October 10, 2011
Native Americans, Europeans, & The Black Book
How should the people of Christ think about Columbus Day?
It's Columbus Day. (Well, actually Monday is the day off for most people, but October 12 is actually the day Chris first laid eyes on land in the western hemisphere, an island he dubbed San Salvador.) For some it's a day to celebrate their European (particularly Italian) heritage. For others it's a day to mourn the loss and persecution of native cultures in North America. How should the people of Christ think about this holiday?
Mark Buchanan, pastor of New Life Community Church in Duncan, British Columbia, and a contributing editor of Leadership, wrote a stirring article about his church's ministry with native peoples and the complexity of history. I highly encourage you to read this award-winning article.
The Tswassen people live in the south end of Greater Vancouver, close to the upscale community named after them. They've been on this land, though much more of it, for thousands of years. Back in the day, they had free run of forest and ocean. They hunted and fished, carved their wooden art in fragrant cedar, wove their baskets, held their potlatches. They sang and danced their grief and joy, their welcome and warning, their coming and going.
Now, they're confined to a narrow wedge of land between the mudflats and an industrial park, and they rely on a casino for most of their income. Among them, there is a high incidence of suicide, alcoholism and drug abuse, teenage pregnancy and incest, domestic violence, and health issues of every kind.
The Tswassens have a prophecy 500 years old. One of their ancient holy men foretold that a people pale as birch would one day come from across the great water in large canoes. They would bring with them a Black Book. The Black Book was Truth, end to end, a gift of inestimable good. The people lived for many years awaiting the prophecy's fulfillment.
And then one day it happened. The big canoes— bigger than the Tswassens ever imagined—arrived. They teemed with people pale as birch. And, yes, they brought with them a Black Book.
Then the killings started. The Tswassens became an obstacle to the pale men, and the pale men slaughtered them, and those they didn't slaughter they enslaved.
This is part of my history. In Canada, it's part of all of our histories. The stories are legion: every encounter between white and native people in our country (in North America, actually) involved deception, betrayal, empty promises, often violence. Almost every native community in our nation had dreams and visions of the white man's coming: all of them have stories of the nightmares and heartaches that followed.
A passage in Charles Frazier's novel 13 Moons sums it up well. The story is told by Will Cooper, orphaned at a young age and raised in the wilds of West Virginia by a Cherokee chief named Bear. Will narrates:
"Baptists convened an offer to render the Bible—or a least a few of its most striking episodes—into the syllabary and supply copies of it to the people. Bear wanted me to read him some of the book before he decided to accept the offer or not… . He liked the story of Job, especially God's pride in his own handiwork in creating all the animals and the varieties of landscape and weather … God's bragging about how well the nostrils of horses turned out struck Bear as some kind of truth about creation… . Also, the story of the expulsion from Eden got his full attention, though his most persistent question was how big I thought the snake was. In the end, he said he judged the Bible to be a sound book. Nevertheless, he wondered why the white people were not better than they are, having had it for so long. He promised that as soon as the white people achieved Christianity, he would recommend it to his own folks."
"As soon as the white people achieve Christianity." This has been my experience also with the people, whom in Canada we call the First Nations: they're intrigued by the Black Book, and drawn to the One it reveals, but they wonder why the white people are not better than they are, having had it for so long. Many First Nations people are so wary and hurt, wanting nothing more to do with the Black Book and its God, or the church that represents both.
There's a prophecy in the Black Book I've freshly discovered. I eagerly await its fulfillment, and am doing whatever I can, whatever I must, to hasten it. The prophecy is in Zechariah 8. It begins with a vision of what a community looks like when God reigns within it. But here's how the chapter ends, here is the vision's crescendo:
This is what the Lord Almighty says: "In those days ten men from all languages and nations will take firm hold of one Jew by the hem of his robe and say, 'Let us go with you, because we have heard that God is with you.'"
That's evangelism. Good news is embodied. It is a way of life, a thing plain for all to see. The evangelized, not the evangelists, do all the talking: "Let us go with you." The lost take the initiative. And the lost come from every tribe and tongue and nation.
This is the dream of every church—for God's life among us to be so obvious, so fragrant, so magnetic, so contagious, that all peoples clamor for the privilege of joining. Rather than having to teach our members how to "grab hold of people," people grab hold of us. Rather than us telling anyone "God is with us," they tell one another that.
All these things happen in those days, which refers to a promise God makes at the beginning of Zechariah 8: "This is what the Lord says: 'I will return to Zion and dwell in Jerusalem.' " Zechariah 8, then, is a description of what happens in, to, and through a church when God dwells in their midst.
Several things happen. Let me draw out two.