There's a particular ministry that I started listening to back in 2011 that really helped me in my spiritual journey. They have a plethora of sermons and articles about Biblical truth that answered many of the questions I had as a young believer. I am grateful for their ministry, but that doesn't mean I haven't noticed a fatal flaw in it as well.
Last night, they kicked off a series that I thought might be interesting, so I set my alarm and made sure to tune in to YouTube in time to catch the broadcast. The pastor was only moments in when he mentioned dressing up like pilgrims and "Indians" as a kid, associating it with the quintessential American experience. He followed that up with the backstory of why the pilgrims came to America, and doubled down on the heroism of the pilgrims by asserting their bravery for traveling to the undeveloped "New World." In the midst of this narrative he casually repeated what people would have been saying about America: "there are cannibals and savages there; you could be eaten!" As though that weren't cringe-y enough, he continued down this theme of glorifying the pilgrims with a phrase similar to "we are pilgrims passing through the Earth."
It was at that point that I had to stop listening. I want to try to provide some balance and discussion about this issue, because I see it often, and it does more harm to the Kingdom of God than I believe those who perpetuate it realize.
Let's start with the fact that none of what this pastor was saying was untrue. At 33 years old, it is true that if you dig through my mother's photo albums you will in fact find a photo of 3 or 4 year old me at my preschool dressed up as a Native American. He was not wrong in the assumption that most people his age had that experience as a child or that many would relate to that sentiment. What is wrong with the statement is that there is no acknowledgement of growth and recognition that it may be a tradition we should not be continuing.
Throughout the sermon, the pastor refers to indigenous tribes as "Indians" without any indication that this is an incorrect term. This would be like him referring to black people as "coloreds" or "Negros"—can you image a pastor standing before the people saying "We all gathered around to watch the Negros play sports when we were kids"? Yes, I know, pilgrims and Native Americans sounds weird to the ears because we're used to the phrase "pilgrims and Indians," but that brings me to the second gaffe in his sermon.
Each of us starts life in ignorance. As I said, I too grew up in the era where it was normal to dress up as a Native American (particularly once Disney released Pocahontas and people were dressing up specifically as her for Halloween). However, 33 year old me is aware that this is disrespectful and could be likened to blackface in terms of how someone from an indigenous tribe might feel. If I were to show a picture of myself from childhood partaking in the activity, I would acknowledge my growth from that point in my life until now; I would point out that even though it was common practice then it's not acceptable now. This is the major issue with the sermon in general, lack of awareness or acknowledgement.
Lastly, the pastor is probably right that people in England viewed America as a place were there were "savages" and "cannibals"—it is factually correct in stating that is how Europeans felt about the native population. Again, what he said isn't wrong, but the way he said it was so casual and the reason he was able to say it so casually is because he is removed from the situation. The words are not offensive or hurtful to him because they were not aimed at his people. To him this is simply a piece of history that everyone already knows. In fact, he may have mentally assumed people knew it was wrong, but he didn't verbalize that the way Europeans saw Native Americans was both inhumane and un-Christianly.
Out of Touch
How is it that I, as a black person, can listen to the sermon and instantly feel uncomfortable for my Native American brothers and sisters, but this white pastor remained oblivious? How is it that I, as a "lay person," can see how this would turn people away from the gospel, but an ordained pastor cannot?
In many cases, pastors deliver sermons that probably have a profound meaning hidden in there somewhere, but it is lost by the insensitivity surrounding it. This particular sermon was on the fulfillment of prophecy in the arrival of the pilgrims to America, which is actually a profound topic. Knowing the symbolism of Revelation, I saw exactly where he was trying to go with the sermon and that message is what made me interested enough to tune in. If I didn't already know that symbolism, I'm not sure I would have saw where he was going and the whole point would be missed.
Minorities, and people who are able to understand the minority point of view, are leaving the body of Christ because the gospel is buried under this type of rhetoric. We fail at representing Him when we behave this way and we fail to introduce Him to others when we behave this way. There will be a lot of people explaining to the Most High that their disbelief in Him was caused by our ignorance and mishandling of the gospel and He's going to hold us accountable for that.
The Fantasy of it All
I could stop right there, but there's one more thing that pastor said that is mixed up in this. We spend a lot of time distancing ourselves from this world and focusing on the Kingdom to come (I was actually reading about just that before the sermon!). In truth, we are Biblically commanded to do so. While both Paul and Yeshua/Jesus instruct us to be respectful of government (Matthew 22:21;Romans 13), we see both men (along with Daniel), disrupt the government when it conflicts with God's kingdom (Matthew 6:24; Acts 26; Daniel 6). The Bible clearly instructs us to store our treasures in Heaven, not on earth (Matthew 6:19-21). In truth, the Bible supports the statement that this is not our home; we are just passing through (as the pastor said). I even have a podcast episode where I echo a similar sentiment about us merely being ambassadors for the Kingdom as opposed to citizens of the U.S. (or whatever country your citizenship is with).
However, there's a tiny flaw with the way we operate after internalizing this belief: we leave the world to crash and burn. Yes, we know that it will eventually crash and burn literally, but has God called us watch the world plummet into darkness, or has He called us to be lights in the darkness (Matthew 5:14)? Often, though, we let our focus on the spiritual to allow us to forget that there are people in need physically amongst us.
In my podcast episode Christianity and Climate Change, I touched on the fact that despite the fact that Adam's given role at creation was to take care of the earth, the Church has nothing to say about the topic. We aren't promoting lifestyles that produce less waste, conscious purchasing (re: buying from companies that are not harming the planet in the production of their products), or conservation of resources (e.g., not wasting water, fuel efficient/electric cars). Yes, I know that this earth will be destroyed, and a new purified earth will take its place (though increasingly, I wonder if this verse is meant literally or spiritually--that's another blog post though). I know that this earth is doomed, but does that mean it's ok to help sabotage it? If we aren't cultivating and exemplifying behaviors that protect and care for our home now, how are we suddenly going to be able to do so in the Kingdom?
The same conundrum exists with issues of diversity and socio-economic disparity. If we are unable to make all feel welcome in our midsts on this earth, how will we learn how to foster an inclusive society in Heaven?
References & Footnotes
- 2CDBN Tv. "America's 11th Hour with Scott Ritsemal". YouTube. November 26, 2021
- This is not an endorsement of Halloween either. Please see my post for more on that topicHalloween
- Jeremy Myers. "Meeting Physical Needs to Get at the Spiritual". Redeeming God"; visited November 26, 2021