STARTING DIFFICULT CONVERSATIONS ABOUT RACE AND IMMIGRATION
On the first Monday morning in November, Mark Charles stood before a crowd of hundreds in the B.J. Haan Auditorium. When he opened his mouth to speak, no one in the room understood. The unfamiliar words were Navajo, and comprised a traditional Navajo introduction that placed Charles in a genealogy connecting him to four distinct clans. In rehearsing his heritage, Charles began with “the wooden shoe people,” the clan of his mother’s mother, a woman of Dutch descent; he ended with the clan of his father’s father, Tódich’ii’nii, “the bitter water people,” one of the original clans of the Navajo nation.
That moment of disorientation set the tone for the rest of his presentation, titled, “The Trauma of the Doctrine of Discovery.” “I’m going to tell you something that’s going to make you very uncomfortable,” he acknowledged up front. “I want to present a story that most of you have never heard.” The story would be difficult to listen to, Charles said, but there would be hope at the end of it. “You’re going to be tempted to walk out. Don’t. Stay in the conversation,” Charles said.
Mark Charles is the director of Five Small Loaves, an organization that seeks to “forge a path of healing and reconciliation” in our nation by engaging issues of race, faith, and history from a biblical perspective.
He blogs at the Wireless Hogan and travels throughout the country, speaking with urgency about issues facing native people today.
Charles opened his talk that cold November morning by telling a story—a history—that often goes untold. The story begins in 1452, with an edict from the Pope that justified European conquest of “undiscovered” lands and sanctified the enslavement of those who lived there. This and other “Papal Bulls” of the period led to a “doctrine of discovery,” Charles says, fueling a period of European exploration and imperial expansion that many considered to be divinely ordained.
The doctrine’s consequences have reverberated through the history of the Western world, Charles says, surfacing in clauses in our founding documents that dehumanize indigenous people and African Americans, and setting in motion a chain of events that included, among other tragedies, forced marches of native tribes from their ancestral lands. Many generations of Native Americans have made their homes on the reservations of their displaced ancestors, unfamiliar landscapes on society’s margins, where—despite vibrant cultural traditions that endure—poverty, substance abuse, domestic violence, and teen suicides are symptoms of a traumatic past.
STARTING A CONVERSATION ABOUT RACE
Charles’ presentation at Dordt represents a continuation of challenging conversations about race that began, formally at least, last April, when another First Mondays speaker, Dr. Christena Cleveland, was invited to speak about racial reconciliation within the church and share insights from her book, Disunity in Christ: Uncovering the Hidden Forces that Keep Us Apart. The conversations speakers like Cleveland and Charles begin in an auditorium full of people continue on the miniature stages of classrooms and dormitories, in guided group discussions or informally over coffee.
“We hope that each First Mondays speaker will challenge students to fully and thoughtfully engage important cultural conversations,” says Aaron Baart, Dordt’s dean of chapel and an organizer of the series. “We want to provide students with an opportunity to hear firsthand the most important and most articulate voices that are leading this cultural dialogue. Speakers are helping us understand what it means to do all of these things as knowledgeable and unafraid followers of Christ,” Baart says.
Dordt College junior Heather Kaemingk has attended many First Mondays talks during her three years at Dordt. She found Charles’ talk to be eye-opening but difficult. A social work major, she remembers learning about the “Trail of Tears” in school, but most of the history Charles related was new to her.
“My memory of how we were taught history is basically: ‘Conquest, victory, freedom,’” says Kaemingk. “But that’s not the whole story.” Aside from learning an incomplete history, she says the geographic isolation of most reservations means that the problems many Native American families face are tucked away from view. “It’s easier for us to just forget, to move on,” says Kaemingk.
This moving on interferes with our ability to heal the racial divisions that run deep in our nation, Charles says. According to him, these divisions run along fault lines created by two competing stories about our national past:
“We have a dominant culture that remembers a history of discovery, expansion, opportunity, and growth. And we have minority communities who have the lived experience of stolen lands, broken treaties, cultural genocide, slavery, internment camps, mass incarceration, segregation, Jim Crow laws. We have no common memory,” he says.
That history still shapes some peoples’ experience of America today, Charles says. It is reflected in our laws and institutions, in the ways we organize our neighborhoods, and in the economic and educational opportunities open—or not—to members of minority groups. “Until we can acknowledge that, we’re never going to have justice here,” he says. In order to move toward healing, he believes we need to begin the process of building a common memory.
Without “a shared past,” we will never achieve true community, Charles says. And while that’s true in our national life, he says, it’s perhaps especially true in our churches, where we have a biblical imperative to overcome division and seek unity in Christ.
Dr. Jeff Taylor, Dordt College professor of political science, says acknowledging the hard truths of our nation’s history doesn’t mean we can’t also be patriotic.
“If you love your country, that doesn’t mean you need to be blind to its weaknesses, its faults,” Taylor says. “You might think we’re exceptional, but it’s important to realize: the United States is not God’s chosen people; our country is not the Church. And when it comes down to it, even the Church has lots of flaws.”
Taylor says we don’t need to agree with everything Charles has to say, but it’s important to listen to people like him, who challenge us to reconsider what we thought we knew about our nation’s history.
“When it comes to perceptions of the United States, our history and culture, we’re seeing two largely different narratives,” says Taylor. “When one of those narratives is your narrative, it can be very hard to make sense of the other one.”
Making sense of the other narrative is precisely what we, as Christians, are called to do, says Dr. Neal De Roo, Dordt philosophy professor and fellow of the Andreas Center for Reformed Scholarship and Service, which co-sponsors the First Mondays series. The stories we tell about our past matter, De Roo says. They have the power to shape our sense of who we are as a people, and to enlarge—or limit—our understanding of the body of Christ, which transcends borders of race, culture, and nationhood.
“First, we need to be open to hearing that other people have different experiences of America than we have,” he says. “Some peoples’ experiences of America are not positive, or they’re not uniformly positive.” Second, and more difficult, “We need to talk about the ways in which our different experiences of America might be at least partially attributable to racial differences,” he says.
There isn’t just one American story; there are many, says De Roo. Until we’re willing to listen to all of them, “we can’t really have reconciliation.”
“To truly represent the nature of the body of Christ, we have to be able to have these hard conversations, and we need to have them in a spirit of reconciliation,” he says. Otherwise, we risk drifting apart, merely tolerating one another when we are called to something more radical than that: love.
Dordt sophomore Adam Ter Haar agrees. “The most important part of having these kinds of conversations is being willing to listen, even if someone has things to say that we don’t want to hear,” he says. A criminal justice and social work major, he has learned in social work courses that “there’s always more to the story than we can see.”
“There’s a reason people feel the way they do, and in order to move forward, we can’t just dismiss them,” he says. “We need to honestly consider, ‘Is there a problem? And am I the one who can’t see it?’”
A PATH TOWARD HEALING
“Our people are literally crying out in pain,” says Charles. “Our history is dark and the path forward is difficult.” Yet his message is ultimately a hopeful one. He believes the Church, in particular, can play a special role in forging a path toward healing and reconciliation, and he sees the Old Testament tradition of lament as a hopeful way forward.
“Lament is a powerful tool, given by God to his followers, through which we can address these deep sins and omissions of our history,” Charles says. By creating a platform where native voices can be heard, where their stories can be shared, we can open ourselves to the pain that lies buried—and to the hope that lies buried there, too.
This kind of listening can be a “de-centering” experience that challenges our own worldview and ultimately enriches it, says Dr. Jason Lief, Dordt theology professor. For the past several years, Lief has helped organize Prairie Serve, a service opportunity for area high school students (see page 14). The project brings students and youth leaders to the Winnebago Reservation in Nebraska and provides students an opportunity to listen to—and learn from—native voices.
“We go to the reservation to see how God is present and at work there and, in working alongside the native people, to have our own worldviews challenged,” Lief says. After hearing Charles speak on campus, Lief was inspired to create more intentional spaces for listening and learning through Prairie Serve in the future. He hopes it will be one way to, in the words of Charles, “allow God to deepen our understanding of our history, and help us see a way forward.”
WHO IS MY NEIGHBOR?
Like Charles, Matthew Soerens prompted hard and thoughtful reflection on another issue with racial dimensions: immigration. In doing so, he wrestled with what the Bible might tell us about our obligations toward our immigrant neighbors.
Soerens visited Dordt as September’s First Mondays speaker, and his presentation was prescient. At the time of his visit, the terrorist attacks in Paris and Beirut were still more than a month off, and our national conversation about immigration had yet to be reignited by a refugee crisis—five years in the making—that acquired sudden urgency among media outlets and on Twitter feeds. State governors had yet to announce their borders were closed to those fleeing the violence of their home country, and Americans had yet to grapple anew with how to balance the demands of safety and compassion.
Especially in a polarized political climate, immigration can become a shorthand for speaking about racial and religious differences, registering some of our deepest prejudices and fears. According to Soerens, 69 percent of surveyed white evangelicals perceive immigrants as a drain on economic resources and a
threat to law and order. That’s not surprising, he says: “We’re taught to think of strangers as people who are a potential threat to us. The Bible doesn’t promise that immigrants aren’t a threat to you. But it does command us to love them. And to welcome them. And it does so repeatedly.” He points to passages in First Timothy and Titus, where hospitality is held up as a requirement for leadership in the church, and to Hebrews 13, which says in welcoming the stranger, we may welcome “angels without knowing it.”
WHAT DOES THE BIBLE HAVE TO SAY ABOUT IMMIGRATION?
Soerens himself grew up in a “wonderful Christian home, in a Bible-believing church,” and yet for most of his life, he had never stopped to consider what the Bible had to say about immigration. He’s not alone. A mere 12 percent of surveyed Christians said the Bible was their primary influence in how they thought about immigrants.
“For most Americans, I think it’s fair to say that immigration is a political issue, it’s an economic issue, it’s a cultural and social issue. And it is all those things—but it is also a biblical issue,” says Soerens.
The word for immigrant appears 92 times in the Old Testament, says Soerens. Many heroes of faith were immigrants: Abraham, Joseph, even Jesus himself, who with his parents fled persecution under a tyrannical government as a boy. Throughout the Old Testament, the immigrant, or foreigner, is mentioned alongside widows, orphans, and the poor—society’s most vulnerable groups. This theme is picked up in the New Testament. Christians are called to practice hospitality, or philosenia—literally, “to practice loving strangers,” a command embodied powerfully by Jesus.
“This isn’t just one or two verses we maybe missed somewhere in the Minor Prophets,” says Soerens. “This is actually a pretty consistent theme as you go through the Bible.” As an immigration counsellor with World Relief, Soerens assists churches in understanding the complexities of immigration from a biblical perspective; he is also the co-author of Welcoming the Stranger: Justice, Compassion & Truth in the Immigration Debate.
Until he heard Soerens speak on campus, Dordt sophomore Adam Ter Haar had never stopped to consider immigration from a biblical perspective. “I think we sometimes try and put our Christian perspective on a shelf,” he says, “and instead of asking what the Bible has to say on an issue, we try to think from the perspective of whatever political party we identify with.” As a criminal justice and social work double major, Ter Haar takes seriously his future obligation to protect American citizens from potential threats. He thinks we can find a way to balance caution and compassion, and he appreciates Soerens’ call to wrestle through this complicated issue while rooted firmly in the Word of God.
God’s command to us in his Word is unequivocal, says Soerens: we must love and seek justice for the immigrants living among us. He acknowledges that moving from biblical principles to policy is difficult, and the issues raised in the process are complex. There are no easy answers. But the immigration system is broken, Soerens says. It is slow moving and burdensome, and many immigrants must wait years—sometimes decades—to secure authorization for their family members to join them in the states. The system is also outdated, he says. Largely unchanged since 1965, the laws haven’t kept pace with economic and political change: “Our laws are saying, ‘Stay out,’ while our economy is saying, ‘Welcome; we need you,’” he says.
Soerens says many immigrants to the United States are fleeing violence or persecution in their countries of origin, or they’re seeking greater economic opportunity and a better life for themselves and their families. A minority of them come unlawfully, or overstay their visas—not because they’re criminals, but because the U.S. visa system is backlogged and difficult to navigate. These immigrants, documented or not, play a vital role in our national economy, he says, leading to willful ignorance on the part of employers and selective enforcement of immigration laws. Under these circumstances, the meaning of the law begins to erode. Soerens doesn’t mince words: illegal immigration is wrong. But he believes we need to remove the incentives to migrate unlawfully, and to find ways to keep families together.