Allow the Doorway to Decay?


November 17, 2013

Martin Marty wrote an article for Sightings called Mormons and Native Americans.  He uses and article by Fernanda Santos, in The New York Times, where she talks about Navajo people reclaiming their roots thanks to the Mormon Church.  Marty concludes saying,

Non- or anti-Mormons, who regard the Book of Mormon as fiction, may question the validity of framing identities on the basis of stories which cannot be verified in conventional scientific or historical terms.  However:

It happens that most families and tribes and peoples live off stories that cannot be conventionally verified.  This is the case with most sacred scriptures, but there is a mythic dimension to the way other stories are received, e.g., those of America’s “Founding Fathers.”  Citizens find identity and motivations, good and bad, from such roots.

Welcome to the company of the Mormon-Navajo Smith family survivors!

Fair enough.  We all live lives based in mythical stories.  Some of my favorite family stories—that I hope are passed down—are those who have grown to mythical proportions with their retelling.  Yet, I find this writing—in a publication (Sightings) claiming the identity, “The cliché about polite conversation is that there are two things never to discuss: religion and politics.  We at Sightings know better (at least about religion)”—religiously wanting and polite.

A conversation concerning mythical stories and how they inform us culturally and inter-culturally is valuable.  However, from a Christian religion perspective, Santo’s article calls for a much different, much need, and much less polite conversation.

Santo’s tells a story about the Smith family and makes  note that when Mr. Smith, a Navajo, talks about being placed in a Mormon home as a child, he says, “Here was an outside group of people telling me I wasn’t just someone who was poor…that I had a great heritage, that I have potential.”  There is nothing wrong with affirmation.  However, we cannot hear these words and not remember historical federal policy, supported by U.S. Christians and their denominations, was to place American Indian children in white homes.  The reason for placement was simple.  They (Federal government and Christians) believed youth raised in white homes would become civilized, Christian, and, in time, White.  By remembering our verifiable social and Christian history of American Indian youth adoption, the Santo’s article darkens.

On May 4, 1493, Pope Alexander VI pens the Inter Caetera papal bull.  With this writing, Alexander VI develops a poor interpretation of the Great Commission (MT 28:18-19) that leads to the subjugation of non-European land and peoples “for the honor of God himself and for the spread of the Christian Empire.”  This interpretation of conversion—a cornerstone to the Christian Doctrine of Discovery (CDOD), becomes foundational to the relationship between Christianity and Native people in the America’s.

One example is the relationship Christianity developed with the Yakama people.  Jesuits first came to the Yakama landscape in the early 1800’s.  They converted Yakama folk by developing relationship and using that relationship as an inroad to teaching the Christian faith.  In 1860 James Wilbur, a Methodist, arrived.  Wilbur developed a federal boarding school where he implemented a conversion system he called The Plow and the Bible.  This system was to convert Yakama youth into white citizens by learning farming methods and into good Christians by learning the bible.  When the boarding school closed, W.F. Turner, a Disciple of Christ, took over and in 1921 opened a Christian Home where children were taught farming practices, Christianity, and bused to the public school where he believed their chances of becoming civilized were enhanced because it “is best for the [Yakama] children—to mix and mingle with other [White] children.”  In all three cases, conversation would not only save the soul, but also grow the Church.

If we hold in mind such historical State and Christian conversation tactics, Santo’s article brings light to modern CDOD practices.

Mr. Justice is a white Mormon who uses gardening to teach the Navajo people about their farming tradition, Santo’s tells us.  He says,

“Their grandparents knew how to farm.  Their parents forgot it.  We’re working to make sure the young people learn it,” Mr. Justice said as he escorted visitors through the chapel, which was so crowded one recent Sunday that a divider was removed to make way for more seats.  “It’s important to teach our people to be self-reliant.”

This tried and true Christian reservation conversion language places white Christian folk in the role of Indian saviors.  Christian conversion language begins with once you were good (think grandparents and Eden’s garden), then flows to you ain’t good anymore (parents forgetfulness and fruit of the Tree), and ends with We know correct path (“We’re make[ing] sure the young people learn it,” and our religion is the proper way).  Why is conversion so important?  Church growth, “The chapel…was so crowded…a divider was removed to make way for more seats!”  Might this be a stretch to say such action and language is a modern case of Christian Doctrine of Discovery actions (or a Great Commission desire to convert the world)?  Well, take into consideration that,

The Mormon Church has been expanding at a steady pace, primarily in parts of Asia and Latin America, where, Mr. Justice said, there are plans to introduce his gardening program to indigenous peoples, using lessons in subsistence farming as a doorway into the church.

Let us understand that the Mormon Church is not alone in developing paths to the doorway of the church.  Every mainline denomination is fearful of their declining numbers and each has strategies to increase church growth, e.g., my own denomination is no different, for a good portion of Disciples “20/20 vision” has come to lie in the midst of this fear and want for growth.  And it is in this fear of numerical loss where Disciples of Christ, Methodists, Episcopals, Presbyterians, Catholics, and other mainliners find themselves welcome[d] to the company of the Mormon-Navajo Smith family survivors!

There is great responsibility in being Christian (non-Native and Native alike) and speaking about work done on reserved land.  We need to recognize that we all (Disciples of Christ, Methodist, Mormon, Presbyterian, Episcopal, Catholic—non-Native and Native) have had our mindset—our way of being—formed by constructs—social and religious—that benefit dominate non-Native culture.  If we do so, we might better recognize we carry the fear of Pope Alexander VI and better acknowledge our fear of Christian Church decline.  With such knowledge in our hip pocket, we might ask better questions of how our current Christian polity and theology is damaging to American Tribal people and ourselves.

Such critique and reflection might not only improve the thoughtfulness of Sightings, The Martin Marty Center of the University of Chicago Divinity School, and of folk who live the legacy of W.F. Turner at the Yakama Christian Mission; but it might guide us into a rich life where the doorway to the Church decays into the soil of the earth and living the natural and normal life of creation is rebirthed.

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