COMMENTARY: Making Good on Our Promises to Indigenous Peoples
by the Rev. Stephen Sidorak, Jr.
Sidorak, an ordained elder in the Rocky Mountain Conference of the United Methodist Church, is general secretary of the General Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns with offices in New York.
Delegates to the 2012 General Conference session will participate in “An Act of Repentance toward Healing Relationships with Indigenous People.” The service is intended to begin the process of spiritual healing between The United Methodist Church and indigenous peoples. It will take place on Friday, April 27, at 7:30 p.m.
The act of repentance and plans for continued healing in the months following General Conference stem from atrocities and injustices committed against Native Americans and other indigenous peoples around the world. The service specifically grew out of an incident in the United States known as the Sand Creek Massacre. Col. John Chivington was an ordained clergyman who led the early Methodist mission to the Rocky Mountain district of the Kansas Conference. He abandoned ministry for a military career and, while an elder on location, led troops in attacking an encampment of Cheyenne women, children and elderly people, killing at least 165 of them. Those slaughtered had been relocated to a designated plot of land under the protection of the U.S. government. Chivington never left the ordained ministry, and, though he was denounced by the U.S. Congress for the massacre, he was never disciplined by the church.
United Methodists offered an initial apology as the 1996 General Conference meeting in Denver adopted a resolution to support government restitutions to the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes for wrongs against humanity. General Conference 2008 authorized a resolution charging the General Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns with preparing resources to help bring about spiritual healing. A resolution submitted by the commission to the 2012 assembly outlines additional actions for the church.
The venue for the 2012 General Conference is a perfect case study on the need for an Act of Repentance to Indigenous Persons. Historically, Tampa was a deportation center for the forced removal of Native Americans from their ancestral lands. Native people were unwillingly and unmercifully shipped like cargo across the Gulf of Mexico to New Orleans. From New Orleans, they joined countless others on the “Trail of Tears.”
This is the backdrop to the 2012 General Conference Act of Repentance to Indigenous Peoples service scheduled for April 27. The General Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns (GCCUIC) was assigned the task to help lead our church toward a service of “Healing Relationships with Indigenous Persons” [Resolution #3323]. How meaningfully we can carry out an Act of Repentance will depend on how faithfully we discern the need for it—historically, intellectually, morally, and emotionally. Every United Methodist is invited to join in an intensive, even exhaustive, conversation about a heinous record of crimes against humanity, often perpetrated in the name of Christ Jesus. We are called to acknowledge our complicity in these crimes.
A fundamental feature of the Act of Repentance at General Conference will be to acknowledge the need to repent of a tragic history that resulted in what was described by theologian George E. Tinker as the “cultural genocide” of Native Americans and indigenous peoples worldwide
GCCUIC has crisscrossed the connection hosting listening sessions on the 2012 Act of Repentance. What we have learned by listening to Native Americans and the indigenous peoples of the world is a new way to hear in untainted ways their stories and their histories which opens our eyes, boggles our minds and breaks our hearts. The basic lesson learned can be summarized in the words of an old friend: “The truth will make you free, but first it makes you miserable.” This may be the beginning of repentance—to be made miserable by the truth.
Unable to face the truth, we tend to allow ourselves to wallow in amnesia. We see no need to re-member indigenous peoples. Often this unforgivable forgetting takes the form of “national amnesia,” as Martha Minow termed it her book Between Vengeance and Forgiveness. I suspect it can take the form of institutional amnesia, too. Even churches can refuse to re-member indigenous peoples. One of the hopes we have is that the 2012 Act of Repentance will enable The United Methodist Church to re-member its Native American membership on this continent and its indigenous membership throughout the world.
There has been heated controversy and actual conflict over whether it is desirable or feasible to carry out an act of repentance that does justice to both the indigenous peoples of the world and Native Americans. We dare not dilute the unique and legitimate claims of each on the conscience of our church. Nevertheless, the 2012 General Conference must keep faith with the letter and the spirit of Resolution #3323.
At the listening session hosted by GCCUIC for indigenous Filipinos in Manila, we gained a profound, new glimpse into the two types of sin of which we must repent. Certainly, there were sins of commission committed in the past. But indigenous Filipinos enabled us to understand that there were and are undoubtedly guilty sins of omission which we are guilty of committing. These occur when church leaders face “the moment to decide, in the strife of truth with falsehood, for the good or evil side” and shrink cowardly from such a moral and momentous decision. As a consequence, we must repent both for what we have done, and for what we have left undone.
Repentance will take nothing less than a radical reorientation to the historical narrative most of us have been traditionally taught and dutifully learned. One dictionary defines the meaning of repent as “to turn from sin and dedicate oneself to the amendment of one’s life.” Repentance is defined as “the action or process of repenting (especially) for misdeeds and moral shortcomings.” The United Methodist Church is called now to turn around—the beginning of repentance.
We need to be aware of the raw feelings of those who have suffered, and continue to suffer, from what psychiatrists call “historical trauma.” The horrific reality of historical trauma is that it lives on in the lives of the survivors and the descendants of the survivors. We will never get a grip on our need for repentance until we grasp the breadth and depth of the historical injuries sustained by indigenous ancestors and the lasting wounds inflicted upon their descendants.
Moral clarity about the historical record will be the essential antecedent condition for any act of repentance by our church. As we heard, really listened, to the stories told by indigenous peoples, we were haunted by the old proverb: “history repeats itself.” In his book When Sorry Isn’t Enough, Roy L. Brooks argues that there is an “undercurrent of fear that exists among survivors of human injustices that the very same atrocity might be revisited upon them.” Are we incapable of being sensitive to this palpable reality?
We, the people of The United Methodist Church, are being called to confession. It is imperative for us to grapple spiritually with the ecclesiological implications attendant to this Act of Repentance and to provide ample and compelling evidence of demonstrable denominational contrition for our collective responsibility. The time to begin this process is the 2012 General Conference; the place is Tampa. Let us begin anew.
Such is the hope and prayer of GCCUIC.
About the General Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Affairs
GCCUIC is the part of The United Methodist Church that engages with and talks to other Christian denominations to work toward unity and peace. The Commission seeks to strengthen interreligious relationships, which enable community building. The Commission has been mandated by the 2008 General Conference to fulfill the "Healing Relationships with Indigenous Persons" resolution. More information about the 2012 Act of Repentance, including a resource list, may be found at www.gccuic-umc.org