Protestants repent for churches' role in oppressing First Nations

By Stephen Brown
June 30, 2010

A global Protestant body representing 80 million Christians has issued an apology for the role played by churches in perpetrating abuse against Native Americans, First Nations and other indigenous peoples.

"We … repent of our history littered with ways in which we have betrayed Gospel values of justice, fairness, and love for our neighbour … by the confiscation of land, and mass killings," delegates at the founding meeting of the World Communion of Reformed Churches declared in a statement.

The 18-28 June 2010 gathering in Grand Rapids, in the state of Michigan, took place on the traditional territory of Native American peoples, delegates noted.

In their statement, they said they hoped that through "genuine repentance" they would have courage to repair broken relationships and begin new paths of reconciliation. They also said they were repenting for manifesting, "cultural, economic and theological arrogance", and the way their church structures had "perpetrated abuse".

The Rev Bill Thomas, a delegate from the United Church of Canada, noted however, "This has to be the beginning of a process that may be generations in coming to fruition."

Several events throughout the June meeting stressed the role of Native Americans, indigenous and First Nation peoples.

A centrepiece was a keynote address by Native American, Richard Twiss. He said churches had been "willing partners" in the oppression of Native Americans and that Christianity and Christian mission had been used to reinforce cultural assimilation.

The Grand Rapids meeting marked the merger of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches and the Reformed Ecumenical Council, two bodies that had an overlapping membership.

Organisers of the gathering, called a uniting general council, said similar global Reformed gatherings had always tried, "to respond to unfinished issues of justice," in the places where the meetings have taken place.

"Certainly the issue of justice, reconciliation, making right the relationship between Native Americans, First Nations people and those of us who are basically immigrants to this society remains a critical issue," the Rev Clifton Kirkpatrick, a member of the Presbyterian Church (USA), and the outgoing president of WARC, told ENInews.

A key moment came on the first day of the meeting, when Native American representatives were presented with a US marine sword that had been fashioned into a ploughshare.

Reformed leaders said this was to represent a text from the the Bible (Micah 4.3) that looks to a time when, nations shall "beat their swords into ploughshares, and … nation shall not lift up sword against nation".

In response, Mike Peters, a minister and member of the Odawa people, presented the Reformed leaders with a replica of the medal given in 1850 to family members of the chief of his nation who signed a peace treaty with the United States.

"It was just spontaneous," Peters told ENInews. "When I saw the sword, the spirit spoke to me and said I needed to give them the peace medal as a sign that I trust them."

Kirkpatrick described the gift as, "the most deeply moving moment in this uniting general council". He acknowledged, however, that not all Native American and First Nations peoples who were approached "were of one mind" about taking part in the meeting.

"There is obviously among many North American people a sense of betrayal by the Christian church, [and] by white society, and a sense they have often been invited for celebratory, symbolic actions without substantive change," he said.

Delegates in their statement also apologised for presenting forms of worship, music and biblical interpretation as the only "legitimate liturgical expressions", and teaching theology and church history in ways that disregarded the contributions of Native Americans and other indigenous communities.

Reformed Christians trace their heritage back to the 16th-century Reformation led by Jean Calvin, John Knox and others, as well as to earlier movements that sought to reform the Roman Catholic Church.

The WCRC groups some 230 Congregational, Presbyterian, Reformed, United and Uniting churches in 108 countries.

[With acknowledgements to ENI. Ecumenical News International is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches and the Conference of European Churches.]


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