Text: Ephesians 4:25-5:2
Something you may or may not know about me is that I get angry, a lot. I do my best to hide it, as a pastor. Nobody these days likes an angry pastor. But whenever I turn on the news, or browse facebook or twitter, it only takes me a few moments before I feel my blood pressure rise and anger start to swell within me. There is just so much injustice everywhere and I don’t know how to handle it all. But I know I can’t let myself go numb, so I get angry.
Now I’m not always good at knowing what to do with this anger. Somedays I’m likely to roll up my windows and yell at the top of my lungs like Jen in Dead to Me. Or perhaps I will open up my Spotify app and listen to Rage Against the Machine’s “Killing in the Name,” a few times on repeat, even though I know that these acts do nothing to change the world. Often I’ve learned that having my own personalized protest in the comfort of my car or home is enough for me to suppress my anger, to lower my blood pressure.
This year my anger seems to be worse than ever. If you attended assembly last week either in person or virtually then you heard that much of my time this year has been dealing with allegations of sexual misconduct. I know it’s not just our conference – as Mennonites this is a huge problem for us. Most of us know by now just how pervasive and widespread John Howard Yoder’s sexual abuse scandal was and the intense coverup that followed in order to protect Yoder’s reputation and silence Yoder’s victims. And every month or so, another similar story seems to emerge. I’m really angry these days at how patriarchy and toxic masculinity are wrecking so many men and women’s lives, not to mention our churches, organizations, our society.
But this, this isn’t even the thing that has made me most angry and sad lately. What I can’t stop thinking about are all the unmarked graves that have been found in Canada these past few months at the residential schools for indigenous children. Since late this spring, more than 1,000 unmarked children’s graves and remains have been identified at just four of these residential schools. These were children who were traumatically separated from their indigenous families at a very young age in order to erase their cultures, their languages, their identities. While at these residential schools, tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands kids were abused, neglected, and often killed. The children were often buried on school grounds so that the authorities could avoid the cost of shipping remains home to the families. More often than not, their families were never even notified.
We know that these remains are just the tip of the iceberg. There were over 300 of these schools in Canada. Here in the United States there were over 600 similar boarding schools including at least three here in Colorado. They found more than 1000 bodies at just 4 of these schools. Governor Polis has promised that two of these will soon be investigated for remains of indigenous children. As much as this part of our history angers me, I’m also thankful that the truth is finally coming to light.
But you know what angers me most about these schools – almost all of them were run by churches. For those less familiar with this awful portion of our country’s history, these boarding schools began to arise at the end of the reservation era, when indigenous communities were forced onto small, remote reservations. Once there, the government realized that it wasn’t enough to strip the indigenous peoples of their land, they also needed to erase their cultures as well. The government determined that the best way to do this was by starting with the children. The officer tasked with starting this program was a man named Richard Pratt. Here are his words: “A great general has said that the only good Indian is a dead one … in a sense, I agree with the sentiment, but only in this: that all the Indians there is in the race should be dead. Kill the Indian in him, and save the man.
This is exactly what they attempted to do. And the federal government tasked Christian denominations with operating the primary institutions on reservations, including missions, schools, even the Bureau of Indian Affair offices. And the whole point was to Christianize and assimilate Indigenous children, who were forcibly removed from their parents’ care and institutionalized in schools where disease, malnutrition, neglect, assault and abuse were rampant. The stories of what happened to these children are horrifying. Kids were taken from their parents as young as four or five. When they arrived at the schools, the teachers would cut the children’s hair, burn their clothing, and destroy any remnants of their home that they brought with them. In the days, months and years following, teachers indoctrinated the children with white culture and ideas of Chrsitian salvation. If children were caught speaking their language, practicing their indigenous identities, they were punished, often killed. All of this done in the name of our God.
We know that tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of children died in these schools. Those that did make it, were not able to see their families again until they were eighteen. By that point, when they returned home, they could no longer even communicate with their parents for all they knew was English. And the kids no longer had the skills to survive in the Native communities either. The shame so many felt losing their culture, their identities was just too much to bear.
I wish we could say as Mennonites, as a people devoted to peace, to justice, to restoration that this isn’t part of our history. But we know this isn’t true. Mennonites ran at least three residential schools in Canada and four here in the United States. Many Mennonites were teachers, leaders, supporters, even missionaries on upwards of a hundred more.
We also can’t even claim that these horrific events occurred a long time ago, because while the first started in the 1870s and 80s, the last of these schools didn’t even close until 1998. And that means a lot of indigenous people who are about the same age as me grew up in boarding schools. They grew up in schools that stripped them from their native lands, communities, extended families, cultures and spiritualities all in hopes of assimilating them into supporting the American dream. It also means that many have never had the chance of knowing their grandparents. I’ve also learned that many experience a deep shame which accompanies the fact they feel like a vital piece of themselves is missing.
These last few months, ever since the first tiny bodies were recovered, when I’m not yelling in my car or playing killing in the name of on repeat, I’ve been reading as much as I can about these schools and testimonies of people who survived. I’ve heard stories of people like Margarat, a Yakama woman who had to leave her homelands and family in Washington and attend a boarding school in Oklahoma because the further away from one’s parents the better. She went to protect her parents. To save the little land the family had left. Here is what she said: “I left when I was four. I still hate myself sometimes for going there. I didn’t see my mother for fourteen years. When I came back, I spoke only English. My mother could not understand me. I could not understand her.” Tragic.
These stories. All the kids who died. All the parents who never knew what happened to their children. This is what I think of when I hear Paul say: Be Angry But Do Not Sin. We need to be angry that these stories are directly tied to our Christian tradition, our heritages, our family stories. We need to be angry that this is how so many people still understand the words of Jesus and our tradition today.
What I appreciate here from Paul is the acknowledgment that anger can be good. It doesn’t have to be something which we avoid. It doesn’t have to be something that we push away. Instead we just need to be careful not to let our anger lead us to sin, lead us to supporting the logic of death. As I’ve listened to indigenous activists, storytellers and writers, one thing which has inspired me is how intricately they intertwine anger and hope. For it is anger that wakes people up from their daze and their desire to fit in, no matter the cost. It is anger that leads people to ask questions and dare to imagine a different future. It is anger that leads to movements of change, to the world turning. It is anger that gets us to look at our own legacy and begin to own and seek to repair that legacy.
When I think of Paul in light of all the oppressive acts that the church has done towards so many, not just indigenous peoples – the question I can’t help but wonder is this: “Can we go to church and be angry? Can we go to church and be furious? Can we go to church and ask questions? Can we go to church and fight against what we believe is wrong within it?
And the answer is … we must. The only way forward is getting angry at our past and then not being afraid to see our complicity in white supremacy throughout the centuries. American Christianity must see that it has been partnered with capitalistic empire for far too long. We have to be angry about this so that we continue to dare to be something different, so that we can be something transformational and life giving to those who have been abused and neglected and even destroyed by the church.
Kaitlin B Curtice, a Chrsitian poet, writer and activist who is a citizen of the Potawatomi Nations says this: “The real question we must confront: Who gains life when we deconstruct these systems of whiteness, white supremacy and toxic patriarchy? Everyone. Who loses out when we refuse to take a deep look at our own toxic systems? Everyone.” Let’s not be afraid to be angry. But let us make sure that we use our anger to bring life, love and hope to those who have been stripped of it, most often because of our Christian faith. Let us use our anger to combat the systems that have brought so much death into this world – the systems of sin. “Be Angry, but do not sin.”
So how, how might we use our anger to bring about transformation and life? This is always the hardest question, is it not? For those of you part of the racial justice group, you know how hard it is to commit to concrete steps of reparations, especially ones which do not continue the damage and destruction of the past.
As I’ve been thinking about this the past few weeks, as I’ve begun my wrestling with the traumatic history of residential and boarding schools, one thing which keeps coming to me is culture. The entire point of these schools was to erase the indigenous cultures from the youth because this is what Christians believed was necessary if they were going to save indigenous lives. The goal was to completely wipe out indigenous practices, languages, foods, rituals, spirituality from indigenous’ imaginations. And it has almost worked. For example, the Potawatomi only have ten fluent language teachers left. And language and culture are vital if indigenous peoples are going to be able to reconnect with their stories, their practices, their distinctive ways of perceiving the world.
As Mennonites, we know this, about as well as anyone. What I love about the Mennonite faith is that it is not just a theology, it is a culture. And if you ask any outsiders, they will tell you it’s a language as well. And that is because Mennonites have always understood that our distinct practices and beliefs are only possible because of our cultures, our traditions, our history, our foods, our stories. The beliefs are great, but you can’t have these ideas without communities with their own cultures, practices and stories. We know how important our culture is if we are going to continue being a people of peace, justice, simplicity and service. That is why we keep making Zweibek and shoofly pies, it is why we keep quilting and singing our heart songs. Our faith begins and ends with bodies, with the cultures and traditions which continue to inspire us to live out our faith, often in new ways.
This means one way we can seek to repair and reconcile the horrible history of these schools is by celebrating the unique cultures of our native communities. Maybe it means giving money to help language revitalization projects which so many indigenous communities are prioritizing all over this country. Maybe it means taking time to listen and learn a particular native spirituality. Last week at our annual assembly, we were blessed to have RYNO Herrera lead us in a blessing of the four directions which is central to his indigenous spirituality. Being in that circle was not only a small step of repentance for our involvement in trying to strip similar practices from the world, it was a reminder that God is everywhere, in everything, including the land and nature around us.
There are other options. Maybe it means going out to eat at Tocabes or supporting them as they are just starting to launch an online marketplace for native and indigenous foods. Because food always has a story to tell. And learning how to appreciate one’s foods is one of the best ways of learning how to love people, is it not? Perhaps you have some other ideas. But let’s find ways to begin celebrating indigenous cultures because that is what will enable us to thrive together.
Be Angry But Do Not Sin. Be Angry. Be angry because there are so many injustices everywhere around us. Many of which the church has helped perpetuate. But always let that anger be transformative. Use it to bring life, to bring hope, to bring repentance and restoration into our world. Use it to combat the systems which continue to bring death and destruction to the lives of so many. Amen.