John Wesley understood quite clearly the atrocities carried out by Europeans against Native Americans. In his sermon “A Caution Against Bigotry” he wrote:
“Even cruelty and bloodshed, how little have the Christians come behind them! And not the Spaniards or the Portuguese alone, butchering thousands in South America: not the Dutch only in the East Indies, or the French in North America, following the Spaniards step by step: our own countrymen, too, have wantoned in blood, and exterminated whole nations; plainly proving thereby what spirit it is that dwells and works in the children of disobedience.”
The Anglo European takeover of a continent from its native peoples occurred through a host of means – political, economic, military, cultural, social and religious – and the guilt for these measures is historically broad in sweep and pervades the land. Neither our government nor our economy is innocent, and our faith traditions are complicit – indeed, often actively engaged in the violations and even the cultural and physical genocide of those we now call Native Americans.
It is long past time for The United Methodist Church recognize these wrongs and to take steps to begin a healing process, which will begin with the 2012 Act of Repentance to Indigenous Peoples during the General Conference on April 27 in Tampa.
In the church we must name our sinful participation in the arrogant claims of a national “Manifest Destiny,” in the forced removal of native tribes and populations, in the destruction of traditional forms of relationship to the land, in the transfer of massive tracts of territory for roads, railways, water, mining, timber and in privileging white companies, farmers, and ranchers with leases of native land, and other resources.
We must recognize a range of methods devised to destroy the culture of native people: strategies of assimilation and Westernization; national education and job training programs committed to the removal of native people from their tribes; schools and curricula designed to divest indigenous people of their appearance, language, and ways of life, among many others.
The church has not stood guiltless in these government programs but has also engaged in abusive and exploitative practices of its own. While some in the church protested the transgressions against indigenous people, the dominant pattern has been one where:
- By its silence and its sometimes active support, the church has participated in the violation, the exploitation and even the genocide of indigenous people;
- Evangelistic efforts legitimated colonization and manifest destiny; church schools and educational efforts stripped native charges of their culture and extended family relationships; in some cases these very schools committed acts of physical, sexual and mental abuse;
- Our congregations and ministries benefited from native lands acquired unjustly when it was not a result of outright confiscation;
- These and other injustices and wrongdoings stand as a painful testimony to the sin of the church.
The time for confession and for repentance is outrageously late and overdue. We must confess first the ignorance of our ignorance, because so many of us in the church are uninformed of the history of our nation and our church about the violation of native people. But we must go further than this.
Our repentance must be a turning around, an active pursuit of a new history and a new relationship between Anglo-Europeans and Native Americans. It is a time not only for words but to make amends. What has been done cannot be made right, but what can now be done right is a towering moral claim on the church and a faithful work to be done.
Tex Sample is the former academic dean at Saint Paul School of Theology in Kansas City, Mo. He is an ordained United Methodist Elder and member of the Missouri Conference.