Strange Liberators

DeniseDay 12 of our Lenten Journey through Dr. King’s “Beyond Vietnam” speech.

They must see Americans as strange liberators. The Vietnamese people proclaimed their own independence in 1954—in 1945 rather—after a combined French and Japanese occupation and before the communist revolution in China. They were led by Ho Chi Minh. Even though they quoted the American Declaration of Independence in their own document of freedom, we refused to recognize them. Instead, we decided to support France in its reconquest of her former colony. Our government felt then that the Vietnamese people were not ready for independence, and we again fell victim to the deadly Western arrogance that has poisoned the international atmosphere for so long. With that tragic decision we rejected a revolutionary government seeking self-determination and a government that had been established not by China—for whom the Vietnamese have no great love—but by clearly indigenous forces that included some communists. For the peasants this new government meant real land reform, one of the most important needs in their lives.
By Rev. Denise Griebler (photo above), the pastor of First United Church of Christ in Richmond, Michigan

We do not tell the truth about ourselves.   No wonder we and others are confused. Perhaps we have refused the long look in the mirror for so long that we simply do not know. But I think it is also true that we do not want to know.

Listen. Begin with the genocide. Indigenous people, communities and cultures crushed by colonial greed and settler-culture that took whatever it wanted with the twisted and absurd notion that this was all preordained, a manifest destiny set forth by a false-god in their image. Listen.   You can hear the sounds of an economy built on enslaving human beings and extracting their labor with the blessing of this false-god. Listen, as the ever-expanding economy gobbles up land and with it the gifts below the surface of land, waters, species, human life and labor and leaves in its aftermath spoiled land, air and water. They say a sound goes on forever. Listen. The cries of the indigenous and enslaved people and of the earth, our Mother, can be heard.

If we are willing to listen and tell the truth about ourselves, we will confess that it is always about land and territory. This is the story of empire, by necessity gobbling and expanding, lest it be undone and overcome by some rising power. Controlling land and territory means access and control over ubiquitous or trace elements beneath the surface, flowing waters, life that pulses through plants and animals, the labor of human beings. It’s about harnessing, extracting, expanding for the sake of greed and power.

Land reform benefiting indigenous farmers? I don’t think so. The indigenous farmers of the United States were exterminated or forced onto reservations on the least productive lands. In the post-Civil War South, freed persons were forced into share-cropping and kept poor. Japanese immigrant farmers’ vineyards and orchards in California and the Pacific Northwest were confiscated and the people were put into internment camps.  In the 1980’s as agribusiness expanded in the US, family farms were simply foreclosed and gobbled up. From the late 19th-century through today, US trade and foreign policies have squeezed indigenous and poor farmers from their land as the US sought to expand our economy and power in the world. I’m thinking mainly of the US role in the rest of the Americas – Mexico, Central and South America. Think coups and contras and military aid to dictators and death squads. Land reform is always contra-indicated and has been blocked by whatever means necessary. It’s as simple as that. Strange liberators, indeed.

In early November 2016, over 500 clergy responded to a call from a local Episcopal priest and leaders of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe to come to Standing Rock. Since April 2016, water protectors and their allies had been engaging in prayer and resistance against the Dakota Access Pipeline(DAPL) which was slated to carry fracked crude oil from the northwest corner of North Dakota to refineries near Peoria, Illinois. The pipeline would pass through cultural sites on par with Gettysburg – battlegrounds that were by their nature also burial grounds – and it would pass below the Missouri River, the source of drinking water for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and every animal and human who lives down-river. Security forces used dogs, water cannons, rubber-coated steel bullets, tear gas, concussion grenades and sophisticated and not-so-sophisticated surveillance to attack the water protectors. By November the resistance camp, Oceti Sakowin, had swelled to over 10,000 water protectors. Over 200 tribes from the Americas were and their allies had come to the camp to pray and to resist the pipeline which they called The Black Snake.

Clergy from many different denominations and faith-traditions gathered in the gymnasium of the community center in Cannon Ball, North Dakota. We listened to Standing Rock elders and leaders speak about the land and the water, their embodied prayers of resistance. Besides our presence and our prayers, they asked us to publicly repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery. I confess my own ignorance here.   Most of us didn’t know much about the Doctrine of Discovery. Indigenous people will tell us. 523 years ago, in 1493, the Roman Church issued a Papal Bull which pronounced that God had ordained the “discovery” and domination by Catholic monarchs of whatever lands European explorers set foot upon. The Doctrine of Discovery worked just as well for English Episcopalian and Congregationalist colonial settlers and lay the foundation for Monroe Doctrine that justified western expansion and colonialism, neo-colonialism and military intervention in Mexico, Central America, the Caribbean and Pacific Islands.    As recently as 2005, the Doctrine of Discovery was used in US courts to establish legal precedent in a land dispute. Most of our denominations had already denounced and repudiated the Doctrine of Discovery. But to do so as an ecumenical community gathered around the sacred fire at the Oceti Sakowin Camp was powerful. The elders received a copy of the Document of Discovery from us and we celebrated together as it burned in the sacred fire.

It is always about the land. It’s about the life we live in covenant with Mother Earth and each other. How shall we organize ourselves to share and care for the gifts of earth? If we listen we will hear the cries of human communities and ecosystems being crushed in the grip of expanding markets and the security forces that protect the corporate interests. Listen. To the sounds of resistance, of life insisting, pushing back and rising up. Listen. The Spirit is breathing and the waters singing.

One thought on “Strange Liberators

  1. Dear Denise,
    Your words are powerful and poetic, coming from the depth of your experience. This is an
    important essay. I would like it to be read widely and will send it on to people.
    Much love and appreciation,

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