The Holy Spirit is moving mightily among us these days – not-so-subtly exposing the systemic evil that plagues this country in everything from our criminal justice system to our electoral politics. It is no wonder than, the dignity of our nations indigenous people’s would eventually come to the fore as well. In response, M.Div. senior Liz Christensen Kocher has written a brief reflection on her time visiting the Standing Rock Sioux last week, effectively modeling the passionate, compassionate, and fearless leadership which church-leaders must provide in times such as these. Read, comment, and share, friends!
Rev. Dr. Linda E. Thomas – Professor of Theology and Anthropology, Chair of LSTC’s Diversity Committee, Editor – “We Talk. We Listen.”
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless chaos, and darkness covered the face of the deep. A wind from God swept over the face of the waters. (Genesis 1.1-2)
Then the Spirit showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. (Revelation 22. 1-2)
In his essay, “Out of Chaos,” Native theologian Vine Deloria Jr. narrates the ways that indigenous peoples have been living in exile since their first contact with colonialism. This exile exists when peoples with intimate, divine ties to land and place are systematically removed from those lands and stripped of that spiritual identity. What we are witnessing at Standing Rock is a return from exile, the beginnings of the realization of Deloria’s hope that…
“out of the chaos of their shattered lives…Indians would begin to probe deeper into their own past and view their remembered history as a primordial covenant.”
Out of chaos comes this kairos moment at Standing Rock: this season of time when God’s liberating actions are breaking through the injustices of the world and breathing life and hope into God’s people in this time and space.
So when Episcopal priest and long-time advocate for the Standing Rock Sioux Nation, Father John Floberg, relayed a call from Standing Rock Sioux elders to summon clergy of all denominations and faiths to join together for a public witness, myself and 10 other members of LSTC followed. And during this kairos moment we engaged in peaceful, prayerful, non-violent, and lawful witness to the compassion that the water protectors and Standing Rock Sioux were actively demonstrating in protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline.
Huddled together on bleachers in a community gym in the town of Cannon Ball, ND, our journey in this witness together began. We clarified that our purpose there was not to ‘save’ the people at Standing Rock or to fight their battles, but to be advocates and allies, to be a voice affirming the protests and the actions. We dwelt in the chaos, complication, and uncertainty of the situation. We lamented the places where brokenness was still deep, places as yet unhealed. We embraced anger. We prayed for the law enforcement, knowing that the Creator binds us all together as one body.
And then on the chilly morning of Thursday, November 2, 2016, 524 clergy – representing more than 24 faith traditions – stood in front of the Standing Rock Sioux elders, while hundreds from the camp looked on.
We began by publically repudiating the Doctrine of Discovery, a church-created document that negated the humanity of indigenous peoples and allowed for colonial expansion on this very land. Fr. Floberg proclaimed that we could not authentically advocate for the Standing Rock Sioux and all native peoples without first repenting the evil of the doctrine. “They are protecting a pipeline that was put in place because of a church doctrine. And we are here to say that we were wrong.”
With songs of “Amen,” with blessings of a sage smudging, and with the testimonies of Elders and protectors, we began. And when it was our turn to move forward in the march, we heard others saying to us, “I love you. We love you.” Through tears, an indigenous woman at the camp proclaimed these words to both the clergy gathered and the water protectors, elders, and campers at Sacred Stone camp, alike. We gathered at the borderland bridge with clergy from indigenous nations in the Pacific Islands, Central America, and North America; Muslim, Jewish, Buddist, Universalist testimony to the holiness of creation; Native peoples sharing their lands’ religious and spiritual history. The thread that drew us together was the sacredness of the water. Mni Wiconi. Water is life.
Throughout the time of testimony we clergy were invited, a few at a time, to approach the border of the bridge and pray. With helicopters above my head, militarized police in front of me, surveillance and sniper vehicles ever-present in the distance, we emerged from the crowd of protectors and silently approached that border. I offered words of gratitude to the water protectors, shook their hands, and then lifted my own hand in blessing to the border, and the law enforcement beyond the border. My silent prayer was one of reconciliation, hope, and safety, that the fullness of God’s creation might be restored.
When I returned to our clergy witness, we were gathering, single-file, clergy and non-clergy alike, into an enormous circle. We prayed, and then offered a sign of peace to one another. Every one of us, to every other one of us. And just like that, our time together was over, and after sharing a sack lunch near the bridge, watching the flow of our own little river of life, we explored a bit more of the camp, then embarked on the long journey home.
This kairos moment is about the Dakota Access pipeline, and it’s also about more than the pipeline. It’s about how God created the waters of our land to be the veins of the body of creation, a life force that none can live without. It’s about water protectors coming together to protect that life force, protectors representing over 200 tribal nations, coming together for the first time in at least a century. It’s about standing up to a system that allows desecration of indigenous peoples and lands for the benefit of those in power. It’s about naming the wrongs of 524 years of broken land treaties, abuse, cultural and physical genocide, exiling of a people, and actively righting those wrongs. It’s about breaking free from the reservation system, named by some protectors as “POW camps,” which keeps indigenous peoples in a cycle of staggering unemployment, poverty, and suicide. It’s about the full humanity of every indigenous person in all creation. It’s chaos. It’s amazing. My voice and presence is simply one of thousands that can witness to the creative force that, like Revelation’s tree of life, is for the healing of the nations.
As public leaders, we are called to show up in those places of chaos and uncertainty, beauty and hope. Places like Standing Rock, Ferguson, Baltimore, Michigan Avenue and the street of South Side Chicago, ICE detention centers, advocacy centers and shelters in our small, rural towns. It doesn’t take a far look to see where people are hurting.
Not everyone can make the trip to North Dakota. Not everyone feels called to make the trip to North Dakota. The size and shape of advocacy is a diverse and varied as the make-up of the human family. And yet it is precisely with that beautiful chaos that God uses us to bring about God’s kin-dom.
 Deloria Jr., Vine, “Out of Chaos,” in For This Land: Writings on Religions in America. New York: Routledge Publishing, 1999. 248.
For ways to support the Sacred Stone camp and Standing Rock Sioux Tribe:
More information on our clergy gathering:
Liz Christensen Kocher is a candidate for ordained ministry in the ELCA and in her final year at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. She is from Omaha, Nebraska, and sees her call to ministry as one that builds bridges, embraces the beautiful diversity of all God’s creation, and has a hope and faith in the future of our church. Liz finds life and energy in making music and hiking with her husband, Phil.