Ignorance Kills – 04/18/2021

Acts 3: 12-19

When Peter saw it, he addressed the people, “You Israelites, why do you wonder at this, or why do you stare at us, as though by our own power or piety we had made him walk? The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, the God of our ancestors has glorified his servant Jesus, whom you handed over and rejected in the presence of Pilate, though he had decided to release him. But you rejected the Holy and Righteous One and asked to have a murderer given to you, and you killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead. To this we are witnesses. And by faith in his name, his name itself has made this man strong, whom you see and know; and the faith that is through Jesus has given him this perfect health in the presence of all of you.

“And now, friends, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did also your rulers. In this way God fulfilled what he had foretold through all the prophets, that his Messiah would suffer. Repent therefore, and turn to God so that your sins may be wiped out,

Sermon Text

            Our scripture today asks us to grapple with our sins that we have committed, “ignorantly,” or perhaps, “unawares.” It was, for the Jerusalem priesthood and their supporters, an act of ignorance that led to them killing Jesus. If, Peter argues, they had been aware that Christ was God, they would have never done what they did. The tragedy, of course, was that Jesus has been clear from the very beginning that he was the Messiah. However, there are two kinds of ignorance in the world, intentional and incidental. Incidental acts of ignorance are moments when we truly act without knowledge of a situation. However, intentional acts of ignorance are far more deadly, they come from stopping our ears and making excuses. This evil has reigned supreme for all of history.

            Yet, today I want to deviate slightly from my usual mode of sermonizing. Instead, I would like to share a recent experience of mine in which I spent two weeks – sadly virtually – visiting a Reconciliation Center on the Pine Ridge Lakota reservation. Here, at this Lutheran ministry, work is done to try and heal the rift between those of European descent and the tribe. A rift that was initiated by our ancestors, wounds which reach back into history and refuse to let go.

            I, like many here, realized quickly that I was truly ignorant about both the history and present reality of Native people – least of all the Lakota. My great uncle, (by marriage,) was Osage and while I have distant memories of seeing one of their sacred dances, my knowledge of Indigenous peoples extended little further than my own readings into history. Yet, over the course of those two weeks I saw history and the modern day became more clearly defined. The work of the past does not cease to be but have consequences throughout time.

            The Lakota people inhabited the Great Plains and lived a nomadic lifestyle following buffalo herds. The herds provided all they needed for life and are seen to this day as sacred siblings to the Lakota. Lakota stories tell of a Heavenly woman, taking the form of a white buffalo calf, who gave the people their sacred rituals. Life was tied to the buffalo and to these rituals that followed the Lakota throughout their life.

            Yet, at a certain point, the Lakota came into contact with Europeans. The first of these had settled in Barbados, far from the plains. Yet, those first Europeans, the Spanish, quickly spread throughout what we now call South America and the Southern coast of, “Turtle Island,” the name which many Native peoples used for North America. The governor of the, “Indies,” Christopher Columbus, was later removed from his post and tried in Spain for the cruelty and, “tyranny,” he exercised over the Native peoples he had enslaved.[1]

            Later, the French came and gave a new name to the Lakota, as well as their linguistic relatives – the Nakota and Dakota. When describing these tribes, the French borrowed a word from the Ojibwa people, calling them “Sioux,” a word meaning – “Snakes.” Despite this being a term of derision, it is used to this day to describe the three tribes as a whole. The French initially claimed the plains for their own, but due to difficulties on the European continent, they were compelled to sell the land to the former British colonies which now called themselves the United States of America.

            The United States, was remarkable anti-Indian from its inception. The Declaration of Independence describes the Natives of North America as, “merciless Indian Savages,” so called for their supposed sin of defending their land from invasion.[2] The treatment of the Native Americans is a dark stain on all of our natural history. In an early draft of this sermon, I tried to list all the offenses we as a nation have committed against Native peoples – I ran out of room. Yet, as our focus so far has been on the Lakota people, we can briefly discuss our treatment of the tribes.

            The Lakota were highly involved in negotiations with the United States regarding their land. The hope of leaders in the tribes – including, Sitting-Bull, Red Cloud, Big Foot, and Black Elk to name a few – was that peace could be brokered somehow. Yet, time and time again, the treaties that were made by the tribes and the U.S. were broken by government forces. These culminated with three especially brutal exchanges.

            Firstly, the systematic destruction of buffalo populations to deny the people food. Secondly, the battle of Little Bighorn – one of the most definite victories of the tribes over the U.S. Army. Finally, the massacre of wounded knew – where men, women, and children were gunned down indiscriminately shortly after completing their, “ghost dance.” A sacred ritual began by Black Elk. These events, though it is a simplification to put it like this, led to the “defeat,” of the Lakota and their forced migration to their reservations.

            The next century saw still mor indecencies thrown at Native peoples. They were taken from their homes and forced into boarding schools. Their hair was shaved or cut into European styles, their language banned, and all Indian culture forbidden. Having eliminated Native peoples from ancestral homes, blasted their sacred mountains for gold and to make monuments, and decimated them with disease and gunfire – now even their culture and language was to be eliminated. The program of these boarding schools, fourteen of which were Methodist, was to “kill the Indian and save the man.” These boarding schools were in operation into the 1950s.

            The irony, not lost on all people, is that beyond any consideration of general humanitarian concerns, the abuses against Native peoples were often abuses against Christians in the name of Christ. You see, since the Spanish first came to the continent, Natives had converted to the faith. John Wesley famously came to Georgia hoping to convert native people, only to find they were already Christian and wanted Communion instead of conversion. Though not a majority of tribal peoples, the pretense of, “saving,” people through these acts of cruelty falls flat when this is considered.

            Today, there is no monolithic culture among any surviving tribe. No reservation is exactly like another nor any individual Indian identical to another. On our trip many people asked our speakers to address the Cherokee or Ho-Chunk people – as if they were related beyond living on the same continent. We can only know the views of modern Natives by speaking to them and listening closely. Reading their accounts of history and not only ours that rejoice in their destruction.

            The people we spoke to over the course of our visit to the reservation were complex – as any person would be. They had different ideas about how to handle the poverty, unemployment, and addiction that grips the reservation. We were struck, listening to their problems, by the similarities that they have with our own here in Appalachia. Though what brought us to where we are is quite different, the end results are the same. People going hungry people coping how they can, people in need of help.

            Yet, I think our similarities go beyond just having similar problems. We know in Appalachia what it feels like to have people come and tell you how to fix your problems. Those who arrive and tell us, “You wouldn’t have opioid issues if you just did this…” Or, “You wouldn’t be so poor if you just…” We in our depressed corner of the world know how it feels to be told by outsiders to do this or when they don’t even really know who we are outside of headlines and stereotypes.

            We should, on this Native American Ministries Sunday, invest time to understand our Indigenous Siblings. The reconciliation center I visited with puts the people at the center of their work. The ministries are not simply inclusive of Native People, but dependent upon them. They offer services and ministries based upon needs the community brings to them, not that they foist upon the community. All ministries should be conducted in this way.

            Here in West Virginia we are often told that we have no tribes that lived here before settlers arrived. This is not true. Here in the panhandle the Chesapeake and Massawomeck, members of the Iroquois nation lived. The West of the state were people with the Osage. Several more tribes lived in the South and North of the state. Despite what our West Virginia history courses taught us, we stand on land that once belonged to others. The only consistent acknowledgement of which I see of this are two Iroquois nation flags on route 480.

            Together, we can become aware of our native siblings and the work they have embarked on thus far. They are not a historical relic, they are alive and active now. Whether we reach out and help them through Lutheran ministries or Methodist ones, or even just our own participation in existing initiatives, it does not matter. What matters is that we come together and help those who need their voices lifted up and which have long been silenced.

            To return to our initial thesis for this service, we must accept that our continual ignorance about our siblings around us causes them harm. This is not true only of Native Peoples but all peoples. I would ask you all to look at our bulletin today to take in one final note of what could be. This image by Kevin Poor-Bear is called, “Peace on Earth,” and the medicine wheel at its top represents many things to the Lakota people. More than anything though, we heard that it meant all races of the earth were related and dependent on one another. Whether we trace that relationship to Wind Cave or Eden, let us open our eyes to the stories and needs of our siblings around the world. Beginning, at least today, with our indigenous siblings.

Repent, learn, bring life where once was death. – Amen

[1] “Lost document reveals Columbus as tyrant of the Caribbean” in Madrid. Mon 7 Aug 2006 04.40 EDT. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2006/aug/07/books.spain

[2] Fulltext available at: https://www.archives.gov/founding-docs/declaration-transcript

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