The Bartimaeus Kinsler Institute describes itself as living in the intersection of the seminary and the sanctuary, the streets and the soil. This year’s annual gathering drew a rich assortment of artists, activists, academics, and faith-leaders to the stunning Ojai Valley in Southern California, just northwest of the sprawling metropolis that is the city of Los Angeles in order to engage with issues of “Law, Land, and Language: Indigenous Justice and the Christian Faith.” My time at the week-long institute was, simply put, a gift. It was a tremendous gift—though complicated, messy, and revealing in ways I could not have prepared for. My time at the BKI was as challenging as it was renewing and throughout my stay I found myself wrestling with some of the most devastating aspects of the Christian tradition and our nation’s most incipient origins.
Let me begin with the briefest of history lessons. At the height of the Roman Catholic Church’s power in 1493 (just one year after Columbus sailed the ocean blue) Pope Alexander VI issued a papal bull, a formal declaration, which played a vital role in the Spanish colonization of the Americas as well as the United States’ later westward expansion. Within this papal bull was the notion that any peoples and lands that were, well, not “Christian” were not legitimately recognized as inhabited, sovereign societies and thus, these lands could be “discovered.” This Church mandate, which has come to be called the Doctrine of Discovery 1493, was integral to the colonizing mission which propelled the genocide of countless Native civilizations. It’s impossible to underscore or effectively communicate the gravity of this fact—145 million Indigenous people—destroyed at the hands of a political agenda which all too easily weaponized Christianity and its missional agenda. The rippling implications of this papal bull are too diffuse to even begin to locate and it is absolutely imperative we do not mistake the Doctrine of Discovery as a dusty historical fact. In just 2005, Ruth Bader Ginsburg cited the Doctrine of Discovery in support of a legal ruling against the Oneidas, a native nation that inhabited an area in upstate New York. The project of colonization continues.
As someone who call themselves a Christian, I feel the deepest sense of duty to understand the history of my tradition, especially the ways in which it has been complicit in the oppression and domination of too many social groups to begin to name here. To be perfectly frank, when I contemplate these aspects of the Church and its history, I often feel disoriented and disheartened in a way that threatens to tear the last remaining threads of my faith from my shaky, uncertain grasp. The prophet Amos wrote, “But let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (5:24). I join the ranks of the weary and the downtrodden, feeling their cries in the deepest parts of my being, “But how long, O Lord?” How long must we wait?
The BKI community is continuously attempting to discern what a decolonized Christian tradition looks like and if there is any hope for such a thing. On the final day of the institute, I sat at breakfast with an Indigenous Elder and seminarian, and exasperatedly asked, “What’s left once you dissolve Christianity from its Western, White, Patriarchal, and Colonial trappings?” She responded, gently and generously with, “The gospel. Jesus is what’s left.”
Jesus—an indigenous man himself—was a native Jew who began his movement in the midst of the oppressive Roman Empire. That’s the Jesus I want to learn from.