Response To A Critic: Concerning Christianity and Missions To Indigenous Cultures

A commenter named Rob-Bear had this to say, on my post about how utterly useless non-profits and Christian organizations have been on Pine Ridge reservation:

Another hatchet job on Christians and churches. Not surprising. Stems, I fear, from a superficially-generated ignorance.

The church to which I belong, and many others, do not fit the model you have described. Instead of a “charity” model of paternalism, we work on a “development” model of collegiality. So there are two questions: 1. What do you need/want, and 2. How can we work with you to realize/achieve that goal? Anything less than that approach is a total lack of respect for good people who want a better life.

I’ve decided to respond here.  Not because of what Mr. Bear said in particular.  But because it is a somewhat common response I get from Christians since I wrote that piece.  Common enough I feel it should be dealt with.

Throw a dart at a map of the world. Any place it hits you can probably find a tale of Christian endorsed genocide and cruelty. When the cross is blood soaked from one end of the globe to the other, its time to admit something has catastrophically, systematically gone wrong.  It is time to admit a problem, when the man Christianity is supposed to be about says “love your neighbors and enemies”, but Christian history is full, a couple million times over, with events like this:

“They built a long gibbet, low enough for the toes to touch the ground and prevent strangling, and hanged thirteen Indians at a time in honor of Christ Our Savior and the twelve apostles…Then straw was wrapped around their torn bodies and they were burned alive.”

Most of the world was introduced to Christianity at the point of a blade.  Most of the world got to know Christianity through the rape of their land and culture.  Among indigenous lands, Christianity has been something of a reverse Midas touch.  Indigenous communities that Christianized tended to become extinct, absorbed into the empires Christianity cheerleaded for.  Indigenous communities that resisted tended to survive.

Pine Ridge in particular has been oppressed by Christianity since the beginning.  For not having a baptism card, men would be sent to the Hiawatha Insane Asylum.  The Catholic boarding schools were unspeakable houses of horror and cruelty, full of rape and violence, psychologically maiming an entire generation.  The Catholic, Episcopal and Presbyterian churches were given land holdings in exchange for them helping to stamp out Lakota culture.

The modern age is not much better.  Christian groups around Pine Ridge are some of the shadiest, most corrupt, dishonest organizations around.  Thankfully, Christianity doesn’t have power to enforce its bigotry anymore.  Christians can’t send people to insane asylums for disbelieving anymore.  Christians can’t rape our children and cripple their minds while immune from dissent anymore.

Yet the same condescending attitude that led to all this atrocity is still present in most Christian groups on the reservation.  Most still subscribe to the toxic method of paternalism, even if, thank god, they have little power to enforce their colonial agendas anymore.  Like I said in my original post, there are questions that ought to give anyone pause when considering the usefulness of Christian groups on Pine Ridge reservation.  What have all these Christian groups on the reservation accomplished?  What have they changed for the good?  Despite all their promises, the answer is next to nothing.  Toxic assumptions or a slow descent into corruption made them nearly all ineffective.

So I’d ask Mr. Bear, what part of this is “superficially generated ignorance” on my part?  It all happened.  I saw much of it with my own eyes.  Friends who have grown up here have confirmed my observations.  Elders have told me its been a problem as long as they’ve been alive.  History confirms a blood stained, psychologically abusive Christian legacy when it comes to indigenous communities.

What expertise does Mr. Bear have on this issue that contradicts the weight of so many lifetimes of experience?  There aren’t enough rationalizations in the world to whitewash the indigenous blood from Christian history.  I suspect Mr. Bear and those like him are the ones that need to wake up.  I suspect Mr. Bear defends his religion like an enabler defends an abuser.  He calls my piece a hatchet job.  I say maybe Christianity is something deserving of a rhetorical axe after murdering, raping, desecrating and harming our people for so many years.

Mr. Bear says his church is not one that operates like the ones I describe.  That’s great.  Yet I’m not even sure why this is mentioned.  Fact is, most of the organizations that come through the reservation have operated with toxic paternalistic standards.  That’s the focus of the piece and the reason for it being written.  I never intended to say anything about Mr. Bear’s specific church in particular, but rather confront a general, horrible and pervasive problem.   Many churches do fit the model described, which is why they’ve effected next to zero positive change on the Pine Ridge reservation.

Mr. Bear suggests two questions be asked to people on the reservation: “1. What do you need/want, and 2. How can we work with you to realize/achieve that goal?”

These are decent questions to ask, to a  reservation group that seeks Christian help.  But the answer I would give would be: 1.) Allies to stand with us in our basic struggle to exist, voices to unite with our own attempts to change some unjust, toxic societal structures.  This begins in a non-missional way, as there’s nothing the Christian fruits of the spirit, the beatitudes, the Christian religion have that the ancient values of the Lakota do not also have.  2.) Don’t come here.  Realize you can do more to help by staying away from the reservation, not proselytizing, doing something where you are at.  Even better, you could use your resources to empower local people on the reservation.

Christians have been so used to running around reservations, too privileged to be challenged on all their empty promises and unethical practices.  Well, that time is over, and I will encourage every single person I meet to hold them and their organizations accountable.  All I’m doing is holding this religion that feels entitled to come into our lands and spread its agenda accountable.

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13 Responses to Response To A Critic: Concerning Christianity and Missions To Indigenous Cultures

  1. Brent Snavely says:

    Raised as a double “MK” (minister and missionary kid), I see that the colonial model has used “churches” of various sorts for a purpose other than saving/helping anyone. It is far less costly to ‘government’, or those in perceived positions of power, to have one or more shills do the dirty work… http://brentsnavely.wordpress.com/2012/05/25/i-wonder-about-those-cowboys-and-indians/

  2. Excerpt from Response to a Critic: “Christians have been so used to running around reservations, too privileged to be challenged on all their empty promises and unethical practices. Well, that time is over.”–Tom Finally. Enough time, space, privilege has been given over to these hapless interlopers. Now follow through. Reweigh everything. Seek the plausible and possible.

  3. Joshua deGroot says:

    Hey Tom,
    Well hatcheted. I wish you were here in BC this weekend we have an “Indigenous learning day” in our Church with Prof. Ray Aldred from the Swan River Cree. http://willoughbychurch.com/ I hope its a move in the right direction.

  4. Joshua deGroot says:

    This is a little more direct to the event site
    http://willoughbychurch.com/events/indigenous-learning-day

  5. benjamin says:

    bhoozho. sorry if my spelling is off, my Ojibway is a bit rusty, i’m a white guy that grew up near Fond Du Lac, a lot of my friends lived on or near the Rez and the attitude of a lot of the older white folks in town was the condescending “why can’t these folks cut their hair and be like us”. the standard “drunk injun” stereotype bullshit. the entire way Christians look at the world is through a lens of vengeance and retribution and dominance. they want to ‘own’ the land and ‘own’ the water, how the fuck do you own something that is millions of years older than you? they also are arrogant, they believe because they are right so you should to, and if you don’t we can send you to heaven/hell right now. i am atheist but to me, it seems if there was a culture here long before white folks from Europe showed up, who were thriving, it would pay to see how they lived before deciding that the way you had been doing things there was best.

    *end rant*

  6. MIke K. says:

    Thank you, from the outside, looking in.

  7. Judi says:

    You have made me think. I am an “elder” white woman who just returned from a week at Re-member. I do consider myself a Christian but from a justice oriented faith. I too have concerns about being a “do-gooder” and brought that out during our daily discussions while on the Rez. I had no expectations, so maybe that made it easier to do the work we were assigned. Although I agree that on a long term basis, more than outhouses, ramps, beds, etc. is needed, I doubt any of the people that we helped would want us to take back our gifts of labor, love, and goodwill. My son, grandddaughter, and I, along with 42 other people worked our behinds off in the sweltering heat. It definitely was not a Disneyland “vacation”. We will be going back. My hope is that we have learned lessons on how to be better partners with the Lakota. It is a learning process. We will be looking at ways that we can work hand in hand with others who will work for justice as well. So far, I have found no organizations who work in partnership with justice issues and long-term solutions. If you know of such an organization, we would be grateful for the information.

  8. Isabelle says:

    I completely understand where my fellow-social-justice-oriented Christian commenters come from and for a long time I was tempted to give the same response. However the more I dig into our horrific ‘missionary’ history the more I understand completely why, if given a choice, as an Indigenous person if I never saw a Christian of any ilk again it would still be too soon. It’s as though we send modern Nazis to help Jews. Haven’t we “done” enough? Has our so-called ‘help’ not ravaged enough continents? Why absolutely want to be on a rez (or in the barrio or whatever) if the residents don’t want Christians there? Why insist? Why not back-off? Leave folks alone. Why do Christians feel they absolutely have to insist to cultivate a ‘model of collegiality’ if it’s not wanted? Why continue pushing? Why can we not, as Christians, be truly humble, as our Lord wants us to be above all else, and understand once and for all we messed up and we messed up good. It’s not Christ’s fault. It’s our fault. Yes we need to atone. But pushing co-existence where it is not wanted through a sense of historic guilt continues to perpetuate arrogant, colonial behaviour. Let’s try to simply be good tolerant humans together and forget pushing the other stuff. In essence, that is the main thrust of Christ’s message anyway.

  9. (Sorry if this is a duplication – my reply didn’t seem to go through the first time.)

    “Indigenous communities that resisted tended to survive.” And in the case of the Navajo, are now the most populous indigenous community in the United States.

    “Allies to stand with us in our basic struggle to exist.” The ironic thing about this is that this is one of the first things that come to mind among Christian missionaries in struggling white communities, like the Appalachian Plunge that so many college students participate in. I don’t know why it doesn’t occur to them to do the same in non-white communities as well, unless they see the struggle to preserve their existent community as not worthwhile because it doesn’t conform to their standards.

  10. JC says:

    This is a very interesting discussion. How to assist, either materially or politically, without imposing. But what is especially interesting are all of the assumptions being floated. That all Christians working with organizations on Pine Ridge are there to gain converts. That the people receiving those seemingly small things to make their day a little more comfortable, whether in the form of a load of wood or a ramp to a house or a bunk bed, are resentful that they weren’t hired to cut the wood or hired to build these things. That the most of the people volunteering at Pine Ridge are taking their vacation time and time away from their families and friends as a form of poverty porn rather than an attempt to really try to understand what is happening on Pine Ridge so that they can actually figure out how best to use their talents/resources to help the Lakota in their struggle to exist. That somehow the organizations that accept volunteers for grunt labor can afford to empower people in the reservation, outside of hiring a couple of people locally, on any scale when the organizations depend on the money they take in from the volunteers and the volunteer labor to accomplish their work and pay their few salaries. That somehow every person who volunteers should feel guilt and/or try to make reparations for horrors that they didn’t have a hand in and would be ashamed to know anyone who had. That none of the volunteers have Native blood and are just a bunch of non-Natives on a feel good jaunt. That the issues are all about people as individuals – rather than recognizing the cultural differences that contribute to feelings of distrust and frustration on both sides. Really, all of this comes down to how do you garner understanding without interaction? I’m not sure that you can. So, I will continue to volunteer, provide donations of money when I can, new children’s clothing (all children should have things that are all their own – something I feel very strongly about) and plug away contacting Congress and my Senators about actually abiding by the treaties and asking them uncomfortable questions about practices such as sending what were essentially condemned FEMA trailers to reservations.

  11. Lizzi ML says:

    The one point we disagree on is
    “2.) Don’t come here.”
    I do agree that we ought to rethink how much of the resources we spend on those sort of trips could be much better used if we just sent it on over to people like you. But I hope you don’t mean we shouldn’t try to get to know you, shouldn’t offer any help – I believe that’s against the principles of humanity. Feel free to disagree with me, but I think the Indigenous people groups should be sending groups to us (I am third-generation Dutch from Toronto) and to other cultures where help could be used, whenever resources permit it. I do not argue for assimilation but I believe all cultures ought to experience each other in order to grow personally/nationally.
    What are your thoughts on this?

  12. Alplily says:

    Lizzi ML, I agree. I am not sure how full understanding can be attained unless we meet and learn about one another in respectful, meaningful and useful ways. I believe there are healthy ways to channel the universal desire to help one another.

  13. lucy says:

    I really want to help but the rez and the people not organizations or churches what can i do i dont want to come to the rez and do more harm than good or have dicks that are talking shit to me i want to come for my self and the people any advise please xxx

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