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500-year addiction to colonizing world requires long recovery


Blood-and-thunder sermons were a staple of parish life when I was young, but I didn’t expect one at the Call to Action convention in Milwaukee. It was George Tinker who delivered it -- with all the appropriate gestures and dramatic pauses -- just as we were winding down Sunday morning.

Did you know we are all in a state of mortal sin? State of mortal sin is something I have understood since I read James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man nearly 70 years ago. Of course I had already heard a raft of sermons on the subject, some illustrated with everlasting flames and fiendish torturers. But they were intellectual abstractions. Joyce was the theologian who troubled my sleep with his portrait of an existence abandoned by God.

That is where -- Tinker told us -- we Christians are in the 21st century, and where we have been for centuries.

Who is this Tinker character anyway who has consigned us all to hell? He introduced himself modestly enough as a mixed-blood Native American, an Osage on his father’s side, a Lutheran minister thanks to his mother. Actually he is quite a bit more. With a doctorate in biblical studies, he teaches American Indian cultures and religious traditions at the Iliff School of Theology in Denver, and he is a member both of the American Indian Movement and of the Ecumenical Association of Third World Theologians.

I had thought that we had said in 1992 just about everything that needed saying about the historic voyage of Christopher Columbus five centuries earlier and its aftermath. Tinker, however, opened for me new profundities of its continuing impact on us in our understanding of who we are and what are our rights and privileges.

“At the dawn of Renaissance Europe’s discoveries in the New World and conquest of the American Indian, Europeans already enjoyed the singular advantage of possessing a systematically elaborated legal discourse on colonialism,” Tinker said. “This discourse, first successfully deployed during the medieval Crusades in the Holy Land, and -- I should add -- eventually in the English colonization of Ireland, unquestioningly asserted that normatively divergent non-Christian peoples could rightfully be conquered, and their lands could lawfully be confiscated by Christian Europeans enforcing their peculiar vision of a universally binding natural law. This is to say that for centuries our churches have been involved in the colonization and conquest of the world on behalf of Europe.

“Replace the word Christian with its economic counterpart, capitalism. Non-capitalists can rightfully be conquered, and their lands can lawfully be confiscated by capitalist Europeans, enforcing their peculiar vision of a universally binding natural law. Think of the work of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, of the religious dimensions of what gets called ‘development.’ And we who work in the churches must remember: Our churches are part of this new religious movement called the globalization of capital. You and I are deeply invested in it, so that when we act in resistance, we are acting against ourselves on behalf of the poor, the oppressed and the disenfranchised of the world.”

Self-perpetuating violence

The Spaniards who came to the Caribbean and the English who came to North America came with clearly preconceived notions of conquest and theological rationales to make it legitimate and self-righteous. The result is a culture of violence that is self-perpetuating. “When a man is abusive toward a spouse, it doesn’t stop with just one act of abuse; the battering must continue,” Tinker told us. “It is not enough for the colonizer to think that he is right in his abuse of the colonized. He also needs for the colonized to believe that the conquest is just and right. White Americans need for black and brown, yellow and red people to believe that whites are superior to people of color. Men need to have women believe that men are superior to women. Otherwise the conquest must continue until normative divergence is completely wiped out.

“To understand international politics, we need to connect all the dots and put this complex jigsaw puzzle together. We must go from the abuse of women to the globalization of capital. The United States must say, as Clinton did recently, that freedom can only be measured in terms of free enterprise, free markets. Now that is a leap. But the United States is invested in its economic conquest of the world. So we must tell Third World countries through our wholly-owned subsidiaries, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, that they must have free market systems in place in order to do business with us.”

The result of this mental attitude, Tinker insists, is that violence has become an American value, indeed an American family value, because “it’s what our children are learning from their parents who work in the corporate world. They watch their fathers act with unusual viciousness in corporate takeover policies or in competitive free market enterprises, where the task of business is to put other companies out of business. It’s not enough to have a market. They must corner an increasing market share, to sell more this year than they sold last year, to raise their market share from 12.4 percent to 12.6 percent, or 15, or 20 percent, which means your job is to put other people out of business. That’s the way capitalism works.”

“Some say that gangs in American cities are made up of young men of color who have failed to understand the American value system,” he said. “Just the opposite is true. Jim Wallis of the Sojourners Community, a white minister living for some 30 years in a black community in Washington, says that the children in the gangs have understood the American value system and are attempting to implement it as best they can.

“All that violence becomes habitual after a while. Violence is part of the fabric of American society both in the private and in the public sphere” -- from violence in communities and families to presidential orders to bomb Iraq.

The celebration of Columbus Day, Tinker told us, is a good example of our distorted mentality. Indians, he said, do not protest its celebration simply because of what Columbus did. “The problem of Columbus is first of all what we in addiction therapy call denial. Celebrating Columbus Day is an act of denial on the part of white Americans. And let’s be clear: Columbus is really a white men’s hero. It’s an act of denial on the part of white men in America, over against that history of genocide, murder, kidnapping and slavery.”

The holiday legitimizes the conquest, he said. “It is an act of defending white male privilege. Columbus Day is a sexist, a racist, and a classist act of self-validation. It brings together all three categories: race, gender and class. It is part of the same systemic whole that would justify the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, the School of the Americas and the U.S. presence in Central America, or in any Third World context. It would justify the imposition of the globalization of capital on peoples, whether they want that kind of economic system or not. It would justify the exploitation of natural resources and labor in Third World countries.”

Tinker noted that the two organizers of the Columbus Day parade were named Italian Catholics of the Year in the Denver archdiocese. “The Denver Catholic Register devoted nine or 10 pages to glorifying these two organizers, and Columbus, and the conquest of Indian peoples, because, as the largest banner in the parade declared, ‘Columbus brought Christ to the Americas.’ ”

The prospects are less than brilliant, in Tinker’s view, for our state of social mortal sin. There is no easy escape, no say-three-Hail-Marys-and-make-a-good-Act-of-Contrition solution. “If you understand addictive behavior, if you understand alcoholism or abusive behavior, you know that it doesn’t stop. It gets worse and worse. If there is no healing intervention, the alcoholic finally drinks himself to death. But this person is all of us together in North America. That violence is eating away at the spiritual and emotional core of our being as a country. We must begin to respond in new and creative ways.”

Addictive family systems

The first step, Tinker insists, is to understand what we have already learned from studies of addictive family systems. “It takes people roughly as long to get well from their addiction as they spent being addicted. If someone was an alcoholic for 20 years, it will take 20 years of sobriety and self-conscious therapy to put that life back together again. … The addiction I am talking about has been going on for 508 years. If we put it off until next year, it will take 509 years to get healthy again. We might as well start now. What we begin will take the energies of our children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren for at least seven generations to restore harmony and balance.

“We need a new kind of liberation theology that moves beyond what our Latin American, African and Asian brothers and sisters have developed. We need to dream a liberation theology that makes a preferential option for the poor and the oppressed, but also talks about how each of us can become free. Indian peoples will never be free until white Americans are also free, until men are freed from the systemic structures of sexism that automatically give privilege to men in this society, even to those of us who struggle against them and claim to be listening to our feminist colleagues.

“The only way out of the web is to dream a new dream, to re-imagine ourselves in a new story, and to tell a different story to our kids and grandkids to counteract the story they get from Hollywood. You and I have to tell the Jesus story in a way that many of our colleagues in the churches, Protestant and Catholic, have lost sight of: a Jesus who didn’t insist on obedience so much as on faithfulness, love and compassion.

“Take a deep breath,” Tinker advised us. “We are in this for the long haul.”

Gary MacEoin’s e-mail address is gmaceoin@cs.com

National Catholic Reporter, December 8, 2000