Native Americans, The Mainline Church and the Quest for Interracial Justice (David Phillips Hansen) - Review

NATIVE AMERICANS, THE MAINLINE CHURCH, AND THE QUEST FOR INTERRACIAL JUSTICE. By David Phillips Hansen. St. Louis:  Chalice Press, 2016. 150 pages.

                Many years ago, I authored an article on a figure of note in my hometown. His name was O.C. Applegate. He was one of the first white children born in the Oregon Territory, and his father who helped led pioneers into the Oregon Territory, would be one of the first agents for the Klamath Indian Reservation. O.C. would later serve in a similar capacity, and he saw himself as friend and protector of the people of the reservation, but he did so in a paternalistic manner.” Thus, the title of the article was “Oliver Cromwell Applegate – Paternalistic Friend of the Indians” (Journal of theShaw Historical Library). I thought about Applegate and my article as I opened this book by David Phillips Hansen. I thought about how the images I grew up with, and how they formed me and my view of the world.  

 Like me, Hansen is white. It’s from this perspective that he writes about the Native American situation—historically and in their contemporary situation—inviting his co-religionists to consider how the Mainline Protestant churches contributed to the cultural and material genocide of the Native American peoples.  The author of this book is an ordained minister with standing in both the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and the United Church of Christ. He holds a Ph.D. from the Graduate Theological Union (Berkeley) with a focus on the role of religion in student movements, ethics, and economic policy. The latter two areas of interest are drawn upon throughout the book.

The context of this conversation is the American celebration of the “discovery” of the "New World." The unspoken assumption in this conversation is that the Americas were lost/unsettled before European explorers, led by Columbus, discovered these lands and then subdued them. While there are attempts begin made to change that assumption with discussions about the dangerous implications for the "Doctrine of Discovery," most Americans are still unaware of the challenges faced by Native Americans, whose lands and cultures were taken from them, often with the complicity of the Christian Church. Hansen has taken it upon himself to address this situation.

Hansen focuses his attention on Mainline Protestants, his own faith community, seeking to open the eyes of this traditionally more liberal faith expression to the "rapacious nature of white America's treatment of the nation's Native American population," which "cannot be explained adequately without reference to Christianity" (p. 2). He doesn't refer, for the most part, to individual denominations, unless necessary. The point is not to implicate specific communities, but to invite the entirety of this faith expression, which is largely white, to its complicity in the plight of the Native American peoples. The purpose of this exposition is not to blame earlier Christians for their activities, but to free contemporary Mainline Christians from their myopia, and thereby prepare ourselves for the work before us" (p. 3). His goal is to move beyond apologies, which he believes are necessary and past due, to and embrace of forms of mission that are just, peaceful, and recognize the rights of Native Americans and others.

The book begins in Part One with an introductory chapter laying out the basic issues that will be explored in the following chapters. This conversation continues in chapter two, titled "Mapping the Terrain." It is here that he defines terms, including “anti-Native,” genocide, and “deep solidarity.” The call to “deep solidarity” is the central pillar of the book, for Hansen hopes the reader will not only gain a better understanding of the issues, but will make common cause with Native American peoples
With this foundation, Hansen takes the reader through a four-step process that leads from recognition (the historical part) to reparation (the justice part). Between Recognition and Reparation there are sections dealing with responsibility and reconstruction. This will not be an easy read, because it raises difficult questions for white American Christians, especially those who see themselves as liberal/progressive. How much responsibility do we really want to take?  I expect most of us who are white mainline Christians would rather not deal with this part of our history, for it’s not pretty. Nonetheless this is something that can’t be ignored, especially since most Native peoples have suffered tremendously over the years since their lands were “discovered” by European powers. There are historical issues, but also difficult theological questions as well, which are worth exploring. This would include the possibility that Christian missions, even if undertaken with good intentions, led to cultural genocide. Did we seek to kill the Indian (spiritually) so their soul might be saved?  This conversation will not be easy because Christianity is a conversion-oriented religion, but to what degree did salvation get wrapped up in civilizing, and how much was lost of the soul of the Native American peoples? He raises the question of how Christians might share the gospel in cultural contexts that are initially different without stepping over the line? I'm not sure Hansen has all the answers, but the questions do get raised. 

Many readers will have lived with some contact with Native American peoples, but probably at a distance. The Klamath Reservation, which O.C. Applegate had once served as agent, closed not long before my family moved to Southern Oregon, but we were aware of its presence. I learned the story early on of the Modoc Indian War, in which Applegate was a participant, that resulted in part from a desire on the part of a people to forge their own cultural identity. It ended tragically, but the story lives on in the memory of the peoples of the region. Later, while in High School, the remaining members of the Klamath tribe who had not signed off on the ending of the reservation, received a final settlement on the land. The tribe has since tried to regather, but I’m not sure how successfully. As I read this book, I thought of these peoples—in the past and the present.  I had to wonder how the church was involved in stripping this people of their sense of purpose and community.

As I read the book, I had some understanding of the issues, which I’ve struggled with over time. Still, I wasn't sure how to respond to the book, especially some of the economic analysis. I understand the idea of reparations, but how would we estimate the value of lands ceased generations earlier? How do we make things right while being fair to every one? Hansen has his thoughts, and they are worth exploring, even if we might not be completely on board.

Ultimately, books like this help us look at ourselves and our country more thoughtfully.  It serves as a call to the pursuit of interracial justice, bringing to mind a people too often forgotten about in our justice conversations. Recognizing things like the devastating consequences of the Doctrine of Discovery hopefully will lead to a more just nation. We needn’t condemn Christianity or European peoples to recognize that this was an inhabited land and the peoples who inhabited this land need their due. Yes, this exercise in self-examination won’t exactly be enjoyable. 


Lara said…
Thank you for your thoughts - many of my "how did we get here" questions keep coming back to church-state drive for power wealth. What do we as Christians need to do to acknowledge and repair the damage done and still happening by the Christian church aligning/being co-opted by state power?

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