As it happens, I didn’t manage to keep writing throughout the week at San Jose. For that, I am sorry. I do want to share one little bit I found interesting during one of the presentations at the conference. One of the items that the delegate body voted on was a resolution (pdf) in support of bill in the US Congress to “acknowledge a long history of official depredations and ill-conceived policies by the United States government regarding Indian tribes and offer an apology to all Native Peoples on behalf of the United States.” Part of the presentation before this vote included some words from Steve Cheramie Risingsun, a Chitimacha Indian who leads Native Mennonite congregations in Louisiana and Alabama. You can read more about it at the Mennonite Weekly Review article.
The thing that I found particularly interesting about this was a comment made by Risingsun. He was talking about the various ways white colonizers mistreated Native Americans, tried to take away their culture, and were generally pretty nasty. He said that there was a phrase that was often used by these white folks: “Kill the Indian, Save the Man.”
I couldn’t help but notice how much this sounded like “Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin.” We look back now at these attitudes towards Native Americans and we are appalled. But in its time, this would have been seen as particularly enlightened and charitable by the Good Christians who practiced it. It was in contradiction to a harsher practice of the day, which was just plain “Kill the Indian.”
These Good Christian folk knew that it wasn’t nice to kill people but they thought that “practicing Indians” were sinners (I’m sure it said so somewhere in the Bible.) If they could just “love the Indian out of the Indian,” then he/she could become a Good Christian like them. “Loving the Indian out of the Indian” tended to include things like kidnapping children and imprisoning them in boarding schools where their hair was cut and they were told that their identity, culture, and family were intrinsically sinful. They were abused in so many ways, all in the name of saving them from their evil Indian ways.
Unfortunately, the attitude lives on (though the behaviors don’t tend to be physically violent much anymore). It lives on in the Mennonite Church, and the Church of the Brethren and so many other denominations and faiths. Of course, Good Christians are enlightened enough to know that it’s not nice to be outwardly homophobic, to use gay slurs, to beat up lgbt folks (or “homosexuals” as they seem to prefer to call us) but “everybody knows that ‘practicing homosexuals’ are sinners.” What Good Christians need to do is find a nice middle ground between beating up “homosexuals” and “embracing homosexuality.”
The problematic attitude is that there is something intrinsically wrong with being lgbt or q. Some say queer people are born that way, or choose to be that way, but really, it doesn’t matter because the attitude remains that there is something less-than or wrong about being gay. In the same way, the attitude used to be that there was something less-than or wrong about being (and “practicing”) Native American.
We look back at our history and see our acts of racism, classism, sexism, genocide, slavery, and abuse as related to ignorance about peoples’ identity. We all know that people of color don’t choose to be people of color and can’t change that, so therefore, white folks shouldn’t treat them badly because of it. This brings up the rhetorical question, “If they did choose or could change the color of their skin, would it be better for people of color to be white?” Of course not, we all know better and see value in racial diversity.
We try to forget that while we were oppressing Native Americans, African Americans, women, and everyone else we’ve oppressed (and in most cases continue to oppress in one way or another) we’ve blamed the victim for their own oppression by saying it was their behavior which warranted whatever abuse we were committing against them. This is happening to lgbtq people now. Whenever a Good Christian tries to find that comfy middle ground between being a violent homophobe and celebrating diversity of sexual orientation and gender identity, it happens.
How will we all (or maybe a generation or two down the road) feel about that in the future? Will lgbtq folks be getting resolutions of apology in the next decades? Centuries maybe?