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April 21, 1996

For those of you who keep track of such things, this sermon is not the one previously announced. As I read, researched, and reflected on Native Americans, I narrowed the focus of the sermon from "other religions" to the relationship Christianity has had with American Indians, and it 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 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, distributing alcohol, banishing native religious ceremonies, 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 story 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 spiritual ancestors took this as a mandate, changed dominion to dominate, and marched onward to subdue and dominate, taking an adversarial position to the earth and native people, believing that the planet is not our home, but is ours to exploit and use for the benefit of white people, regardless of the consequences.

We are only now beginning to realize that we humans are connected to the earth. 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. Whether we are happier, however, is another question.

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, and our future, rethink the subdue and dominate mentality? Have we not now reached a time when we must learn how to live on the land, how to reach harmony with the earth?

I bought a fascinating book last Monday written by an American Indian, Vine Deloria, Jr., who is a lawyer and professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder. His book is called God Is Red. Deloria's analysis of our present situation, the historical reasons for our present crisis, his indictment of Christianity, and his challenge for us to consider what he calls a native view of religion, is fascinating. 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 and, using the words I have chosen from Genesis, subdue and dominate.

When the Hebrew slaves, after 40 years in the wilderness, entered the Promised Land, they found a natural people worshiping the god Baal. The worship of Baal was a fertility cult, and the worship ensured agricultural success. The Hebrews, led by Joshua, settled among the Canaanites, sometimes peacefully, sometimes by military conquest. The adversarial relationship between Yahweh, the God of history, and Baal, the god of nature, led to many conflicts through the centuries. Led by the prophets, the pendulum perhaps swung too far, where worshiping and following the God of history-- the God who saved them from Egypt-- led to a disconnectedness with the earth, with nature.

The consequences of disconnectedness are upon us today. As we read in the Responsive Reading, "Whatever we do to the web of life, we do to ourselves." Christians need to lead the search for a rediscovery of what God intended when his writers wrote subdue and dominion. Christians need to lead the way to a connected relationship with the earth. 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 spiritual 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 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.

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, believing that some people are meant to be slaves and it is immoral for them to resist enslavement; or, 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. Deloria describes what happens when greed is combined with religious fanaticism. (p. 261)

Even today the Christian missionaries search the jungles of the Amazon looking for Indian tribes to convert. In their wake come the professional killers to exterminate the tribes, and following them the government bureaucracies, road builders, and land developers to subdue the lands of the interior for world commerce.

When England settled North America, it gave no allegiance to the pope, but England and France continued with the same theology of subdue and dominate. 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, France, and eventually the United States. The land was confiscated and Indian rights were limited. Deloria does give the United States credit for creating the best record in dealing with native rights. Many tribes have legal rights, and have won cases in court. In Canada and Australia, for example, native peoples have no land rights.

However, 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, as 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 differently than they do. The theology of subdue and dominate is alive and flourishing. I think Deloria has a point when he observes that the desire to dominate someone else comes out of a basic sense of insecurity about one's self. Because white people have disconnected themselves from the land, they have an insecurity. When we are not sure who we are or where we belong, we seek power to control, dominate, and convert.

The point I am trying to make this morning is that we must affirm our connection with the earth and our connection with all people. We have a two-fold mission: rediscover our connection with the earth, and repudiate all forms of subjugation and domination of people. Deloria's challenge gives us a clear mission: (p. 263

First, Christians..must support the fight of the aboriginal peoples wherever it exists. They must demand a new status for native peoples around the planet. They must demand protection of natives and of their lands, cultures, and religions... Secondly, when ecologists find a predictable life-span of a generation separating us from total extinction, it would seem that we have a duty to search for another interpretation of humankind's life story instead of the traditional Christian view of the world and what it means. Unless we solve some of our problems, God will have to intervene to save any of us.

Sisters and brothers, let us lay down our weapons, and look on the earth as a friend, not an enemy. Let us lay aside fear of 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. Truly, we are all connected.

© 1996 Douglas I. Norris