Savages. It was not the Tlingit name for themselves. It was a name thrust upon them by people who did not know them; Americans who used it to describe Native Alaskans. Calling them savages acquitted Americans from the responsibility of listening and learning. After all, what can you learn from a savage? When a dominant culture puts a name on another, it is a point of control. Savages – wild, uncultivated, uncivilized, brutish, untamable, ferocious.
Americans knew their way of life was superior to the Native Alaskans and so they sought to bring civilization to these inferior people. The American goal regarding Alaskan Natives was to educate and assimilate. This had been going on for some time in the states and territories south. In 1885, the US government contracted with missionaries to provide state-funded education in Alaska. Children were forcibly removed from their villages and sent to the schools. This would not only introduce western concepts into the Alaskan children, but would bring them into the moral consciousness of Christian faith (thereby saving them from hell). Boarding schools were the norm in Alaska until the late 1940s.
Capt. Richard H. Pratt captured the predominant view among Americans with his statement regarding education for native born children, “kill the Indian to save the man.” At the schools, the children were forbidden to speak their languages, to tell their stories, to sing their songs or to dance their dances. They were acculturated into American values. Indoctrination. Years later when they were returned to their villages they no longer knew their language or culture or had any skills to bring to the village way of life. Powerless in their environment and unable to fit into either culture, their loss of identity lead to alienation, drinking, drugs, violence and suicide. Rather than assimilation, they experienced alienation.
Ernestine Hayes, Assistant Professor at UAS, gave a talk on Tlingit history in November, 2012, as part of the Evenings at Egan lecture series. She asked her audience to “suspend disbelief and imagine a future in which the United States itself was taken over by an unfamiliar civilization… what would we do if, in the year of 2015, three years from now, this American culture was suddenly subdued by one that believed theirs was the superior way of living, their god was the one true god, their language the only worthwhile speech, their history the only history that mattered?”
Do I have to wait until 2015? Do I need to suspend disbelief? Hasn’t something like that already been happening as America becomes increasingly hostile to Evangelical Christianity? I have seen Christianity reduced to superstition in the academy and listened as Christians are written off as unsophisticated and “clinging to guns and religion” – troglodyte, flat-earthers cornered by their own ignorance in the face of a sophisticated, progressive agenda. Wild, uncultivated, uncivilized, savage.
Recently I found myself driving behind a car with a bumper sticker that said, “So many Christians, so few lions” next to a bumper sticker that said “coexist.” How do I coexist with that? It would be beyond most of our sensibilities to imagine mounting a bumper sticker on our cars that said such things about Jews, Muslims or Hindus. Yet Christians seem to be fair game for ridicule. Christians are regularly lampooned in the media as ignorant and out-of-touch. To be fair, there are some high-profile Christians who beg to be lampooned, but the average Christian in America is probably a good contributor to American society.
The fact is that in our in our increasingly secularized America, Christianity has lost its dominance in the public arena. And not surprisingly, many Christians are seeing their way of life threatened by changes in our society. Many would regard our schools as places of indoctrination into a foreign way of thinking. Certainly it is nothing like the sweeping changes that overwhelmed the Native Alaskans, but they are changes nonetheless. Political decisions have been made that create dilemmas for many believers who want to both live by their convictions and at the same time obey their government. How do evangelicals live out a commitment to Jesus Christ in a country that is sometimes hostile towards our values?
Well, we are not without an example. Over 2500 years ago, Isaiah gave a warning given to the people of Judah…
For by people of strange lips and with a foreign tongue the Lord will speak to this people, to whom he has said, “This is rest; give rest to the weary; and this is repose”; yet they would not hear. And the word of the Lord will be to them precept upon precept, precept upon precept, line upon line, line upon line, here a little, there a little, that they may go, and fall backward, and be broken, and snared, and taken. (Isaiah 28:11-13, ESV)
The people of God were under judgment for their neglect of foreigners, widows and orphans. The charge? Injustice. Even “good” people would take the long walk to Babylon. In fact, Jeremiah told the people to plan on a long time in captivity and to make homes in Babylon and live as God’s people in that society (Jeremiah 29:4-14). Isaiah spoke of a time when His obstinate people would be under the yoke of people who were not like them. They were to be exiled into Babylon and be ruled by people who spoke a different language and believed in other gods. Through these oppressors God would speak to his people. He would rebuild their faith precept by precept until they humbled themselves under the hand of God. Only then would He restore them.
Nations are not judged with respect to eternal consequence, since they are temporal. Rather they are judged in the here and now. Is it possible that the injustices we have ignored (thereby tacitly approved), to Native Americans, slaves and the unborn are coming under judgment? Are we listening to false prophets, like the ones Jeremiah warned of, who said that they would be led back to their city in triumph?
I am always hopeful for a change in the heart of my country. No, I am not putting trust in a particular political party. My hope is in God’s people, who “even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame. (1 Peter 3:14-16, ESV)”
Maybe it is time for the Christian church in America to take a lesson from people who have walked through suffering, marginalization and obscurity; people who held onto their identity and taught it in precious story to their children. They stood for righteousness and brought challenges to the prevailing culture, at times with risk to their own lives. It is time for our theology, formed by our expectation of triumph, to give way to a theology learned through suffering in the humble dependence on the presence and faithfulness of God.
It is hard to believe that this country would be at odds with Christianity. Impossible?
Well… many of us savages have already suspended disbelief.