In preparation for a clergy day this past Thursday, we were asked to read the book, The Gatherings: Reimaging Indigenous-Settler Relations. Through a series of interviews, the book recounts the experiences of people who participated in a program called the Gatherings. This program took place for more than a decade and ended over 30 years ago. It was a yearly meeting between white people and indigenous people of Maine and New Brunswick. It took place on the territory of native people and followed native customs and leadership. It was a life-changing experience for all who took part.
For the first time that has been recorded, white people actually allowed native people to take the lead and set the agenda. Using the talking circle tradition of indigenous Americans, white people really listened to the stories and pain of native peoples. White people also were able to get in touch with the pain of living as a people who conquered and oppressed native peoples. They began to realize that the oppressor is just as wounded as the oppressed and that if we wish to heal, both native and white, we need to acknowledge the pain, acknowledge the harm done and begin to repair the tears in the human fabric that have been made. We need to do this for the sake and future of the human race and all of creation.
Repeatedly in the interviews of the native participants in the Gatherings, it was said that this was the first time in their lives that they had experienced white people who believed that native people had something to contribute, something to teach them. Throughout their lifetimes and the lifetimes of their ancestors, their experience of white people had been condescension, and being in a lesser than position. For the first time, they were able to share their personal and cultural wisdom about creation and our society with their white neighbors.
The native people interviewed in this book spoke of a cultural sickness that they see in the culture of those who colonized this land. They shared their view of the spirituality of white people. From their perspective, those who came to conquer and colonize this land held and continue to hold a view of God and creation that can only lead to pain, suffering, and ultimately the destruction of humanity. In the words of one of the indigenous leaders, gkisedtanamoogk:
Those who came here came under the pretense of eradicating everything indigenous and substituting that with an idea—an abstract idea. And what was that abstract idea? That there’s a God out there who has empowered us to own everything, and that once we own it, we control it (The Gatherings, p. 159).
This is the idea behind the Doctrine of Discovery, Manifest Destiny, and basically all of American capitalism and American Christianity. It is the city on the hill. God has blessed and given everything on this planet to white, European Christians. Therefore, these white, European Christians have a right to take anything and everything from any non-white, non-Christian person, or peoples they meet anywhere in the world. And dominion over creation means complete and total control of creation. And if we destroy everything in the process? Well, that doesn’t really matter, because there is a magical wonderful heaven that we will go to when we die because we are white Christians and God has blessed us. It is a great way to legitimize violence, control, and power. It is not a great way to live and ensure the future of the human race. And it does not even remotely resemble the vision given to us by Jesus when he preached and taught on this earth. To call it Christian is to blaspheme the very God we profess to be following.
Over and over again in Scripture God shows up not on the side of the powerful, but on the side of the powerless. This is certainly true in the Gospel of Luke, the Gospel we have been working our way through Sunday by Sunday during this past year. Before Jesus is even born, his mother Mary is inspired to speak the following prophetic words (Luke 1:51-53):
He [God] has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones
and lifted up the lowly;
He has filled the hungry with good things
and sent the rich away empty.
Were God a God that wanted us to conquer and dominate, would He not have come into this world as the child of the Emperor of Rome or Persia, or some other all-powerful human? But this is not the path God chose. God chose to be the son of a poor Jewish woman living in occupied territory who was betrothed but not yet married. Mary married a man who earned his living with the sweat of his brow and the labor of his hands. God incarnate in Jesus chose as his apostles regular people who fished and worked. He healed the disabled and sick. He fed the poor and hungry. He defended the widow and the prisoner. He challenged those who upheld the status quo that kept people poor, sick, disabled, and hungry. When he preached and taught, he continually challenged conventional thinking that praised those who had more than they needed and challenged them to give up what they did not really need, that all might have enough.
And then there is our Gospel reading for today, Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain:
Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who are hungry now,
for you will be filled.
Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh. (Luke 6:20-21)
Woe to you who are full now,
for you will be hungry.
Woe to you who are laughing now,
for you will mourn and weep.
Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets (Luke 6:24-26).
This is not Jesus romanticizing poverty, hunger, and grief. Jesus knew that poverty is awful and challenged his followers to work to help those caught in the horror that is poverty. This is not Jesus saying that those who are poor or hungry or mourning will go to heaven and those who have more than they need will go to hell. This is Jesus telling us something about the nature of God. God is not where we think God is. People who have more than they need are not in that position because God has blessed them. Wealth is not evidence of God’s favor. Wealth is simply evidence of wealth. Sometimes that wealth is gotten honestly. Sometimes that wealth is gotten dishonestly. But all wealth does bring with it responsibility, responsibility to share that wealth with those who do not have what they need. God is on the side of the poor, the sick, the mourning, the marginalized. And as we are all made in the image of God, we should be where God is, on their side too.
And as I sit with this understanding of who God is and where we are to locate ourselves in this world, I find myself being asked by God, “What is enough?” The word translated as “woe” in Jesus’ sermon on the plain does not mean “cursed” or “unhappy.” Instead, it means something more like “yikes” or “look out” and it is directed to people who are comfortable and have more than they need. Comfort isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it can separate us from our neighbor. It can insulate us from the realities of those who don’t have what they need to live. It can separate us from God. And it can lead us to a place of dissatisfaction where we are convinced that we don’t actually have what we need and that we need more and more and more. It can lead us to a place where we become so fearful of losing what we have that we hoard and take and step on anyone we can to quiet these fears. So, we need to “look out” lest our comfort will destroy us and everyone else with it.
This is the message of indigenous Americans for us, and it is completely congruent with the message of Jesus. Not the distorted message taught by the various Christian empires over the centuries, but the original message that he preached. We need to learn what “enough” is. A basic indigenous American value is “take no more than you need and share what you have.” I think Jesus would agree with this sentiment. Our comfort has distorted us. God has not empowered us to own everything. God has empowered us to care for everything and woe to us if we let our comfort, wealth and security get in the way of what God is calling us to do. One native participant in the Gatherings said the following, and it has stayed with me:
The dominant white culture’s ways of knowing and its values are clearly deficient in terms of sustaining our life on this planet (The Gatherings, p. 69).
Our indigenous neighbors have a lot to teach us about following Jesus, if we will only have ears to hear and minds and hearts to learn. May we really begin to understand what “enough” really is for the sake of the poor, the mourning, and the hungry and for our own sakes as well. Our lives and the lives of our children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren depend upon it. Amen.