As I write this, my daughter is on her very first school field trip. I just dropped her electrified body off at preschool while she endearingly rattled on and on about the bus ride, and the Nature Center that they will visit, and her repeated assurance that she will keep her knee socks pulled up, since that is what will keep her legs warm while she’s wearing her new long skirt. To say that she is excited would be a massive understatement.
Debriefing from school yesterday, she revealed the purpose of the trip (beyond the obviously enthralling ride on the bus): “We’re going to listen to a lady talk about the Indians who used to live at the Nature Center,” she said. “Indians lived in this land a long time ago, but I don’t know where they went…”
Which statement caused me to immediately flash back to my experiences last week at the Emergent Village Theological Conversation in Atlanta. An event that– quite frankly, and I’m not proud to say– I was not thrilled about attending, but did so primarily because of the opportunity to connect with so many faraway friends and partners in my exploration of the Christian faith. So I uncharacteristically didn’t complete the reading assignments, and in fact didn’t bring a whole lot of energy or optimism to the conversation.
This state of un-readiness and disaffection only served to highlight the transformative effect of those three days, however. Truly, I doubt I’ll ever look at the world in quite the same way again. And I’ll certainly never read the Bible as I did before.
The theological conversation was a lot of things, but I think it was an experience best described as what it was not. Because so many issues were addressed that raise so many hackles, it was challenging to slow down and not jump to conclusions. And as I return to my regular life and attempt to describe the conversation to others, I’m even more aware of all of the potential pitfalls and polarities that lie right under the surface. So, my hope that there is hope in a via negativa. So what wasn’t the Emergent Theological Conversation on post-colonial theology?
It wasn’t about guilt. Yes, there was plenty of room for feeling guilty. For even a brief and barely objective survey of the recent history of North America will reveal unspeakable atrocities like genocide, germ warfare, deceit, theft, internment, slavery, subjugation, and cultural annihilation. But even as the wave of recognition that these many injustices were not just a part of someone else’s faraway experience, but happened here in what we pejoratively call ‘the land of the free’, we were not encouraged to feel guilty.
It wasn’t about reparations. Though the aforementioned imperial behaviors provided financial and resource benefits to the Europeans who perpetrated them, and to the many other people who have immigrated ever since, there was no talk of compensation for these crimes.
It wasn’t about confession. Though the indigenous peoples of America have long been considered a ‘mission field’ by a self-perceived ‘Christian nation’, and though that ostensible ‘mission’ has not in 400 years brought to such fruition that a native person has been granted a position of religious authority, there was never any suggestion that we do some personal or communal confession of sins in this regard. Nor was there any apparent desire for an apology– indeed, it was obvious that apologies are too often token, insincere, shallow, and undertaken only to assuage some sense of guilt.
It wasn’t about pragmatism. Among the largely Euro-American audience, there was an unspoken and yet massive impulse toward some kind of solution. “So what should we do, then?” was the question on the tip of everyone’s tongue, but which no one asked because I think we all sensed that to do so would be premature and unproductive. So we quietly hoped that the leaders of this theological conversation would give us some practical steps forward before we concluded our time together. But as the end of the conversation came, it became obvious that there are no easy answers, no solutions, no repairs that are simple (and probably none that are complex).
And yet in spite of all of the weight of what’s above, It wasn’t about despair. The theologians who were our honored guests had every right to be angry and embittered (and I think the rest of us would have enjoyed the catharsis of a pointed reproach), but they were instead gracious and kind and patient. So that our time together was even– and quite unexpectedly– hopeful. We departed as friends and co-laborers.
All of this was on my mind when I stopped to consider what to say to my daughter about her new knowledge that there were people here before people like us came from Europe. She doesn’t need the whole gory story, of course, and I certainly didn’t share that with her. But I did take the time to let her know that Indians didn’t just live at the Nature Center– they lived on the land where our house sits, and they played at the top of the hill where the park is, and they enjoyed the stream that we walk by on most days. I told her that they didn’t leave, exactly, but that there are native peoples who still live here.
I said these things because I think I now understand why post-colonial theologians do their work and expend themselves and subject themselves to misunderstanding and malignment. I said them because, once I suppress my can-do, fix-it Euro-American impulses, I can finally see a clear goal.
We talk about these difficult and thorny topics not for the sake of blame or guilt or compensation or despair, but to come to this simple recognition: It Happened.
It Happened. And we cannot undo that fact or reduce it’s impact or import. But maybe we’ll find a bit of peace when we tell the truth, and sit with it. Maybe we’ll finally learn from the people who we’ve oppressed when we soberly recognize what’s been done to them. Maybe we can build some friendships when we realize how broken we’ve all been by our history.