Manifest Destiny

Repentance as the Path to Decolonization: Confessing my family’s role in Manifest Destiny

Recently I ran across an interview with Ann Coulter on the View. In that interview Coulter made a claim that her family wasn’t originally immigrants but were settlers. While I disagree with how Coulter uses this assertion, the truth is that during the period of U.S. expansion and conquest White Europeans were settlers of that expansion and conquest.  My Swedish immigrant great great grandparents and great grandparents settled land recently taken from the original native inhabitants. For Coulter, this reality is a badge of honor, for me it is a reality to lament and with which to wrestle as I must face what it means to be White benefiting from conquest.

Coulter is one extreme example of the lack of grief among White people I wrote about here. This lack of grief or lack of tears is a spiritual problem, it is symptomatic of a failure to repent. For the Desert ammas and abbas, tears are tied to repentance and salvation. Daniel Jose Camacho recently asked what would it look like for Euro-American Christians  to repent of the Doctrine of Discovery. He defines the doctrine of discovery thus:

“… was a Christian invention which justified dispossessing indigenous peoples of their land, parceling it out among emerging nation-states, and turning it into private property for settlers. In this framework, Indigenous peoples are left with either extermination or assimilation.”

Camacho suggests two ways for Euro-American Christians to repent 1) through a radical rethinking of relationship to land and indigenous claims to sovereignty. 2)abandon the Eurocentrism of Modern Christian mission. I add to this that Euro-American (White) Christians need to grieve and lament our support and participation in the Doctrine of Discovery. We find this difficult if impossible to do because our Whiteness as Euro-American is rooted and entwined with the Doctrine of Discovery. In order to grieve and lament, Euro-Americans need to uproot and disentangle from the White Doctrine of Discover through naming the ways we have participated in whiteness and this doctrine.

Here is my beginning of this naming. My great great grandparents who came from Sweden and settled in what is now Minnesota, they weren’t immigrants but were settlers. The Native American nations had recently been driven further west and placed into reservations. The U.S. Government was parceling that land out cheap. In Sweden, Swedes were recruited as settlers through ads in newspapers and elsewhere promising idyllic conditions in the United States of America. I don’t know how influenced my great great grandparents were by those ads, but family stories told us that back in Sweden they were very poor on land that hardly produced enough to eat, they came in hopes that life would be better and they were used to settle lands of conquest.

As far as I Know we didn’t ask why the land was so abundant and so cheap. For reasons unclear my great grandfather didn’t keep or didn’t inherit the land his father first settled.  At the turn of the 20th Century my family was drawn to California with incentives from the railroad company to settle land along its rail lines in the central valley of California, once again cheap land.  Family story goes that the railroad failed to tell the settlers (and thus my great grandfather) that the central valley was desert.

Family stories of our immigration to the U.S. and settling in Minnesota and then California, never questioned why the land was available.  The stories simply assumed the Doctrine of Discovery. What our family stories did focus on was the pain and struggle of assimilation. We did assimilate. Here’s another thing we never asked: why we eventually could assimilate. The answer is that as Europeans we were White.

We ethnic Europeans were molded into White people through the U.S. Government bringing us over to settle its lands of conquest from the Native Americans.  Our being from Europe (Norther Europe even better) was the necessary raw material. We lost a great deal, possibly even our souls, but we gained wealth and power. We didn’t necessarily individually gain great wealth or great power, but we became citizens of the greatest power in the world, the heir of European empires and colonialism. We were rewarded for our assimilation and cooperation through the United States becoming a world power, outstripping its colonial competitors and former sovereign.

Coulter is correct, we Europeans who came to the U.S. were settlers occupying land of conquest serving the Manifest Destiny (the U.S. take on the Doctrine of Discovery) of the United States. This isn’t a badge of honor but it is something to lament and grieve. Yes, we were used as we sought to escape poverty and starvation and at first we were mostly unable to assent to our role in the Doctrine of Discovery. However, now we, in various ways, are defending it tooth and nail. What we Euro-Americans (Whites) decedents of settlers must do is repudiate, repent, and shed tears for our part in the United States conquest and expansion that robed indigenous people of their land.

Feeling Safe and Secure without Grief or Lament

Alas for those who are at ease in Zion, and for those who feel secure on Mount Samaria. Alas for those who lie on beds of ivory, and lounge on their couches, and eat lambs from the flock, and calves from the stall; who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp, and like David improvise on instruments of music; who drink wine from bowls, and anoint themselves with the finest oils, but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph! Therefore they shall now be the first to go into exile, and the revelry of the loungers shall pass away. – Amos 6:1a, 4-7

The above passage is the Hebrew Scripture reading  for today (Sunday September 25th, 2016, proper 21)  according to the Revised Common Lectionary. As I prepared the sermon today I could not shake that this word of Amos’ could be addressed to White Christians (and White people in general). The response to police shootings repeatedly shows a general inability by many white people to grieve for the loss of life. Rather, in general the attitude of whites is to immediately turn to questioning the actions of the victim of the shooting. I didn’t preach on this, but this leads me to wonder what is the source of our inability (as White people) to grieve, to lament, to weep with Black folks? Why is it that if you are White ones first response to a Police shooting of a black person isn’t lament and grief but defense and justification?

Part of the problem is the story we tell ourselves about America and its moral and ideological superiority, and its destiny on the world stage. This story we tell ourselves is why the action of refusing to stand for the national anthem, by Kaepernick and others following him, elicits such an angry response.  The anthem and the flag (and pledge of allegiance) are the central sacred objects of this story.  To suggest, as Kaepernick’s protest suggests, that racism and white supremacy is at the core of our mythology and that it taints the sacred objects of our civil religion shakes the security of those who are secure in the conviction of  the innate goodness and rightness of America: its institutions, mythology, and civil religion. White Americans are, not surprisingly, offended by the suggestion that what we hold sacred isn’t so holy.

(If you are a person of color who sees something useful in the American mythology for bringing about the remedy to your continued oppression and unequal treatment, I’m not criticizing your use of that mythology for your own ends. I’m speaking of how the mythology also works against liberation among white Christians, and whites generally.)

Because of our clinging to this narrative of American destiny as guardians of liberty, if we grieve it isn’t necessarily  over the injustice, oppression, and pain, but is over our loss of innocence and  feeling secure in our goodness.

The difficulty Whites have with truly grieving for and with the victims of police murder and violence is due to the depths and extent of racism and white supremacy. White supremacy is entangled within the philosophies, ideologies, and faith we’ve been taught to revere.  To admit that racism is still a problem, to admit that our system is still (even after Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights movement) racist and white supremacist shakes us to our core. It is difficult to understand how we haven’t reformed racism out of our system, therefore the problem can’t be with the system, it can’t be the police so it must be the victim of police violence.

But this is where the mythology works against seeing the truth. We can’t accept that Francis Scott Key as a slaveholder didn’t have African-Americans in mind as citizens of “land of the Free and home of the Brave”. This is the problem : those that instituted our sacred institutions and mythology and ideology had themselves in mind and people like them and not people of color.

For White Christians what stands in the way of grief is the causes of the division between white and black, white and people of color in  American Christianity. We often talk about the White and Black Church as if that separation of Christianity into white and black was some accident enforced upon the church by some external force. Worse still we talk about the black church forming without recognizing that the Black church formed because white Christians refused to worship with and ordain Black Christians. Whites left the black Christians or forced them out, not the other way around. Denominations that are White or predominantly White today have yet to really face and renounce what created them.

When white people choose to remember their immigrant origins, we tend not to recall that we are here in part due to deliberate quota’s that favored Europeans over other immigrant groups. We don’t think about the huge swath of land now owned by white people who were European immigrants isn’t an accident of amoral and natural forces of history but due to U.S. Government policy with the full cooperation and consent of White Christianity, It was due to the deliberate policy of the  U.S. government toward Native American people, and recruitment of poor Europeans to settle land taken from Native Americans as they were rounded up on small tracks of unwanted land.

In order to grieve what is happening in our streets requires no longer sitting securely in our comfort and safe place of America: no longer sitting comfortable in the belief that we are slowly progressing away from ignorance into enlightenment. We aren’t’ here because people didn’t know better back then.  No! Whites and White Christians seared their conscience and then created reasoned justifications to support a system that was to their benefit.

I’ve written subsequently about how my immigrant Swedish family through our settling Wisconsin and California play into what I’m talking about above. But even this second blog post is just beginning to tease out the depths of our racist system, what lies behind the persistence of systemic racism in spite of reforms and the reformers. What I believe is that this all persists because it is in the very structure of our society, it wasn’t that Racism and White supremacy was an add on after the U.S.A and the global economic system we inhabit came into existence, rather it is in the very structure and foundation of everything we know.

Edited on October 18th, 2016