Call Us What We Carry (2): Stolen Land
by Louise Westfall
I walked today where Jesus walked…
That old hymn was frequently on my mind a few years ago when I was privileged to visit the Holy Land with a group of ministers and rabbis. I was not fully prepared for the feelings that came over me overlooking the Sea of Galilee with little fishing boats bobbing at the shoreline … or walking the “via Dolorosa” –the way of sorrows–of Jesus’ final journey to the hill of crucifixion. The vast wilderness of the Negev desert heightened the sense of isolation Jesus must have experienced during his own time of testing … and hearing the Beatitudes read aloud on the grassy plain much as the first hearers did amplified their surprising blessing and radical perspective. There’s something about geography, and the specificity of place that shapes meaning and enhances our understanding of faith. Mary Lyons, an enrolled member of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe expresses it powerfully: When we talk about land, land is part of who we are. It’s a mixture of our blood, our past, our current, and our future. We carry our ancestors in us, and they’re around us. As you do too. In this second of our series Call Us What We Carry, we will explore our Christian identity and purpose through land, promised by God as a spiritual inheritance to the covenant people in perpetuity. And we cannot do so without acknowledging it as stolen land.
The implications of that continue to this very day. The occasion for my visit grew out of a shared dialog between Christians and Jewish leaders following the action of the Presbyterian Church (USA) to consider divestment from companies whose business in Israel curtailed human rights of Palestinians. Much of our time was spent in conversation with religious leaders, representatives of both Palestinian and Israeli government, and nonprofit organizations working for justice, peace, and reconciliation among the deeply divided communities, all of whom claim the land as birthright, home and sovereign nation.
The morning text tips its hand to foreshadow the complicated relationship between the covenant people and the promised land. We hear once again God’s word to make of Abram a great nation with countless descendants and a homeland, a spiritual heritage we share with Jewish siblings as well. There will be suffering, and even centuries of forced slavery before they become fully established in this new land. But it’s not really “new”–the text delineates the numerous tribes and people who already inhabit it, and have prior claim to it. A reading from the book of beginnings, Genesis, in the fifteenth chapter, selected verses one through 21. Listen for God’s Word to us who dwell in contradiction: we live in stolen lands as inheritors of Divine promise. [Genesis 15:1-7, 12 -16a, 18-21]
The signature line of my email account carries a statement of land acknowledgement: I live in the territory of Arapaho and Cheyenne nations according to the 1851 Treaty of Fort Laramie (Many individuals and institutions have adopted this practice as well). Several years ago I read the biography of Chief Niwot, a great Arapaho leader who continually sought peace with the white invaders, even when other tribal elders counseled war. The old chief was among the 230 persons (mostly women and children and elderly) massacred by Colonel John Chivington’s army at Sand Creek, near present-day Eads, Colorado. The treaty broken by this outrageous aggression was another one of 367 the United States made with Native Americans across the nation and failed to honor. The relentless western expansion was fueled in no small part by the doctrine of “manifest destiny”–the idea that the United States was led by God to expand its dominion and spread democracy and capitalism across the entire North American continent. Our “promised land” as it were, a haven for “the tired, the poor, the wretched refuse of your teeming shores …” including my German and Irish ancestors.
Both as Americans and as Christians our history involves the forcible and often violent taking of land inhabited by other human beings. Terrible injustices were done in the name of God. Since it’s mostly true that victors write the history, the racial and ethnic reckoning afoot in our country is not–as some detractors say–“political correctness” or liberal malice but is rather a closer examination of the story and our nation’s and religion’s struggle to become better versions of ourselves and bring our practices closer to the vision first cast so long ago. Spiritual healing begins with honest assessment–this deeper look is a spiritual practice. Our faith affirms that God’s grace is redeeming human error whether of ignorance or selfish intent and when we confess our responsibility for that error we participate in that gracious healing, restoration, and repair. We grow as humans and as faithful Christians. I love my country the way I love you … and me: despite our flaws, disappointing choices, ignorance and apathy that co-exist with brilliance, generosity, creativity. At the heart of our Judeo-Christian faith lies the reality of human forgiveness, amazing grace and opportunity to do better. Our story is not … well, predestined as if we have no say in the matter; the choice to love is always open to us. Our search for beloved community will find new currency as we share our stories with candor and vulnerability, speaking and listening past our differences toward the blessing of a “more perfect union.”
Spiritual healing begins with honest assessment--this deeper look is a spiritual practice.
Look, all the casino money in the world cannot make up for the near genocide of Native Americans. So we keep learning. We will listen for Native perspectives on the consequences of generational trauma they have endured. We can amplify voices in this community that are calling for more sustainable environmental practices and care for the precious land that finally belongs to no one but God.
There are examples of concrete reparations. Recently, Camp Amache, the Japanese-American internment site in the southeast corner of our state, was named a National Historic Site, bringing widespread attention to one of the 10 concentration camps where the United States held Japanese American persons and families during World War II. While these individuals were freed in 1944, many had no home or business to return to, and the small stipend each was given was not unlike the money given to formerly incarcerated persons upon their release. It took the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 before reparations were made–$20,000 to each person who had been imprisoned and was still living. Eventually, our government made payments to over 82,000 people and made an official apology for the “race prejudice, war hysteria, and failure of political leadership” that led to the camps.
Our nation will continue to consider reparations for those taken from their African homelands and enslaved in America. I’ve spoken previously of the steps my seminary has taken after historical analysis uncovered systemic racism throughout the venerable institution established in 1812. It was not political correctness but theological conviction that moved Princeton Seminary to repent of its historic ties to slavery; including renaming its world-renowned library to honor its first Black graduate; dedicating millions of dollars in scholarships and financial aid to descendants; and establishing an endowed department for Black Church studies. A far more humble though heartfelt gesture is Central choir’s decision to join other churches in recognizing the largely unattributed and unpaid contributions of Black slaves and musicians in the composition of hymns and spirituals. Every time we sing one of these songs in worship, we will make a contribution to the Spirituals Project or other organization benefiting Black composers and performers of this sacred tradition. As the choir will sing later “Ain’t a that good news?”
Well, yes. Good news, as we live with greater integrity and truthfulness in this land where the milk and honey has been inequitably available. Good news as we welcome those formerly described as “aliens” “illegal” and “imposters.” Good news as we worship and serve the God who created the earth and all its fullness; the world and all those who dwell upon it. Good news as we understand this blessing is poured out upon “them” as well as “us”–forever blurring the distinction that has been the cause of such warfare and division, misery and heartache.
Friends, the meaning of land may be found in the experience of home–or maybe, more accurately, the longing for home. The place of peace and acceptance; among beloveds with whom you also are beloved. A place of communion with companions both human and Divine. A place in which you know yourself and feel connected to a larger web of individuals and communities you know as family. Is it tied to a geographical location? Is there a chunk of land somewhere that is home for you? Now after more than two years of pandemic uncertainties and feeling out of sync and isolated, perhaps we need the good news of a promised land where we will truly be at home.
A common motif throughout Jesus’ earthly ministry is a place he described as the Kingdom of God or the Kingdom of Heaven. (You may have noticed that I alter this slightly by referring to the “Kin-dom” of God–partly to avoid association with colonizing earthly realms and partly to accentuate the relational nature of this reality, connoting inclusion, care, support, solidarity and unity in which we’re called to treat one another as family. I’m drawing from the work of Cuban-American theologian Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz who first penned the word). Jesus spoke many times of the proximity of this reality, and its location “within you.” In the prayer Jesus taught followers, we pray for that Kingdom to come, and God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven. Yet after his arrest, when interrogated by the ruling powers, Jesus said clearly that his kingdom was not of this world. The place he described is located in time and space, here and now, yet also eternal. It’s a spiritual reality in which we live wholly in the presence of Christ, which for most of us happens in fits and starts; times when we feel centered and times when we feel way out of bounds. But lest we get too “woo-woo” about it, we must recognize this land as one belonging to others also; it’s not a gated community where we live protected from them; it’s not the same as our national identity and country of citizenship. In Christ there is no east or west, no south or north … but simply (ha ha–nothing really simple about it) “one great fellowship of love.”
Call us what we carry: a promised land in which we walk today where Jesus walked, and still walks, to accompany us safely home.