It is our delight to take the first steps on a new way that takes us back to the right way and to God.
As followers of Jesus, we have practiced returning to God. And so we don’t look to pass guilt off to other people by hunting down those who are most responsible. We go ahead. Grace empowers us to face guilt with hope for reconciliation.
We are still going the wrong way. The harm inflicted on indigenous people is not a thing of the past. Fresh wounds are still being inflicted. Whenever I’m driving home, going east on Route 30 through Paoli, I have to drive past a Pennsylvania Historical Marker that reads, “General Anthony Wayne, the house in which the Revolutionary leader and Indian Fighter was born.”
To this day, there are Native American pastors who will not allow Native drums, Native music, ceremony and dance in Christian worship because they have been taught that Native Americans have to give up these things in order to follow Jesus (See Rescuing the Gospel from the Cowboys by Richard Twiss).
Various European groups went to great lengths to syncretize Jesus to their cultures. That’s why we have pews and advent wreaths. But once these European groups were done adapting Christianity to their cultures, they locked the gates and said “No more” to everyone else. They were intent on making Jesus familiar to themselves but foreign to everyone else.
Jesus will not be foreign to anyone. Jesus belongs to all peoples. It’s time to renounce and undo the taboos that demonized the cultures of the First Nations that are all around us. Native Americans can follow Jesus and still be native.
Native Americans are nervous about our “Acts of Repentance”. They are afraid it will just be a bunch of one-time worship events that won’t change anything.
George Tinker’s book Spirit and Resistance gives guidance on how to make sure our repentance really is a turning back to God.
Returning to the right way won’t be easy. Euro-Americans and immigrants “continue to benefit from the atrocities committed against Native people.” Methodist churches were part of the system designed to eliminate Native people and their culture. The church approved of Indian removal. Here in Pennsylvania, we live on land that was cleared of Native people.
In their determination to take charge and take over, Euro-Americans failed to listen to and learn from Native American wisdom.
Native wisdom teaches living in harmony and balance with “all my relatives” which includes all created people.
Native wisdom teaches that, “Not all things are possible for humans, because some human actions destroy the balance of the world.”
Native wisdom warns against “competing to take the most out of the world.” It instructs us to “assume our rightful place in the world as humble two-leggeds in the circle of creation with all other createds.”
A cultural bomb was dropped in North American that was meant to “eradicate beliefs, traditions, names and all other aspects of identity and self-reliance held by Native people.”
Systems were put in place that keep on working today. The number of Native people in America continues to be reduced just by the way they are identified. An invasive culture still works to weaken Native culture.
We are on a wrong way. Without making further excuses, let’s go ahead and trust God’s grace in Jesus to set us on a new way. Imagine the possibilities for sharing new life with each other that reconciliation and healing can bring.
The Rev. Gary Jacabella
Member, Committee on Native American Ministries
Pastor, Berwyn UMC
View CONAM’s “Acts of Repentance” Powerpoint slides presented during Bishop Peggy Johnson’s Days on the Districts report.
Feature photo: CONAM members, including the Rev. Gary Jacabella (center with hands raised), sing at Annual Conference 2015 during their presentation about children who attended, died and are buried at the former Carlisle Indian Industrial School. Sabrina Daluisio photo