It was a sunny cold October day. We stood in a shelter in the trees at B’dote, the valley in which the Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers meet. After spending two hours outside, listening intently, I was cold to bone and hungry. Still, the storyteller, Jim Bear Jacobs, held my full attention. B’dote, said Jacobs, is where the Dakota people originate. This is where they hear the song of the Creator. This is where their ancestors came down from the stars to be shaped with the clay of mother earth. This is home.
In the treaty of 1805, a few Dakota leaders signed away their people’s rights to B’dote and all the land within a nine-mile radius. Exiled from this valley to the banks of the Minnesota River in southwestern Minnesota, drought caused starvation for the Dakota people. Corrupt and greedy agents kept the people from receiving the provisions the US government had promised. The food rotted in the storehouses as children and elders died. The US-Dakota war of 1862 erupted. When it was all over, the people were forced to march through the towns of southern Minnesota back home to this valley. This valley of birth—the place where the people hear the song of the Creator—became a prison. Tepees crowded together in a small stockade. Winter came and people died of sickness and hunger, several every day. The soldiers came to take the bodies away.
One day, word reached the camp about what had happened to the bodies of the thirty-eight Dakota men who were hanged in New Ulm on the day after Christmas. Their bodies had been left in a shallow sandy burial place along the Minnesota River. The next morning, the bodies were gone. They had been stolen by researchers from the University of Minnesota. From that day on, when the soldiers came looking for bodies to bury, they found none. Unable to trust that their dead would be respected, the people began burying them beneath their own teepees, because the ground was soft enough to dig there.
I can in no way do this story justice. I urge you to join a sacred sites tour, to listen and learn for yourself. What I want to bring forth from the story I heard; however, is this: the land remembers. We can’t say: this story happened a long time ago, and I wasn’t here. We can’t say: my ancestors weren’t directly involved so this isn’t my story. We are here now in this land that holds this story and we are part of the story. Over these last weeks, we’ve been talking about who we are as disciples of Jesus—a blessed people, people who are salt for the earth and light for the world. We have a calling, a crucial role to play in making social change, in bringing about justice. And if we are to do be effective in our work, we must understand that the story of beauty and trauma this land holds is our context for living in right relationship. This land is our teacher and our guide. This land is our home.
Both of today’s scriptures speak to us about right relationship. Deuteronomy, as a whole, with its emphasis on the land, has of course been used as a tool of colonization. The people of Israel escaped slavery, and we are led to believe that after wandering for forty years in the wilderness they entered a land that was already occupied by another people. They conquered it in the name of God. God was their general in the bloodshed that had to happen to make space for them in the land. This is how the story went when it was told by people, a millennium later, looking to justify choices that were clearly not justifiable.
What if we start with a different image of God? What if we begin by assuming that God desires for us to be in right relationship . . . with God, with each other, with the land? There’s no historical evidence that any “conquest” of the promised land ever happened. What really happened was more likely a gradual blending of cultures. Perhaps, when Moses heard God calling the people toward a prosperous life in “the land you are entering to possess,” “possession” looked like harmony and right relationship. It seems to me that Moses is imagining a branching path of choice, in which each choice reinforces whichever reality the people had chosen up until now—life or death, prosperity or adversity. They could retrace our steps on one path or the other but there’s no middle ground between the two. A people whose hearts were anchored in relationship with God would find their rightful place in the land. And a people who ignored God, who fell out of relationship with God, would simply not know how to live.
Right relationship—justice—is a path of spiritual transformation. The letter of the law is not what motivates Jesus. He takes us into its depths, where the soul of its demands illuminates our true character. Jesus knows, for instance, that signing a treaty, even one that stands up in a court, does not make for right relationship with the land. Jesus knows that simply refraining from violent words and actions does not make for right relationship with our anger. Jesus knows there is a sort of murderous violence that is perfectly legal, a sort of crime that appears to have no perpetrator.
Jesus knows that attraction is normal and human and he knows that right relationship requires us to discipline our desires. In his teaching on adultery, Matthew’s Jesus is speaking in a very male-centered way, about the danger of objectifying someone else, of treating someone’s body, or their life, as if it’s under our power. And what he’s saying about divorce is said in the context of world in which women were the property of men in marriage. Perhaps we can hear that this teaching is meant not to restrict the freedom of women, but to ensure that they were treated more fairly within the framework of the culture that defined their lives.
In Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer brings together her perspectives as a scientist and an indigenous person. In the chapter titled “The Sacred and the Superfund” she traces the gut-wrenching history of Lake Onondaga near Syracuse, New York. Decades of industrial pollution by quarry, mine, power plant, and Allied chemical, which is now Honeywell, left the lake’s water muddy and mercury-laden, its shoreline buried in chemical waste sixty feet deep. Swimming was banned in 1940 and fishing in1970. On the shores of Lake Onondaga, the Haudenosaaunee Confederacy was born. There “[five] nations who had been at war with one another agreed to ‘bury the hatchet’ and live by the Great Law of Peace, which sets out right relationship among peoples and with the natural world.” (p. 312) “The people,” Kimmerer writes,
have endured the pain of being bystanders to the degradation of their lands, but they never surrendered their caregiving responsibilities. They have continued the ceremonies that honor the land and their connection to it. In 2005, at a time when the US Supreme Court began to recognize the wrongs done to native nations, the Onondaga nation initiated a land rights action. The motion began with this profound statement: “The Onondaga people wish to bring about a healing between themselves and all others who live in this region that has been the homeland of the Onondaga nation since the dawn of time.” The Onondaga land rights action sought legal recognition of title to their home, not to remove their neighbors and not for development of casinos, which they view as destructive to community life. Their intention was to gain the legal standing necessary to move restoration of the land forward.” (pp. 320–21)
What land means to us, Kimmerer argues, will determine our ability to live in right relationship with it. She imagines a tour around the lake with various stops that illuminate these meanings and their implications. Do we see land as capital, or property, or as a machine? Or do we understand that land is our teacher and healer? That land is our sacred responsibility? That land is who we are—that land is a community and our home? (pp. 329–340)
Matthew’s Jesus can sound harsh, I know. I invite you to hear this word, however, as if it comes from a friend whose only desire for you is life and prosperity. When I let this word of Jesus in, it convicts me and it comforts me. May this word gently show us how far we are from living in right relationship, how often our outer life and inner heart stray from harmony and integrity. And may this word encourage us. May we hear the voice of a companion who loves us enough to tell us the truth, the voice of a wise guide who longs to see us flourish in this land that is our home. Amen.