A reflection on Mark 1:1-8 for Advent 2B
The Shoshone are a diverse tribe of indigenous people who inhabited parts of California, Wyoming, Nevada, Idaho and Utah. One particular Shoshone tribe lived in the mountainous region of what is now southeastern Idaho and northern Utah. A peaceful people, this traveling tribe of hunters and gatherers, found themselves struggling for food and land as European settlers moved into the region. In 1862 one settler discovered a horse missing and accused a Shoshone boy of stealing it. The boy was convicted of the crime and hung. The Shoshone retaliated by killing a couple of the settler’s relatives. Anxiety escalated among the settlers who requested that the US government intervene. Col. Patrick Connor with an army of 200 volunteers from California was hired to intervene.
Before sunrise on Jan. 29, 1863 Col. Connor and his volunteer army waged an attack on the Shoshone tribe as they slept in the homes near Bear Creek, just a few miles north of Preston, Idaho, which is where my mother was born. The attack was brutal and resulted in the deaths of 450 Shoshone, many of them children. The women were raped, beaten, and killed. The men were tortured and then killed. The hundred or so who survived struggled to rebuild a life.
Ten years later the remaining members of this Shoshone tribe initiated a working relationship with local Mormons. Under the leadership of Brigham Young, the Mormons had a peaceful relationship with the Shoshone. In response to the request for help Brigham Young sent George Washington Hill, my great grandfather five generations back, to work with them.
George learned their practices and their language, built mutual trust and respect, and created an English-Shoshone dictionary to help with communication between the Mormons and the Shoshone. When the government wanted the Shoshone to move to the Ft. Hall Indian reservation the Mormons intervened. Some went to the Reservation, while other Shoshone chose to keep their land, although they had to be members of the Mormon church and pay taxes to the US government in order to do so.
I imagine the Shoshone would tell a much different version of this story than my Mormon family genealogy. They would tell a story of white settlers taking over the land, using up all the resources, and marginalizing the indigenous people who had lived on the land for generations. They would tell a story of violence and poverty and degradation. My grandfather is considered a saint by the Mormons, but I don’t think that the Shoshone people feel the same way.
Conflict between people who are different from one another, whether by skin color, ethnicity, religious beliefs or gender and sexuality, is as old as time. The Bible is filled with stories of genocide and war. Current news reports cover a multitude of stories on violence, of one people killing another simply for being who they are.
We are not immune to it here in Dearborn nor in the metro Detroit region. Tension around race, religion, and human sexuality define us, too. No doubt in recent years the people of Dearborn, and we at Christ Church, have worked hard to grow in relationship with our sisters and brothers of all colors, religions, and genders. Nonetheless, my clergy colleagues, people of color, upon learning that I live in Dearborn, tell me that to this day they will go out of their way to avoid driving through Dearborn. This is residual reactivity from the days when the phrase “Keep Dearborn Clean” was not about litter or untidy yards, but about persons of color. My very first day here in Dearborn was marked by Terry Jones’s visit to the Islamic Center of America where he intended to burn a Q’ran. Many of you were part of a protest movement against Terry Jones, in support of our Muslim brothers and sisters. Far from perfect, we are making an effort to live our baptismal covenant, to respect the dignity of every human being. This is an ongoing process and requires us to be ever mindful and action oriented.
Our readings from last week, the first Sunday of Advent, called us to stay awake, or in other words to be aware and attentive to how God is acting in the world around us and how God is active in and within us. This week the readings build on that theme and ask us to be aware and to repent.
Repentance is one of those words that make me cringe, from misuse and abuse. Used as it is intended, repentance is an important word in Christianity. Repentance is an interior process of looking at ourselves as individuals and as a society with a keen eye for the ways in which we are hurting others economically, socially, spiritually, or physically and then doing something to change our behavior. Often the way we hurt others is hidden from our understanding, lost in the complexity of our social and economic institutions and systems. The challenge of determining who should be held accountable for the deaths of young black men like Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice leaves some enraged and others perplexed. Disputes over how justice should be served as a response to these killings bring out strong emotions on all sides. The New York Times runs daily articles and editorials on the “chasm” between races, our legal system, and the difficulty for white Americans to grasp the depth and breadth of institutional racism. There are similar struggles with religion and human sexuality.
Ultimately we are all subject to the consequences of systemic racism - some of us live in daily fear for our lives, others of us live in denial that racism still exists, some of us are mute because we cannot understand the way racism continues.
Robert B. Moore wrote a popular essay about the subtlety of racism through the use of language. He writes, “An integral part of any culture is its language. Language not only develops in conjunction with a society's historical, economic and political evolution; it also reflects that society's attitudes and thinking.” He asks people to rewrite a paragraph eliminating the 30 uses of racist language in it. Here is a portion of that paragraph:
“Some may…accuse me of trying to blacken the English language, to give it a black eye..… They may denigrate me by accusing me of being black hearted, or having a black outlook on life…which would certainly be a black mark against me….I may become a black sheep, who will be blackballed by being placed on a blacklist in an attempt to blackmail me to retract my words. But attempts to blackjack me will have a Chinaman’s chance of success, for I am not a yellow-bellied Indian giver of words, who will whitewash a black lie…..”
Have you ever thought about how the words we use perpetuate racism or sexism or prejudice of any kind?
Today’s text from the Gospel of Mark makes reference to Isaiah chapter 40 and Malachi chapter 3. Both of these Old Testament readings ask God to deliver the people from suffering, but with the caveat that the people must first look at themselves and understand their role in causing the suffering.
In this context repentance means becoming aware of and having the ability to tell the truth about ourselves in order that we can redirect our lives toward God and God’s desire for us. One way we can deepen our awareness is by paying attention to the words we use and whether those words build up others or whether those words in some way disparage others.
So whenever find yourself beginning to say something like “black-sheep” or“blackballed” or “Indian-giver” stop and think about how those words perpetuate the undercurrent of systemic prejudice in our language and consider what you might say instead. I guarantee you will find the process of considering the words you use to be eye-opening and transformative and grace filled in a kind of John the Baptist wild-eyed way, preparing your heart to open even more to the love of God in Jesus and leading you to an ever deepening and more authentic love of neighbor.