“Spirituality is the highest form of political consciousness.”
These words rang throughout Rev. Dr. Thom White Wolf Fassett's presentation, “Politics of Religion—Native Spirituality & Christian Practice” at the Weber Memorial Lectures Friday, March 9, 2018, at Moravian College in Bethlehem, PA.
He presented through the lens of his personal story as a member of the Seneca Nation and his father’s Lakota traditions. His humility was evident as he shared stories of those elders who nurtured his gifts and mentored him while he ministered in Alaska.
The lecture was followed by Dr. Frank L. Crouch, Vice President and Dean of Moravian Theological Seminary and Dr. Bryon Grigsby, President Moravian College conferring the Honorary Degree of Doctor of Divinity on him for his “decades of scholarship, service, faith, and ongoing international work for justice and human and civil rights.”
As they lifted the hood over Fassett’s head and handed him his degree emotion filled his voice, “This is a significant experience for me and quite overwhelming,” Fassett said.
Fassett opened by exploring the intersections of US history and the spiritual values expressed by Christians, Seneca - Six Nations, Navajo, and the Lakota. He mused about what could have been accomplished if instead of conquest of the Americas by the European immigrants there had been a combining “of European technology and the wisdom that could be found among Indigenous people?”
Fassett proceeded to lift up the ethical conundrum facing those who wish to follow a just Christian spiritual path and yet also insist on holding fast to a distorted view of American Democracy which is forever tied to the Doctrine of Discovery and Manifest Destiny.
Fassett hit upon the crux of the conflict in the United States today when he said, “Today different is equated as wrong.” Confronting his audience, he exclaimed that Christians today often profess one story, insisting that only one story counts, expecting that this one story is the only story. He pressed further asking, “If I cannot receive the other how can I be whole?”
Drawing from the deepest values of his faith and culture Dr. Fassett offered a way forward by stressing the importance of kinship and inviting everyone to listen to each other’s stories. He spoke humbly but firmly, making it clear that this is his story – it is only one – but everyone has stories that are true to their traditions. People of faith need to interrogate their own traditions. They need to deconstruct them to find the essential core of theology and ethics that will help them connect with others and build kinship with others of differing traditions and faiths and move us toward unity.
Fassett finished his lecture with several developments once again threatening the Sovereignty of Native Peoples in the United States. He showed pictures of a Jewish cemetery which was vandalized and then showed pictures of a Native Artist’s depiction that has been similarly vandalized. He described the desecration of sacred sites and places on earth that carry historical and spiritual significance for tribes such as Bears Ears in Utah and Medicine Wheel in Wyoming which have been destroyed by fortune hunters, tourists, mining companies, and our own government. He spoke of the calling of our United States leaders for “opening up Bears Ears in Utah” which would allow drilling and mining that could not have been accomplished if the site had remained it original dimensions. He shared the spiritual stories associated with several such sites presently jeopardized.
After receiving his degree, Fassett responded with a moving series of questions. “Where are the children?” “What’s happening to the children?” he asked, with a catch in his voice. “They are watching us!” “Every motion we make… every expression of our face… every look of our eyes… every tone we express… to our … spouses… our partners, our family members … our neighbors… to strangers,” “When we are held accountable to the Creator, the question will be, ‘Have you loved my children? All of them?’”
This informative and moving lecture provides a wealth of knowledge and spiritual advice for many who are seeking to find common ground in the midst of conflict and turmoil.
The Lecture is available online at https://vimeo.com/259894745 and can be used to begin discussions in our United Methodist churches as we continue the Journey toward Repentance with Native Americans.
Rev. Suzanne Wenonah Duchesne, MPhil, is an elder in the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference and presently writing her dissertation in Liturgical Studies at Drew. She is the Communications Chairperson of Northeast Jurisdiction Native American Ministries Committee and adjunct faculty Pastoral Theology Moravian Theological Seminary.
Photographs provided by Amy Silvoy, Associate Director of Marketing and Communications for Moravian Theological Seminary.