Last week, 500 faith leaders came to Standing Rock from around the country to show solidarity with the Indigenous movement opposing the Dakota Access Pipeline. Prayer ushered us in to the sacred fire at Oceti Sakowin camp. A woman holding a silver pitcher stood at the front of a small group of people who were singing a song of praise for water. We lined up, as if for communion, cupping our left hands to receive the cool, clean water (because, as the prayer leader explained, the left hand is closest to the heart). “Drink it,” she urged each of us in turn. This moment of prayer reminded me: the ordinary act of drinking water is a sacred act, because #waterislife.
Grounded in prayer, we did what we were there to do. In the presence of the elders of the Standing Rock Nation, we repudiated the Doctrine of Discovery. The Doctrine of Discovery originated as a set of papal declarations in the 1400s. It was enshrined in US law in the 1800s.
This doctrine provided the justification for white Christians to take the lands and resources of native people, to kill those who resisted, to outlaw native culture and religion, to kidnap native children and force them into boarding schools that proclaimed the mission, “kill the Indian, save the man.” We turned over copies of the Doctrine of Discovery to tribal elders so that they could destroy them. As the papers went up in flames, we sang our agreement: Amen, amen, amen.
As we left the camp, we again paused for prayer, bathing body and spirit in the cleansing of burning sage. We walked along the road to the bridge where, recently, the response to water protectors peacefully standing their ground has grown more and more violent and militarized. The sun warmed the hills and the land and water prayed with us. After many songs and speeches and an hour-long ritual of sharing the peace with each other, we sat down on the hillside to eat bag lunches. That afternoon, Jen and I returned to camp to spend a couple of hours in “Grandma’s Kitchen” washing dishes. At one point, a young man came into the tent, grabbed a canning jar, and lit some sage on the metal lid. Once again, we were in prayer, stopping momentarily to cleanse and center ourselves.
I was at Standing Rock for one day. There’s so much I don’t know. But there is one thing I learned. The media and law enforcement characterize this movement opposing the pipeline as violent and dangerous. But nothing could be further from the truth. The essence of Standing Rock is prayer. Oceti Sakowin is a community that is continuously in prayer. Water protectors are a prayerful people, standing with intentionality on holy ground, wading, reverently, through the waters of life. As colonialism once again seeks to steal land, pollute water and destroy all that is sacred to a people, they resist with prayer, drawing upon the strength of their ancestors.
I’ve been reflecting on the fact, since then, that sustained resistance is not something that is programmed into those of us who are part of the dominant white culture, since the world has been arranged to our benefit. And yet, we too have ancestors in faith who can teach us to be resilient in our resistance. Joseph, the favored son, with the robe and the dreams to prove it, was thrown into a waterless pit and sold into slavery by his jealous brothers. In the home of the Egyptian official Potiphar, Joseph rose to a position of influence and responsibility. It’s a long story, but the plan of Potiphar’s wife to seduce Joseph went terribly wrong and ended in her falsely accusing him of sexual assault. For today, our story pauses with Joseph in prison. But, as we’ll hear next week, Joseph was a fighter. He became a trusted leader first in the prison and then in Pharaoh’s own court. Eventually, through his gift of interpreting dreams, he saved much of the world, including his own family, from starving to death in a time of famine.
God was with Joseph. Joseph remained close to God and God remained close to Joseph. Does that mean that God intervened on Joseph’s behalf, controlling events, both good and bad? Perhaps the author of Genesis saw it that way, but the notion that God is a cosmic string puller doesn’t make sense to me.
God was with Joseph. What that means to me is that Joseph was with God.
Joseph was grounded in prayer. He was connected to the energy, the power of God, which is the power of love. God’s power can look weak because love is a power of mutuality rather than coercion. But God is also the “soul force” that allows us to resist evil, to fight without violence, hatred or bitterness.
Like Joseph, John the Baptist went to jail for standing up to a person who misused his power. Unlike Joseph, John did not prevail, but was executed by Herod. Still, God was with John and John was with God. John received word from his disciples that something new was going on in the world, despite all appearances to the contrary. Jesus, John’s disciples confirmed, was the one they had been waiting for. He was the Messiah. He was the bearer of God’s new creation. John learned that though Jesus, who embodied God’s power of love, the blind, the lame, the deaf, the sick, and the poor were no longer marginal. They were empowered. They stood at the center of God’s concern. We know that Jesus also ministered to the privileged ones, who were spiritually blind, who were deaf to the cries of their neighbors, who were, in the words of the old hymn, “rich in things and poor in soul.” Jesus awakened them, opened them, blessed them with humility, compassion and courage.
After Tuesday, many of us are wearing safety pins as a sign of solidarity with all who are under threat in Trump’s vision of America. All his talk about building a wall, registering Muslims, deporting immigrants, assaulting women, repealing healthcare legislation, makes painfully obvious what has always been true. This election makes clear to us where we stand, and what we must resist. Not everyone is safe in our country. Not everyone is welcome to show up as their full selves. Not everyone has the resources they need to survive or thrive.
Omid Safi, director of Duke University’s Islamic Studies Center, writes this:
Let us stop saying “How could this happen in America?” “Who are these voters?” This, my friends, is America. This is the racism and bigotry that has been with us in America, wrapped right around all that is good and beautiful about this country. Yes, there is so much that is lovely about America, promise of equal rights, a dream… but there is also violence, racism, empire, and a nightmare. They go together. They always have. I pray they don’t always, but they have so far…. If we want to see an America that we are proud of, we have to build that America. ”
The irony is that the fear, and the struggle to find a place to belong, is so real to people on both sides of this election. I’ve read numerous articles now about the pain and anger of rural Americans, who, having endured generations of economic hardship, feel ignored and disenfranchised by urbanites and politicians. So… maybe we can wear safety pins as a sign of solidarity with the full humanity of everyone.
At Standing Rock, we met a woman named Kate Arrington Silvertooth. Kate shared with us the image of a water protector that is on the bulletin cover. She described the photograph with these words:
Peaceful warrior. See how his hand is resting on his horse, look at his face. The calmness in his eyes—a calmness that comes from enduring hundreds of years of genocide, persecution and oppression. The force within him was and is more powerful than the assault vehicles that were gathering on the hills around us at that moment. The strength of his ancestors is in reflected in his eyes, in the steadiness of his hand.
God is with us and we are with God. Let us ground ourselves in prayer, in the power of love, the greatest power there is. And let us fight like hell for all that is sacred.