by John Ellis
Yesterday morning before Sunday school class began, the young man teaching asked about my t-shirt. “What kind of flag is that on your shirt?”
“It’s the A.I.M. logo,” I replied through my mask.
His expression revealed that “A.I.M.” wasn’t translating through the double-ply cotton. “The logo for the American Indian Movement,” I added.
“Oh,” he responded, genuinely curious, “Is that some mission work that you’re involved with?”
After class, afraid that my brief response had been interpretated as combative brusqueness, I approached the teacher. Explaining that the easiest way to describe A.I.M. is as a Black Lives Matter for American Indians, I added that while I’m happy and desirous to discuss the shirt one-on-one, I didn’t think it was a good idea to have that conversation out loud in front of a filling classroom, especially considering our current political climate and the primary demographic that makes up our church’s membership.
That turned into a brief conversation about the history of A.I.M. and the important question of how God’s people are to live faithfully in light of some of those things. As the brief discussion wrapped up, owing to the reality that the worship service was quickly approaching, both he and another young man who had joined the conversation urged me, almost simultaneously, to create a blog about it. I’m not sure if they meant an entire blog dedicated to the topic or a blog post. Regardless, I doubt that a single blog post is sufficient considering the complexity of the topic combined with the entrenched beliefs and values present in the target audience of white evangelicals.
I mean, where would I even begin?
Do white evangelicals have ears to hear that their modernist (post-Enlightenment) ontologies and epistemologies are contra biblical? Is it possible to unpack, in ways that don’t immediately alienate (and anger) those steeped in the religion of God and country, how their definition of liberty/freedom comes from John Locke and doesn’t have a parallel concept in the Bible? How about the hard truth that late capitalism and Marxism are two sides of the same Hegelian coin and that that coin is devoted to a single idol? And systemic injustices? That’s the third rail of third rails amongst white evangelicals. How to even begin discussing much of this in ways that are accessible and convincing? It’s a veritable game of electricity-charged ideological pick-up-sticks. But the daunting, if not seemingly impossible, task is a necessary one. The sad truth is that many white evangelicals in America believe lies about what it means to be God’s people in the already-not-yet. And they believe those lies for a variety of reasons. Some reasons are self-serving and idolatrous. Other reasons are the result of generations of poor, misguided, and, often, downright inaccurate teachings about history, philosophy, and theology.
I have charged head-on into this challenge, though. Not knowing where to begin is a result of my experience, not my lack of experience. Because of this, I wanted to tell my conversation partners yesterday morning that I have been writing about this very thing. There are many articles on this blog that deal with this, including the temporarily paused series titled White Evangelicalism: Witnesses to the Wrong Resurrection. My four-part Eschatological Despair series also deals with this, although with a much greater metaphysically opaque tact than is helpful when desiring to challenge and affect a large audience. Look up my article on Critical Race Theory. Or the one on postcolonialism. I could keep going. My point is that this is a topic that occupies much of my reading, thinking, and writing already, to mostly no avail, though, I’m afraid. But I try again. Am going to try again. Windmills are my mortal enemies, I’m afraid.
So, with the splinters from my lance taped back on, here I go, again.
My entire life it’s been drilled into me that the United States of America enjoys God’s blessings. Our McMansions, savings accounts, cars replete with bells and whistles, and our beloved freedoms, among other things, are all evidence that God’s smiles extra wide on us while patting us lovingly on the head. To be sure, most white evangelicals are not that unsophisticatedly maladroit in their packaging and delivery of this belief. Humility is a desired character trait, after all. Somber nods to our privilege and incumbent responsibilities are included (although, considering the current debate’s lexicon, the word “privilege” is probably anathema for the majority within the set called white evangelicals). I also believe that the celebrations of our “blessings” contain a tinge or so of humility and thanksgiving because the law of God that is written on our heart combined with our sanctification causes our American excesses to live somewhat uncomfortably within our professed Christian beliefs and ethics. Shame lives uncomfortably and, at times, unaware, in our hearts. “Kids are starving around the globe,” we chide our children in attempts to shame them into eating their veggies. But who are we really chiding? Because here’s the thing: Empire building is a nasty business. Resources for me but not for thee is the de rigueur of nationalist empire building and maintenance.
Once empires have been “civilized” and stabilized, though, we don’t like to talk about it. The necessary maintenance is shrouded in statecraft, political theories, and a revolving door of enemies and allies, as those bearing the costs remain mostly unseen from within our communities. Sponsor a starving kid from the safety of your leather couch; no reason to get your hands dirty or buy a lesser couch. Minus our few, privileged, conscious salving philanthropic efforts, it’s easy to brush our peoples’ nastiness under the rug and out of sight so that we can better enjoy the fruits of empire living. But let’s look at those people – our people.
Don’t forget, our empire, the United States of America, began as a frontier and it takes a certain type of individual to tackle the frontier (to be clear, that’s from a pejorative Western lens, image bearers already lived here and had carved out their own civilizations). In the landmark book The Churching of America 1776-1990: Winners and Losers in Our Religious Economy, Roger Finke and Rodney Stark observe, “Quite aside from whether those attracted to frontiers tend to be deficient in moral character, wherever large number of people lack social ties, or what are often called interpersonal attachments, the result is social disorganization.” Make no mistake, Finke and Stark go to great lengths to present data demonstrating the great deficiencies in the moral character of many of those who believed opportunity awaited them in the “new” world. Finke and Stark had a larger point, though.
That point is illustrated in William Bradford’s The History of the Plymouth Colony. In a demonstration of honesty, Bradford admits that the Pilgrim’s pastor John Robinson warned them about venturing to the “new” world without their pastor (himself) present. Later, after Robinson learned of the Pilgrims slaughtering of some of the natives, he wrote his absent flock a letter in which he sternly scolded, “I am afraid lest, by this example, others should be drawn to adopt a kind of ruffling course in the world.”
Unmoored from important social ties, enamored by visions of gain, be that financial or liberties/freedoms, fallen humans tend to devolve into “social disorganization,” to use Finke and Stark’s description. “Ruffling course” was John Robinson’s. Add to that the overwhelming motives of lust for power and greed for wealth that drives empire builders, is it any wonder that chattel slavery fueled the economic growth and eventual prosperity of the colonies. Not to mention the outright theft of Indian lands and property. And this is where I want to stick for the remainder of this article.
Do you know what happened in 1868, specifically regarding the Sioux Nation? The Treaty of Fort Laramie happened, that’s what. Leaving aside the strong-arm tactics of the U.S. government prior to the forced signing of the treaty, the Black Hills of South Dakota were promised to the Sioux Nation (the Lakota Indians) in perpetuity. Except, as it turned out, for the U.S. government “perpetuity” meant/means until gold (or other valuable resources) are discovered. And, tragically for the Sioux Nation, there was gold in them there hills. So, we took it back. As evidenced by the existence of a mountain with the faces of four presidents carved on it smack dab in land that was promised to the Sioux Nation. Let your yes be yes and your no be no is only good to a point, right? Now, ask yourself: Did that stolen gold help or hurt this country’s economic rise? The answer is obvious. Fort Knox didn’t fill itself.
Moving through history, and passing many other shameful instances when America defrauded or flat-out stole from Indian tribes, we arrive in the late 1950s. With the nuclear arms race and the space race between the U.S. and the Soviet Union heating up, the discovery of uranium and other necessary minerals were discovered on Indian reservations. Staying true to their past actions, the U.S. government decided that treaties didn’t mean diddly squat. To be sure, Congress attempted to throw a meatless ethical bone in 1956 with the Indian Relocation Act.
With the purported goal of encouraging reservation Indians to assimilate into the American culture by moving off reservations and into urban areas, the act included funding for relocation expenses and vocational training. But you can probably guess what actually happened. Not only did the promised funding not reach many of the over 30,000 Indians who relocated, but facing extreme racial prejudice, disconnectedness from their communities, lack of high paying jobs available to them, and high cost of urban living, the majority of Indians who relocated trusting in the U.S government’s good faith motives spiraled into cycles of poverty, poor education opportunities, and non-existent ladders up the economic hierarchy. Having had their land stolen from them, been given land that was believed to be worthless by the U.S. government, only to discover valuable resources, and then bribed to leave, American Indians again found themselves victims of this country’s deceit and greed.
But that wasn’t the only bullet in the U.S. government’s arsenal for getting what they wanted. Through fraudulent contracts (think of how the Trail of Tears came about) and hastily rewritten regulations, Indians found their lands suddenly dominated by mining companies. Don’t kid yourself, though, the Indians who found their land no longer arable, thanks to the poisoning of the ground water by the mines, were not given the opportunity to stick their hands into the cookie jar and pull something out for themselves.
This is why A.I.M. was formed in 1968. Initially focused on combatting the systemic issues of poverty affecting Indians displaced in urban areas, the organization quickly became involved in treaty rights. As fascinating (and heartbreaking) as the history of A.I.M. is, I want to make a larger point with this article: Like the gold stolen from Indians that helped fill Fort Knox, the uranium and other minerals stolen from Indian lands have played an outsized role in the power and wealth of this country. My prosperity and your prosperity owes much to the U.S. government’s deceit, theft, and disregard for the humanity and value of American Indians. This country’s economic prowess stands on the breaking backs of generations of the oppressed.
Admittedly, this is a sweeping overview of a large subject that is emotionally charged and that contains swirling, entangled tenacles of complex debates. I get that. My purpose isn’t to change anyone’s mind; I haven’t offered a complete and air-tight argument. What I want to offer is a starting point to help people begin to challenge the prevailing narrative that the United States of America enjoys God’s blessings so that they can ask a question. My expectation isn’t even to answer the question but to simply begin to ponder it. That question is wrapped in another narrative – a competing narrative.
When the Psalmists cry out to God, pleading to know how long the wicked are going to prosper, that’s us. We’re the wicked. Not necessarily individually, but corporately. It can be argued that our ease, comfort, luxuries, way of life, and even freedoms have been accumulated via the unrighteous oppression of others and the unlawful taking of resources, including land, that was not ours to take. Think of it this way, and like all metaphors this has holes and problems, but claiming that we are enjoying God’s blessings is akin to a Mafia boss praising God for all the bountiful “blessings” his family enjoys. The presence of safety, comfort, food, etc. does not necessarily denote blessings. That’s the question I want people to begin to ask: are we the wicked who are prospering while the righteous faithfully suffer in the realization that their hope is not in the here and now?
Soli Deo Gloria
 Many socially conscious E.V. owners may be surprised to discover how much their $60,000 car costs people living in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Cobalt is a necessary chemical element in E.V.’s batteries, and many of the cobalt mines in the Congo use child slave labor. And this doesn’t even touch on the localized environmental impact the mining has, a well as the discarding of the used batteries in parts of the world privileged Westerners only ever get a glimpse of if our national interests aligns in a way that earns those parts of the world on our national news networks.
 Roger Finke and Rodney Stark, The Churching of America 1776-1990: Winners and Losers in Our Religious Economy (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1994), 31.
 William Bradford, History of Plymouth (Roslyn, NY: Classics Club, 1948), 180.
 Many don’t know this, but SCOTUS ruled in 1980 in United States v. Sioux Nation of Indians that the U.S. stole the land. The ruling declared that the tribe was owed compensation to the tune of $1 billion. The Indians have refused to accept the money under the claim that they never intended to sell the land and want it back. They have a point. A solid one.
 And I’m not even getting into the plagues of health problems, including cancers, suffered by reservation Indians because of the utter carelessness of the U.S. government and the mining companies awarded the contracts.