Finder’s Keepers?

On August 5, the saints at Crafton Heights commissioned a group of young people for service and partnership with our friends and colleagues at the Wright Memorial Presbyterian Church, located in the territory of the Seneca Nation of Indians in Western New York.  That prompted me to want to explore the notion of “discovery”, and that of “privilege”, and how in the world these things were connected to our experience.  Our texts for the day included Luke 16:19-31 and Micah 2:1-10.

To hear this sermon as preached in worship, please click on the media browser below:

OK, let’s see who paid attention in school. Does the name Isaac Newton mean anything to anyone?  Sure! He is credited with the discovery of the Law of Gravity in 1666.

How about Joseph Priestly? This one may be a little tougher, but Priestly is one of the men acknowledged as the discoverer of oxygen. His findings were made public in 1774.

In the interest of gender equity, let me ask you about Marie Curie. Does anyone remember why she rose to prominence?  She is credited with the discovery of radiation and radioactivity in 1898.

Each of these people is listed as a “discoverer”.  In this context, the word “discover” means “to be the first to find or observe”.  And in these cases, it is arguably true.  Somehow, Newton, Priestly, and Curie quantified or pointed to some phenomenon that was not known or understood by the people of their times.  Of course, they didn’t “invent” gravity, or oxygen, or radiation – they simply pointed to them and described them.

Let’s try another: do you recognize this man? Christopher Columbus. And what is he famous for? Well, we were all taught that in 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue… and he “discovered” America, right?

But wait – how could he claim to be the discoverer of a place that had between 50 and 100 million people here already?  How can anyone say that he “found” this place, and thereby “claimed” it for a king in Europe when there were already hundreds of people groups and communities thriving here upon his arrival?

Let’s try that notion of “discovery” in other contexts.  How would it be if you left worship today and went outside and found that your car was missing?  Would your first reaction be, “Hey, golly! I guess someone ‘discovered’ my Chevy this morning!  Good for them…”  Have your purse, or wallet, or keys ever been “discovered” by someone else?  Doesn’t feel too good, does it?

A few years ago I saw a greeting card that read, “This year, I’m going to celebrate Columbus Day the old-fashioned way.  I’m going to take the bus across town, find a house that I like, kick the current owners out, move in, and take all their stuff.”

Common sense will tell you, “Hey, you can’t do that! People have rights!”

Of course they do. All people have rights.  So the only time when you can do things like is when you do them to those who are not really people.

That’s the justification that much of Western Civilization has used for the past five hundred years.  In 1452, as much of Europe was getting pretty excited about the idea of vast quantities of land and resources of which it had previously been unaware, Pope Nicholas V wrote that it was the sacred duty and obligation for Christians to

“…invade, search out, capture, vanquish, and subdue all Saracens and pagans whatsoever, and other enemies of Christ wheresoever placed, and the kingdoms, dukedoms, principalities, dominions, possessions, and all movable and immovable goods whatsoever held and possessed by them and to reduce their persons to perpetual slavery, and to apply and appropriate to himself and his successors the kingdoms, dukedoms, counties, principalities, dominions, possessions, and goods, and to convert them to his and their use and profit.”[1]

The leader of the Christian church said that anyone who wasn’t a European Christian wasn’t really a person at all, and so it was important for Christian people to find ways to use their stuff that would make God happy.  That line of thinking became a part of our American story in many ways, not the least of which was a decision by the US Supreme Court in 1823, which read, in part,

[T]he character and religion of [the New World’s] inhabitants afforded an apology for considering them as a people over whom the superior genius of Europe might claim an ascendancy. To leave them in possession of their country was to leave the country a wilderness …

[A]griculturalists, merchants, and manufacturers, have a right, on abstract principles, to expel hunters from [their] territory …

The potentates of the Old World … made ample compensation to the inhabitants of the new, by bestowing upon them civilization and Christianity.[2]

Perhaps you are familiar with the portions of the US Constitution that spell this out – pun intended – in black and white, indicating that slaves and other persons of color were to be counted as 60% of a real person for the government’s purposes.

To put it plainly, the recognized policy of the church and law of the land for half a millennia, at least, was to say that anyone who didn’t look like me was in some way or another sub-human, and therefore did not really deserve the same treatment as a person such as me might expect.

I hope that when I state it so plainly that you say, “No way, Dave! That stands in complete opposition to the Bible!  Didn’t you hear what Micah said about taking the things that belonged to others, or expelling women and children from their homes?  We’re not supposed to do that!”

That’s the line of thinking taken up in St. Louis earlier this summer when the Presbyterian Church (USA) officially repudiated and condemned what has been called “The Doctrine of Discovery”.  In an overwhelming vote, the Presbyterian Church denounced these and other statements that laid the groundwork for the suppression, oppression, and removal of Native American people and other persons of color.  We said that it was wrong to say that just because a place didn’t have anyone like me in it it was “empty” or “unknown” and therefore it was ours for the taking.

And some of my friends said, “Great.  It’s about time.  Now what are you going to do with those horrible parts of the Bible that claim the same thing?  Have you read Exodus, or Numbers, or Deuteronomy?  Isn’t that what the Jews did to the Canaanites?  They walked into someone else’s home and said, “God told me that this all belongs to me now, so, see you later…”

I can only say that I’m stumped by that.  I just don’t know.  I can say that those who were trying to follow God 4000 years ago did not have the whole story.  They had a few visions and a couple of great leaders, but they didn’t have access to the prophecy or the preaching of Jeremiah or Isaiah.  The person and work of Jesus and the witness of the early church was, of course, unknown to them.   It seems to me that the Doctrine of Discovery was based on an application of certain aspects of the Old Testament that categorically ignored the pleas of the prophets and the Passion of the Savior.

And as a 58 year old male with British heritage, there is something about all of this “Discovery” conversation that makes me feel uncomfortable.  I have a difficult time knowing what to do with decisions that were made hundreds of years before I was born.  Yes, what Columbus did was wrong.  And slavery was bad.  And so was the internment of American Citizens during World War II and on and on and on.  That was all horrible.

But really – it’s not my fault.  If I could undo it, I would.  But I can’t. So what am I supposed to do?

Can I learn from it?

Pittsburgh, March 18, 1936

Listen: in a couple of hours, we’re going to be taking a few carloads of kids from Western Pennsylvania up to the Seneca Nation reservation in New York.  Every single one of these young people has grown up in an area that was stabilized and enriched by the flood protections on the Allegheny River.  A hundred years ago, that river was cause for uncertainty. Lives and commerce were at risk as seasonal floods made development difficult and uncertain.  On St. Patrick’s Day, 1936, a flood hit Pittsburgh and destroyed 100,000 buildings, closed the steel mills, and forced the layoffs of an estimated 60,000 mill workers.

That prompted the US Congress to pass the Flood Control Acts of 1936 and 1938, which directed the US Army Corps of Engineers to install a series of locks and dams on the Allegheny river.  The crowning achievement of this act was the creation of the Kinzua Dam on the northernmost part of the river.  As a result of that dam, Pittsburgh grew to achieve unparalleled success in industry and stability.

Demolition of Seneca property to make way for the Kinzua Dam

But there was a cost.  The Seneca Nation of Indians lost one-third of the land that had been granted to them by the treaty of 1794, signed by President Washington. The Seneca lost some of their best farmland, burial grounds, and hundreds of people lost their homes.

Nobody in this room voted for that.  But everyone here has benefitted from it.  And our young people need to be aware of some of this history as we go to listen to the stories of the Seneca this week.  It’s not our fault that those lands were taken seventy years ago.  But something of what is good in our lives is here because they were.  We can’t forget that.

Lazarus and Dives, illustration from the Codex Aureus of Echternach (1030 – 1050)

The Gospel lesson for today brings us the story of a man who was fantastically wealthy.  We’re told of his extravagance in that he wore purple every day, not just on holidays; he feasted every day, not just on special occasions.  This man was fantastically wealthy.

But his wealth was not his problem.  His sin was not that he was rich – his sin was rooted in something that he did not do.

At the gate of his home was a poor man whose name, Lazarus, means “God is my help”.  And, I suppose, it’s a good thing that God helped him because the rich man paid him no mind whatsoever. The rich man was simply unable to see Lazarus.

In fact, even after he died, the rich man could not bring himself to see Lazarus as a human being.  In his misery, the rich man cried out to Abraham, saying “send Lazarus on these errands to help me out…”  He didn’t get it!  Lazarus was fully human, but the rich man could only see him as a resource, an agent given to serve the whim of the rich man.  In reality, though, Abraham affirms Lazarus’ humanity and celebrates the fact that Lazarus’ life has purpose and meaning.

I hear the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus, and I remember the connections between the Seneca Nation and the people of Pittsburgh, and I wonder… have we gotten any better at recognizing the humanity of those around us?  Are there parts of our stories that continue to dehumanize others?

For the Youth Group kids who were a part of last year’s mission trip to Cherokee, North Carolina and who will leave today for another, does it mean anything at all that the National Football League’s fifth-most valuable franchise – the one based in Washington DC – is named after a racist slur?

All of us live in an era of increasing polarization and a diminishment of our shared humanity.  In many of our lifetimes, we’ve watched as Nazis called Jews, Gypsies, and homosexuals “rats” and called for their “extermination”.  Prior to the genocide in 1994, Rwandan Hutus called rival Tutsis “cockroaches.”  A few months ago comedian Roseann Barr lost her job for calling another woman the child of an ape, and that was only a few weeks after the President of the United States called immigrant gang members “animals”.  Just prior to that, the cover of the New YorkMagazine had a photo which depicted the President as a pig.

Are we so in love with our ideas and so afraid of the encounters we might have with others that we lose our ability to love those whose ideas and identities are different from our own?

The charge for this week – for the youth group team and for all of us – is to seek to learn from what has come before so that we can be better people in the days to come.  Can we dedicate ourselves to hearing the stories of the “other”, and to promise to look for the spark of the Divine Image in all people?  Can we refuse to demonize and dehumanize, and instead seek to honor and call forth our best selves?

Are we always going to agree? Of course not.  And there are some despicable actions done by those with horrific intent.  But nobody wins if we denigrate those with whom we disagree by calling them sub-human.

And, by the way, I didn’t discover this idea.  I didn’t invent it.  I found it when I started following a carpenter from Nazareth who invited those around him to love their neighbors, to break down walls, and to seek to bless those who are on the margins.  The thing is, he told me I couldn’t keep it.  He told me I had to give it away.  So…I just did.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1]As quoted in “The Doctrine of Discovery”,  The Christian Century 4/20/15 (https://www.christiancentury.org/blogs/archive/2015-04/doctrine-discovery)

[2]From Johnson v. McIntosh, (1823), quoted in https://newsmaven.io/indiancountrytoday/archive/because-the-bible-tells-me-so-manifest-destiny-and-american-indians-762x1fEsrky5-1Gq0pDj7w/

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