Beloved Identity

Grasping one’s identity is never easy in today’s systemic market driven world.  Anyone who is tied to a cherished institution, like a church, synagogue, or mosque, knows the institution, to some extent, shapes their identity.  When one’s relationship with an institution becomes generational, the shaping of identity is all the greater.  More so, institutions shape family and community identity as well.  This is why community must constantly question institutional structure.

In generational institutions, like that of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), sorting out problematic identity is not easy.  Typically, US institutions, over generations, have built walls to mask the intent or the beneficiaries of their original formation.  Not surprising, many of today’s constituents who most benefit from institutional values of an earlier era are not aware of their advantage because of the masking.   One way to break through the mask is to observe the institution through a set of non-constituent lenses.  For the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) one set of lenses that have yet to be used is that of indigeneity.

One example of considering Disciples current structure through Indigenous lenses reveals a particularly nationalistic identity.  By taking a step back to Campbell’s “The Destiny of Our Country,” spoken to earlier in Gospel Nationalism, and comparing it to Disciples current statement of Mission, an interesting insight emerges.

Disciples currently say Our Mission is 

To be and to share the Good News of Jesus Christ, witnessing, loving and serving from our doorsteps “to the ends of the earth.”

At first blush the statement does not sound bad at all.  And if it were not for Disciples General Assembly resolution GA1328 on Eliminating Racist Language from Governing Documents, no one may have questioned the Mission statement for another decade or so.  However, when the folk tasked with the monumental chore of questioning racist language in Disciple Governing Documents momentarily considered Disciples mission statement, they noted in their document of recommendations (found in footnote #2),

While the task force did not look at our denomination’s mission statement, even a beloved statement like “from our doorsteps to the ends of the earth” centers Disciples and potentially the United States and Canada, for example, which is antithetical to how we understand ourselves in our global ministries and hopefully in our domestic ministries.

Taking this footnote seriously and applying Indigenous lenses—which naturally seek out environments of American exceptionalism, an unmasking occurs.  Unveiled is the mission statement values are based in the Doctrine of Discovery and 1900’s US manifest destiny.  This is most easily seen when holding Campbell’s nationalist 1852  “The Destiny of Our Country,” alongside Disciples current mission statement.  

God has given” Disciples the “awful charge” of “Mission” to “share the Good News” of “Protestant America” “from our doorsteps ‘to the ends of the earth’,” and “all of the world.”  

From an Indigenous perspective, Disciples mission “To share the Good News…to the ends of the earth” is not one of reciprocity.  Rather, the mission statement is inside language lifting up Disciples and holding outsider truth as inconsequential.  Lenses of Indigeneity suggests Disciples mission is not one of openness and welcoming and searching for the Good News of outsiders, but rather one of singularity and disunity.

For individuals to re-center and know their created identity once again is to question how their identity has been misshaped by their beloved institutions.  For Disciples, one step in this direction is to create paths to hear the truth(s) of Indigenous voice and begin engaging in actions that promote healing.

Misshaping Created Identity

There are many reasons to remember, tell stories, teach, and learn history.  Of them all, one, is to learn the mistakes of our parents.  For therein lies the why of who we are.  To know their mistakes does not negate their gifts or strong points.  Rather, they allow us to understand our own better.

Those who live in the US and Canada often find truth-telling, that breaks through nationalistic history, hard to hear.  When considering the public education system, it is little wonder we do not hear our stories of atrocity.  For the full truth rubs the national system—who does the teaching—the wrong way.  For instance, we are taught of President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, however, most of us were never taught of his support for the greatest mass lynching of Indigenous people in US history.  Quiet, hidden, truth gives US and Canadian citizens a false sense of superiority.  If our American History teacher taught the bad, ruthless, corrupt, and regretful stories—Sand Creek, Manzanar, exactly what chattel slavery means, the Dakota 38 plus 2—alongside the good, we would be a better people.

To become a better people is to recognize the truth of Wallace Stegner’s words, “Evil, if it exists, is not all lumpy and ugly like a toad.  It is often more attractive than what people call good.”  To be good is to learn what seems good is not always the case.  When Disciples opened the American Tepee Christian Mission they thought good was plowing and Christ.  An “it depends…” never crossed their minds.  It never occurred to them that they were being manipulated by a racist/nationalistic system.   Yet, this manipulation changed both their identity and that of many Yakamas.

What happened to Disciples identity is for another time.  For now, let us consider one core impact on the Yakama due to the Mission.  The Mission’s most tearing act was the removal of children from their parents.  This removal was different from that of the local US government Boarding School, located five-miles from  the Mission at Fort Simcoe.  When the Fort Simcoe Boarding School opened in 1860, children were forcibly removed from their parents and placed at the school.  There they were to become civilized and Christianized.  After fifty-seven years the government closed the Boarding School.  Two reasons for closure.  One, was the cost of institutional maintenance.  The second, and perhaps more important reason, was a public school, which welcomed Yakama children, opened in White Swan, seven-miles away.  Believing the closure of the Boarding School a terrible mistake, Disciples opened the Mission.

Disciples child removal policy looked different than that of the US government.  After fifty-seven years of government child removal, Yakama familial structure had begun to change—for those who attended the Boarding School.  How is this?  When one imagines a mother and father being raised in a boarding school, and so the case was for their mother and father, and the same was again true for their grandmother and grandfather, a change in familial structure, that included children being raised by outsiders, became normalized.  When we grasp this change is what was envisioned by the US government, we begin to also grasp the evil of the Boarding School system.  The crux of Disciples American Tepee Christian Mission is they bought into this nationalistic system by providing the institutional space to raise children away from their parents.  In the teaching of traditional boarding school principals—plowing and sewing, herdsmanship and housekeeping, and Christianity—Disciples tacitly accepted the US governmental policy of Indigenous child removal.

History should teach us a little about when and how our folks did well as well as the when and how they did wrong.  Only in the truth of our human experience do we come to know who we have been, who we are, and who we might become.  To claim the identity of Disciple is to recognize our fore-folk experienced hardships of creating a new way of Christian thinking.  Yet, we must also to recognize Disciples colluded with the US government to impose childhood and parental trauma in the landscape of the US and Canada.  Being Disciple is recognizing imposed trauma misshaped Yakama created identity. Being Disciples is also to discern the enacting of Yakama trauma also misshaped Disciple identity: individually and institutionally.  Such history is not a highlight or a reason to become or reman Disciple.  Clearly, the longevity of Disciples is limited without an intentional path toward healing and health.  How might this be done?  First, engage in a close listening to Indigenous truth stories.  Second, root out racial and nationalistic policies, concepts, and ideas buried in Disciples governing documents (congregationally and nationally).  Third, rethink and reconstruct Disciple theology (recognizing there is no “one” Disciple theology) to favor Creation’s landscape.  Forth, re-create institutional structure where listeningrooting-out, and reconstructing is repeated.

Civilizing & Christianizing

Disciple’s theology trended toward a nationalistic identity from the beginning.  However, if we were to choose a defining moment when theology and nationalism became one, it would lie in the moment when Disciples voted to open a Boarding School on the Yakama Reservation.  In 1919, at the International Convention in Cincinnati, we Disciples approved monies to the American Christian Missionary Society (ACMS) to construct a Yakama Boarding School.  In turn, ACMS approved “a sum of money for work among the Yakimas” in 1920.  By June 1920 “[t]he cornerstone of the first cottage…was laid.”  And in 1921 Disciples first (and only) Boarding School, the  American Tepee Christian Mission, opened.

Disciples nationalism is apparent when W.F. Turner—the primary Disciple organizer of the Boarding School—writes that the Yakama live in a “backward and undeveloped condition,” who preferences “his old paganism,” but whom is also “easily controlled.”  To control the Yakama, the American Tepee Christian Mission set three primary goals for Yakama children who attended the Mission: civilize by teaching the virtues of plowing, farming, ranching, sewing, and cooking; further civilize by learning the White way of thinking by way of busing children “back and forth [to the public school] in an autobus;” and have “most of the Yakimas [children adopt]…the faith our new home represents.”

We could choose to believe Disciples nationalistic theology is an evil of another era.  However, when we chose to “have a share in the work of evangelizing the American Indian” we also shared in traumatizing Yakama children—a trauma, historical in nature, which, today, resides in the lives of too many Yakama people.  Recognizing this lingering evil matters for Disciples because we can then claim a descriptive identity that is better than that of being a movement for wholeness.  When Disciples begin an intentional process of dealing with their historical under and overtones of nationalism.  When Disciples begin listening closely to the voices—Indigenous as well as Black, LatinX, and Asian/Pacific Islander—whom their actions impacted.  They can then claim an identity of honor and truth by finally recognizing their true identity as a fragmented movement for wholeness.