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Standing Rock is a new turn in Christian ties with native Americans


November 27, 2016
By Erasmus
The Economist

WHATEVER the final result of the huge, long-running protests by native Americans against the Dakota Access Pipeline, the demonstrations will surely be remembered as a landmark in relations between organised religion, Christianity in particular, and indigenous people. Along with representatives of over 200 indigenous groups from across the New World, camped out at the Standing Rock Reservation since April, Christian clergy have been adding their voice to the protests in multiple ways.

Given that Pope Francis called for a rapid switch away from fossil fuels in his environmental encyclical, you might expect the radical end of the Catholic church to be the religious community most intensely engaged in this cause. But it is liberal or "mainline" Protestant churches who have made the running. If there is one individual who personifies Christian support for the indigenous protests, it is the Reverend John Floberg, who is responsible for Episcopal (Anglican) parishes on the North Dakota side of Standing Rock.

He co-ordinated the actions of 500 clergy and lay people from 20 different religious groups who gathered at the camp on November 3rd, and he has persuaded his own denomination's leadership, including Michael Curry, the African-American presiding bishop of the Episcopal church, to play an active part in opposing the line's completion. Although the Episcopal church is firmly on the liberal side of America's religious spectrum, this is still new territory for a religious group which for years was the spiritual home of the nation's social and cultural elite.

Mr Floberg has called the protests "the most powerful experience I have had in 25 years at Standing Rock" while also lamenting that the demonstrations had triggered a "racist response" in some quarters in North Dakota. Leaders of the United Methodist Church, which counts plenty of indigenous people, as well as oil workers, among its flock, have joined the Anglicans in opposing the $3.8 billion project. The pipeline, which is nearly complete, is intended to run nearly 1,200 miles from oil fields in North Dakota before connecting to an existing line in Illinois. Its parent company argues that it will provide safer transport than trucks or trains; the indigenous protesters fear pollution of their drinking water and disturbance of sacred lands and burial sites. Some of this, they say, has already occurred.

Bruce Ough, a Methodist bishop responsible for the Dakotas and Minnesota, is one of the senior clergy who has linked the pipeline controversy to a "spiritual battle" over much broader issues, including respect for the indigenous understanding of sacred land. "This is a protest about the stewardship of God's creation and justice for the indigenous peoples of the Great Plains," he has said.

Although plenty of individual Catholics of a radical persuasion have become involved in the protests, this is a rather awkward issue for the Catholic church at an institutional level. Indigenous groups have long been pressing the Vatican to renounce, more explicitly than hitherto, the "doctrine of discovery" whereby popes of the 15th century underpinned the conquest of the New World, and the accompanying subjugation of native Americans, by the Spanish and Portuguese. Some indigenous leaders were disappointed when Pope Francis went ahead with the canonisation of Junipero Serra, a founder of Catholic missions on the American West coast, who is either a hero or a villain in the history of native Americans, depending on how you read the past.

Starting with Pope John Paul II, all recent pontiffs have acknowledged that the Catholic church has done great wrong to indigenous peoples and owes them a profound apology. But the standard line on the "doctrine of discovery", which is still cited in secular American courts, is that it has already been rescinded through papal statements in the 16th century. America's radically-minded nuns, grouped in the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, are among those who say that a clearer renunciation is still needed. The Episcopal, Methodist and Presbyterian churches have all declared their opposition to the doctrine.

Compared with that of any other Christian group, the involvement of the Catholic church with the indigenous peoples of the New World has been the longest and messiest: cleaning up that mess will take a while longer yet. 

http://www.economist.com/blogs/erasmus/2016/11/church-and-dakota-pipeline-protests