I am looking forward to attending the Wild Goose Festival in Hot Springs, North Carolina, July 12-15, where I will lead a workshop examining themes in my book Native Americans, the Mainline Church, and the Quest for Interracial Justice (Chalice Press, 2017).
I believe that the Native American drive for self-governance is one of the most important civil rights movements of our time. Yet, most non-Indians do not understand the significance of this movement and what it means for those of us who, like myself, are non-Indians. For many of us the history of Christian-Indian relations is largely a hidden history. In my workshop we will dig into this history, examine some of the ways that American Christianity contributed to the oppression, exploitation, subjugation, and extermination of Indigenous Peoples, and wrestle with the probing question that Dr. King asked in his last book: Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? (Beacon Press, 1968). In this blog and those that follow I want to explore some of the themes that I believe we must examine together.
Historians teach us that English colonization of America began when, in 1578, Queen Elizabeth I authorized Sir Henry Gilbert to start a colony in America. He failed but six months after his death his half-brother, Sir Walter Raleigh received a similar authorization. Queen Elizabeth gave Raleigh: "free liberty and license . . . to discover, search, find out, and view such remote, heathen and barbarous lands, countries, and territories, not actually possessed of any Christian princes, nor inhabited by Christian people . . . and the same to have, hold occupy, and enjoy forever."
Roughly fifty years later the English settlers who founded the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630 created an official seal before they left England. This seal pictured a nearly naked Native holding a flimsy-looking bow and arrow, inscribed with the plea "Come and help us." Students of the Bible recognize this plea echoes a vision that the Apostle Paul received in the night in which: "a man from Macedonia was standing beseeching him and saying, 'Come over to Macedonia and help us'" (Acts 16: 9, RSV). Paul's vision opened Europe to Christian missionaries and bolstered the westward expansion of the church. In later times this missionary text reinforced the idea that heathens and savages would be grateful recipients of the gospel--a gift from enlightened Christians. The settlers who founded the Jamestown Colony and the Puritans and Pilgrims and those who followed in their footsteps imagined themselves to be the vanguard of civilization. They were ready to find, search out, and possess any place on earth not already possessed by a Christian prince or inhabited by Christian people.
This is the beginning of what Native scholar Steven T. Newcomb (Shawnee/Lenape) calls the "Christian Nations Theory." In my interpretation of this theory, European setters held that because they had "discovered" America, and by virtue of their self-proclaimed superior religion and culture, they had the right to exercise control over Indigenous Peoples and take their land in exchange for a higher religion and culture. While many Christians do not subscribe to this theory today, this theory remains the foundation of U.S.-Indian law. I would argue that this theory continues to inform some elements of American Christianity and, albeit in a somewhat secular version, America's view of the world. As people of faith we have to learn this history, so that we can equip ourselves with new stories of faith befitting our hope for a more just and peaceful society and world.
In future blogs I will show how the beliefs of early settlers made their way into the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. We will also learn about Indian boarding schools run by Christian denominations and other efforts to assimilate, subjugate, or annihilate Native Americans. Throughout this long and tortured history Native Americans have maintained their cultures and their traditional ways. Now, in the twenty-first century, many Protestant denominations have apologized to Native Americans for their participation in our nation's sordid past. Whereas, once white Christians were intent on "civilizing and Christianizing" Indians, today we are finding new ways to support and encourage one another because we realize a shared call to the common good.
I welcome your reply this blog and those to follow. Please introduce yourself to me if you are attending the Wild Goose Festival.
David P. Hansen
Author: Native Americans, the Mainline Church, and the Quest for Interracial Justice (Chalice Press, 2017)