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  • Writer's pictureTom Emanuel

HOLY ENVY... This Week at UCCW

“Creation” by Oscar Howe, Yanktonai Dakota

“Never lose an opportunity of seeing anything beautiful, for beauty is God’s handwriting.” –Ralph Waldo Emerson

One of my favorite interfaith experiences happened in a field outside of Vermillion in July 2013. The local Native community was holding their yearly Sundance, and I had the privilege to be there because the pastor at UCC Vermillion, Steve Miller, had cultivated a strong friendship with our Native elders over the course of many years. So out to the Sundance Grounds we went before the break of day, bearing Styrofoam cups of McDonald’s coffee to the drummers and the Sundance chief. That morning, the elders asked Steve to give the sunrise blessing before the dance began. The prayer that he offered was an ancient Hebrew blessing he had learned from a rabbi in Berkeley when he attended seminary. A White Protestant minister singing a Jewish prayer at a Sundance! I loved it so much, I still sing that exact prayer every time I preach.

Later I asked Steve how he found himself in a position to be offering such a prayer at such a moment. He explained that, as soon as he came to South Dakota, he decided to learn as much as he could about Lakota spirituality, culture, and language. The Congregational Church—our spiritual ancestors in the UCC—had been one of the churches that “missionized” South Dakota – that is to say, attempted to wipe out indigenous religious traditions and convert the “heathen savages” to Christianity. White Christians for so long had done the talking and the taking, the converting and the colonizing, to the point that Native religion wasn’t even legalized in this country until 1978. (So much for the First Amendment!) Steve saw part of his work, as a White Christian minister, as beginning to listen and learn instead.

This attitude of spiritual humility has had a profound impact on how I hope to approach traditions other than my own. Christianity is the world’s largest religion, with 2.2 billion adherents. And while there are places where Christians are still a persecuted minority, here in the West we have been politically and socially dominant for 1,500 years. Unfortunately, in order to achieve that dominance, the Church chose to ally itself with the brutal forces of Empire, turning the radical faith of Jesus into a set of doctrines and cultural practices to be exported by force. Christians have been so wrapped up in the imperial certainty that ours is the “one true faith,” we have failed to recognize the beauty and wisdom of other traditions – with devastating consequences.

The cultural genocide of Native Americans is just one outworking of that imaginative failure. The recent White Supremacist violence at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand is another. Our world cries out for interfaith solidarity. It cries out for those of us in dominant groups to practice deep humility and allow those of other faiths—especially those we have historically demonized and colonized—to teach us about the Divine. It cries out for dialogue that goes beyond tolerance to mutual curiosity and even admiration. Speaking for myself, my relationships with people of other faiths (and no faith) have profoundly influenced my own faith – made it stronger, deeper, more inclusive.

This Sunday afternoon at 4pm (3/31), there will be an interfaith prayer vigil at Mt. Zion Synagogue in Sioux Falls (523 W 14th St). Our Good Books study group is planning to attend, preparatory to diving into our latest read, the Episcopal priest Barbara Brown Taylor’s new book Holy Envy: Finding God in the Faith of Others. If you’re available to make the drive down, you are more than welcome to join us for the vigil and then dinner afterward, and also to pick up a copy of the book in the church office.

There is a well-known phrase in Sanskrit, Namaste, that means, “The God in me beholds the God in you.” I read it as a kind of analogue to the Lakota blessing Mitakuye Oyasin, “We are all related.” My prayer for us this week is that we may learn to honor this deep-down relatedness, and to behold the Divine in everyone we meet – no matter which God(s) they may or may not believe in.

Blessin’s, --Tom

QUESTIONS FOR THE WEEK: Do you have non-Christian friends? How have they helped you grow in your own faith? How can we, as Christians, be in faithful solidarity with other religions which the Church has historically demonized?

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