Preliminary Thoughts on American Christianity and Native American Genocide

September 9, 2015 § Leave a comment

Next week I begin a course on American Christianity and Native American Genocide. I’m wrestling with my initial reading here as I get ready to join a group of researchers engaging with the question below. I’m new to this material and thinking and reading actively, so much of this writing is about synthesizing my thoughts rather than making any grand statements. Here’s the question:

Is euro-christian colonialism an act of genocide? 

My kneejerk answer to the question is undoubtedly, yes. It comes quickly…perhaps too quickly? What is more complicated, at first, is figuring out how justice ought to be done. I say “at first” because in reaction to these first readings, I realize how much more complicated it is than my own knowledge. Clearly, I am affectively biased from the start. I minored in Anthropology at Metro State College of Denver in the late 1990s and took Ethnography of North American Indians from Dr. John Schultz and Ethnography of South American Indians from Dr. Art Campa. We did not talk about genocide directly that I can remember, but I’m sure that course work long ago is informing my predisposition. We did not talk about Christianity’s part either.

These days I’m thinking about the question in relationship to religion particularly because I am beginning a second doctorate in Religious Studies and Theology at the University of Denver and taking a course entitled American Christianity and Native American Genocide with Dr. George “Tink” Tinker. A group of graduate and undergraduates will be exploring the question above. I am recording my thoughts here on the blog to track my sorting of feelings and information. I’ll likely contradict myself and change my mind about mistaken perceptions.

I’ve recently read Dr. Tinker’s books, American Indian Liberation: A Theology of Sovereignty (2008), Spirit and Resistance: Political Theology and American Indian Liberation (2004), and am making my way through Missionary Conquest: The Gospel and Native American Genocide (1991).

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I’ve also written recently on the vexed world of rhetorical approaches to shamanism(s). As George Tinker’s books argue, white people (I identify as white and have long been suspicious of claims to “Cherokee grandmother’s”) need to begin by acknowledging guilt before anything approaching repentance – let alone justice – can begin. And so let me at the outset make clear that I acknowledge guilt without going through a complex articulation of my understanding of identity and politics and how I have come to that perspective. Perhaps more interestingly, a big part of that process is entrenched in a long engagement with the Jewish ethical philosopher, Emmanuel Levinas and his reactions to Martin Heidegger in the wake of WWII. My sense of responsibility the “Other” exceeds and precedes my identification of whiteness and gender even though I come to acknowledgement of that prior responsibility through the mortality of the dying subject, the same one dying in order for you to read this.

So, let’s begin with ‘genocide’ –we’ll get to “euro-christian” later.

The term “genocide” masks its own political theological roots in the west by erupting in the careful work of Raphael Lemkin. He coined it in 1943 and published “‘Genocide’ – a Modern Crime” in the April 1945 issue of FREE WORLD  – “A Non-Partisan Magazine devoted to the United Nations and Democracy.” Responding directly to remarks made by Hitler, Lemkin says:

The crime of the Reich in wantonly and deliberately wiping out whole peoples is not utterly new in the world. It is only new in the civilized world as we have come to think of it. It is so new in the traditions of civilized man that he has no name for it. 

It is for this reason that I took the liberty of inventing the word, “genocide.” The term is from the Greek word genes meaning tribe or race and the Latin cide meaning killing. Genocide tragically enough must take its place in the dictionary of the future beside other tragic words like homicide and infanticide. (39)

The “modern” nature the conception of genocide as a crime owes much to the 19th century expansion of Nation State and the development of sociology as a discipline. The Enlightenment and Romantic era develop notions of citizenship long in the making through European philosophy. Lemkin is writing during a time when Romanticism is being challenged philosophically. As part of critiques of Romanticism’s focus on the individual, thinking of “people’s” and “humanity” collectively. Much of the science of the sociological approach is entrenched in the intellectual reactions to Darwin, which sparked many discussions concerning human origins and development in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Lemkin’s characterization of “the civilized world as we have come to think of it” is characteristic of his historical milieu. Building a word from Greek and Latin also obviously invokes a broader “Western” tradition.

After the United Nations Convention on Genocide in December of 1948 and January of 1949, the following articles became law (I’m focusing on Articles 2 & 3 here, Article 1 just says it’s a crime punishable by international law):

Article 2

 In the present Convention, genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:


(a) Killing members of the group;

(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;

(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;

(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;

(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.


Article 3

 The following acts shall be punishable:

(a) Genocide;

(b) Conspiracy to commit genocide;

(c) Direct and public incitement to commit genocide;

(d) Attempt to commit genocide;

(e) Complicity in genocide.

Ward Churchill’s A Little Matter of Genocide: Holocaust and Denial in the Americas 1492 to the Present (1997) has a nice closing chapter critiquing the ways Lemkin’s thinking became marginalized through the process of this particular wording (399-437). What I want to point out is that in the law that was passed, the phrase “in whole or in part” and that according to Article 2, genocide may not only be extermination by killing but also mental or bodily harm, destroying physical conditions, and stealing children – all of which clearly happened to American Indians in both north and south America. Who exactly perpetrated this and with what intent will need more discussion, but I want to point out that 3e will push toward the fringes of intent alone.

In “Genocides of Indigenous Peoples Rhetoric of Human Rights” – a chapter by Elazar Barkan of Columbia University in The Specter of Genocide (Ed. Gellately et al.) – Barkan writes:

From the European perspective, the language and the specificities advanced by advocates of applying the term “genocide” to the indigenous context seem misplaced, exaggerated. Its use is an emotional subject. It carries a sacred quality that both sides want to preserve. Thus, the controversy is how to employ it. (Barkan 121)

Much has been written with respect to the Holocaust in WWII being seen in terms of something sacred, and we only need gesture to the Old Testament narratives of the Hebrews and later Jews to know that a unique theological significance may be at work in trying to reflect upon the Holocaust. That said, international law clearly expands beyond the situation with the Nazis and their victims; it must in order to be applicable. Victims and descendants of allied forces both rightly want to claim unique aspects of the event, yet indigenous victims of genocide around the globe have faced criticism for employing the term ‘genocide,’ supposedly because in doing so it dilutes the “truly authentic” evils of Nazism. On the other hand, the rhetorical power of aligning indigenous genocide clearly “elevates” the indigenous claim to a frequency that arouses a kind of flimsy guilt and moral outrage in dominant society. Such a task risks reifying the uniqueness of the Jewish holocaust as the genocide par excellence simply in order for marginalized voices to make themselves heard. Choosing a different term, even if one could be agreed upon, obviously risks further displacing the cultural memory of the initial crimes while processes of “ethnocide” diminish the exigence for accountability to peoples and nations, especially with respect to existing law. Barkan writes:

In the case of naming the destruction of indigenous peoples as genocidal, the historical perspectives and rhetorical stands are profoundly in conflict, partly because the debate is still held captive by the world view that informed European expansionism. The rejection of the use of the term genocide is about exclusion, about segregating the suffering of indigenous peoples as somewhat different than other “more terrible” genocides. Instead, once we acknowledge the equality of indigenous people, we can recognize that atrocities committed against them also constitute genocide. Then we can also begin to differentiate between the types of acts committed against indigenous peoples to determine which were genocidal, or what aspects of genocide took place under different circumstances. (134)

I tend to agree with Barkan here. To me, indigenous claims here are silenced by the continued political-theological conditions that occur with the emergence of Christianity from Judaism. The perpetuation of the uniqueness of the Jewish holocaust in terms of law not theology – is a perpetuation of genocide toward indigenous people around the world. This is not to claim intent. It is simply an instance of ethnocentric blindness to the plights of those considered “outside.” The question of intent throws us into defining what we mean by a “people” and whether or not they can be legally regarded as such. It throws us into the artificial construction of legality itself and the roots of legitimacy.  Of course being “recognized” is something most indigenous people have suffered from historically if by recognition we mean the eyes of European justice systems, (I’m including the UN here, though the efforts to establish important material such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights were not solely European endeavors).

Barkan also addresses a wider stance on the question of intent with respect to the work of George Tinker in Missionary Conquest.

 In contrast to [David E.] Stannard, Tinker does not limit the infliction of genocide to intentional actions but argues that even positive intentions can lead to genocide. Consequences, not intentionality, are the dominating factor. Viewed from this perspective, the fact that Native American peoples were subjected to genocide should be self-evident, although it was rarely articulated as policy.

 Tinker claims that all nonnatives were accomplices in the cultural genocide of Native Americans, regardless of their personal intent or direct participation. Ultimately that means that all missionaries and even Christianity (as a white authority structure) were invariably guilty. (124)

I have noted above my stance with respect to my own whiteness. The initial question, however, is not only about ethnicity but an ethnically articulated version of Christianity as colonizing. It is not then, Christianity itself that is being scrutinized so much as its expression in relation to versions of the faith prominent in the Euro-Americans who colonized north and south America. I realize it will be hard for many to separate the two, but in articulating it this way I am able to foreground yet another appeal to history. At what point would we separate say the Puritan articulation of a New Jerusalem from the broader Christian tradition? The differing tactics of Protestants and Catholics toward indigenous people have been much discussed, and both groups (if we can even narrow it down to two) have had devastating effects, albeit at times with the “best intentions.”

But the question about history – is this a “modern crime” that has been present since antiquity? If so, the modernity of the articulation may help push toward a concept of justice, but also one that would either push the conventional academic versions of “modern” into early modern or risk excluding the bulk of indigenous population (around 90%) who were killed between 1492 and the 1890s. The concept of the modern at some point interrupts history. Contemporary Euro Americans, when looking at either their Christianity or their (often unacknowledged) possessive investment in whiteness (to use George Lipsitz’s term), must both imagine the point of dis-identification with the destructive qualities that have led to genocide in the past. For Christians in particular, I think this must relate theologically to the coming of the kingdom and the parousia because in dis-identifying from past Christian wrongs they must wrestle with the fact of dark deeds done in the name of their Lord. George Tinker, who is well aware that many indigenous people identify as Christian, in his more recent work has suggested hermeneutic approaches to biblical interpretation from the position of an American Indian perspective. Tinker qualifies such a perspective in multiple ways, but the most significant here is that he believes that in American Indian perspectives are ones where having been created by a supreme entity and regarding the world where spatiality takes precedence over temporality. He believes that in focusing on Christ, modern Christians de-emphasized their own creation and that in presenting the Kingdom in temporal rather than spatial terms (not to mention the political associations with European monarchy irrelevant to early Christian writers).

I predictably have no good answer to this body of material to which I am still new. I am hoping to build this initial thinking into a series of posts on this subject. You can see where I’m leaning though. All the while, I am performing a self-interrogation about my own sense of justice that emerges affectively even before I go further into the material. I posted the question above on my FB page earlier tonight and got a lot of responses. I wanted to know what gut reactions other people have. Maybe I’ll prove my initial biases wrong through my further study. Maybe I’ll further my own conviction. Who knows? I do have a lot more to learn but I will try to be better informed on the issue.

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