The Original Sin of Church and State

I’ve been interested in First People, Native American, indigenous issues ever since I spent two weeks on the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming. I was working at a Lutheran camp based near Ft. Collins, CO and worked with High School youth groups on week-long service trips. We were invited by the local Arapahoe chief to participate in a sweat lodge. It was an experience I’ll never forget. I’m not so interested in adopting their spirituality or somehow trying to “go native” by putting a dream catcher in my car and wearing lots of topaz. I want to avoid appropriating and co-opting their culture, because it can be easily become another form of colonization, domination and oppression. However, I do believe indigenous people have a lot to teach and remind us about our own traditions and things we’ve lost.

I probably stole this from someone, but I believe that the original sin of the United States (as well as the majority of nation-states in existence today, particularly in the western hemisphere) is what we did to the people that first inhabited the places we now call home. Do we even need to go over the list? Genocide, cultural oppression and extinction, theft of land, desecration of sacred places, broken treaties. The list goes on and continues today. What we in the church often leave out of our theological equations and history of Christianity is the complicity of the church with the state in perpetrating such acts on indigenous people around the globe. I believe strongly that this is a (perhaps THE) most fundamental sin with which we, both church and state, must reckon. Our current economic, political, social arrangement is based on the historical and continuing exploitation of these people, their land and their resources.

Bolivia has the largest percentage of indigenous people in South America (maybe more than Guatemala which has the highest percent in Central America). Three groups make up most of that indigenous population; Quechua, Aymara and Guarani. There are some other groups mainly from the eastern lowlands that I don’t know much about. In Charagua, where I live, we are on the northern edge of the Chaco region, which is the historic home of the Guarani people extending through northern Paraguay and parts of Peru, Argentina and maybe Uruguay and Chile. Needless to say it’s a large region and crosses many of the arbitrary borders that were created by the Spanish. The Chaco War was basically a conflict between Standard Oil and Royal Dutch Shell, none of whose employees participated in the fighting over the border between Paraguay and Bolivia.

This fundamental sin has obviously done damage to indigenous communities everywhere, but some of the effects are more subtle than the more obvious. In working with a couple Guarani communities here, I’ve noticed that they have adopted a lot of industrial agriculture’s methods of production. While they continue to produce a lot of food for their own consumption, they primarily produce commodity crops like sorghum, sesame, corn and soy for sale to large agribusinesses. They use a lot of chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides to manage their crops. These are people who have lived on this land and handed down knowledge about the local flora and fauna for probably thousands of years. They survived in the harsh Chaco climate for millenia without growing these crops or using chemicals. Now this knowledge is all but lost. There are still lots of people with knowledge about local plants that are edible and good for medicinal purposes. MCC’s head of rural and agricultural programs in Bolivia, Patrocinio, showed me four different weeds that could be used to either make tea or a medicinal salve in my own backyard.

This is the effect of our civilization’s original sin. It harms the people with the knowledge we most need to survive on this planet. How many North Americans could name ten native plants that they could eat in their area? Not many. This is our basic relationship between people across the globe. All of our injustices and inequality come back historically to the exploitation of indigenous people and their land. We cannot simply wish that it remain in the past and somehow move on, forgiving and forgetting. This sin is continuing and we continue to participate in it.

If this is our original sin, for both church and state, how can we, as individuals and churches (I have little hope for the state), find redemption, reconciliation and salvation for our complicity? I would like to suggest that the first thing we can do is learn about the people that used to live on the land that now belongs to our house or are church. We must expand our imaginations past the lifetimes of ourselves and our family to the people that first encountered the white man in our area. How did those people live? How long did they live there? How did they survive? Are any of them still alive? What knowledge still remains from the thousands of years of experience living without oil and coal?

Then we must also expand our imaginations forward into the future. What will the world look like in seven generations if we continue down this path? If there is knowledge left from these people left, what can we learn from it? If there is no knowledge left, what can we do to begin learning about the places where we live? How can we partner with indigenous people to begin to steer this boat the right way and if it turns out to be the Titanic to help get people safely off?

I believe strongly that the salvation of our world (including the church) lies in our relationship to indigenous people around the world. What might this mean for Christian theology? If salvation, in some sense, lies beyond the church (perhaps in order for the church to reclaim her own tradition), what does that mean for how we understand what Jesus did and who the church is? I believe that Jesus birth, life, work, death and resurrection is good news for people that are marginalized and oppressed. Indigenous people are marginalized in a way that seems fundamentally different than others. They have been an obstacle in the way of progress and civilization. Now that we are reaching some of the limits of this project, indigenous people provide an alternative possibility for how to live in the world with each other and with nature.

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