By Tommy Airey, co-editor of RadicalDiscipleship.Net
“Our arms are tired of troubling the waters for you. Do us a favor and trouble your own waters and receive healing.”–Jim Bear Jacobs, Thursday morning at the Bartimaeus Kinsler Institute
Yesterday, on my flight back to Detroit, I had a front row seat for a rather disturbing dialogue. A young man whose family owns a limo company in the suburbs was aghast at Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) who called out the director of Green Book for publicly praising the watch-and-bicycle-company Shinola for their role in “saving Detroit.” Then the young man proclaimed, “In my opinion, gentrification is really helping.” His passionate conversation partner, a white woman about my age, gasped, “Why can’t people just be happy?”
Immediately after I threw up in my mouth, my mind darted back to my time at last week’s Bartimaeus Kinsler Institute, where accountant and pastor Brooke Prentis, a descendent of the Aboriginal Waka Waka peoples, explained “the white possessive,” the ongoing five-hundred-year-plus pursuit of happiness constructed on sidestepping ongoing issues of settler colonialism. A happiness built on displacing everything indigenous is actually just a sickness.
At the Institute, an annual sacred Southern California space, our hope of decolonizing (or “dis-possessing”), would come from taking our cues from the title of Indigenous theologian Vine Deloria’s 1970 throw down: We Talk, You Listen. The conch shell was passed to Indigenous leaders who shared out of their experience, pain, hope and strength: through word, ceremony, posture and organization. White settlers—swimming in all our messiness, cluelessness and fragility—listened and followed. Finally.
Bartimaeus Cooperative Ministries, intersecting the seminary, sanctuary, street and soil on Chumash land 100 miles north of what most of us now call “Los Angeles,” announced this year’s theme “Indigenous Justice and Christian Faith: Land, Law, Language” after they joined a nonviolent direct action last summer with the Poor People’s Campaign at the statue of Christopher Columbus in the Capitol rotunda in Sacramento.
In front of more than 140 leaders who traveled from all over North America and Australia, Randy Woodley, a Keetoowah Cherokee Indian descendent, ordained American Baptist pastor and a professor of faith and culture at Portland Seminary, lamented that the Christianity that Europeans brought with them to the Americas was “a poor imitation of a bad model.” As it turns out, Jesus didn’t come with Columbus. He was already here.
The disease that is killing us is “the Western worldview” itself, which Rev. Jim Bear Jacobs counseled, is always coded language for “White.” Woodley cited Seneca author and historian John Mohawk’s theological flip of the script: God did tell the Europeans to go–but God told them to come over to Turtle Island to listen. This is where decolonization starts. Not by staying pure. Not by trying not to ruffle any feathers. But by going and listening. “We see that you are sick,” Jacobs proclaimed, “and we offer you medicine.” The cure, though, has nothing whatsoever to do with just being happy.
Unfortunately, when Indigenous folk vulnerably share their trauma, White folks predictably mistake it as an invitation to share theirs. The guilt and the fragility all-too-often universalize the oppression. Tragically, the historic injustice remains untouched. Lenore Three Stars lamented that the burden of reconciliation chronically falls on the marginalized. This is the long, agonizing story of history. The guardians of the status quo stay glued to their perch for as long as they possible can. As Woodley pointed out, reconciliation is for white people to feel better, but reparations are needed for Native people to feel better.
Jonathan Cordero, professor of sociology at Cal Lutheran University, told California’s version of the old colonial story. He emphasized the tragic lack of missional success. While only 4% of the Indigenous population converted to White Christianity, 78% died in the Mission system. Beyond the brutal statistics, there was an epidemic of rape, kidnapping, slavery and dispossession. All of this was justified by the Christian “Doctrine of Discovery.” Apologies, Cordero asserted, are simply not enough. There must be action rooted in authentic, non-sentimentalized love.
Meanwhile, white America, in the face of facts, seeks to turn back the clock to make America great again by demanding that everyone just be happy. Despite the gentrification and the reservation. I am convinced that the capacity for those of us who are white to demonstrate real love depends on our willingness to take inconvenient cues from the margins (what Institute animator Ched Myers calls “the perspective of the periphery”). Instead, white Christians have been trained to happily root for the Padres and the 49ers and the Trailblazers. The good news is that we can quit the mascot theology. We can embrace a bias bubbling up from below. When we do, we will have only one question: Why can’t people just grieve?