Oak Flat and Zacchaeus: what decolonization looks like

Photo: Wikipedia. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

In January I had the great privilege of visiting Oak Flat, a breathtaking high-desert environment near Tucson, Ariz. I was able to pray at Ga’an Canyon (Angel’s canyon), a place sacred to the San Carlos Apache. A small group of Christians spent the day with Wendsler Nosie Sr., a leader of the group Stronghold Apache, committed to protecting this sacred site and its waters from copper mining.

The San Carlos Apache lost their land, which is now a national park, by executive order. Even so, they have maintained a relationship with Oak Flat, where they come to care for the land, pray and conduct ceremony. 

This sacred place has been identified as the site for the largest copper mine in U.S. history. If the mine is developed as planned, it will leave a crater two miles long and 1,000 feet deep and destroy a place the San Carlos Apache have stewarded for thousands of years.  

The story of Oak Flat is just one chapter in the process of colonization — the act of settling among and establishing control over Indigenous people and exploiting the land economically. Many Indigenous leaders in North America and across the world are calling for decolonization, or relinquishing control of subjugated people. This means identifying, challenging and restructuring or replacing assumptions, ideas, values, systems and practices that reflect a colonizer’s dominating influence.

I think the story of Zacchaeus provides insight into what decolonization might look like.

Luke 19 tells the story.  

As Jesus travels through Jericho, he crosses paths with Zacchaeus, a chief tax collector. Tax collectors were hated by Jews at that time and considered sinners because they collected taxes for the foreign occupiers. Zacchaeus was wealthy, presumably because of his work as a tax collector.  

Zacchaeus did not break any laws. He had acquired power and wealth by collaborating with Rome, the colonizing force. He was doing everything right in the eyes of the dominant culture. But his actions as a functionary of the Roman Empire were hurtful to the Jews, those oppressed by colonization. His people knew this, and Zacchaeus knew it, too.

Because he was a small man, Zacchaeus climbed a tree so he could see and hear, sensing the rightness of Jesus’ message. Jesus called him down from the tree, inviting Zacchaeus to be his host. 

Face to face with Jesus, Zacchaeus immediately gave half of his wealth to the poor. He balanced power by giving up power. He transferred half of his wealth to those injured by the power structure he benefited from. 

He laid out a reparations plan: For anyone he had harmed, he offered four times what he had unjustly taken.

After Zacchaeus pledged these things, Jesus declared, “Today salvation has come to this house. For the son of man came to seek and to save the lost.”

What might decolonization look like in the context of Oak Flat? How might it involve us?  

Working with the systems of colonization harms the oppressed. Many of us have retirement accounts invested in the mining industry and give little thought to those who might be impacted. Church institutions participate in financial systems rooted in extractive industry. As our society strives to move toward a carbon-neutral economy, we are especially anxious to justify extraction at the expense of the vulnerable for resources like copper.

It is not illegal to participate in financial processes that harm the vulnerable. In fact, it is considered wise by the dominant culture’s standards. Yet Jesus understood the plight of the vulnerable. He voiced a mandate to bring good news to the poor and freedom for the oppressed. Zacchaeus responded to Jesus’ mandate by seeking right relationship through repair.  

What might we learn from this story about seeking repair? For Zacchaeus, it brought healing to him and his entire community. Perhaps repair heals every-one. That is indeed good news. 

Sarah Augustine

Sarah Augustine, a Pueblo (Tewa) woman, lives with her family in White Swan, Washington. She is the Executive Director of Read More

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