Considering Weakness and Apathy

14.11.09

November 9, 2014

I found Bill Running Wolf Davis’ essay Disciples Missional Tokenism to American Indians: Legacy of the Doctrine of Christian Discovery posted on the Facebook Page Disciples Exchange last October 9. During the essay Running Wolf raises a number of questions and makes a few comments about the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) (Disciple(s)) historical and ongoing commitment to American Indian justice. Running Wolf (RW) doesn’t cut Disciples much slack in his essay; so, Facebook being the nonconfrontive space it is, few non-Indians risked commenting on RW’s thoughts. Being fair though, it takes more than a few sentences to ponder the many issues RW raises.

RW centers his thoughts on the Disciple denomination. However, I find many of his comments apply to every American Christian church: Catholic, Methodist, Mormon, Episcopal, Mennonite, et cetera. Additionally, I agree with a number of his observations and question a few. Seems like perfect stuff for conversation, and since this is Native American Heritage Month, I thought I would use RW’s essay to spur a few thoughts of my own over the course of the month.

Running Wolf’s essay opens with a quote from D. Duane Cummins 2009 book Disciples: A Struggle for Reformation. The quote is the concluding paragraph of Cummins’ Native American section.

Disciples’ ministry to Native Americans is accurately described as weak. Ironically, the lack of a strong missionary effort may have ended up being something of a positive. Protestant and Catholic mission work among Native Americans in many instances is believed to have bred destructive effects: a degeneration of Native cultures, societies, and institutions-in some cases warfare and even extinction.

RW writes, “…as D. Duane Cummins points out…Disciples have ignored the plight of the American Indian while patting themselves on the back for their apathy.” I tend to agree with RW’s assessment, not because of Cummins’ quote though, but in spite of it. Rather than calling Disciples on their apathy, the quote honors a history of weak ministry.

When Cummins writes, “Disciples’ ministry to Native Americans is accurately described as weak,” he properly assesses the denomination’s inability to establish a faithful relationship with American Indians. The comment becomes all the more striking when we consider that Cummins is a leader in Disciples history, who has access to 175 year’s of historical denominational resources, and yet is only able to pull together three pages on the American Indian/Disciple relationship over the course of some 277 pages. This alone suggests truth to RW’s concluding comment, “Disciples have ignored the plight of the American Indian…” However, Cummins’ augments RW’s thought when he writes, “Protestant and Catholic mission work among Native Americans in many instances is believed to have bred destructive effects…” By opting for “is believed,” rather than becoming accountable to the American Indian voice, and conclusively saying Protestant and Catholic mission work degenerated Native cultures, caused warfare, and engaged in bringing about extinction, Cummins, as a Disciples historian, exemplifies how Disciples have historically placed greater concern on not challenging (and reassuring) the denomination than struggling with injustices endured by American Indians.

The truth of Running Wolf’s concluding comment, “…while patting themselves on the back for their apathy,” is evident as Cummins concludes his paragraph,

Ironically, the lack of a strong missionary effort may have ended up being something of a positive. Protestant and Catholic mission work among Native Americans in many instances is believed to have bred destructive effects: a degeneration of Native cultures, societies, and institutions-in some cases warfare and even extinction.

When Cummins writes, “Ironically, the lack of a strong missionary effort may have ended up being something of a positive,” he pats the Disciple back for its lack of engagement in American Indian justice. Cummins creates a “positive” from a negative by essentially arguing Disciples exist outside the American Christian experience. In other words, Cummins argues Disciples are not those other Christians who engaged in “Protestant and Catholic mission work among Native Americans,” because, after all, they were a people weak in their missionary effort—it is unlikely many Yakama people would agree with that assessment, but that is for another day.

We do well to acknowledge Disciples were historically apathetic and weak when it came to justice for American Indians. I expect, though, a further reading and consideration of Running Wolf’s essay, in light of Cummins’ book, will show Disciples have not always been wholly unconcerned or weak regarding American Indian issues. Additionally, it is important to say I hear the apathy of which RW speaks, and Cummins’ “lack of a strong Missionary effort” as indicators of structural racism and not a reflection on the individual commitment, care, and concern of folk whom, through the generations, have lived their lives in community and alongside tribal people. Perhaps the question ahead lies neither in weakness nor in apathy, but rather does the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) grasp the structural injustices endured by American Indians in similar terms as American Indians?

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