We recently celebrated a Thanksgiving service at my church. As we sung our way through several hymns, I felt more troubled than grateful. The words to the classic Christian standard Great is Thy Faithfulness stuck in my throat. I couldn’t sing: “all I have needed thy hand hath provided…great is thy faithfulness, Lord unto me.”
My stomach clenched, my spirit rebelled. I wondered bitterly about people, many of them members of my community, who don’t have all that they need. Is God unfaithful to those people? And what about the ways that God’s so-called provision or bounty or harvest are used as cover words to mask oppressive systems of inequality built and maintained through institutionalized violence, theft and betrayal?
Recently I attended a teach-in at Portland State University on the Indigenous perspective on Thanksgiving. We watched the video The Truth About Thanksgiving. I learned about the enslavement of indigenous peoples and a Thanksgiving “celebration” in 1637 that included the murder of over 700 men, women and children, about which the Governor of Plymouth William Bradford later wrote: “It was a fearful sight to see them thus frying in the fire, and the streams of blood…and they gave the praise thereof to God, who had wrought so wonderfully for them, thus to enclose their enemies in their hands.”
As I sat in church and watched my young daughter join the other children in listening to a story about the “pilgrims” and the Native Americans, I worried.
I worried about the story we are re-creating with each telling.
I worried about how we praise God for providing for “us”…who is the us?
During my thesis research, I learned much from the work and writing of Rev. Dr. Traci West, Professor of Ethics and African American Studies at Drew University. Dr. West argues that white dominance is perpetuated when we ignore racial realities, “pretending they are not relevant in certain kinds of social interactions, like the dynamics within Christian worship services.”*
She asserts that “racialized understandings of ‘us and them’ can be strongly conveyed in prayers about those who are ‘less fortunate than we are’ or projects to reach out and help ‘them’.”**
So, for example, in our prayers for thanksgiving, how do we distinguish between the blessings that we receive as beneficiaries of a legacy of genocide and colonization and the blessings that we receive as “children of God”? How do we reinforce an “us” as aligned with the “pilgrims” and a “them” as aligned with those indigenous “enemies”?
Language matters. It reinforces and remakes reality. Is PILGRIM – a word which means a penitent, humble traveler seeking Spirit – really the right word for a group of invaders, murderers and thieves?
How many of our hymns, our prayers, our common liturgical language reinforce not only a particular view of the Holy as a god who sanctions the invasion of promised lands and murder of that land’s inhabitants, but a view of ourselves – Christian churchgoers – as innocent inheritors of the “bounty” of God’s blessing?
If we claim, as my church does, to advocate for justice, then we need to busy ourselves with the work of reconciliation. Many indigenous people today celebrate Thanksgiving as a Day of Mourning, a day of “remembrance and spiritual connection, as well as a protest of the racism and oppression that Native Americans continue to experience.”
I believe that A Day of Mourning is not for indigenous people alone. We who are Euro-American descendants need to mourn the crimes of our ancestors and actively work for an end to racism. We need to critically examine our language and the romantic stories we tell about pilgrims: about the size of their boat, the nature of their courage, or the pureness of their intent. Continuing to tell the story as we have been is an act of racism, but we can change the way we celebrate, and the stories we tell.
*See Dr. West’s book Disruptive Christian Ethics: When Racism and Women’s Lives Matter. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006, page 117.
** Ditto, page 118.
Part of my current angst is to retrieve and unpack the cultural baggage I have around my spiritual beliefs. I imagine big heavy suitcases covered with the customary black scuff marks that indicate multiple trips through baggage claim. Some of mine probably have tattered “Gate Check” tags because I keep trying to drag them on board while the flight attendants shake their heads and everyone behind me in line sends me poisonous glances.
Ok, maybe I’m getting carried away with the metaphor. But you get the idea.
I wonder if part of our society’s unconscious racism is that we think only indigenous people have a cultural spirituality. Some wanna-be-native white people natter on about indigenous connection to “the land” (cue the soaring music) and the “ancestors” (pan a shot of firelight) and the “animals” (zoom out on moose, elk, salmon). I don’t mean to minimize the differences between indigenous religion and euro-american religion.
George Tinker says:
Did you know that trees talk? Well they do. They talk to each other, and they’ll talk to you if you listen. Trouble is, white people don’t listen. They never learned to listen to the Indians, so I don’t I suppose they’ll listen to other voices in nature. But I have learned a lot from trees; sometimes about the weather, sometimes about animals, sometimes about the Great Spirit.
When we talk with non-Indians about nature, there is really nothing you can say in universal Western concepts that is going to make a lot of sense. I think that Western people who come into an Indian environment and attempt to preach take along their own set of categories and use it to deal with Indian people they meet.
(Source: “The Stones Shall Cry Out: Consciousness, Rocks, and Indians”, Wicazo Sa Review 19.2 (2004) 105-125)
The thing is, while we need to take responsibility for them, those western/scientific/enlightenment categories aren’t all we white people have. The lie of whiteness is that all white people are the same, that our pale skin strips us of our connection to the land, ancestors, and animals of our origins.
Maybe I feel this way because I have a strong connection to land, more specifically, to trees. I have seen plenty of nice trees in my life, but the pine forests of my Oregon home ring in me like nothing else. I thought I was just romanticizing it until I went back to my ancestral home. Near Gdansk/Danzig, Poland where my grandparents are from, the forests meet the sea. The rhodies bloom among the trees near the house in Lamstedt, Germany where my father was born. My body remembers.
I went to Marienkirche in Gdansk where my Tante Ursula remembers praying as a child. It was nice but it didn’t ring in me. The forests rang in me. The sea rang in me. I am still navigating my way through what this means, but my suspicion is that when we started writing big thick theology books and stopped praying to Our Mother, we lost something. I’m a good Protestant who adores systematic theology. All that organization. Tidy, neat boxes. It makes for good theologizing… and empty prayer and stale worship.
So that’s what I mean about my cultural baggage. My baggage isn’t actually my culture: it’s the veener of whiteness that masquerades as mine. That baggage includes believing that I don’t really come from anywhere or have any place, so it is ok for me to steal someone else’s land or religion or both when land and religion are one interconnected thing. I don’t want to steal, or let my community steal in my name. I want an authentic relationship to land and religion, however messy, complicated, guilty and confusing it might be.
The forests ring in me. The sea rings in me. Mama God knows my name. I just keep listening, letting that sound echo its way through my body, following it back. If I follow it long enough, maybe I’ll find my way clear to a kind of being and believing that isn’t just good for me but good for the world.
How does your culture influence or intersect with your spiritual beliefs and practices? I’d love to hear from you!
Applying for a social security card for my daughter, my hand stops over the voluntary ethnicity section. I know that these categories have changed over time (the boxes used to say ‘free’ or ‘slave’ or ‘mulatto’) and reflect a global system of white supremacy.
While I know this history, when I fill out forms for myself I rarely think twice. But this time I am answering for my daughter. I check the boxes for “White” and “Hispanic” and then I stop.
What is the government going to do with this information? Will my daughter be targeted if I make her visible to the government in this way? I think of “Operation Wetback” in the 1950s, of the ICE raids in Portland in 2007, of the families who are still, this moment, in danger.
Then I think about affirmative action programs and college scholarships. I think about my hometown near LA and its increasing Latino majority. Isn’t it important to be visible?
I’m acutely aware that all of my angst is about the box labeled “Hispanic.” I don’t feel any uncertainty about checking the box labeled “White.” I’ve never had to think about these boxes before and how they relate to me or my family. There was never a box for “German-American” or “Rural Poor White Class.”
If I refuse to give this information, does that mean that I am ashamed of my daughter’s heritage? Paranoid about racism? Trying to opt out?
As I reflect, I begin to wonder if I am using my daughter to examine my own complicity and place in the system. Is that fair to her or helpful to me? I don’t know.
After much internal debate, I print out a new application. This time, I don’t check any boxes. I leave them all blank.
What do you do when you fill out these types of forms? I’d love to hear your thoughts or insights.
You can’t get there from here. That’s what I think about this academic stuff.
It only goes so far, and then it runs out, like an asphalt road built along the surf line. The ocean does not work with asphalt roads. You need a boat, a tree or something that will float. You need your body, your arms and the motion they make against the waves, pushing you along, a little speck in a great sea. Don’t be afraid. All things that are wild have your heart at the core.
I began this work because I wanted to heal myself and my people. My people (white people, German people) created this system of injustice and I need to do my part to destroy what we built, what we keep on building.
But how do I destroy this system, the house that I’m living in, the one that shelters and protects me? I must be a lunatic.
I fight with my ancestors at night when I’m lying in bed not sleeping. “Be quiet,” they say. Then louder: “SHUT UP. HOR AUF.” But I can’t stop. How can I?
I’ve seen the pictures: people, parents and children, their bodies stacked like firewood, naked and ashen. This is mine to fix. (It is yours, too.)
“Not our problem,” some of my ancestors hiss. They left their country. When war changed the borders, they moved on.
What kind of fiction do we have to invent to make this history okay?
A big BIG story. An underbrush, a thicket, each lie overlapping lie.
My ancestors came to this continent, carried inside my father, but they didn’t know about me yet. I am what came next. I feel it here in this country, in the forest by the ocean that looks like our old home. All the people whose land this is, they talk to me.
Maybe I wouldn’t be able to hear them if the forests weren’t clear cut. But I do hear them, at night when I am arguing with my ancestors. They whisper: “You don’t belong here. Be useful or go away.” Some of them are angry. Some are gentle. Some look at me like they know who I am.
Where does it come from, this need to make it right?
I have to make it better for myself.
I can’t live here anymore, in this house I’m trying to destroy. I know it has stout, wide-timbered walls, but it is not my home. Yet it is SO big. Where can I live where I am not under its roof?
I go small and I gather friends. I am part of the resistance.
And there is a bigger part of our life, one I know…even though no one has told me it’s true:
Our Mama God, Mother of the Cosmos, is bigger than this house, this roof we’re living under. Nothing the germans (or english or french or spanish or dutch…), nothing any of us could make, even hundreds of years old, is bigger than the
BODY OF OUR MOTHER.
You can’t contain her.
She will hold us all, she will shelter us, when the house finally comes down.
Look…a hole in the roof! I can see the stars. LOOK! There’s proof.
None of it is hopeless.
All of it is worthwhile.
Don’t be quiet.
Step up, speak out, keep moving.
This is the first half of a meditation I wrote recently while struggling through my thesis on white religious racism. I am trying to find a vision for what sustains me to do my work for racial justice.
Three weeks ago I hurt my back. It has been hard to walk, to sit, to write. I stumbled around and stopped writing, and when I finally picked up my pen again, I wrote this:
There are many types of offerings in the world’s religions. Some people leave cups of grain or lentils, made into stew, flowers or rice or coins, creased dollar bills or slips of paper with ‘please’ written in pencil and ‘thank you’ written in ink. Some people sing or dance or feed the hungry.
I tell the truth. That is my offering. Here is a story that cannot be proven:
But I can’t tell you that story. Not yet. I can barely hold it. Every time I think of the story I shake, my stomach rises in a wave of sickness, my lip trembles, my eyes fill. I feel crazy and I should know from crazy. I should know.
While I’m holding this story, I’m also working on a project for school on homosexuality and the church. I forgot how it feels to be called an abomination. objectively. morally. disordered. I’ve been living insulated, passing for safe.
But my body knows. All the stories my body carries and want-needs to tell. Not yet, not yet. Shhhhhhhhh.
So while my brave writer friends keep their pens moving, I stop. I make tea. I watch the rain. I rock a little. I remember my pen is not the enemy. My body did not invent the stories. I am not alone.
Pema Chodron says: “To be fully alive, fully human, and completely awake is to be continually thrown out of the nest.” She says: “When things are shaky and nothing is working, we might realize that we are on the verge of something. We might realize that this is a very vulnerable and tender place, and that tenderness can go either way.”
So I am praying for tenderness. I am old enough to know the story my body knows will not destroy me. I am praying for tenderness. So that when I do speak that story, I will not punish myself for talking. For telling the truth.