I probably first heard Richard Twiss many years ago when the stadium-sized Promise Keepers events were making a show of featuring Native American speakers as a display of unity and contrition. But I didn’t have any close contact with Richard until he was an honored guest (along with Musa Dube and Colin Greene) at the Emergent Village Theological Conversation on Post-Colonial Theology in Atlanta in 2010. There, I was struck by his fearless, friendly, steady gaze that was paired with pointed words. I remember being taken aback at how forcefully Richard spoke to us: he didn’t pull any punches, even at times approaching unkindness as he spoke plainly about the mistreatment of First-Nations peoples at the hands of European colonizers– people who enacted Manifest Destiny by genocide, cultural annihilation, displacement, and psychological campaigns of hatred.
During that time in Atlanta, I was a bit put off by Richard’s apparent lack of hospitality. After all, hadn’t those who gathered there in fact recognized our complicity, seen our own theological blind spots, and demonstrated our commitment to change by traveling to Atlanta to sit under his teaching for several days? Weren’t we there, having a conversation with him, humbling ourselves and repenting of the sins of our ancestors? Weren’t we asking him how we should move forward? Why was he being so harsh? Even at the hospitality suite where the speakers and organizers gathered after-hours for drinks and conversation, Richard was holding forth, relaxed and jovial and yet clearly on a mission to press us even further. It was uncomfortable, and he seemed very comfortable in the midst of that discomfort.
But as I listened and watched over the next few days, I saw several things:
1. Richard was a prophet, and prophets don’t have a dimmer switch. If you’re in the room with them, you get the full effect, even when they are officially ‘off duty’ or even just goofing around. Richard both delivered and embodied a prophetic message, and that was inherently uncomfortable.
2. The biases and sins of my forefathers are dug in really, really deep. Over those few days, I came to see that Richard wasn’t just preaching to me, but to my ancestors and their (and therefore my) deeply ingrained assumptions of racism, genocide, rights, and privilege. Richard was preaching to my high-school history teachers, to my sociology instructors, and to my theology professors. He was preaching to the younger version of me who visited Mount Rushmore and thought not a whit about whose land that was, and what it meant to have four white faces carved into that rock.
3. For Richard (and within his native traditions), the past, present, and future weren’t distinct categories. The past was still imposing itself on his present as well-meaning churches and missionaries encamped on his people with colonialist agendas and assumptions. The past was still living in the future as the federal government makes plans to re-occupy Indian lands and remove their valuable resources. And the present was amplifying the atrocities of the past by pretending that they didn’t happen in the first place. So Richard knew that his words to us gathered in Atlanta would need to echo on down to our friends and children and grandchildren. He wasn’t just prophesying to me, but to all of the folks I would talk to about the subject. He was lighting a fire that would illuminate the darkness all around me.
That fire is what still burns in people all over North America and the world– people who Richard touched and taught and inspired. People to whom Richard prophesied with that friendly smile and sharp eye. May our children and children’s children benefit from his loving ministry, and may they not need a Richard Twiss to see past their own darkness.