Native Americans, the Mainline Church, and the Quest for Interracial Justice

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David Phillips Hansen
  • St. Louis, MO: 
    Chalice Press
    , January
     160 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In Native Americans, the Mainline Church, and the Quest for Interracial Justice, David Phillips Hansen exposes the Anglo-Christian war on indigenous cultures and identifies an opportunity for Church reformation and an ethical economy. He calls for recognition of historical circumstances and value assumptions that normalized violent conquest and attempted genocide. He argues that repentance, new relationships, and reparations for harm inflicted are necessary to heal a sick social order based on oppression and exploitation. He concludes with a compelling vision of healthy communities founded in responsible land use and respect for human rights. His book is a positive contribution to an urgent national conversation on religion, race, and social justice.

Hansen offers an interpretive distillation of the religious and political context preceding the conquest of North America, and the founding of the United States. He cites the Papal bull Terra Nullius (1095) as the foundation for the Doctrine of Discovery, which also includes Romanus Pontifex (1454) and Inter Caetera (1493). Taken together, these edicts authorize Christians to invade and capture “infidel” territories and exploit without apology, including human trafficking and annihilation. Sublimis Dei (1537) softened the policy of crown and church to conversion, disavowing slavery and killing. Stephen Newcomb of the Indigenous Law Institute has also shown how Christian theology sanctioned colonial domination of native populations, and in May 2016, he met with Pope Francis to advocate revoking the right of conquest decrees cited as justification to subvert tribal sovereignty in three US Supreme Court cases known as the Marshall Trilogy. Other recent developments to rescind the Doctrine of Discovery include an impact statement by the World Council of Churches, an Anabaptist movement to dismantle the legal precedent, and 524 clergy from twenty-two traditions gathering at Standing Rock to burn copies of the documents and denounce a wicked legacy.

Hansen colors the European exodus with attitudes that emerged from the English Reformation and Marian Persecutions. He contends that white Protestant hostility towards Native Americans arose out of an Elizabethan national-religious myth in which the English were a new chosen people in God’s Plan. He especially sees the influence from the enclosure of the commons, and the increase of landless urban poor, who were conscripted or criminalized for poverty and imprisoned, executed, or deported as indentured servants. Jamestown, the “Holy Experiment” of the Church of England, amounted to a military invasion and reign of terror including burning houses, destroying crops, starvations, hangings, and the kidnapping and murder of the Paspahegh tribe matriarch and her children. Such total warfare was unknown to indigenous nations. The Pilgrims of Plymouth Plantation assassinated tribal leaders and the Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Company burned encampments and slaughtered women, children, and the elderly.

The Powhatan at first showed prudent hospitality by sharing food and teaching survival skills. As settlements grew, tobacco farming increased and diseases spread, the natives adopted a violent containment strategy that alarmed the colonists, who established “praying towns” as a buffer to reduce conflict and undermine tribal leadership and traditional family patterns. Incentives of food, shelter, and safety were given in exchange for converting to Christianity, cutting hair short, and renunciation of language and names. Westward expansion was facilitated by land grabs under the guise of eminent domain, and the construction of boarding schools, since assimilation by institutional control of indigenous children was deemed cheaper than extermination. Many tribes were forcibly relocated to “reservations” managed by the federal government. Treaties were signed and violated; territories not surrendered were claimed and sold by the US government with a trick of cartography. Under duress and coercion, indigenous nations were dispossessed of over a billion acres of land.

The 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago—the defining moment of the modern era—celebrated the colonial conquest of the continent, the ascendance of Anglo-American culture, and the superiority of Protestant Christianity. Native Americans were not invited to participate at the Parliament of Religions, and their overall presence was limited to a mock village in an ethnographic display intended to contrast a primitive past to the imagined future’s electrical technopolis. In the aftermath of Manifest Destiny, it seemed that the “Indian problem” was solved, until the American Indian Movement [AIM] standoffs erupted during the Civil Rights era. Nearly invisible oppression continues into the present day with the imprisonment of Leonard Peltier—falsely accused of murdering two Federal Bureau of Investigation agents after the shootout at Pine Ridge Reservation—extreme poverty on reservations, and the United States’s vote against the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People in 2007. An apology to Native Americans was hidden in Public Law 111-118, section 8113 of the Defense Appropriations Act of 2010 [H.R. 3326] and signed in a private ceremony without press coverage. It expresses regret for past wrongs, violence, and broken treaties but did not admit liability for harm nor offer reparations.

Hansen cites the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978 [amended in 1994], the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, and the Native American Graves Protection and Restoration Act of 1990 as efforts by the federal government to acknowledge indigenous heritage, but in 2017, the DC District Court denied an injunction against the Dakota Access Pipeline [DAPL], which destroyed ancient burial sites and threatens to contaminate water used in ceremonies of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. Meanwhile, Pope Francis—who apologized to indigenous peoples in 2015 on behalf of the Church—appeared to support the Water Protectors against DAPL by meeting with representatives and declaring that economic activity on tribal land requires prior and informed consent. Since then, Jesuits have returned 525-acres of land to the Rosebud Sioux. Such action is an example of genuine repentance that translates moral values into deep solidarity, as suggested by Hansen to the mainline denominations—Methodist, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Episcopal, Baptist, United Church of Christ, etc. Hansen proposes reform of a competitive marketplace into a sharing economy, as promised in the Mosiac covenant of the sabbath year and jubilee, and also envisioned by theologians such as Clement of Alexandria, Basil the Great, Bishop Ambrose, John Chrystostom, and St. Augustine. The ideal Christian community is radically hospitable, built on the command to love thy neighbor: feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and heal the sick.

Hansen advocates faith as a weapon against injustice. He writes, "Recognizing treaty claims and honoring sacred sites of indigenous peoples is not simple. ... The church could and should stand with Native Americans and support their claims" (126). There is struggle and signs of redemption. In 2015, the Parliament of World’s Religions corrected its past exclusion of native people by elevating indigenous rights to a plenary topic “When Prophecies Come True” and featuring Chief Arvol Looking Horse, Nineteenth-Generation Keeper of the White Buffalo Calf Pipe, twice as a speaker on climate change and our time of many troubles. Chief Looking Horse called clergy into action at Standing Rock, where 35 chaplains led by an Episcopalian rector tended injured #NoDAPL Water Protectors. The Lakota Chief also recently shared the Story of the Sacred Pipe in the Story of God TV series and convenes World Peace and Prayer Day annually at the Summer Solstice to honor and protect sacred sites.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Patrick Horn is a public scholar.

Date of Review: 
June 21, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

David Phillips Hansen has been in active ministry for over 40 years. His studies at the Pacific School of Religion and the Graduate Theological Union at Berkeley focused on the role of religion in student movements, ethics, and economic policy. He has served pastorates in both the United Church of Christ and the Christian Church (DOC) from Saskatchewan to Hawaii to Kansas, where he lives now with his wife of 50 years, Sally Duckworth Hansen.



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