Well, they’re native, so….
Over the last few weeks, I’ve had half a dozen or so conversations where some version of the phrase above was used to “explain” or set the table for an explanation of some undesirable situation or turn of events. Often, the conversations have been with Christians. Always, the comment was presented as if it were utterly uncontroversial and unproblematic. As if that one word—“native”—said all that needed to be said. As if it were self-evident that the topic under discussion could quickly be summed up by whatever cluster of negative associations they happened to be able to squeeze into those six little letters. N-a-t-i-v-e.
My reaction to these statements usually looked (and felt) the same. I would sit in stunned silence for a few seconds (Did they really just say that?). Then, my blood would start to boil a little (Don’t they realize that I have Ojibway kids?! Don’t they know that I’ve spent all kinds of time trying to learn and write and speak and advocate around indigenous issues? How could they say something like this to me, of all people?!). Then, I would take a few deep breaths and think about the person and the place from which the statement was coming from. What have they experienced? What have they seen or failed to see? What options have I had for learning and growth that haven’t been open to them? This would usually lead to a more measured and muted, less selfish and reactionary response. Usually.
During the season between Easter and Pentecost, our church has been focusing each week on the lectionary texts from the book of Acts. We have called this series “Resurrection on the Move” as a way of getting at the “now what?” or “so what?” questions that inevitably arise each year when Jesus pops out of the tomb. “Resurrection” sounds wonderful and springy and full of hope. And then we step out into the same old death-saturated world. One of the ways of getting at the question, “What difference does resurrection make?” is to look at the early church and ask the question, “What difference did resurrection make?” What did it look like two thousand years ago when those first followers of Jesus were shot as if out of a cannon into the Roman world proclaiming news of a crucified Jesus raised from the dead and vindicated by God, of the hope of repentance and the forgiveness of sins?
We’ve only dropped down into a few stories over the past five weeks, but one of the things that I have observed throughout this brief tour through Acts is how often resurrection on the move meant that those who were once viewed with suspicion or indifference or disdain or fear were now embraced and related to as equals.
- Acts 9:1-20: Saul, a fire-breathing Jewish religious zealot bent on destroying the Jesus way ends up being struck blind on the road and becomes a missionary to the Gentiles.
- Acts 11:1-18: Peter’s lunch options get expanded by a vision on a rooftop that leads him to sharing a table with and baptizing an “unclean” Roman general.
- Acts 16:9-15: Paul’s Holy Spirit-fuelled detour into Macedonia kicks off with a theological discussion not with the male intellectual elites but with a group of Gentile women beside a river, one of whose home will become his home base and refuge after getting abused in a Philippian prison.
It’s pretty easy to read these stories as relatively harmless and inspiring snapshots of the rise of the early church. Most of us read as Gentiles, of course, so we’re generally pleased about this generic “welcoming the outsider” motif. It seems obvious to us that the church was meant to stretch beyond the boundaries of its Jewish origins (how else could Jesus have obtained the pleasure of our company if the story hadn’t taken this turn?!). So we read these stories almost as if they express an entirely logical and inevitable trajectory. A foregone conclusion.
But there was nothing logical or inevitable about the way things went. At each step of the journey, deeply rooted and identity-reinforcing assumptions about others had to be upended. At each stage of the journey, religiously motivated convictions about clean/unclean, worthy/unworthy, chosen/rejected, friend/enemy had to be challenged and exposed as unworthy of the gospel of peace. Resurrection on the move meant that words like “Gentile,” “Roman,” and “woman” had to be emptied of existing content and replaced with something like, “child of God” or “equal” or “neighbour.”
If that’s what resurrection on the move meant then, it surely must mean the same for us now. Our words might be different ones. We don’t have many Roman centurions kicking about (at least not in Lethbridge). But we do have people and words like “native.” Or “Muslim.” Or “refugee.” Or “gay.” Or “Trump supporters.” We have all kinds of people carrying around all kinds of designators that mark “them” off as separate or undesirable or dangerous or somehow other. We still have lonely, lazy little words that we consider up to the task of explaining away whatever bad things we’re looking to explain away.
As children of the resurrection, it seems to me that we ought to be at the front of the queue of those who refuse the cheap-words-as-explanations that enjoy such easy traction in popular discourse.
When resurrection moved out into the Roman world, it crossed boundaries that once seemed impenetrable and invited all, as equals, to repentance, baptism, and new life in the way of Jesus. This could not have happened unless those first followers of Jesus had been available and open to be converted away from habits of viewing others through the lens of cheap labels and toward having their hearts and minds retrained to see all people as Jesus saw them.
It wasn’t an easy project. It didn’t “take” right away. Many never really got it (witness Paul’s endless battles with those seeking to make Gentile converts conform to Jewish identity norms. Or, say, most of Christian history!). It has never been a particularly easy or convenient project. But it remains a necessary one. We still need costly words like resurrection to save us from the cheaper and easier words we so easily cling to.
The image above is Fritz Scholder’s “American Portrait with One Eye,” from a recent piece at the Huffington Post.