Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Columbus Day: Cause for Celebration or Confession?

“Our people were decimated by war and disease from some 50 million in 1400 to barely 230,000 in 1895. There are numbers of documented cases where small pox infected blankets were sent to villages (biological terrorism) and bounties were paid for the heads and scalps of Native men, women and children. Today we are 2.4 million in the USA and 1.2 in Canada. But, perhaps what makes the story most tragic is that so much of this was the result of the misappropriation of the biblical narrative that was co-opted as a tool of colonial imperialism. However, the story is not finished” (Richard Twiss, “All My Relatives”). [1]

Is this really a cause for celebration every second Monday in October? How is it that we can have a federal holiday that commemorates Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement in the beginning of the year and another towards the end that underscores ignorance in regards to one of the most heinous demonstrations of genocide in recorded Western and human history? Again, we are reminded that at the forefront of both these movements were confessing Christians and the Church. Said differently, “From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so” (James 3:10).

It seems that it is not much different in the theological arena, where the voice of Native American and First-Nation Christians continues to be left out of the conversation in favor of Western, white theological colonialism. And I am guilty just the same. Richard Twiss is the founder of Wiconi International, a community of First-Nation Christians, and a leading voice in First-Nation Christian theology. Yet I confess, his address to the World Communion of Reformed Churches Uniting General Council was my first real exposure to this significant attestation to the on-going activity of God’s Spirit and the gospel of Jesus. Moreover, Twiss reminds us that our cathedrals and churches, fellowship halls and sanctuaries, sacred spaces and youth rooms are built on land that is not our own:

"A close examination of the national Christian speaking platforms across the land reveal the glaring absence of native men and women who are ascribed a place spiritual stature in our own land. And I repeat in our own land. And I repeat again, in our own land!"

The Christian hope is not for a monoculture, hegemonic kingdom of God whereby everyone looks the same, worships the same, prays the same, interprets the same, or even thinks the same. N. Gordon Cosby, founder of Church of the Saviour in Washington, D.C., once wrote, "The Church of the Holy Spirit is full of variety. Sameness and conformity are the demands of alien spirits." [2] How tragic, then, that our versions of Christian theology strive for such sameness and assume the posture of Western, white theology, i.e. Anglo-Protestant theology, as the way, the truth, and the life. This is not to say that Western theology has neither a place at the table, nor a valid contribution to the Christian faith, for indeed it does. Even more, I am deeply grateful for the traditions and confessions made by the likes of Luther, Calvin, Wesley, and Barth, for they are my own. We just must not assume for a second that any one person, culture, or system “can write theology for all times, places, and persons” (Cone xi). To do so would be yet another demonstration of cultural imperialism headed by individuals and communities of faith naïve to the plurality of truth that is not a hindrance, rather witness to the cultural mosaic called the kingdom of God. And this kingdom is already here and yet to come, if we have the eyes to see and the ears to hear.

So Columbus Day- a cause for celebration or a call to confession? Maybe both. Christians must confess the realities of an oppressive history that has paralleled ecclesial traditions, missions, and confessions. We must repent of the expansion of the faith that has often come through the abuse of power, the co-option of local cultures by Western ideals, and the exploitation of indigenous and tribal peoples. It should also be a cause for celebration. However, instead of the second Monday in October commemorating Columbus’ stumbling over “new” territory, it should be an opportunity to acknowledge the first-nations and Native Americans, many who are our brothers and sisters in Christ, whose history, tradition, culture, and gospel witness have so often been trumped by the stranger and foreigner in their midst, i.e. people like me. It is about time I listen to their theological and ecclesial contributions.

[1] For the full text of Richard Twiss' address:
[2] See O'Connor, Elizabeth. Eighth Day of Creation. Washington, D.C.: The Potter's House Bookservice, 1971. This is yet another beautiful publication from the communities apart of Church of the Saviour. This missional church community has been around since the early 1950's and is a brilliant example of incarnational, intentional, and holistic faith communities:
[3] See Cone, James H. A Black Theology of Liberation. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1990.