This is an Uncomfortable One…
My grandpa died when I was in high school, and there are just a few memories I keep of him. One is his smell. He was mayor of a small Missouri town (population: 200), but he was also a hard-working cattle farmer with two bloodhounds named Luke and Duke, and he always smelled like sweat and grass and integrity.
I also remember one particular day with Grandpa. We were standing with my mom in an old country cemetery. It was a gray day and raining, and we were huddled under umbrellas. And I remember Grandpa looking across the cemetery like he was watching its history, and he pointed his finger around in the damp air and said, “This is where the Cherokee walked right through.”
I had learned enough in middle school Social Studies class and heard enough stories about Half Cherokee Aunt Molly to know that he was talking about the Trail of Tears, the forced exile of the Cherokee people from the states of the southeast all the way to Oklahoma. By the time they reached my family’s homeland of the Missouri Ozarks, the Cherokee people would have traveled by foot for hundreds of miles. Many of them would have lost loved ones in the concentration camps that preceded the eviction. Most of them would have lost loved ones on the harrowing journey. They would have lost most of their belongings to white looters, after being given only moments to collect themselves before being led off at gunpoint. In the rain, in that somber cemetery, for the first time, I felt the reality of my nation’s cruelty.
The experience of the native people of this and every other continent has haunted me for many years. We grew up in elementary schools where we colored in pictures of cheerful Native Americans every fall, made necklaces out of fruit loops and headdresses out of construction paper, and reenacted our national creation myth of Thanksgiving. Only to find out later in life (when massacres became more age appropriate) that the happily ever after of the Thanksgiving fairy tale failed to mention the genocide of native people on this continent.
It is really rough on the mind and heart to imagine our founding fathers—those heroes of Christian religious freedom, death-defying adventurers, history-making frontier settlers—killing native women, children, and elders, burning people alive in their homes, forcing human beings to walk hundreds of deadly miles. And it is hard to wrap our heads around the fact that we are living on stolen lands. That we benefit from every native heart that stopped beating, every field stolen, every forced exile.
Most of us are the privileged children of bloody conquerors, whose history is inextricably tied to the oppressed children of bloodied nations. We, who have grown too big for our fruit loop necklaces have come to know that our country’s history is more complex than our 2nd grade classrooms promised. That we are a nation full of both heroes and murderers, oppressors and oppressed, warriors and exiles, prairie fields and battlefields. And we are lying to ourselves if we pretend that we as a nation are any less complicated, sinful, or dangerous.
It is the same with our scriptures. Many of us grew up learning about the battle of Jericho in children’s Sunday School—the romantic tale of the army of God walking around Jericho, blowing trumpets until the walls of the city come tumbling down. But what we do not learn in children’s Sunday School is that the people of God are instructed to then commit genocidal murder on that city, to kill everything that breathes within the walls, women, children, elders, cattle, everyone. And the land flowing with milk and honey is conquered on the backs of real live people, children of God who lived and breathed and loved just like us.
What does it mean that our scriptures, like our nation, are so full of complexity, sin, and danger? That our stories mercilessly kill off an entire people without remorse? I still have not made peace with this (Maybe I will by Sunday when I have to preach on this!?), and perhaps that is the way it should be. Maybe that is the danger of really taking these stories seriously.
This week, as we prepare spiritually for Native American Ministries Sunday, I have no easy answers. I leave us as uncomfortable as we should be about cruelty justified by divine right and manifest destiny. And I choose to read a psalm from a time when the people of God were, themselves, forced from their homes into the Babylonian exile. It is a psalm that expresses a human sentiment that could have easily been expressed by a native of Jericho or a Cherokee on the Trail of Tears. It is a psalm of discomfort and tears, and I offer it in its entirety (The last lines are so disturbing that we rarely hear them.) because our faith does not always leave us comfortable.
1 By the rivers of Babylon—
there we sat down and there we wept
when we remembered Zion.
2 On the willows there
we hung up our harps.
3 For there our captors
asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’
4 How could we sing the Lord’s song
in a foreign land?
5 If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
let my right hand wither!
6 Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth,
if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem
above my highest joy.
7 Remember, O Lord, against the Edomites
the day of Jerusalem’s fall,
how they said, ‘Tear it down! Tear it down!
Down to its foundations!’
8 O daughter Babylon, you devastator!
Happy shall they be who pay you back
what you have done to us!
9 Happy shall they be who take your little ones
and dash them against the rock!