The following is a respectful expression of my concerns regarding the land acknowledgement statement appearing weekly in the Sunday bulletin. I am taking the unusual step of offering the public expression of my concerns in the spirit of reconciliation, hoping to start a meaningful conversation on important questions raised by that statement.
Since June, 2021, the weekly bulletin has contained a statement acknowledging that the church is built on land occupied in the past by indigenous peoples. The statement has varied considerably over time. For example, the September 26 version encourages members of the congregation to “pause for a moment of recognition, lamentation and repentance, acknowledging that we are gathering on stolen lands…” It then states that our church is built on homelands of the Miami, Delaware, Potawatomi, and Shawnee peoples. More recently, the statement has indicated in addition that “European settler-colonist[s] [sic] forced these ancient stewards of the land from their homes through violent and coercive means.” It now acknowledges that “we did not commit these atrocities and are not responsible for the hurt and harm done by those who came before us.” However, it states that “we are responsible for the world in which we now live, where the legacy of colonization continues to be expressed and felt deeply as Indigenous lives and sovereignty continue to be devalued and disregarded.” In conclusion, it still invites us “to pause for a moment of recognition, lamentation, and repentance.”
There is a great deal of confusion and ambiguity in these statements, as well as highly judgmental moral language. The September 26 statement implies that the congregation of this church is complicit in the theft of the lands on which the church is built, because it encourages us to lament, repent, and acknowledge the theft, but it does not actually say who “stole” the land. The recent statement clarifies that we are not responsible for the theft, and avoids using the word “stolen,” but still refers to the theft as an “atrocit[y]” committed through “violent and coercive means,” states that it was done by “those who came before us,” and still asks us to acknowledge that we are gathering on someone else’s “homelands.” It therefore raises the question of what our moral relationship is to those who came before us, and what it means to acknowledge our presence on someone else’s land. Does that acknowledgement involve moral guilt? After all, we are still invited to lament and repent. Most importantly, the recent statement raises the question of what the relationship is between the fact that we are responsible for the “legacy of colonization,” and the fact that we are gathering on stolen lands. Responsibility for the former seems to imply that we are in some way responsible for the latter as well.
In addition to raising difficult, unanswered questions, the statements use problematic words. For example, the September 26 statement that the lands were “stolen” assumes a concept of property that is embedded in western legal and cultural traditions. To characterize the interaction of western culture and native American culture in these terms is itself a form of cultural imperialism. Additionally, this concept of property implies that the land on which the church is built was owned before it was stolen (since nothing can be stolen that is not owned). But how could the land be owned simultaneously by four different peoples? Do these statements assert that the land was “stolen” from all these different peoples? If so, exactly how was this the case?
Moreover, the statements imply that before being stolen, or otherwise taken by violence and coercion, the land existed in a pristine state of clear title. Thus, the native American peoples who lived here, or otherwise used the land, are referred to as “ancient stewards.” But do we know, as a matter of historical fact, that the land was never stolen or taken by one native people from another? If we do not know this, how are we to weigh and determine the moral merits of the matter? How do we know that the native Americans who used these lands were not themselves “settler-colonists?” If we lack information to answer this question, how would this lack of critical information affect the moral character of the theft referred to in the statements?
Use of the word “atrocity” is also problematic. According to the Merriam Webster Collegiate Dictionary (10th ed.), an act is atrocious if it is “extremely wicked, brutal, or cruel.” In common language this word is reserved for use in describing the most heinous moral transgressions. Therefore, is its use in the Sunday bulletin justified to describe the moral guilt of European “settler-colonists” for their actions respecting the land on which the church is built, without citing a great deal of factual evidence to support its use?
Additionally, the recent statement indicates that we are “responsible for the legacy of colonization,” which results in “devaluation and disregard of indigenous lives.” This shifts the focus from responsibility for stealing native land to responsibility for the entire history of the relationship between native Americans and European immigrants. The legacy of colonization is a very large and complex subject. Is it really so one-sided? While there have been many significant and well documented injustices in the treatment of native American peoples, it is also self-evident that native American peoples have benefitted tremendously in many ways through their access to and partial assimilation within the larger culture in which they live. For example, at the time of first European contact, the average North American life span was less than 20 years. In fact, in a population estimated at approximately 2,360,000, health was actually declining due to a transition from hunter-gatherer food production to settled agriculture, decreased dietary diversity (including over-dependence on maize), poor nutrition resulting in widespread disease, and patterns of repetitive work causing degenerative joint disease in increasingly socially stratified societies. Thus, endemic disease, poor nutrition, and human aggregation were likely principal causes of declining health and low life expectancy of native North Americans at the time of first contact. These conclusions rest, most recently, on the largest-scale collaborative research yet undertaken involving the examination of over 4,000 skeletal remains from 23 pre-Columbian locations in the Americas.* However, according to a 2021 CDC study (Mortality Profile of the Non-Hispanic American Indian or Alaska Native Population, 2019 (cdc.gov) the average life expectancy at birth of native Americans today is 71.8 years. This vast improvement is obviously due to many factors, including access to modern medical expertise, medicines, and medical technology. In addition, native Americans and European Americans have both been enriched through cultural exchange, in areas such as art, religion, technology, etc.
Finally, the bulletin statements gloss over several deeper moral questions that transcend the specific issues they raise. First, to what extent must those alive today bear moral responsibility for actions taken by their ancestors (either literal or cultural)? Is there a commutative property of moral responsibility? Is there a commutative property of victimization? Or are individuals morally accountable only for their own actions?
Second, to what extent does priority of occupancy and use imply priority of claim? Applying this question to the issue raised by the bulletin statements, we must keep in mind that, according to the current state of human knowledge, there is no such thing as “indigenous” or “native” Americans (except trivially in the sense that all people born here are “indigenous” or “native”); the earliest peoples arrived in North America from elsewhere, as did European migrants. Thus, no people have what might be called an organic claim to the land on which the church is built. The terms “native American” and “indigenous peoples” are themselves purely western, reflecting a recognition by Europeans that people were already here in North America when they arrived.
Third, the bulletin statements raise the question of how to characterize actions taken in the distant past. Are they to be judged by the moral standards of today, or does historical sensitivity suggest that they be judged by the standards of the time in which they were taken? What is fair? What constitutes a morally meaningful conclusion?
I am prepared to acknowledge an injustice, or perhaps more accurately an inevitable but tragic inter-cultural conflict. But I believe it is important to be crystal clear about the facts before passing or accepting any moral judgment. We should investigate and reflect deeply enough to know the exact nature and extent of our moral responsibility, if any. I believe a full review of the knowable facts and unanswerable questions would likely reveal a situation far more complex and ambiguous than the brief bulletin statements acknowledge.
Therefore, I am offering my concerns in the hope of encouraging the formation by the church Council of an ad hoc committee, under Article IV Section 2 of the Constitution, to investigate the questions raised by the statements printed in the Sunday bulletin since last June. In my mind’s eye, such an investigation would involve systematic fact-finding and moral reflection, leading to the issuance of a report to the congregation. This report would not draw moral conclusions, but would appropriately leave that up to each individual within the congregation. Its sole purposes would be to identify and try to answer relevant factual questions, pose relevant questions for moral reflection, and possibly suggest a land acknowledgement statement for inclusion in the Sunday bulletin that is compatible with a range of informed moral views. The ad hoc committee would ideally undertake its work without any preconceptions and with a willingness to approach the factual and moral questions raised by the bulletin statements with a completely open mind.
As a matter of historical record, it is important to note in closing that First Baptist Church did not steal its land from anybody. According to the pamphlet entitled Sticks and Stones, it cost $550,000 to acquire the land, build the church, and furnish it. According to another church source, the building itself cost $330,000. The land, acquired in 1955 from four members of the Rogers family, therefore cost approximately $220,000 ($2,290,000 in 2022 dollars). Many members of the congregation, including some current members, sacrificed a great deal in money and labor to purchase the land and erect the beautiful building in which we worship today. They were justly proud of their achievement. It should also be mentioned that these earlier congregants paid off the building. We are their beneficiaries, and have every reason today to celebrate their bold initiative in securing the future of the congregation. Whatever else we acknowledge, we should also acknowledge this.
*See Richard H. Steckel, The Best of Times, The Worst of Times: Health and Nutrition in Pre-Columbian America, National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper 10299, 2004. See also C.S. Larsen, In the Wake of Columbus,: Native Population Biology in the Postcontact Americas, Yearbook of Physical Anthropology 37, 109-154 (1994); Douglas H. Ubelaker, Patterns of Disease in Early North American Populations, in Michael R. Haines and Richard H. Steckel, A Population History of North America, Cambridge U. Press, 2000; Douglas H. Ubelaker, Population Size, Contact to Nadir, in William C. Sturtevant, Handbook of North American Indians, vol. 3, Environment, Origins and Population, Smithsonian Institution, 1978.