There are many methods of engaging with Practice #3 of Telling Our Stories, both verbal and nonverbal. I’d like to take a moment and engage with the method of using words, and recount an experience from a Standing Rock visit I undertook back in November, with fellow EcoFaith member Amanda Bollman and two other friends from the Wilderness Way Community in Portland, Isaiah Ramirez and Brittany Rasmussen.
On November 27th, the first Sunday of Advent, I participated in a women-led silent prayer journey led by Cheryl Angel, Lakota elder and activist, and Starhawk, an author and activist in earth-based spirituality. The objective of the action was for self-identified white and POC women and their self-identified male allies to “hold the bridge” long enough that the Native women could perform a water ceremony on the opposite side of the river. There is a story to be told about the context surrounding this journey as a prayerful and healing response to white settler colonial violence that was occurring within Oceti Sakowin Camp during that time, but for the sake of brevity, I shall leave that story for another time. I have spent many of my one-to-one conversations regarding my experience at Standing Rock in lamentation and confession over the colonization of Oceti Sakowin Camp by white settler allies and my complicity in that violence. I would like to instead uplift the courageous work of Cheryl Angel and Starhawk in this post as an example of successful prayerful resistance in the face of colonial violence and environmental degradation. Organizationally, the main points of this action were as follows: 1) Women-led and indigenous centered, 2) Undertaken in total silence and prayer by all participants for the entire duration of the action, and 3) Undertaken with a commitment to total non-violence and non-reactivity by all participants.
Please understand that by “non-violent” I do not mean “non-disruptive.” There are many ways of being non-violently disruptive, and in the tradition of many of the Hebrew prophets, these tactics can be loud, uncomfortable, inconvenient to “business as usual,” and meant to provoke discomfort in their hearers and observers. This particular action was not disruptive in that sense, however. What it did disrupt was, for at least a short time, the need to (as my godmother likes to say), “explain, blame, or shame” ourselves, each other, or the police for the violence that was occurring at Standing Rock. Dialogue, discussion, calling out and calling in are all vital aspects of the process of decolonizing, but this action was profoundly incarnational in that sidestepped words entirely and relied on a wordless, bodily deed to communicate our meaning instead.
I ask you to imagine a line of white women kneeling silently on the front line, protecting their Native sisters and other sisters of color in the event of arrest or use of less-lethal weapons. I ask you to imagine Cheryl Angel and our Native sisters in occupied territory perform ceremony at the foot of a military grade blockade in the presence of police in full riot gear, backed by hundreds of silent, kneeling, praying women and allies. I ask you to imagine several hundred men standing in silent solidarity with their sisters at the rear, holding the space in prayer. I ask you to imagine this scene and interpret the meaning of this scene for yourself.
Indeed, this action was performed without verbal explanation to the police, and was left to their interpretation. And however it was interpreted by our brothers in riot gear, it resulted in Cheryl Angel and the rest of our Native sisters being able to perform a water ceremony on the opposite and occupied bank of the river without use of force or arrest by the police, which was completely unprecedented.
According to theologian Jon Malesic, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran pastor that was executed in a concentration camp for his resistance to the Nazi regime, writes in his Letters and Papers from Prison a vision for a post-religious Christianity: a vision in which Christians are freed by their baptism to confess their Christian identity through wordless deeds rather than through the use of creeds or words. Bonhoeffer imagines a Christianity whose only public face is “the deed which interprets itself.” And today in 2017, in a world of alternative facts where the legitimacy of words and ideas is determined by the state, in a world where Christian identity is easily claimed through verbal confession and then used to condone the agenda of empire and domination culture, in a world where Pilate taunts us, daily, with the question “What is truth,” how do we testify to the truth? How do we reclaim the integrity of our Christian identity, an identity whose core sacramental practice of the Eucharist shows us that our faith is anything but moderate–it is literally a matter of life and death?
As I engage with the practices—particularly the practices of spiritual grounding, of working relationally, of sharing stories, of mutual mentorship—the essential nature of Christianity as an incarnational religion, as a religion of bodily deeds that interpret themselves, comes more clearly into focus. The question “What is truth?” is an inherently spiritual question. But when that question gets co-opted by the state for the sake of the consolidation of power, how else can we respond than with an answer that is self-evident–that is, incarnational?
Clearly a wordless testimony like what we see in Mark 15 does not always result immediately in a happy ending, as Jesus’ crucifixion demonstrates. When we stand in silence and wordless action we necessarily give up our ability to speak for ourselves. But as a white woman with a great deal of privilege, I wonder if my verbal testimony means as much in this day and age as physical standing in solidarity with my siblings of color, my Muslim siblings, my Jewish siblings, my transgender siblings, my undocumented siblings, my native siblings, my differently-abled siblings. Actions speak louder than words, and in the words commonly attributed to St. Francis, “Preach the gospel at all times, and if necessary, use words.
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