Finding what is lost and reclaiming what has been stolen are common themes in Scripture. So imagine if the power and peace and justice when the “things” found or reclaimed are your history, your songs, your memories and songs. LSTC alumnus Joel Cruz, Ph.D. writes about a recent trip he took Puerto Rico, both for the sake of reconnecting with his family’s roots, but also to reclaim history stolen from the people of island – whether by Spanish colonialism or United States imperialism. Read, comment, and share, friends.
Over the Labor Day weekend I had the pleasure of touring the famous Window Caves in Puerto Rico, a four million year old cave system replete with bats and swallows that eventually opens up over a majestic view of the countryside seven hundred feet below.
Parts of the allure of the caves are the petroglyphs – rock carvings– left by my Taíno ancestors centuries ago. I took a moment to talk to the guide about the indigenous mythology of the earth, and specifically caves, serving as wombs of creation from which the people emerged from darkness into light. It is a worldview found throughout the Americas. From there the conversation took an interesting turn as we spoke of the myth of Taíno extinction and how research into mitochondrial DNA has revealed the survival of the Taíno into modern times. We continued, touching upon the control over history-telling by the colonial powers, first the Spanish and then the United States.
Generations of Puerto Rican children, including those in my family, were taught that the island had no natural resources (despite the fact that agricultural and mining companies were harvesting said resources out in the countryside!) and that Puerto Ricans had no history of their own; that US citizenship was a gift conferred upon the population in 1917 despite not having been “worthy” of it. They were told that Puerto Ricans, unlike the Cubans, never rebelled against the Spanish — the well-known Grito de Lares of 1868 and other smaller revolts notwithstanding. However, in the last several decades those long-taught assumptions have been challenged and Puerto Ricans on the island and the mainland have sought to reclaim their history and their contributions to culture, sports, music, art, literature, and religion.
I found an example of this a few days later in the Museum of the Americas, located in the former barracks of the Spanish and US occupying forces in Old San Juan. Its mission is to simply focus on the indigenous and African roots of American history (the continent, not just the US) in order to make the invisible visible again. Though small, it is nonetheless powerful as it recounts the stories of native resistance and survival to conquest, of the African heartbeat that pulses through our food, music, and arts, of the social and political movements in Puerto Rico that sought dignity and liberation throughout the centuries of colonization – one the museum notes continues into the present day.
The process of reclaiming one’s history is integral both to the sense of identity and to the future survival of any community, especially during times of social, political, and demographic upheaval. This act is so important that the Brazilian theologian, Rubem Alves likened it to a sacrament:
“The historian is someone who recovers forgotten memories and disseminates them as a sacrament to those who have lost the memory. Indeed, what finer community sacrament is there than the memories of a common past, punctuated by the existence of pain, of sacrifice, and of hope? – to recover in order to disseminate. The historian is not an archaeologist of memories. He (sic) is a sower of visions and hope.”
In our efforts to decolonize our own Lutheran backyard it is imperative that we not forget the task of decolonizing our historical memory. As the center of world Christianity continues its southward trek and as the demographics of this country changes, our own tradition should become aware of the role Lutherans have played on the larger global stage as well as the voices and contributions of those who do not reflect an assumed German-Scandinavian background — both as a matter of historical perspective and humility and a recognition of the work God has been doing among communities of color.
One of the most tangible ways in which congregations are aware of our larger heritage is in our calendar of festivals and commemorations that are printed in our bulletins and websites weekly, marking the women and men who have impacted our tradition and the greater Church. Recovering the sacrament of memory might include an update to our calendar that gives larger place to those from Africa, Latin America, Asia, and the ethnic traditions in our country beyond the litany of early church, reformation, and more obscure European names we are accustomed to hearing.
Additionally, the prayers composed throughout time by other communities as they wrestle with God’s Spirit in the world can help enrich our worship through new words, metaphors, and perspectives. These can, at the same time, bring us closer to the lives and struggles of our brothers and sisters elsewhere.
The teaching of church histories in our universities and seminaries can no longer be limited to the long-discredited tale of early Christianity brought into Europe and later into North America some unspoken culmination. Nor can our own Lutheran story be divorced from either the global histories of conquest and exploitation or the struggles of the people who experienced it around the world. Professors of color, women, and sexual minorities will be integral in this task.
The process of recovering a community’s history is no more about erasing the rich memories of another than the freeing of slaves is about enslaving the former slave-owners. It entails the liberation of those in power from the lies of domination and nationalism as much as it does the empowering of those on the margins of memory. In this journey together, the biblical motif joins with indigenous theology as we are born out of darkness to gaze upon a brilliant vista of possibility and hope beyond our imaginations.
Joel Morales Cruz earned his Ph.D. in World Christianity and Mission from the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, where he also teaches as an adjunct professor. Dr. Cruz is the author of The Histories of the Latin American Church: A Handbook and the condensed Histories of the Latin American Church: A Brief Introduction (both Fortress Press, 2014), as well as The Mexican Reformation: Catholic Pluralism, Enlightenment Religion, and the Iglesia de Jesús Movement in Benito Juárez’s Mexico (1859-72) (Wipf & Stock, 2011). He has contributed an essay on the 16th century figure, Bartolomé de Las Casas for Global Perspectives on the Reformation (Eerdmans, Fall 2016) and a chapter on Mainline Protestantism in Latin America for the forthcoming Oxford Handbook of Latin American Christianity. Dr. Cruz lives with his two dogs in and two cats in Chicago where he is contemplating the subject of his next publication.