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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