“Holy Land”

On a glorious fall day recently, Jen, Alice and I set out on a walk at Fort Snelling State Park. We felt drawn to explore an island that lies at the confluence of the Minnesota and Mississippi Rivers. We walked by the edge of the Mississippi for a couple miles. Suddenly, the path plunged beneath high water. We went around the flooded area, stumbling over downed trees as we carried Alice in her stroller. We found the path again and continued walking. We had almost reached the end of the island when water blocked our way in all directions. We had no choice but to retrace our steps. Finally, we returned to an intersection we remembered. At that point, we faced a decision: head back to our car without reaching our goal or cross the island and follow the other path along the Minnesota River. By that time we had been walking for at least an hour and a half. We were all getting tired and hungry. But, still, something urged us on, through our fatigue. As I stood in that place where the rivers come together, at the confluence that had drawn us to itself, I could sense its spiritual significance. Through later research, I learned that the island we call “Pike” is called Wita Tanka, in Dakota, or simply, “Big Island.” The place where we stood is Bdote, the meeting of waters. And Bdote is the very center of the earth for the Dakota people. It is their birthplace, the ground out of which the Creator gave them life. Even as Bdote holds the beauty of this generative story, it is also inhabited by a story of pain and trauma. This sacred place sits in the shadow of Fort Snelling, a site of torture and death for the Dakota, a reminder of their exile from their own homeland and a symbol of our government’s genocidal policies toward native peoples.

In the early chapters of Genesis, its authors offer a sweeping cosmic mythology designed to tell truths about the origins of the earth and humanity, the reasons for sin and evil, and the sanctity of life. Now the storytellers narrow their focus to one family. In this new chapter of the story, they depict God choosing to relate to humanity through the ancestors of a single nation. Chapter twelve of Genesis articulates God’s vision for this key relationship: “Now the Lord said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.’ [emphasis mine]” (Gen 12: 1-3)

The chosen family is blessed in order to be a blessing. When God acts for their good that does not mean that God is against other families, other cultures and faiths. What gives life to the nation of Israel must give life to the whole creation. This is the key kernel of truth, which I think ought to be the lens through which we interpret today’s sacred story. Of course, God’s promise to give land to Abram and Sarai and their descendants is problematic, because there were already people inhabiting that land, as Genesis 12:5-7 makes clear: “When they had come to the land of Canaan, Abram passed through the land to the place at Shechem, to the oak of Moreh. At that time the Canaanites were in the land. Then the Lord appeared to Abram, and said, ‘To your offspring I will give this land.’”

Sadly, the European American settlers who claimed this land ignored the internal conflict within their own sacred story. They failed to recognize the tension between “blessed to be a blessing” and an apparent divine mandate to steal someone else’s home, their very life. In fact, they used God’s covenant with Abram and Sarai to justify their conquest of the land and its peoples, to baptize something called the doctrine of discovery. As Steven Newcomb writes, in Pagans in the Promised Land, they believed that “God had previously commanded the Hebrews to take possession of Canaan and that they, as Christians, had ‘become’ God’s ‘new chosen people.’” The story of God’s unique relationship with one family has been handed down to us in a twisted and distorted form. The broken treaties, the intentional spreading of disease, the outlawed ceremonies, the trauma of the boarding schools—these crimes against humanity were all justified through an abuse of scripture, a corruption of the very heart of our faith.

Here is Newcomb’s description of how the Doctrine of Discovery came to be and has influenced US law.

Under various theological and legal doctrines formulated during and after the Crusades, non-Christians were considered enemies of the Catholic faith and, as such, less than human. Accordingly, in the bull of 1452, Pope Nicholas directed King Alfonso to “capture, vanquish, and subdue the Saracens, pagans, and other enemies of Christ,” to “put them into perpetual slavery,” and “to take all their possessions and property.” [Davenport: 20-26]


In 1823, the Christian Doctrine of Discovery was quietly adopted into U.S. law by the Supreme Court in the celebrated case, Johnson v. McIntosh (8 Wheat., 543). Writing for a unanimous court, Chief Justice John Marshall observed that Christian European nations had assumed “ultimate dominion” over the lands of America during the Age of Discovery, and that—upon “discovery”—the Indians had lost “their rights to complete sovereignty, as independent nations,” and only retained a right of “occupancy” in their lands.[1]

At our MN Conference UCC Annual meeting this past June, one of our speakers was Rev. Jim Bear Jacobs, member of the Stockbridge-Munsee Mohican Nation and pastor at Church of all Nations in Columbia Heights. Western theology, he said, arose in a context in which the indigenous voice was almost completely absent. He argued that, for those of us who are descended from the settler ancestors, the harm we have done to our native sisters and brothers hinders us spiritually. It disconnects us from God. In order to understand our scriptures, we have to read them with people who are at the margins of power, because those are the ones for whom they were written. As Jesus said, “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” In other words, those who are gentle, weak, and disadvantaged will have a place to put down their roots and flourish. They will not be bullied and exploited by the powerful. Reading our Genesis story with Jesus’ notion of blessing in mind, what I hear challenges the whole notion of land ownership. What did God mean, anyway, when God promised to “give” the land to Abram and Sarai? Perhaps God intended for them to share the goodness of that holy land with those who were already there.

For western cultures, Jim Bear Jacobs noted, stories exist in time. Things happen and then they are done. For natives, he explained, stories exist in space, in place. Stories are not dead, but alive. Just as two competing stories live on Wita Tanka, at Bdote, there are also two stories alive here, in this sacred space, this community. Here, too, I feel beauty and pain, trauma and the possibility of healing and repair. One of the stories is about the ways in which we have benefited from the violence and greed of our ancestors, from their theft and pollution of sacred land and waters. In 1863, the Dakota were forcibly removed from Minnesota. A small number of families accumulated enormous wealth by claiming as their own the natural resources of the land the native people had left behind. Of course, the Pillsbury family was one of those families, and their fortune was key to building this church and installing its stained glass. The blessing they handed down to us is polluted by a curse. It is a stolen blessing. This is our story, alive, in this place, alive, in us, and it continues to do great harm.

But we have another story that is also ours to claim. We have the story of ancestors in faith who were blessed by God so that they could be a blessing to all the families of the earth. In 2013, the General Synod of the UCC voted to repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery. It seems to me that in order to truly renounce this corruption at the heart of our faith tradition, we must take action to repair the damage it has done. The Dakota land recovery project is one concrete vehicle for doing so. I urge all of us to pray about supporting this project as individuals. But, additionally, let’s ponder making it part of our annual budget or one of our special offerings. Let’s consider including it in the upcoming capital campaign.  Let us, like Abram and Sarai, come close so to God and allow God to come so close to us that we will learn what God would have us do.


[1] Five Hundred Years of Injustice: The Legacy of Fifteenth Century Religious Prejudice, by Steve Newcomb; http://ili.nativeweb.org/sdrm_art.html