Conquer or Respect?
GENESIS 1:28; MATTHEW 28:18-20; ACTS 1:8
In United Methodist churches, today is called Native American Awareness Sunday. In Merced Church, one of our members was from the Pawnee tribe in Oklahoma. I asked him what he thought of the phrase “Native American.” He replied, “It’s ridiculous. Anyone born in America is a native American!” The popular mystery author, Tony Hillerman, a Navajo from Albuquerque, tells about a panel discussion in which the speakers were asked what they thought of the term “Native American.” They replied, “It’s ridiculous! Anyone born in America is a native American.” So they were asked, “What would you like to be called?” “Identify us by our tribe. If I am a Pawnee, call me a Pawnee; if Navajo, call me a Navajo; if Apache, call me an Apache. If you don’t know my tribe, call me an Indian.” To which the Navajo commented, “We’re just glad Columbus didn’t think he had discovered Turkey!”
So, this is American Indian Awareness Sunday! And the awareness begins with the confession that the history of American Indians is a sorry story, of which none of us can be proud.
My first conversation with an American Indian occurred when I was in college, and pastor of two rural Minnesota Methodist churches. I was buying gasoline one day, and noticed an old man wrapped in a blanket sitting behind the gas station. I asked who he was and learned he was a chief of the Chippewa tribe. He and I had a very interesting conversation, but one thing he told me shocked my naive bones. He said, "The United States government has broken every treaty it made with Indians."
Confiscating Indian land, destroying villages, massacring men, women and children, exiling Indians to reservations and starvation, providing guns, distributing alcohol, banishing native religious ceremonies, forcing children to attend English speaking boarding schools, and breaking treaties because of white man’s greed is a sorry story indeed. And, I am ashamed to say, much of it was done in the name of Christ.
The tragedy begins with two unfortunate words in the first chapter of Genesis: subdue and dominion. Genesis 1:28, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living that moves upon the earth.” Our ancestors took this as a mandate, changed dominion to dominate, and marched onward to subdue, dominate and conquer. They took an adversarial relationship with the earth and native people. Our ancestors believed that the planet and its natives is ours to exploit and use for our benefit, regardless of the consequences.
Another unfortunate verse is the great commission according to Matthew, which includes the words “authority” and “go, make disciples.” The great commission by Jesus, according to Luke, is to witness. Notice the difference between witness and authoritatively making disciples, which the medieval church in particular interpreted as “forcing.” What happened was the church used the Roman Empire as its model. The church and subsequent Christian governments modeled themselves after the imperialistic Roman Empire. The Holy Roman Empire, the Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, French and British Empires all conquered and colonized native peoples, and America followed in their footsteps.
Imagine how different it would be if we had modeled the church and governments after the early church instead of Rome. The biblical church witnessed, told and proclaimed. The early church did not use force! How different it would be if we had followed the role model of Jesus who came not to be served, but to serve, instead of dominating and conquering. How different it would be if we, instead of exploiting, respected the planet, the environment, and native people.
The result of this conquering mentality is destructive. By raping the earth, polluting its air and water, we are bringing destruction upon ourselves. How long will Mother Nature put up with the onslaught? Now, there has been an upside to this attitude. Looking on nature as something to conquer has produced technological advances beyond belief. We can travel anywhere and faster and faster. We can communicate with each other around the globe without time and space constrictions. We have comforts that would have amazed ancient people.
But, have we not reached a time to rein in the excesses? Have we not now reached a time when we must, for the sake of the planet’s future, rethink the subdue, dominate and conquer mentality? Have we not now reached a time when we must learn how to live on the land, how to respect and live in harmony with the earth and its peoples?
God Is Red is a fascinating book written by an American Indian, Vine Deloria, Jr., a lawyer and professor at the University of Colorado in Boulder. Deloria’s analysis of our present situation, the historical reasons for our present crisis, and his indictment of Christianity, is challenging. The basic question we must face is (p. 212) “whether land is a "thing" to be used to generate income or a homeland on which people are supposed to live in a sacred manner.”
Deloria divides humankind into two categories: natural peoples and hybrid peoples. Natural peoples, like the American Indian, seek harmony with the environment. Hybrid peoples exploit the environment: subdue, dominate and conquer.
Modern Christians need to lead the search for a rediscovery of what God intended by subdue and dominion. To quote Deloria, (pp. 2-3) “How many shopping malls and parking lots do we really need?...Nor do I look forward to paying the penalties that Mother Earth must now levy against us in order for Her to survive.”
Not only did our ancestors take the command to subdue and have dominion over nature to extremes, they also applied the principle to people who differed from themselves. Not only did our ancestors think it was their right to take and exploit land, but to subjugate and conquer native peoples as well. The notorious extremist was Pope Alexander VI who, in 1493 (a year after Columbus discovered America; and isn’t discover an arrogant word), issued an edict: “that in our times especially the Catholic faith and the Christian religion be exalted and everywhere increased and spread, that the health of souls be cared for and that barbarous nations be overthrown and brought to the faith itself.” Pope Alexander VI then proceeded to give ownership of whatever lands were discovered to Spain and Portugal. Who did he think he was! He took “authority” and “make disciples” to the extreme!
Native peoples were to be given the opportunity to convert to Christianity. If they refused to convert, they were to be conquered, forced to convert, forced into slavery if the conquerors so desired. The medieval church believed that some people are meant to be slaves and it is immoral for them to resist enslavement. If they resisted enslavement, then they were to be exterminated. South America’s history of the treatment of native peoples is a sorry story of conquest, slavery, and extermination. Do not think I am only talking about ancient history. Brazil is still carrying on systematic genocide against its interior native tribes when the government and developers want more land.
When England settled North America, it gave no allegiance to the pope, but England continued with the same theology of subdue, dominate and conquer. At least, American Indians were not enslaved. Slaves were brought from Africa but, interestingly, American Indians were not enslaved. But, the Christian right to subdue and dominate was blatantly accepted by England, and eventually by the United States. The land was confiscated and Indians were forced on to reservations. Some of them were used as internment camps for Japanese Americans during World War II. But, isn't it ironic! Reservations now have the oil (and casinos!).
The prevailing policy of the United States government and its courts is to control beliefs, values and behavior of the American Indian. Not only the Indian, there are many Christians in America today who believe they have the right to control the beliefs, values and behavior of other people, especially of people who act and believe differently than they do, especially Muslims. The theology of subdue, dominate and conquer is alive and flourishing. Deloria concludes that the desire to dominate someone else comes out of a basic sense of insecurity about one’s self. When we have an adversarial relationship with the earth, we are not sure who we are or where we belong. We then seek to control, dominate, and conquer.
Sisters and brothers, let us repudiate the subdue, dominate and conquer mentality. Let us return to the example of Jesus who laid down his life, who came not to be served but to serve. Let us respect the earth and look on it as a friend, not an enemy. Let us respect people who are different. Let them be! Let them enjoy the same rights to land, jobs, housing, and practicing their religion as the rest of us. We are all one, created by God and loved by God.
© 2008 Douglas I. Norris