(RNS) – Shannon Rivers believes Indigenous Peoples are America’s moral compass.
A member of the Akimel O’otham Native Americans, or River People of the Southwestern United States, Rivers refers to historical accounts of northeastern Wampanoag, who in the 1600s taught pilgrims how to grow crops and withstand harsh winters.
“We were the ones who had that initial moral understanding of how you take care of each other and we still maintain it today, despite all the wrongs that have been done,” said Rivers, who is a spiritual advisor for incarcerated Amerindians. “Indigenous peoples always come together. They always pray for those who are settler societies.
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The January 6 uprising at the United States Capitol introduced many Americans to the phenomenon of Christian nationalism, with some of the rioters carrying crosses or calling on the name of Jesus. But for many non-Christian Americans, Christian nationalism is an inevitable reality.
Rivers said the history of Christian nationalism began when European settlers responded to the reception of Native Americans with the belief that divine providence had ordered their rule over Native lands.
Rivers said that to honestly confront Christian nationalism, churches and other places of worship must focus on a papal bull issued by Pope Alexander VI in 1493, known as the Doctrine of Discovery. Although it gave a theological rationale for colonization while the Americas were occupied by European powers, the Alexander Bull slipped into US law, providing the basis for a key ruling by the United States. Supreme Court of 1823 attributing the American West to the United States.
According to Rivers, any conversation about America as a Christian nation begins with the philosophical eradication of Native Americans’ right to their homes. “We need to be part of the larger conversation because you can’t just have discussions about religion and spiritual beliefs without understanding the people who were here first,” Rivers said. “You are simply ignoring a long history of wrongs that these Christians, unfortunately, have committed. “
Rabbi Neil Comess-Daniels of Beth Shir Shalom, a Reformed synagogue in Santa Monica, Calif., Said the roots of Christian nationalism go back further, to the Christian belief that Jesus was the fulfillment of Jewish prophecy and made the obsolete Judaism.
“Christianity came along and it assumed it was replacing Judaism and the Jewish covenant,” said Comess-Daniels, who also works as a rabbi in residence at a Lutheran church. (Comess-Daniels made national headlines in 2018 when he delivered a Rosh Hashanah sermon denouncing Stephen Miller, a former member of the congregation who was an advisor to then-President Donald Trump for the role of Miller in the family separation crisis at the border.)
American Jews, Comess-Daniels said, experience Christian nationalism through this anti-Semitic lens. In the United States, “there seems to be a Christian flaw,” he said.
Comess-Daniels and Rivers were among several religious leaders who spoke at a November panel discussion on Christian nationalism sponsored by the California Poor People’s Campaign and held at the First African Methodist Episcopal Church in Los Angeles. Another speaker, Reverend Liz Theoharis, co-founder of the Poor People’s Campaign, said Christian nationalism is so tied to American ideals that its influence “goes beyond those who identify with its ideology, even those who consider themselves religious. “.
But Theoharis told the audience that churches are reinforcing the message “that God loves white Christian America, favors small governments and big business, and rewards individualism and entrepreneurship, but in the meantime the poor, the of color, immigrants, gays, women – we ‘are blamed for the problems in society,’ said Theoharis.
Religious nationalism is not the only province of Christianity, according to Tahil Sharma, an interfaith and social justice activist in Los Angeles. Sikh and Hindu, Sharma said she has faced nationalism on two fronts: Christian nationalism in the United States and Hindu nationalism in India.
There are parallels between the two, Sharma said, pointing out how Hindu nationalists view his opposition to India’s caste system, despite being of a higher caste himself. It’s “a spit in the face,” he said. While nationalists would say that he disrespects his ancestors by disavowing caste, “I cannot in any conscience accept that this should be part of a religious tradition.”
In some Hindu communities, “if you criticize the rituals or the caste system, you are presumed to be a Hinduphobe.”
Christian nationalism, Sharma said, also plays on Americans’ emotions by stoking a “false idea of patriotism.” Hindus in India and Christians in the United States want to see themselves as exceptional. “You’re just talking about a different majority context. “
Sharma, regional coordinator for North America at the United Religions Initiative, said white Christians must work with other faith groups to fight religious nationalism. “Christians need to do a better job of… being complicit with people in the work of social and racial justice,” he said.
Comess-Daniels agreed that it’s crucial for different religious groups to stand up for each other, but said they need to go beyond simply denouncing Christian nationalism.
He recalled how, during a 1993 outbreak of anti-Semitism in Billings, MT, townspeople came together after a brick slipped through the window of a Jewish boy’s bedroom that displayed a menorah for Hanukkah. Thousands of residents have placed paper menorahs on their windows in solidarity.
In 2017, after the desecration of Jewish cemeteries in St. Louis, Muslim activist Linda Sarsour and Tarek El-Messidi, the founding director of CelebrateMercy, helped raise thousands of dollars to repair vandalized gravestones.
“Those kinds of answers are really pure. This is America’s potential, ”Comess-Daniels said.
“We must all stand up together,” the rabbi said. “It’s a lot more powerful and a lot more effective in this particular country because deep down I think most Americans understand that we’re a pluralistic society and we’re all meant to be here.”
For Tasneem Farah Noor, Interfaith Minister-in-Residence for the Episcopal Diocese of Southern California, Christian nationalism is “rooted in so many different aspects of everyday society.”
Noor, who arrived in the United States from Pakistan with her family when she was 15, said she learned to take ownership of her Muslim identity after the September 11 attacks. It was a time for her to advocate for a Muslim identity against terrorism, bombings and assassinations. “I wouldn’t be a Muslim if that was what it meant,” she said.
When she saw the Christian symbols during the Jan. 6 uprising, Noor said, these actions brought Americans face to face with the fact that “this is America.” It is our nation. She said, “It was really like, ‘OK. I’m American and Americans look like that.