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COMMENTARY: Real progress takes more than an Act of Repentance Suzanne Wenonah Duchesne, Mar 29, 2012
Suzanne Wenonah Duchesne
By Suzanne Wenonah Duchesne Special Contributor
After I read the open letter of Oct. 19, 2011 to the United Methodist Church from the Native American International Caucus, memories returned from an Act of Repentance for racism that occurred in my annual conference almost 10 years ago. Even with hugs and tears abounding I worried that those of us who self-define or are politically defined in the U.S. as white would forget about our racist behaviors that still needed to be addressed. I knew from experience as a Euro-American woman, an antiracism trainer and through my commitment to dismantling white privilege, that the resistance to acknowledging the systemic racism that pervades our society, denomination and local churches remains alive and strong.
Following this earlier Act of Repentance, the Rev. Staccato Powell, an African Methodist Episcopal Zion representative, called for a “pragmatic process or strategic plan with measurable action steps to help the churches in their journey together.” Soon sensing a lack of commitment to combating racism, the AME Zion Church pulled its participation from Churches Uniting in Christ, an ecumenical group in which the UMC is a member.
Thankfully, Dr. Powell was invited to address that group’s plenary meeting in January 2011 to try and rebuild bridges. However, it appears we still have much to learn. Similar concerns have been expressed about this latest Act of Repentance to Native American and Indigenous people planned for the 2012 General Conference.
Some African Americans in the UMC indicate that these Acts of Repentance have not done much to change the racist attitudes and policies that continue to plague our denomination. So I wonder if in our attempts to do all the good we can we are actually causing harm.
Following the listening sessions, a number of Native American voices from the United States indicated that we are indeed causing harm. Dissonant Native voices feel silenced.
The United Methodist Church can put these voices aside, saying that not all Native peoples agree on this issue. The Church can dismiss them because the Native voices at the tables of power within our denomination are for it. But what if we don’t dismiss them? What if we listen instead? I think it could change how we address systems of injustice in general and especially our racist systemic behaviors, which still permeate our ecclesial structure and missions.
As a liturgical scholar, I do not want to minimize the power of forgiveness or prayer. But I wonder if many Methodists, especially those of us who are defined as white, understand our complicity within the racist systems in our denomination and society? Consider for a moment a few examples.
Though neither our ancestors nor we may have been personally responsible for relocating North American indigenous peoples resulting in thousands of deaths, nonetheless Native mortality rates are once again on the rise in comparison with the rest of society. We may not have forcibly sent children to boarding schools, systemically destroying their identities, but it is troubling that 25-35 percent of Native children have been placed in foster care under suspicious circumstances.
We may not have denied health care to Native Americans, yet they are three times more likely to suffer from diabetes. We may not have committed a violent act against an indigenous woman, but one in three will be raped by non-native men, according to an Amnesty International study.
Years ago, we took the time to negotiate with each individual tribe, to slowly claim their sovereign lands and resources for the United States. But now these people of many nations are given the moniker Native American and lumped together as if they were homogeneous.
As United Methodists, we are about to make another treaty with a few representatives of many peoples under this moniker. I am concerned that there has not been enough education about the issues involved. There has not even been an acknowledgment by many about the diversity of Native peoples in the United States and indigenous peoples in the world.
Do we realize the consequences of our ignorance? Do we realize how our belief in Manifest Destiny has influenced U.S. military and economic policies around the world? Do we recognize how it influences our missionary activities?
This is not just an act of repentance that affects how we see history but how United Methodists live into the divine rule of God in this world. Plans for further education have been alluded to but historically we have not done the hard work that comes after an Act of Repentance. It seems that if we are going to truly repent then our first act must model our subsequent actions.
What if we committed ourselves to the time-consuming work of listening sessions with individual tribes? Could we do this regardless of their formal recognition by the U.S. government? Sound like an exhausting and an unwieldy task? How many years and how much time and energy did it take to negotiate, relocate and decimate each of these sovereign peoples in order to arrive at the present day experience within United Methodism? Do we even know how our denominational history is inexorably tied to U.S. history on this issue?
This is only one view of the plan before us. I applaud the effort to bring healing and I believe in the power of ritual to change present reality.
However, I also join in solidarity with the Native American International Caucus’ calling for continued dialogue and work with individual tribes. I wish we all would begin to listen to as many voices as possible of those Native American and Indigenous peoples who have been affected, for the healing of the Nations and the UMC.
The Rev. Duchesne is an ordained elder in the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference and a Ph.D. candidate in liturgical studies at Drew University.