At General Conference Friday evening, we celebrated (if celebrate is an even moderately appropriate word…) “An Act of Repentance toward Healing Relationships with Indigenous Peoples.” The people I’ve spoken with about the service (before it began) were of three minds: 1) what was done to Native Americans was horrendous, but thankfully I had nothing to do with it and I love all people, 2) that was then, this is now — what do “they” expect us to do about it now? and, 3) I am so tired of this bleeding heart $#!/ aimed at making me/us feel guilty. In almost all cases — from sympathetic to hostile — the common feeling is “I didn’t do it.” Many people wondered why do “we” have to repent — and what exactly does this mean anyway?
It has always confused me how we glory in famous ancestors and celebrate wondrous stories of great, great grandparents, but want absolutely no blame for anything they did wrong. We are a people of faith where our Jewish roots are very deeply steeped in bloodline, tribe, and ancestry. Even in our Christian practice we honor the “communion of the saints,” and the “mighty cloud of witnesses” who help to define us. For both Hebrew and early Christian communities, the plural was always more important than the individual, where shared responsibility for one another was a blessing rather than a burden. Accepting a small measure of ownership for what our forebears did shouldn’t be such a stretch. We benefit from the good things we inherit; perhaps we should shoulder the blame for some of the bad that produced the good.
But this can’t merely be about guilt, and as Rev. Dr. George E. Tinker taught us, it is going to take more than an apology to move things forward. The process of repenting is not an act or an event, but a journey — a turning that is not a one-time thing. Apologies don’t “do” anything but make the apologizer feel better. Absent restitution or restoration, saying we’re sorry is an empty gesture. So, in actuality, we experienced the beginning of a service of repentance tonight — we stood together and our episcopal leaders made a pledge that it will be interesting to see us live up to. Bishop Goodpaster said our response must be specific, actionable and accountable. Bishop Wenner listed Native American ministries, Native American Sunday, many awareness raising opportunities — including acts of repentance in our Annual Conferences and creating relationships of mutuality — as ways we can live into a shared partnership of responsibility. We did the “stand” part. Now it will be interesting to see how well we “deliver.”
But for me there are three essential elements that need to be part of the process. First, how will we know we mean it? The vast majority of people I spoke with thought they were being unfairly blamed for something they didn’t do. This abdication of responsibility is not a purely intellectual reaction, and it will take more than information and “awareness raising” to change not only people’s minds, but their hearts. Second, getting our heads around signficant change rather than superficial gestures is huge. Are we willing to “give back” things we think of as ours, not theirs? Is the justice aspect strong enough to motivate us to declare a jubilee year and divide our blessings equally? Third, and most important for me, are we going to simply do nice things for indigenous peoples because we feel we ought to, or are we going to establish truly loving, caring relationships — expanding our circle of family? If our ancestors took the dreams of indigenous people away from them, are we willing to listen to their deepest dreams for their future and work alongside them to help them realize those dreams? Just “giving back” doesn’t change anything or make anything right. But a true repentance will cause us to become something new, something more, something better. We will seek to be partners in creating the kind of future that will honor and support us all. We cannot undo the tragedies we caused (or that our ancestors caused) in the past, but we do have the power to create something good. We must stand and deliver — the standing is easy (we do it all the time), but delivery is where we see the outward and visible signs of our inward and spiritual intentions. Time will tell. We laid a wonderful foundation. Now, what shall we build?