Tears stung her eyes, blurring her vision, and making her stumble. Each step was more difficult than the last. The thorny brush clung to her clothes, the dusty earth echoed the dryness in her throat. How long had it been, a few hours, a few days? She couldn’t tell anymore. Her only thought was, “Water. Must. Find. Water.” And with that, she fell.
A few days before, Josseline and her brother left with a group of thirty other travelers from El Salvador. The journey across the border had been relatively easy—no sign of Border Patrol. But not long after that, Josseline sprained her ankle and couldn’t go any further. She insisted her younger brother continue on with the others, there was no use in both of them being stranded in the desert like this. Besides, help would arrive soon enough and all would be well. After all, this was America, the Promised Land.
“I found something! Over here!” a man yelled, stooping down in the dust. The other volunteers sprinted over to where he crouched, and gasped. They were too late, two weeks too late in fact and fifteen year old Josseline’s dead body lay where she had fallen. She had made it to the Promised Land at last.
This is a true story. I sat at the very place where Josseline’s body was found in the Sonoran Desert; I wept over her picture and prayed at her shrine. “Her death was no accident,” my friend solemnly told me, “it was the manifestation of a policy.” Yes my nation was behind this preventable death and it was more than I could bear.
But the question that now burns in my mind is was my God behind her death? I know the answer is no but I can’t help but wonder if there are Christians who believe that God was. It scares me to think that there are people who believe God chooses sides, that God liberates a chosen few and conquers the rest.
We just heard the story of the Exodus, of God’s deliverance of the Israelites, in our Scripture reading. The Exodus story I’ve been taught was one focused on liberation and freedom, of hope and deliverance. For Andrea Smith, a Native American activist and scholar who wrote the essay off of which this sermon is based, the Exodus story is one of violence and oppression, of despair and enslavement.
To stress this point, Smith refers to an essay by Robert Warrior called Canaanites, Cowboys, and Indians. Warrior argues that the Exodus story of deliverance is actually a “narrative of conquest,” one in which the Israelites’ taking of the Promised Land meant the genocide of the Native peoples already living there. Warrior goes on to say that this narrative was essential for the European conquest of the Americas. It provides a motif in which the oppressed go after their freedom at all costs, even at the expense of other people’s freedom.
As Smith writes, “All Christian theology, even liberation theology,” that is theology emphasizing the social and political freedom of the oppressed and exploited, “remains complicit in the missionization and genocide of Native peoples in the Americas.”
In fact it seems that the Exodus motif, the promise of freedom and blessing for us at the expense of others, is still at work in the United States in a multitude of ways. It is at work in our country’s support of the oppression of the Palestinian people. It is at work in our militarized border. It is at work in our country’s hatred and suspicion of immigrants. It is at work because it is at the very core of our nation’s principles, the essence of our foundation.
What if we saw the recently-celebrated Fourth of July as a grim reminder of the racism and genocide this nation was founded on and continues to engage in? Suddenly the fanfare and fireworks seem a bit out of place.
Smith contends that “The challenge brought forth by Native scholars/activists to other liberation theologians would be, even if we distinguish the ‘liberation’ church from the mainstream churches, can any church escape complicity in Christian imperialism?” The Christian church in the United States is so intertwined with capitalism that it is hard to tell where the church ends and the state begins.
In fact, as long as our country professes to be a Christian nation, Christianity as it exists in the Western world will always be seen as complicit in imperialism and conquest. And for those of us who would choose silence in the face of this knowledge, it will not make us neutral; it will make us complicit as well.
Smith brings out what I believe to be one of the most critical points in regard to our complicity in imperialism:
“Social justice activists as well as U.S.-based liberation theologians often criticize U.S. policies, but they do not critically interrogate the contradictions between the United States articulating itself as a democratic country, on one hand, while simultaneously founding itself on the past and current genocide of Native peoples, on the other hand. That is, even progressives tend to articulate racism as a policy to be addressed within the constraints of the U.S. nation-state rather than understanding racism and genocide as constitutive of the United States. However, since the United States could not exist without the genocide of Native peoples, Native feminist interventions call us to question why we should presume the givenness of the United States in our long-range vision of social justice.”
So how do we challenge this so-called “givenness?” First of all we have to recognize the danger in claiming our nation as God-given. If this was the case, then the past and current genocide of the Native peoples would be God-directed.
Secondly, we have to recognize that this givenness is based on a white, heteropatriarchal view of the world, one that follows the so-called “natural” order of things: due to natural biology, men are to dominate women and the social elites are to dominate the people below them. The nation-state is contingent on people accepting this hierarchy and, if it is not accepted, it is enforced through control and domination.
Some Christians argue that the way to address the domination of the nation-state is to make the state inherently Christian. Smith summarizes the words of author and Professor of Religion, Anne Burlein, to describe this view, “Christian Right politics work through the private family (which is coded as white, patriarchal, and middle class) to create a ‘Christian America.’” These Christian politics are then lived out through the nuclear family and, in this way, Christianity and the United States mirror each other’s structures and work to reinforce each other without question.
Therefore our first step in envisioning communities free from social hierarchy is to recognize the power socially that constructed categories such as race and gender have in our lives. As Kimberle Crenshaw, a leader in the Critical Race Theory movement says: “As long as the categories of race, gender, and sexuality continue to shape institutional structures and our sense of selfhood, oppositional politics on the basis of these identities is critical.”
We understand so much of the world through these identities, whether they have been placed on us or whether we choose them for ourselves. Thus it becomes important to try to work within our identities and not in spite of them. For example, I identify as a woman, an identity that some perceive as weak or emotional. Instead of overcompensating for these stereotypes, I can use my unique power and perspective as a woman to effect change and empower other women to do the same. By ignoring the constructs of race, gender, and class in our society we not only delegitimize the experience of those who are persecuted because of these identities but we fail to see how these constructs are at work in our own lives.
Smith touches on what she calls secondary marginalization “where the most elite class…will further their aspiration on the backs of the most marginalized within the community.” We have seen this again and again in our nation’s history with the Native peoples, African Americans, Japanese, Chinese, Latinos—essentially any group that is not rich or white. However, Smith also points out that “there are other models of nationhood we can envision, nations that are not based on exclusion or secondary marginalization.”
Of course this will be difficult because it seems that racism and class domination are woven into the fabric of our society. Yet societies have existed where this is not the case. Smith says that “Native communities prior to colonization were not structured on the basis of hierarchy, oppression, or patriarchy.” And while she recognizes that we cannot simply recreate these communities, she also recognizes that “our understanding that it was possible to order society without structures of oppression in the past tells us that our current political and economic system is anything but natural and inevitable. If we lived differently before, we can live differently in the future.”
I have seen glimpses of a different world through believers from all traditions. Even in the times where I felt that the larger Christian message in our society did not represent my Christian faith, I knew that a strong counterculture was bubbling beneath the surface and it was one I could believe in. One such counterculture is exhibited by the Mennonite church.
Through pacifism and conscientious objection I have seen a bold and strong stance against militarization and war. Through the calling to live simply I have seen a reconnection with the earth and a recognition that relationships, not the accumulation of things, bring fulfillment. Through love and solidarity with the marginalized and oppressed I have seen social justice breathe new life into communities. Yes, through the teachings of Jesus lived out in the daily lives of fellow believers, I have witnessed what Christianity could and should be.
I believe that we, as part of a larger body of not only Christian believers but believers of all faiths, hold the key to a new way of living. Yes the church is not perfect, as we are all well aware, but it has the potential to create a counter community that is not based on heteropatriarchal structures. In fact, that is the church’s calling.
As for the God that conquers, although I still have difficulty reconciling with this God, I know that Jesus taught a new law of love and liberation that does not come at the expense of others. I know that dear Josseline’s death was not a plan of God the conqueror. And I know that she was not alone in those last few moments—Jesus, the Divine Liberator, was holding her hand.