January 27, 2022

Opinion: The Church After the Sin of Colonization

Liesl Hoeldtke '22

The church has only recently begun to acknowledge and grapple with the role that Christianity has played in the colonization of North America. Throughout history, we see again and again the name of Christ used in conjunction with dehumanizing acts against Indigenous peoples, even to this day.  

Students brought up in the American school system are well aware of the story of the Pilgrims and the religious freedom they sought in America. The earliest colonies were settled because of Christianity, and biblical language and references were used to support these colonies. In his book A Future without Walls: Confronting Our Divisions, T. Richard Snyder sums up the connection between faith and colonization: 

“The forcible removal of [Native Americans] from their homes and territories, and their systematic extermination, are well documented. It is not an overstatement to label our nation’s policies and treatment as genocidal. That American colonists thought of themselves as Israelites entering the Promised Land vanquishing Indians like the Canaanites is documented by Puritan sermons!”

In Haverhill, not far from Gordon, stands a statue of Hannah Duston which tells her story on its base. Duston was a Puritan who became famous for killing ten indigenous people who had taken her as a prisoner of war; six of those she killed were children. The statue depicts her holding a hatchet and pointing in judgement. Duston’s story was used to justify even more violence against the Indigenous people in the area as well as westward expansion. Famous Puritan minister Cotton Mather “compared Duston to the biblical heroine Jael, who saved her people by driving a spike through Sisera’s head while he slept. Cotton Mather understood the wars between New England Puritans and Indians as battles between good and evil and this clearly shaped the way he told Duston’s story.” Indigenous people groups in Massachusetts have been asking for the removal of the statue for years and are still waiting for this request to be recognized.  

Most Christians coming to the Americas viewed Indigenous peoples as having no religion and being in need of refinement. This view is what led to residential schools and boarding schools, which systematically separated Indigenous children from their families and stripped them of their culture. An article from Harvard’s Pluralism Project describes this: “Christian missionaries did not recognize the customs of the Native peoples as spiritual or religious traditions in their own right and many mission schools effectively removed Native young people from their cultures. Many Christian colonists and missionaries, even those most sympathetic to the lifeways of the Native peoples, categorized Native Americans as “heathens” who either accepted or resisted conversion to Christianity.”

In Canada, the government has just recently begun the work of digging on the grounds of residential schools and has already found the remains of over six thousand children that died at these schools. Residential schools were primarily run by various denominations of the Church and often became a place of the physical, sexual, mental, and spiritual abuse for students. It is naïve to think that America is exempt from this sort of injustice and that similar statistics would not emerge if similar work began at American boarding schools  Although it is difficult, we as Christians must acknowledge that these atrocities have been committed in the name of Christ and continue to affect indigenous lives to this day. The last Canadian residential school closed in 1997, and similar systems were upheld in the United States up until 1978 through the Indian Child Welfare Act. To this day, generations of living survivors remain, carrying the trauma of residential schools and struggling to tell their stories.  

Christianity has long been used as a vehicle for white supremacy; countless acts of violence, genocide, enslavement, and more have been committed in the name of Christ. North America is not the only place in the world where colonizers have come wielding Scripture along with weapons and disease. As Christians in the modern era, what does it look like to begin the work of repenting for these atrocities? Kaitlin B. Curtice, a citizen of the Potawatomi Nation and author of the book Native: Identity, Belonging, and Rediscovering God insists that the work of decolonization must be done in community: 

“We have this split between what it means to live communally, to practice our faith the work of justice on an institutional level and what it means to practice justice on an individual level. I think both are necessary, but if we cannot remember that we do the individual work because we are connected to each other, we’re going to miss out on everything. We will not work against systems that oppress.” 

What would it look like for Christians to come together and not just acknowledge the church’s history, but to work towards changing the church’s legacy? To come before the Father with the sin of colonization and ask for our hearts to truly seek healing and reconciliation?  

Some churches have begun making commitments toward reconciliation, which starts with acknowledgement and condemnation and continues with tangible action. A handful of churches have begun returning their church property to Indigenous communities of the territories, such as the PCUSA Dwight Mission Center in Oklahoma.3 The reality is that all American churches sit on native land. Gordon itself sits on Pawtucket territory, according to native-lands.ca4.   

Indigenous stories have been systematically erased from our history books, from our education system, and from our memories. Part of the work of decolonization on our part means listening, absorbing, remembering, and acknowledging Indigenous voices, but it must also lead us to action. We see time and time again throughout Scripture that God cares for the marginalized, the people who have been left behind and abused by society. In this case, the church has been the agent of indigenous marginalization. The work of healing and redemption is the work of the Kingdom of God, reflecting the love of our Creator-Redeemer God. Curtice shares a hopeful image of decolonization:

“Decolonization is not just for the oppressed. It is a gift for everyone. Just as growing pains hurt before the actual growth takes place, so it hurts to decolonize. For some, it hurts like hell, and then one day, we will appear on the other side of, healed, our stories told in all their truth. Just like that, we all gather to bathe in the healing waters, and just like that, everyone is made clean.”  

Sources:

Hannah Duston

Harvard’s Pluralism Project

Abuse in Residential Schools

Snyder, T. Richard. A Future Without Walls: Confronting Our Divisions. Fortress Press, 2021.

Residential Schools and Native American Genocide

The Last Residential School

Curtice, Kaitlin B. Native: Identity, Belonging, and Rediscovering God. Brazos Press, 2020.

PCUSE Dwight Mission Center in Oklahoma Returns Land to the Cherokee People

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