I’ve just finished reading a new biography by historian David Buerge. It’s titled Chief Seattle and the Town that Took His Name (Sasquatch Press, 2017). I grew up in Seattle, the largest city in the world bearing the personal name of a Native American; I was interested in the book, of course, because of my ties to the Emerald City. I thought it might be an interesting read in the vein of Trivial Pursuit, collecting interesting anecdotes for entertainment, not life lessons. But, when I laid the book down, at its close, I realized it was anything but a trivial diversion; I learned some uncomfortable things about myself and my sense of the city that raised me. It was, for me at least, a fascinating and difficult read, both sobering and heartbreaking.
Chief Seattle was described by an early European visitor to Puget Sound (a doctor working for the Hudson’s Bay Company) as “the handsomest Indian” he had ever seen. The doctor described the Chief of the Duwamish (and five other tribes) as having “an aquiline nose, fine features, expressive eyes,” and “a commanding presence.” He was unusually tall. Lean. Muscular. His physical prowess, fearless ambition, and reputation as a fierce warrior defined him, even late in life. He was considered “wise,” “poetic,” and “brilliant.” Many who knew him said he had an astonishing sense of humor, but also an incredible temper and powerful voice. “When Seattle spoke,” one contemporary observed, “it was the other person who shook.”
But, Chief Seattle was an Indian. For all the superlatives with which history has branded him, he and his people were prejudicially dismissed by most of the whites who would claim his land as their own. He and his people were pushed onto specks of land called “reservations.” They were patronized and ignored, viewed as inferior primitives, and destined to fade from view as a new and better, more civilized, race became ascendant in the shadow of the mountain English explorer George Vancouver named for one of his friends, Rear Admiral Peter Rainier. The Indians called the mountain Tacoma; never mind the names they had centuries before assigned to the landscape. Honored by some, Seattle was nevertheless pushed from a wooden city sidewalk into the mud by a young white girl running by, oblivious to the fact that the aged Indian about whom she cared nothing was the man who once reigned supreme over the proud people who first called the place home.
Catherine Blaine, the wife of the city’s first pastor (a Methodist), wrote home to New York describing native people as “coarse, filthy, and debased.” “You talk about the stupidity of the Irish,” she continued, after dismissing a native servant, “You ought to have to work with one of our Indians and then you would know what these words mean.”
As the railroads pushed west from the Mississippi after the Civil War, Chinese laborers were imported to Seattle to do what the Americans would not, carving roadbeds into impossibly steep mountainsides, tunneling through the Cascade Range, bearing every indignity for the chance to work. The white settlers of the new city did not like the Chinese either; indeed, they resented them.
Few African Americans would find their way to this far corner of the American Pacific Northwest. But, those who did, found that race could isolate them, too, restricting them to certain parts of town, vocations, and schools. During World War II, over 7,000 Americans of Japanese descent in Seattle were rounded up over a period of three days and forcibly deported to internment camps in Idaho, where they would languish for years, before being encouraged to resettle in Midwestern or Eastern states. The commanding officer overseeing the deportations wrote, “The Japanese race is an enemy race and while many second and third generation Japanese born on United States soil, possessed of United States citizenship have become ‘Americanized,’ the racial strains are undiluted.” It was all about how you looked and the family that brought you into this world. Nothing else mattered.
The city of Seattle today imagines itself a bastion of welcoming pluralism, set free from the prejudice of an earlier age. And, much progress has been made since Chief Seattle was pushed from the sidewalk. But, his descendants still vie for recognition, for a place, in the high-tech urban wonderland that is today home to the world’s two wealthiest families (Microsoft’s Gates and Amazon’s Bezos). The city of which I have always been so proud has some white privilege baggage of which it should be ashamed. I was ashamed coming to terms to with my own neighborhood’s history.
Fifty years ago, on April 4, Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, where he had checked in to encourage the city’s black sanitation workers, who were on strike, seeking better working conditions. By 1968, King had already become a lightning rod in the struggle for civil rights, equality, and justice. He was a transformational and global figure, perhaps the most influential American of the twentieth century—certainly the most consequential when defining and reforming our culture. Dead at thirty-nine, he never held public office, owned a business, or carried a gun. His vision of a nation set free to embrace character—not ethnicity—as the measure of greatness and promise, still inspires, but sadly remains elusive for many yearning to live free.
Jesus walked in a world in which His own people, the Jews, were widely panned as backward and uncivilized. Greco-Roman culture saw key rituals and customs of the Hebrew Old Testament as appalling and primitive. The world of Jesus, like our own, was corrupted by false pride and pretension, by preoccupation with wealth and power, by haunting insecurities, and by the artificial division of those made in the image of God. Diverse cultures and complexions became the markers of “us” and “them,” instead of evidence of the transcendent genius of the Creator.
Jesus defied these prejudicial norms. He loved the Roman centurion as He loved the Samaritan woman as He loved the disabled Jewish man as He loved the despised woman caught in adultery as He loved the blind beggar on the road to Jericho as He loved the well-to-do young Jewish man who asked what he must do to inherit eternal life. He loved everyone into which God had breathed an eternal soul, the imago dei, the image of God.
The Apostle Peter, raised to think he and his crowd were favored above others, discovered this same truth on the rooftop of Simon the Tanner’s house in Joppa. Peter next found himself in the company of the Roman officer Cornelius, understanding, for the first time, that God sees everyone the same and that “all who call upon the name of the Lord to be saved” will be. The Apostle Paul, schooled as was Peter with a certain sense of ethnic superiority, is called out by Jesus on the Damascus Road and became the “Apostle to the Gentiles”—to “the others.”
It is hard for those who have long been “in the driver’s seat” to comprehend what it’s like to be moved to the back of the bus. It’s hard for majority culture to comprehend its privileges and the challenged experience of minority cultures. It’s hard when we suffer loss not to want to blame a class of others, somehow seen as different from ourselves. It is hard to come to terms with the truth of our own histories, its shortcomings and sin. It’s hard for many of us to acknowledge that the work of racial reconciliation and understanding, bringing communities together as peers, and redeeming what hell has stolen by dividing us, is not done. In the United States and Canada. Or, in the Church of God.
In 2016, the Movement convened three Tables (day-long events prompting conversation), to help us all wrestle with some of the most difficult questions of our time. Each ChoG Table had a Commission of outstanding leaders who listened to the Table presentations and have worked to prepare resources to help the church navigate forward on each theme. One of these Tables tackled Race, Reconciliation, and Relationships.
Several members of the Race, Reconciliation, and Relationships Commission have had ongoing dialogue about how best to address the opportunities and needs within this area of the church’s life. Recently, the Ministries Council was asked by the Commission’s Chair to endorse participation in the Rally to End Racism in Washington, D.C., on April 4, marking the anniversary of Dr. King’s death. This event is sponsored by a host of church groups, representing a broad spectrum of the Christian community.
The Ministries Council spent some time (at its meeting two weeks ago) considering this request. That we oppose racism was never in dispute, but how do we best stand against it? What if some of the other groups involved in the Rally have different ideas than do we on other theological lines? What if some who attend the Rally come from perspectives with which many of us would disagree?
In the end, though, the Council voted overwhelmingly to sign up for the Rally. The clear message was this: we, in the Church of God, may not always agree with other Christian communities on many important points, but on this we all agree—racism is sin and we’re opposed to it. Furthermore, we must, as a Movement, stand forward on this cause, proactively helping our church family to understand that there is no holiness where racism is allowed to breathe. Standing with others in the Rally to End Racism fifty years after Dr. King’s murder is not only an appropriate step, it is a long overdue step. It is also congruent with a long history of General Assembly resolutions calling the church to bridge the racial divide.
Approximately one quarter of the congregations in our Church of God family in the United States and Canada are of African-American or Afro-Caribbean descent. The Hispanic Council (Concilio Hispano) of the Church of God represents one of our fastest growing Church of God communities. Our Native American Ministries, including at the Tulalip Reservation north of Seattle, where Chief Seattle once held sway, has a historic commitment to equity, tearing down the walls of prejudice. If any people should be at the Rally to End Racism, we should be.
Of course, the Rally will have come and gone by the time you read this. Our participation will be by lending our name to the effort, not by sending so many to stand in the line. The notice of the Rally, and invitation to participate, came to us late.
But, the Council’s decision, nevertheless, is a marker. It heralds an increasing awareness in our ranks that to stand silently by the curb also speaks—and speaks things we do not want to say. When it comes to racism, racial prejudice, and the diminishing of anyone created in God’s image, we will speak and loudly. We will face the truth and boldly. We will be a Kingdom people, not of this world and not conformed to this world’s broken status quo.
At each of our Regional Conventions in 2018, members of the ChoG Table Commission on Race, Reconciliation, and Relationships will host a forum to keep the work in view, to stoke a righteous fire that can burn brightly across the Movement. Every one of us, in every hue, must press forward, shoulder-to-shoulder. We have a way to go, but the Movement is moving.
Personal holiness will inevitably birth social holiness. It has always been so, whenever and wherever Jesus is the subject. Join the Movement. Change the world. Reclaim. Take back what hell has stolen. Give life. Be encouraged.
And, Chief Seattle? He died in 1866, in his 80s, on the reservation to which he and his people were ultimately exiled, across the Sound from the growing city that bore his name and the property he had always before called home. Seattle had protected the settlers from the violence of other tribes, he had invited them to share his land, he dreamed of a blended society, in which his children and the white children would play, grow, and work together. It was not to be. He became a Christian later in life, and was baptized Catholic, taking the Bible name Noah, after the Old Testament patriarch who watched an old world washed away and a new epoch born. He is buried in the shadow of a small white Christian chapel, today largely forgotten and unknown, its steeple reaching toward heaven. The Duwamish still are asking for some of their original land back, on the shore of the city’s Elliott Bay. The land is too valuable to return, measured by American dollars, we’re told; local mandarins oppose the federal government’s recognition of the Duwamish as a surviving tribe. Seattle’s name is known around the world; perhaps, his dignity and principled strength can be now understood, as well.