Every so often we meet someone who tells the truth so plainly and persistently that our worldview rocks, then adjusts. Thomas King is like that.
In his recent book, The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America, King tells a story every North American Christian ought to hear. He is aboriginal (First Nations, Native American, Original American, American Indian — choose your term), but he writes for a wider audience. In fact, the book could be read and applied locally in dozens of nations around the globe. So it’s also for the whole global community.
From the inside and with amazing intellectual breadth, he tells the story of the experience of North American Indians since the invasion of the continent by European explorers and settlers with a wonderful mix of wisdom, humor, cynicism, anger and love. The stories are known to most of us — hundreds of broken treaties, massacres of native peoples amounting to genocide, and land grabs (both Canadian and U.S.) which he shows continue right up to the present.
Yet somehow King is optimistic enough to maintain a hard-to-define but real hope for the future. “I’m sorry that I won’t be around when the next millennium rolls into town,” he says.
Wow. The story line is one of extermination, forced assimilation and seeming hopelessness for aboriginal peoples who face the steam rollers of a conquering civilization that incessantly overwhelms and marginalizes. Nevertheless, there persists an underlying confidence in the possibility of human change.
King does not laud Christianity. He connects Christianity closely with Western civilization and blames the plight of North American native peoples on both a civilization and its religion.
He writes, “The problem [for Indians] was and continues to be unexamined confidence in Western civilization and the unwarranted certainty of Christianity. And arrogance.” Christianity is “the initial wound in the side of Native culture.”
Of all the many indictments of Christianity in the contemporary West, King’s stings more deeply than most. Not because it is a lonely voice. There’s nothing particularly new or different about calling attention to the “unwarranted certainty” of Christianity. Every university sophomore has heard it.
Nor because it is a powerful voice. In grad school, my New Testament professor once said: “My current position is that God is dead and Jesus is a myth.” A leading scholar in his field, his, too, was a powerful voice.
Rather, King’s indictment stings because of whom he represents and who we are. His words come from the heart of a ravished people, and most of us North American Anabaptists are among the ravishers.
We all have our certainties, otherwise we would cease to be human. Whether our certainties are justice, fairness, tolerance, absolute relativism, moral absolutism, free speech or the resurrection of Jesus — we have them. But when are they rightly judged “unwarranted” by others who do not hold them?
The answers are not easy. For sure, it matters how we hold them. Yes, we have often held our Christian “certainties” in wrong ways. King shows how we and others have held them wrongly in relation to the native peoples of North America.
Ervin Stutzman in Jacob’s Choice (Herald Press) tells the old story of one Amish Mennonite family’s decision not to strike back with deadly force when attacked by inconvenient Indians of colonial America. That’s a great starting place. Where do we go from there?
Richard Showalter, of Landisville, Pa., is chair of Mennonite World Conference’s Mission Commission.