In John 11:1-45, the gospel text tells the story of Lazarus who had been ill and died. Lazarus’ sisters, Mary and Martha, and their religious leaders were grieving for him. Deeply moved by their mourning for Lazarus, Jesus told them that Lazarus was not dead, just asleep. He told them to move the stone away from his tomb!
They hesitated, fearful that the stench would be overwhelming. But Jesus insisted, having told Martha earlier, “Your brother will rise again” (John 11:23), and reminded her to trust in seeing the glory of God. Indeed, when the stone was rolled away, Jesus called in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” (11:43) and he did!
At this point Jesus gave a very significant instruction - “Unbind him, and let him go” (John 11:45). For though Lazarus was raised from the dead, his hands and feet were still bound with strips of cloth, which embalmed him like a mummy. Lazarus had to be freed of the bindings and chemicals that kept him among the dead to fully live again.
Nowadays, many American Indians nations are revived in their traditions by rediscovering their languages and teaching immersion classes for both children and adults. Some, those who claim both their traditional culture and the Christian faith, experience spiritual resonance with the biblical metaphor of the four winds breathing upon those who were slain, bringing new life to dry bones (Ezekiel 37:9b).
Will the Church trust to see the glory of God in what is happening - this new sense of God’s mission that brings blessings, especially the gifts of the traditional ways? The Church has long been an ambiguous instrument for American Indians. While it participated in genocide, it is also the conveyor of a faith which nurtured and transformed American Indian life.
If genocide and dispossession are like the outer strips of cloth that bound the once dead body of Lazarus, the continuing impact of such trauma across generations is like the embalming fluids that seep into the communal body and disintegrate its psyche. Such is the toxic legacies of colonization seen in the devastating realities today: drug addiction, teenage suicide, despair and hopelessness in American Indian communities.
So, what could the Church do to unbind what the Spirit has raised up? In order for Native Americans to claim a life that is fully alive, what colonialist and patronizing bindings do the Church need to sever? What would an equitable partnership look like? How do we engage each other with respect, prayer, a commitment to the sharing of resources, and in empowering and supporting ministerial and congregational formation?
Thanks to Norm “Jack” Jackson for his assistance in crafting these reflections. For more information on the UCC Council of American Indian Ministries (CAIM) visit caimucc.org.