by Nick Arroyave, Carl McRoy, and Christopher C. Thompson | 3 November 2023 |
“Thou shalt not steal.” Exodus 20:13
Ellen White commented on this timeless directive when she wrote: “The eighth commandment condemns man stealing and slave dealing, and forbids wars of conquest” (Patriarchs and Prophets, p.309).
Is it not stealing to conquer people’s homelands in order to make those lands “yours”?
Established in 2018 by The Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama, The Legacy Museum traces the traumatic history of Africans ripped from their homeland and forced into generations of an unconscionably vicious system of unpaid labor for hundreds of years. It follows the story of these people to the present day, where the US boasts the highest prison population globally, and an astoundingly disproportionate rate of incarceration of minority groups, especially African Americans. Compound that with the devastating impact of COVID-19, lack of clean water in many impoverished communities and major cities, police brutality, banking and housing discrimination, and more. Also, let us dare not forget the myriad of ways in which schools have been used to perpetuate the disenfranchisement of minority people. They don’t call it the school-to-prison pipeline for nothing.
Chris Emdin story of The Carlisle Indian Industrial School in his book, For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood…and the Rest of Y’all Too, is a stark reminder of the brutality of colonial educational institutions and “education strategies” utilized to keep Native Americans in line. Founded by General Richard Henry Pratt, in 1879, The Carlisle School utilized a “militaristic approach to ‘helping’ the Indigenous Americans assimilate to white norms.” This school and countless others like it were infamous and despised by the natives for the grotesque and abusive tactics that they employed. The legacy of these abusive institutions left an indelible, horrific legacy that persists among native people to this day. How did we get to this level of disparities in a land of boasted equality? What can be done to promote more equitable outcomes for the good of all? Why is this important for Christians to be involved in?
Indigenous Peoples’ Day and The Doctrine of Discovery
In previous pieces we discussed the Doctrine of Discovery (DoD) at length. Yet, it is necessary to revisit it here, and to point out that the DoD brought a collision between Indigenous Peoples of the Americas and those of Africa. Dum Diversas, Romanus Pontifex, and Inter Caetera are widely regarded as the three papal bulls establishing the framework for the DoD. The first two were written 40 and 38 years BC (Before Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492) to grant the pope’s “apostolic” blessing to Portugal’s plundering of African peoples. Inter Caetera expounded upon the spirit of the first two to grant papal blessings onto Spain’s invasion of the Americas and the Caribbean. England soon followed suit with a grant to the Cabot family to conquer and seize “discovered” lands anywhere on the globe, leading to settler colonization of what would become Canada, the US, Australia, and New Zealand (and more).
The short version, as far as the Americas go: the DoD is European Christians capitalizing off of an unholy trinity of papal bulls that enslaved Indigenous Peoples of Africa to work land stolen from the Indigenous Peoples of the Americas and the Caribbean islands in the name of Jesus. Indigenous Peoples’ Day is representative of the responsibility we bear to acknowledge those who were the victims of these gross misappropriations of power in the name of conquest and empire.
Nationalism and Imperialism
It’s important that we acknowledge that the devil tempted Jesus with imperialism in the wilderness (see Matt. 4:8-10; Luke 4:5-8). Jesus didn’t dispute Satan’s claim to the authority to offer these kingdoms. He rejected the entire proposition. Perhaps one of the reasons’ being that the principles of those kingdoms align with the thief’s job description, not his (see John 10:10). Another reason is that it would make Jesus the mascot and benefactor for world domination, while Satan serves as the true sovereign in charge. This seems to be what the devil is after in the last days (see Rev. 13:11).
However, true followers of Jesus will be repulsed by the dragon’s voice, no matter how well it’s disguised by a lambskin ventriloquist. His sheep will hear his voice denouncing this temptation and echo his reply, “Get behind me.…” Also, alongside Satan’s invitation to Christ, the DoD is a reminder of Cain’s violence toward Abel as a drastic response to rejection in the midst of a religious, or spiritual, problem.
Colonization has denied so many human image-bearers their beauty and likeness to the Creator. It has denied the Maker and Sustainer of Life who became flesh in Christ, and is at work everywhere and at all times. It also denies that every human has worth and that no human culture is inherently better than another.
Might Is Right
In the United States, Big Stick politics (cf. Monroe Doctrine) and Manifest Destiny in the Western Hemisphere are what happens when colonization grows up and amasses more tools and resources. Remember, the United States grew into lands that were previously colonized by Spain (think of the Apache, Dine, Comanche, and the various other nations’ lands). Yet, to think of the United States as lines on a map is simplistic. The real impact of colonization is philosophical, and even religious.
There are several reasons why Americans relate to the western world as the promised land. However, apart from its religious connotation, the idea of the Western Hemisphere’s being a “promised land” is rooted in nationalism and the “empty land” premise which, as history and scholarship has shown, is incorrect. Tribal Nations Maps have excellent maps showcasing ancestral territories. The horrific reality is that 95% of the population on this continent was wiped out, making it one of the largest, if not the largest, ethnic cleansing and genocide the world has ever known.
Also, remember that Europe was colonized by the Romans and that colonial legacy was more than 1,500 years in the making. The concepts of “pagan, heathen, and savage” find their origin in that era (many of these terms would be used by the Romans to describe European tribal cultures). Of course, the brutality and savagery they committed against the people was ignored or even justified since they were the more “civilized” group. Notice, too, that according to the Century Dictionary, “Pagan and heathen are primarily the same in meaning; but pagan is sometimes distinctively applied to those nations that, although worshiping false gods, are more cultivated, as the Greeks and Romans, and heathen to uncivilized idolaters, as the tribes of Africa. A Mohammedan (Muslim) is not counted a pagan, much less a heathen.”
It’s no coincidence that the Romans and Greeks were considered cultivated and civilized, while the Native Americans and Africans were considered uncivilized. It is easy to see how these terms were formalized in later eras into religious and cultural terms in which those who are more Westernized (read Romanized) are the most advanced and civilized, while those who are not are the most ignorant, degraded, and “uncivilized.” These labels would be justifications for the theft of land and the genocidal policies that accompanied it. It was Pratt who said, “Kill the Indian, save the man.”
The legacy of the various components of DoD codified by the Roman church but also kept in place by the Protestant bodies is manifested in many ways in the present.
We see these colonial legacies playing out in real time. As of the most recent statistics, African-descent people are more than two times as likely to be shot by police, despite being 13 percent of the US population. And according to the Prison Policy Initiative, “In the United States, Native people are vastly overrepresented in the criminal legal system. Native people are incarcerated in state and federal prisons at a rate of 763 per 100,000 people.” The infamous doll test illustrates the lasting effects of racism and disempowerment of minority groups. There are enough statistics and anecdotes of these issues that if we printed them all out, we could likely wrap them around the globe multiple times.
Reparations & Reconciliation
A recent trip to Charleston, South Carolina, yielded great clarity about the damaging social and psychological constructs that colonial America imposed on minority people, particularly African Americans. The mulatto children of the white slave masters and slave traders were granted status above their darker-skinned counterparts. This helped to create multiple striations in the black community, as well as in the wider society, that still exist to this day. And all of these types of dynamics still play out in various ways, all around us, on a daily basis. Freedom is still elusive for many groups of people. There are some Native people within the continental US who were not even allowed to practice their “freedom of religion” until 1978.
There has to be some form of reconciliation. We must turn away (specifically, repent), acknowledge, and speak boldly for justice and truth. We must acknowledge the pain and hurt which has stemmed from our ancestral past collectively, but which has been especially manifested in this continent and others around the world as the DoD.
What can we do to make wrongs right with African American and Indigenous communities around the world? How can we learn to be better relatives in the global community? How can we learn to listen more and talk less…to acknowledge European settler relatives are the younger American siblings who, through historical processes, tend to have more privilege? How do we learn to listen more than we speak? What would it look like if there were mutual discussions? For Adventists, especially, what does it look like for us in light of our historic message to confront Babel and call people out of it (see Rev. 14:8; 18:4)?
This is about our collective healing as nations around the world (European, Native, African, and Asian) and about our witness in the world. Colonialism has left scars that need acknowledging. The church should be at the forefront of these conversations, not lagging behind. Whether there be land acknowledgements and land collaborations, returns of land, or land grants, there must be a collective reconciliation so that we can finally bury Columbus and the land can be healed.
Nicholas Arroyave-Howling Crane (Eše’Hemeo’o, or “Sun Road”) is indigenous to the Maya, Northern/Southern European Nations, and a hint of West African ancestry. He is a member of the Tsitsistas (Cheyenne) Elk Scraper Warrior Society, and he currently resides with his family on Escamacu and Yemassee ancestral lands (present-day Beaufort, South Carolina) and longs for the day when all nations will sit together at the wedding meal of the Lamb.
Christopher C. Thompson writes about culture and communication at thinkinwrite.com. He’s the author of Choose to Dream. When not writing, he’s jogging or binge-watching Designated Survivor. He’s married to Tracy, who teaches at Oakwood University.
Carl McRoy is an ordained minister in the Seventh-day Adventist Church, host of Message magazine’s “Your Liberation Library,” and author of Yell at God and Live, R U Tuff Enuff? and Impediments to Power. He enjoys quality time with family, posing as an amateur historian, and shooting pool.