Why do I go to Standing Rock?

by Bishop Guy Erwin

I go to Standing Rock because I am a Christian, living out my baptismal vocation in service to Christ’s church as a bishop in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. I am also a mixed-race member of the Osage Nation of Oklahoma, born on land inhabited by my Osage ancestors for a thousand years.

I go to Standing Rock as a pilgrimage to the Native encampments that have been built to help the Standing Rock Sioux Nation stop construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. I go because I want to show my support for their efforts, to add my prayers to theirs as they call to God for justice, to add my voice to the protest against the indifference to Native rights, violation of sacred land, and endangerment of the natural environment I believe this pipeline represents.

I go to Standing Rock aware that there are many dimensions to the construction of this pipeline, and that there are some who will be hurt regardless of what happens. The pipeline has economic implications for the residents of North Dakota, and it is part of a vast business strategy of corporations that profit from the extraction, transport and sale of fossil fuels to an energy-hungry consumer society. These are painful realities.

I go to Standing Rock in the belief that this pipeline represents for the Native community yet another example of disregard for their concern for the sacredness of the land to which they belong. I believe it also shows disregard for the sovereignty Native nations possess by the gift of God, and which the government of the United States recognizes as being as valid as its own. And I go hoping that this time, the outcome will be different, and that Native voices will be heard.

Time and again, Native interests and rights have been subordinated to the desire of the majority of the population for growth, development, and exploitation of the land. Time and again, the support of the Federal government—uneven and unreliable though that has been—has been Native peoples’ only recourse against state and local government and business interests, which almost always find Native rights inconvenient and an obstacle to what they believe to be progress. Time and again, Native inhabitants of North America have been shown that their lives and rights matter less than those of the non-Native population which now makes up the great majority of the land’s inhabitants.

The pipeline has the potential to bring great wealth to some and increased prosperity perhaps to many. But it also carries with it the potential for great destruction. Though pipelines might be a safer method of transporting oil than trucks or trains, they are still far from safe for the environment, as recent spills across the country continue to show us. It is not so much a question of whether a pipeline will break, as when and where it will, and who will suffer from the damage that ensues.

If a pipeline is safe enough to be built on Native land, or where Native people stand to suffer most from its failure, it ought to be safe enough to be built where the majority population lives. This is not a numbers game: for the larger settler population systemically to discourage the flourishing of Native communities, and then to act against their interests on the ground that they are numerically few, is to add modern insult to historic injury.

I go to Standing Rock because I find in our Lutheran understanding of the Ten Commandments, as articulated in Luther’s Small Catechism, ample reason to see in the threatened Native communities throughout our country precisely those neighbors to whose care we have been called by God. In the spirit of Luther’s teaching, I call Lutheran Christians in the United States to self-examination and repentance wherever they have taken part in the use of power, for self-interest, against the rights and lives of others.

As a nation—to use Luther’s language—we have tricked our Native neighbors out of their inheritance, and we have falsely claimed legal rights to that which was not our own. We have deprived them of their property by crooked deals, and with promises not kept. These are violations of the Seventh and Ninth Commandments, which call on us neither to steal nor to covet, but instead call us to protect others’ property and to be of help and service to our neighbors in maintaining what is theirs.

Then, having subordinated Native peoples, confining them to reservations and curtailing their rights, we have continued to betray and slander them through racial prejudice. Even now, we diminish them through stereotypes and caricatures and mock their attempts to assert their dignity and their rights. This is a violation of the Eighth Commandment, which instead calls us to the defense of our neighbors’ reputations.

I go to Standing Rock because this year, at its Churchwide Assembly, our church took public action to repudiate these injustices of the past, to seek pardon and reconciliation, and to work in support of Native peoples’ legitimate claims for justice and redress. In its repudiation of the Doctrine of Discovery, the ELCA put itself on the side of Native people. I go to Standing Rock to live into the promises our church has made.

Tomorrow, on October 25, our Presiding Bishop, accompanied by me and four other bishops, will go to Standing Rock. We go to listen, to learn, and to pray. We go to stand with our feet on the prairie—on the earth our God has made, the land our Native siblings revere, and we go to show reverence and respect for Creation and our fellow human beings. We go to hear the songs and laments of those whose ancestors were on this continent for untold ages before Europeans arrived, and to salute their descendants’ courage. We go, simply to be there.

We go to Standing Rock.

The Rev. R. Guy Erwin, Ph.D.
Bishop of the Southwest California Synod
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
October 24, 2016

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Comments(9)

  1. Barbara says

    Hi Dr. Erwin, Can never tell you how wonderful all the travels with you were.

  2. Chris says

    It is great that you are going to standing rock to stand up as a Christian to show your support for this cause!!

    When you go to standing rock, I would also encourage you to encourage to the people on to follow some other commandments, in addition to the ones that you mentioned in your article above.

    For example, encourage the protesters to follow the 4th commandment and to honor and respect police and other authority figures, and to comply with any orders or directions given by the authorities. I was saddened to hear a story about a police officer who was maced by a protester, who had grabbed his mace and sprayed him with it – this is a violation of the 5th commandment as well.

    Also encourage those protesting to follow the 7th commandment – over $2 million of construction equipment was destroyed in a fire started by protesters. This not only damages the property of others, it also hurts the environment. In addition to sins, these are also criminal acts. It undermines the notion of a peaceful protest when some commit acts of violence against law enforcement, and it undermines the voices of those who are protesting peacefully.

    Finally, it would be also good to encourage people to follow the 8th commandment. Unfortunately this situation has been highly politicized, and the news cycles (and social media) have been dominated by stories that don’t always speak about the issue completely truthfully. For example, most stories do not mention the fact that the pipeline company has followed current US law, they are building next to an existing pipeline which has been in place for decades (so there is already a pipeline under Lake Oahe, and the land has been dug up and built on before) , they rerouted their pipeline many times in an effort to be sensitive to Native Americans, and they are building on mostly private, and a small portion of government land. (Regardless of whether you agree or disagree with the process, it is wrong to not report all the facts, or to selectively omit facts in order to push a narrative or agenda)

    My hope and prayer is that cooler heads will prevail, that protesters will protest peacefully and let their voices be heard, and that they will follow and respect our nations laws, and God’s laws throughout the whole process, regardless of the outcome.

    Blessings on your trip, and I hope that your presence will bring some reason and sanity to the situation!

    • Larry Thiele says

      They do. If you were to watch the live video feeds of these incidents. you will see thaat as they begin to copy and withdraw they are grabbed by law enforcement, sometimes thrown to the ground even as they are complying with directives. Recently Law Enforcement just arrive form a line, when they feel they have enough officers they move out and just start pointing to people saying stay where you are your under arrest. Law enforcement target media and those with recording devices. In the videos Law enforcement is always the aggressors. And the officer that was sprayed? video shows him pacing in front of the people, then rushes one person, pushes him back, starts macing him and the crowd but loses control of the canister and ends up spraying himself. Everything being released to media, video or statements, is contradicted by live video, which is why media and people recording the police action are always targeted. I seen a post yesterday Morton County Sheriff released to the press showing a person he said was a “protester” at a fence with a bolt cutter in his hands. Below that was a picture of the same person holding a white PVC tube, but his stocking cap was visible and it had a Morton County Sheriffs emblem on it. I dont believe he intended for that photo to be attached to the one he claimed to be a protester. The statements of the ND Governor and Morton County Sheriff has made this a race issue which detracts from the real environmental and justice issue that brought this on in the first place. The big question is; “Why was the pipeline moved from its original path north of Bismarck, the state capital, to an area less than 2 miles from the Standing Rock Nation.?” In August the Bismarck tribune reported that the reason it was moved was because of concern for Bismarck’s water supply. As for pipeline already under the river? It is time to shut those down too. This stand that Standing Rock took was because this pipeline is a direct threat to that nation. From this action at Standing Rock people have become aware of the threats to the river, and those pipelines are even more of a threat to the water. all over the country there are reports of leaks and breaks in pipelines. These also need immediate attention, and be removed not replaced.

      • Chris says

        I appreciate your perspective Larry,

        However, my point was (and still is) that no matter how you feel about the location and construction of the pipeline, it is important to follow the law. (Both the laws of the USA, and as a Christian, God’s Law, the Ten Commandments) When people break those laws, as Christians, we are called to condemn their illegal and sinful actions, even if we support their position and oppose the pipeline. The end does not justify the means.

        Protesters still need to respect law enforcement, and while most of them probably are, some are not. In addition to destroying $2 million worth of equipment (7th commandment), in recent days, some protesters set up barriers on a public highway and lit vehicles on fire, greatly endangering the innocent public, and when law enforcement asked them to leave and clear the highway, they refused. (4th commandment again). Yesterday a hundreds of protesters illegally trespassed and set up a camp on private land and refused orders by law enforcement asking them to leave, hence the reason so many were arrested. Its unfortunate that police had to remove them and arrest some, but the confrontation yesterday could have been avoided completely if they were not trespassing in the first place.

        I have a hard time believing that law enforcement would just throw people to the ground without provocation, especially when there has been so much law breaking and provocation by some (key word, some). It is possible (and if so, unfortunate) that peaceful protesters might have gotten caught in the fray. But if everyone was following the law and respecting the authorities, there would be no reason for the police to engage in the first place. That’s why its so crucial for people like Bishop Erwin, who are going to join the people at Standing Rock, to condemn the sinful behavior of the protesters who are actually breaking the law. Then, the rest can conduct their protest lawfully and peacefully.

        If the protesters and the Standing Rock Tribe rise up an condemn the illegal activity, and the violence, that makes their message much more powerful. If they look the other way, it only undermines their cause.

  3. Debby Liebzeit says

    I wish I was going there with you. I have been posting this on my FB account for months. What is going on with the news media in ignoring this has me wondering if we will ever have media that speaks the truth to all sides of an incident. Biased news! I give you, our presiding bishop and the other bishops large kudos for standing with them.

  4. Cynthia Baumann says

    Thank you for this public letter of support. I have been wondering where are the Christian people? It is disheartening to read the racist and hateful comments directed at myself and my native brothers and sisters. But we press on because we have a right to have clean water and we know the value of this gifts of this land we live on and who it comes from. God bless!!

  5. Sandra Dager says

    Thank you, Bishop Erwin, for your careful, thoughtful and thought-provoking writing. Thank you, even more, for going to North Dakota with three other bishops from our church, to listen, learn, and stand with Native Americans. It calls to mind David against Goliath, for Goliath represents what part of our country has done and been for far too long. Blessings and peace to you.

  6. Joe Noonan says

    Thank you Rev. Guy Erwin, for the courage to stand for your convictions and your faith. Thank you for the clarity and honesty of your declaration. And thank you for your leadership and example, that the rest of us may also take action and be heard.

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