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Maintaining Faith

Trail of Tears

It was 1540 the first time members of the Cherokee Nation saw Europeans, an expedition commanded by Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto. Luckily for the tribe, the expedition was just passing through.

But as the years passed, they and other Cherokee tribes did not fare as well. Future expeditions brought settlers and the building of forts and fortified towns. Although the Spanish eventually drew back in favor of more lucrative conquests, word had gotten out, and had spread.

Enter the English, who not only brought more incursions of adventurers, but also an escalation of violence not only in the face of the least show of resistance, but unprovoked attacks as well. But that was not all, for a great viral killer that the English had developed immunity to swept through the Cherokee Nation, killing more than half the population and leaving many others disfigured or ill for life.

This made it all the easier to set whole villages to the torch, killing the well along with the sick, and wiping out all vestiges of the disease before English settlers seized the lands and built settlements. But the warring against the Cherokee Nation continued, due to its sheer size, as it was and amazingly continues to be one of the largest of the confederated Native Nations.

Yet even that was not enough for those who wanted still more, or found that there were valuable resources on ancestral Cherokee lands. And thus the Indian Relocation Act was signed into law by that well-renowned humanitarian, Andrew Jackson. And it led to over twenty years of forced relocations of a number of Native Nations.

From 1838 into1839 it was the Cherokee’s turn, with the forced migration known as the Usedeeganana Digsawossdi, or Trail of Tears, a series of forced marches of up to four months and nearly a thousand miles from Tennessee and the Carolinas all the way to Oklahoma. Of the 16,000 Cherokee who were driven like human cattle, anywhere from two to eight thousand died on the way. There’s no way to know for sure, as the army personnel and contracted Indian-herders never bothered to keep an accurate count.

But this is where my family history comes in. My great-great-great-grandmother Marinara was Cherokee, and when she and her twin sister Leononi were young they lived in a village near the South Carolina / Tennessee border. We don’t know if they were fraternal or identical twins, but according to the stories passed down to me from my maternal grandmother, the two were inseparable. The birth of twins is a more rare occurrence among Native American tribes generally, so they were something of a novelty, which brought them even closer.

But that closeness ended abruptly when Marinara suddenly got very sick, and no one knew why. According to the story that has been handed down in my family, the tribal medicine man couldn’t tell whether she’d been bitten or stung by something, eaten something poisonous, or contracted a disease.

My grandmother felt it had something to do with her reproductive system, because not knowing what to do they eventually sent her to stay with her grandmother who was learned in herbs and natural medicine, especially those of benefit to women, and who had returned to her original tribe further into South Carolina after the death of her husband.

Whatever Marinara’s grandmother did, it had worked. But she had had to stay there for several months, and just when Marinara was to be returned to her parents and sister, the tribe received word that Marinara no longer had a home to return to.

The enforced marches had begun. Marinara never saw her sister or her parents again.

In considering the stories of indigenous suffering in this country and around the world, we see a parallel in the experience of Job.

Now by all reports Job was a pretty-much all around good egg. He had a good reputation around town, honored God, and did not engage in evil activities. Sounds almost too good to be true, doesn’t it? But that’s the story that’s come down to us, and who am I to doubt it.

Job was a good man, doing his job, supporting his family, being a good husband to his wife and father to his children, and perhaps having some nice clean fun with his friends. But meanwhile, unbeknownst to him, something is brewing up in heaven he probably would have wished he knew about. But he was to find out soon enough.

Now consider this heavenly scene for a moment: All the heavenly beings have come to pay their respects to God. And who shows up too but Satan! Well there are very few references to hell in the Bible and almost all of them in the New Testament. So let’s charitably assume Satan had a free pass to come up to heaven whenever he wished, or perhaps he was summoned.

If not in hell, Satan had at least been knocking about on earth and it was his opinion of God’s human creations that God wanted to challenge.

Now there’s a bit of backstory involving God, Satan, and Job that we’re missing in our Lectionary reading that skips almost a whole chapter in the split reading, and which influences the present action. Satan had been up to quite a bit of mischief in that missing part of the narrative, in the space of a day orchestrating things so that Job loses his wealth and livelihood, his livestock, his whole complement of servants, and all ten of his children. Yet even not knowing that, we have enough to go on, though, to know that Satan had tried to incite God against Job before, and both have something they still feel they need to prove.

And so God commends Satan to reconsider Job, extolling his sterling moral qualities and lifting Job up as a, well, Him-fearing man. He goes on to add that Job has always turned away from evil, And implies he simply cannot be tempted.

Uh Oh!

Now either God had forgotten he’s talking to the Infernal Dark Lord of Temptation himself, which I doubt, or he’s pretty darned sure of his hand. But Satan doesn’t buy it, and says so. So God puts Job in Satan’s power, with the one caveat that Satan spare his life. But Satan doesn’t care. He doesn’t feel he needs Job to die to prove his point. He figures he can get Job to cave waaaay before that.

Well, he can’t wait to get started – he is Satan after all. So what does he do? Why he inflicts hideous sores on Job, all over his body; but some things you can’t just scrape off with a piece of broken pot, as Job soon found out. And if that’s not enough, his wife chimes in tells him to just curse God and die. (Sigh) . You know, you just don’t find loving partners like that anymore. But Job doesn’t miss a beat in responding that in faith, as in life, you must take the good with the bad, the challenges with the blessings.

And so our score at the end of the first set stands as: Satan, 0; God, 1. And, so important a lesson in faith in the face of great challenge is the story of Job, that it goes on for the next three weeks in the Lectionary.

But fortunately we don’t have to wait until then, for we can find a related perspective among our readings, in Psalm 26, which according to some scholars was written by our old friend and gifted singer/psalmwriter King David, and by others an unknown supplicant during the Babylon Captivity. It really doesn’t matter which, as what’s important is that he addresses another facet of the same concerns, a stage we will see Job live into a bit further into his story.

The writer wishes assurance of God’s love and approval, and with just a shade of desperation born of doubt for he jumps right in to remind God of his integrity and his faith. And he offers to prove himself further if that is not enough, to be tried and tested by God, even as was Job, but hopefully not that much.

And he does something that many of us still do – human nature hasn’t really changed that much over the past few thousand years. He compares himself favorably against those he deems less pious, and adds that he avoids like the plague those he considers worthless, hypocritical, and wicked doers of evil. Instead he washes his hands in innocence, even as Pilot would rather do, singing loudly to the Lord songs of praise for his largesse. Do not, he says, kick me to the curb with those sinners. I’m not like them.

Why would God allow Satan to punish a good person like Job, and would he similarly punish our psalmist?

I have no answer to that. No preacher or pastor does. I wish I did; I wish there was something that I could do or say that would make a difference in this messed-up patriarchy of a society that puts sexual abusers and predators on the Supreme Court.

But this is where the thorny concept of theodicy comes in: Why does God allow bad things happen to good people and allow bad people to be rewarded for their misdeeds. Sometimes, and I just gotta say it, ineffability sucks!

Tomorrow is Indigenous Peoples’ Day!, a compassionate successor to Columbus Day and its paean to Colonialism. Although I concentrated on the Cherokee Nation in my opening story, it was just one front of what became to be defended by European apologists as Manifest Destiny, the God-given mandate to conquer. Unfortunately not a one ever consulted with God about it.

The same thing happened with other indigenous nations and tribes across the country, just as occurred before and has been taking place ever since around the world whenever dominant cultures found advantage or just took cruel pleasure oppressing indigenous populations.

It didn’t happen all at once in this country, of course, any more than it did anywhere else in the world. But it has been going on for a long time, beginning in the mid 1600s and still going strong today.

It is shocking to those that don’t know, and even to us that do, how little known or reported it is that Native Americans on reservations are being killed by American Law Enforcement at even a higher rate than police shootings of African Americans.

But there’s no purpose in engaging in the Oppression Olympics, as it’s a game that no one wins and everyone loses. However, it is indicative of the shear immensity of the problem and the deep roots that make the paradigm extremely difficult to change.

But we are making progress. We really are. Despite resurgence and escalations of racial prejudice, oppression, war and other violence, and a thousand other ways we could do so much better than we are doing, we are moving forward.

It is not a straight line on a graph; There are plenty of dips along the way, much darkness that has at times eclipsed the light. And I’m not saying it’s not going to get darker before it gets lighter. It may. It might taking hitting rock bottom or coming dangerously close before we finally get it.

Martin Luther King once said, paraphrasing the words of Theodore Parker a century before: The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice. But God created light for a greater reason than just physically illuminating our world and the whole darned universe. She created it as a beacon to our spirits. For just as a single candle dispels the darkness around it rather than being subsumed by it, so does God’s light promise ultimate illumination and eternal freedom from the darkness of consciousness humanity has fallen into.

It is the best of times and the worst of times; each age is, and we go on, for now. But for how much longer can we keep repeating the cycle until it crashes under its own weight of endless repetition? But at each juncture we have had the opportunity to break the cycle.

And it may well be that the seeming worsening of all around us means that that time is now, that we are at the crux of transformation, that like a caterpillar whose cocoon is about to burst, we are not approaching an end, but a new beginning.

And it is a freedom for all people; the indigenous and the colonizer, the oppressed And the oppressor. It won’t happen overnight and it surely won’t happen in a vacuum of inactivity; It will take the combined efforts of each one of us, in every word we utter, every action we take, and even which thoughts we give power to.

And so we call to you God, Great Spirit, not only to guide us, but to open our mouths to speak with your words; And open our ears to listen when it is another’s words that need to be spoken, and we need to hear. Use our hands, our feet, our minds as you will, for service to you is service to others and to ourselves.

Nasgi Winigalsda. Amen

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