The second half of the training session last night for the twenty or so of us who are seeking to become CASA volunteers began in an unusual way, with the instructor having all of us stand in a circle, holding hands with those on both sides of us, saying something that we were thankful for “and all of our relations.” The point was an obvious one, in that our existence is due to a chain of relations going back to Creation. Given that I already had genealogy on my mind yesterday , it was not too surprising that I would have another reminder of family given the way that such matters tend to work, where what one is thinking already is often coincidentally the subject of reminder from others. Yet the fact that a woman whose life story included being removed from her parents and raised in a foster household because of her Indian ancestry, although she looked not too unlike myself with blond hair and somewhat fierce intensity raised further issues in my mind, and the circle exercise she had us do was itself a portent of more serious issues.
It has become fashionable in our present age to mock the beliefs of our founding fathers. William Bradford, for example, noted of the natives that he and his fellow Pilgrims met that they were poor unfortunate savages who were in need of the Gospel. This is in fact a true statement, assuming one has a biblical worldview, since the Bible is very clear that there is no name under heaven save that of Jesus Christ by whom we can be saved (Acts 4:12). Nevertheless, Christianity is not a matter for coercion. Unless we are Calvinists, in which case we are mistaken in our theology anyway, we do not hold as Christians that conversion is a matter of forcing faith upon someone . That salvation is a good thing is obvious, but that it requires consent, even if it is God that opens up our mind to allow us to be receptive to the Gospel message and that leads us to Christ, is also obvious. Yet when it comes to granting others the opportunity to come to God by being convicted by their own consciences as a result of the godly example of believers, we are not always willing to be patient with others in the same way that God has been patient with us.
What is our obligation to disabuse others of their mistaken notions? While taking notes, I was bemused to see it said of native American society that there was little child abuse in the days before European exploration and that first peoples lived in harmony with the land. How does one explain the nearly universal tendency of debased shamanistic religion to use narcotics in order to attempt spirit journeys, or the reality of scalping or human sacrifice, or the urban sprawl of cities like Cahokia? All of these are signs that the first peoples were not so different in mindset from the Europeans who encountered them so fatefully, and that attempts to whitewash indigenous culture as a way of presenting remnant populations as the moral superiors of colonists are doomed to failure on point of fact. Yet although first peoples lie to themselves about their own supposed moral purity in pre-contact periods, assuming such periods to have existed , there is something worth considering about their efforts to preserve their own dignity, even if they go too far in their claims.
After all, the indigenous population has a lot to be upset about. Whether it is several centuries of people violating treaties and stealing land, whether it is the history of generations of children being stolen away from families and educated, sometimes harshly, in boarding schools, or the sporadic efforts at reform usually ending up only increasing dependency and difficulty and loss, there is a long trail of abuses and wrongs that have been committed. How does one make these wrongs right? How does one rebuild trust that has been continually abused and broken? How does one act in such a way as to recognize God-given dignity without pretending that heathen practices are the equal of God’s ways? These are not easy questions to answer, not easy matters to deal with. Trust is hard enough to rebuild with one person or a few people at a time, after a few difficulties and misunderstandings, much less after centuries of repeated wrongs. And once the circle of trust is broken, who is there who can rebuild it again, unless there be consent and a willingness to clean the slate and start again, as if everything was new once more?
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