by The Rev. Dr. Stephen J. Sidorak, Jr.
The venue for the 2012 General Conference is a perfect case study on
the need for an Act of Repentance to Indigenous Persons. Historically, Tampa was a deportation center
for the forced removal of Native Americans from their ancestral lands. Native people were unwillingly and
unmercifully shipped like cargo across the Gulf of Mexico to New Orleans. From
New Orleans, they joined countless others on the “Trail of Tears.”
This is the backdrop to the
2012 General Conference Act of Repentance to Indigenous Peoples service
scheduled for April 27. The General Commission on Christian
Unity and Interreligious Concerns (GCCUIC) was assigned the task to help lead
our church toward a service of “Healing Relationships with Indigenous Persons”
[Resolution #3323]. How meaningfully we
can carry out an Act of Repentance will depend on how faithfully we discern the
need for it—historically, intellectually, morally, and emotionally. Every United Methodist is invited to join in
an intensive, even exhaustive, conversation about a heinous record of crimes
against humanity, often perpetrated in the name of Christ Jesus. We are called
to acknowledge our complicity in these crimes.
A fundamental feature of the
Act of Repentance at General Conference will be to acknowledge the need to
repent of a tragic history that
resulted in what was described by theologian George E. Tinker as the “cultural
genocide” of Native Americans and indigenous peoples worldwide
GCCUIC has crisscrossed the
connection hosting listening sessions on the 2012 Act of Repentance. What we have learned by listening to Native Americans and the indigenous
peoples of the world is a new way to hear
in untainted ways their stories and their histories which opens our eyes,
boggles our minds and breaks our hearts.
The basic lesson learned can be summarized in the words of an old
friend: “The truth will make you free, but first it makes you miserable.” This may be the beginning of repentance—to be
made miserable by the truth.
Unable to face the truth, we tend to allow ourselves to
wallow in amnesia. We see no need to re-member indigenous peoples. Often this unforgivable forgetting takes the
form of “national amnesia,” as Martha Minow termed it her book Between Vengeance and Forgiveness. I suspect it can take the form of
institutional amnesia, too. Even
churches can refuse to re-member
indigenous peoples. One of the hopes we
have is that the 2012 Act of Repentance will enable The United Methodist Church
its Native American membership on this continent and its indigenous membership
throughout the world.
There has been
heated controversy and actual conflict over whether it is desirable or feasible
to carry out an act of repentance that does justice to both the indigenous
peoples of the world and Native Americans.
We dare not dilute the unique and legitimate claims of each on the
conscience of our church. Nevertheless,
the 2012 General Conference must keep faith with the letter and the spirit of
listening session hosted by GCCUIC for indigenous Filipinos in Manila, we
gained a profound, new glimpse into the two types of sin of which we must
repent. Certainly, there were sins of commission committed in the past.
But indigenous Filipinos enabled us to understand that there were and are undoubtedly guilty sins of omission
which we are guilty of committing. These occur when church leaders face
“the moment to decide, in the strife of truth with falsehood, for the good or
evil side” and shrink cowardly from such a moral and momentous decision. As a consequence, we must repent both
for what we have done, and for what we
have left undone.
Repentance will take nothing
less than a radical reorientation to the historical narrative most of us have
been traditionally taught and dutifully learned. One dictionary defines the
meaning of repent as “to turn from sin and dedicate oneself to the amendment of
one’s life.” Repentance is defined as “the action or process of repenting
(especially) for misdeeds and moral shortcomings.” The United Methodist Church
is called now to turn around—the beginning of repentance.
We need to be aware of the raw feelings of those who have suffered,
and continue to suffer, from what psychiatrists call “historical trauma.” The
horrific reality of historical trauma is that it lives on in the lives
of the survivors and the descendants of the survivors. We will never get a grip
on our need for repentance until we grasp the breadth and depth of the
historical injuries sustained by indigenous ancestors and the lasting wounds
inflicted upon their descendants.
Moral clarity about the historical record will be the essential
antecedent condition for any act of repentance by our church. As we heard, really listened, to the stories told by indigenous peoples, we were
haunted by the old proverb: “history repeats itself.” In his book When Sorry Isn’t Enough, Roy L. Brooks argues that there is an
“undercurrent of fear that exists among survivors of human injustices that the
very same atrocity might be revisited upon them.” Are we incapable of being sensitive to this
We, the people of The United Methodist Church, are being called to
confession. It is imperative for us to grapple spiritually with the
ecclesiological implications attendant to this Act of Repentance and to provide
ample and compelling evidence of demonstrable denominational contrition for our
collective responsibility. The time to begin this process is the 2012 General
Conference; the place is Tampa. Let us begin anew.
Such is the hope and prayer of GCCUIC.
Please visit GCCUIC’s special display booth on the 2012 Act of
Repentance to become better equipped to “listen, learn and lead” in the future.
* Sidorak, an ordained elder in the Rocky Mountain
Conference of the United Methodist Church, is general secretary of the General
Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns with offices in New