White Church, Red Power

Deloria’s recent book Red Earth, White Lies places tribal tradition and Western science in conversation around the question of planetary history. Framing scientific narratives as secular manifestations of religious beliefs and practices, he wants to disrupt the epistemological authority of scientific orthodoxy while simultaneously recovering the historical knowledge contained in tribal mythic narratives. This juxtaposition of colonial ideologies and indigenous realities has been a familiar weapon in Deloria’s discursive arsenal and is evident in his earliest writings. The essays in this first section explore the complex relationship between Christian denominations and tribal activists, between institutions and movements, between the static center and the dynamic margins. The dialectic of rationality and experience is always evident in social relations; here we find Deloria examining this process at the conflicted intersections of religion and racial politics in America.

“Missionaries and the Religious Vacuum” is chapter five of Custer Died for Your Sins and constitutes his first published critique of institutional Christianity, though it picks up on themes he explored four years earlier in his widely circulated parody “The Missionary in a Cultural Trap” (see appendix). Deloria’s assessment of the missionary enterprise and its aftermath highlights the symbiotic relationship between cross-cultural proselytism and land dispossession in colonial contexts. Institutionalizing religious colonialism in tribal communities has produced the state of mutual dependency that still exists wherever there are mission churches on reservation lands, and declining congregations are justifiably threatened by the renewal of homeland traditions. “If and when native religion combines with political activism . . . ,” he predicts, “they are going to become extremely active in the coming Indian religious revival that many tribes expect in the next decade.” His perceptive analysis of the nascent traditionalist revival has turned out to be prophetic.

In the next two essays, Deloria surveys the highly publicized occupations and protests that made “Red Power” widely known, if not generally understood. “The Theological Dimension of the Indian Protest Movement” was originally published as a cover story (accompanied by an interview with Deloria) in The Christian Century, a liberal Protestant weekly news magazine. “Religion and Revolution Among American Indians” appeared a few months later in Worldview, a monthly publication of the Council on Religion and International Affairs, in a special issue examining U.S. culpability in several recent “regional” military conflicts. Both essays chronicle the rise of tribal political activism and explore “the relation of the present Indian movement to the problems, ideologies and energies of domestic America.” The occupation of Alcatraz Island raised the question of land as a fundamental dilemma; activists were widely misunderstood because they pursued goals that are religious in origin. Christian churches have exacerbated this situation by overlooking the importance of both nature and culture in favor of an other-worldly individualism. Out of this “mass of contradictions,” Deloria issues a call for reformed social relations and innovative tribal traditions, all grounded in a moral vision of human existence.

Deloria reflects on one of the key protest strategies of the sixties and seventies in “Non-Violence in American Society,” which was the lead article for a thematic issue of Katallagete–Be Reconciled, the quarterly journal of the Committee of Southern Churchmen based in Nashville, Tennessee. Struggling to make sense of the movement in the wake of the Watergate scandal, he examines the assumptions about human nature that undergird both political citizenship and religious commitment. We are still searching for a minimum definition of human decency on which to base our pursuit of social justice. Quoting an organic metaphor used by the biblical prophet Jeremiah, Deloria emphasizes the creative power of redemptive suffering and concludes that “the non-violent response to conditions is perhaps the most explosive method of change available to the human species.”

The last two essays in this section offer retrospective insights on the intersections of religion and racial politics. “The Churches and Cultural Change” is chapter five of The Indian Affair. This succinct assessment of Christian missions is more measured and balanced than the polemical criticisms of Custer Died for Your Sins, and Deloria concludes by emphasizing the vital role denominational churches can play as “a tangible expression of whatever sense of morality or integrity American society has left.” Describing the situation since 1960 as “the ‘ideological’ period of church involvement with American Indians,” he expands on “the decade of disaster” in his autobiographical account “GCSP: The Demons at Work.” This essay was originally presented at a conference on Episcopal church history and subsequently published in the Historical Magazine of the Protestant Episcopal Church for a special issue assessing that denomination’s recent outreach efforts. Deloria here offers a detailed case study of how one mainline denomination responded to the power movements. Criticizing the self-serving excesses of church officials and activist leaders alike, he concludes that effective social change must be rooted in dependable, long-term relationships. “We badly need a consistent and comprehensive theology which relates human experiences of divinity in an intelligent context and speaks to human conditions that the secularization of the old Christian worldview has created. We must understand our separate historical journeys and come to see ourselves as planetary peoples with responsibilities extending to all parts and beings of the universe. . . . We must come to see that real differences exist among the various groups that come into contact with ecclesiastical institutions and that these differences make it imperative that church programs are not conceived as a homogenous solution to be applied with force and intolerance to conditions and peoples.” This autobiographical narrative also depicts Deloria’s struggle as both insider and outsider to the institutional church as well as the activist movement, functioning alternately as advocate or critic depending on the situation and the audience, pushed and pulled from both directions, negotiating his own personal intersection of religion and racial politics.

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