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They "Shall Blossom as the Rose":

Native Americans and the Dream of Zion

W. Grant McMurray

Call to the Nations Conference

February 17, 2001

It is a joy for us to host this gathering of Native American peoples in our Temple dedicated to the pursuit of peace, reconciliation, and healing of the spirit. It is certainly appropriate that this sacred space should be used for the purpose of bringing diverse peoples together, learning from one another, and finding the ground on which we can walk side by side.

I have wrestled, even more than usual, with what I might say tonight. I have tried to imagine that I could read widely enough to bring myself up to date on the many issues you face, somehow become an instant expert on Native American spirituality, and brush up on matters of culture and history and tradition. But I can do none of those things.

On a personal basis, I can only speak to you from my heart as a white, middle class male, born in an urban setting in southern Ontario in Canada and nurtured by its loving people, raised most of my life in the heartland of the United States, and afforded whatever opportunities and privileges come with the education and moderate income available to most of us in suburban America.

On an official basis, I can only speak as one chosen from out of my own humble origins to lead this church in the present moment, and to speak with whatever collective voice those who have entrusted me with this responsibility will permit. I cannot speak for each person within our community, but perhaps I can say some words on behalf of our community. Today, in this place that is for us both space and symbol, we create new community, as we do each time we assemble here. And here, under the canopy that spirals toward the heavens, we become more than the sum of our individual lives. We become an "us", complete with the challenges and opportunities inherent in that becoming.

I was raised in the 1950’s, a time when the flickering pictures on black and white television screens depicted my first images of the Indian people. They were the war-painted, feather-laden, bow and arrow wielding savages who lined the crest of hills throughout the American West as the wagon trains moved through the valleys. Soon they would swoop down and ravage the heroic settlers conquering the vast new frontier.

Or they were the domesticated Tontos, affectionately attending to the needs of their cowboy sidekick, occasionally galloping in to rescue him from rustlers or gunslingers, or accompanying him on deeds of derring-do. They introduced the less artsy among us to sub-titled movies, as the chief talked around the campfire with the other leaders of the tribe, the words scrawling across the bottom of the screen.

I was educated during the 1960’s and early 1970’s, when cultural awareness began to creep into university curriculums. And so we found ourselves taking African American history courses, learning about "Chicano" communities, and reading Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee or Black Elk Speaks. It was a time of internal conflicts between the remembered images of our childhood television shows and this new picture of the Native American people, proud and strong, even defiant. We began to hear their stories, see the meanings inherent within their legends, and experience the collective guilt that came from knowing of their physical displacement, the rape of their land, and the effort to re-educate them so as to cast off the naïve assumptions of their cultures and traditions.

I began my work and ministry in the 1970’s and 1980’s, divisive times both in American culture and in the church. In those days we sought to minister to the Indian people because we believed we had a unique connection with them. That connection was founded on the weavings of sacred writing, myth, and tradition within a movement that embraces as part of its scriptural canon a book that speaks of the ministry of Jesus Christ on the American continent prior to the arrival of the Europeans. The proper use of the Book of Mormon as sacred scripture has been under wide discussion in the 1970’s and beyond, in part because of long-standing questions about its historicity and in part because of perceived theological inadequacies, including matters of race and ethnicity.

Those concerns were directly related to what the church has often called its "Mission to the Lamanites," the term in the Book of Mormon often applied indiscriminately to all Native American peoples. While commendable in its spirit, the missionary efforts were severely compromised by the language of the Book of Mormon itself, where it depicts the "Lamanites" as having been cursed because of their unfaithfulness and iniquity: "Wherefore, as they were white, and exceedingly fair and delightsome, the Lord God caused a skin of blackness to come upon them that they might not be enticing to my people." (II Nephi 4:35)

We cannot mask with theological apologetics or cultural acrobatics the inadequate and destructive consequences of language such as that. Whatever our view of the Book of Mormon may be, we must purge from our consciousness any notion that the color of people’s skin is an indicator of their worthiness, or that white skin is "delightsome" while black or brown skin is "loathsome." While good people made substantial effort to move beyond the folklore and language of the book, it was very difficult to form an outreach program of ministry around such an understanding in a time of increased sensitivity to culture and language.

That effort in the 1970’s and 1980’s was but an extension of a long history of efforts to reach out to the Lamanite people and bring them to Christ. In the earliest months of the church’s organization in 1830 Oliver Cowdery was called to "go unto the Lamanites, and preach my gospel unto them; and inasmuch as they receive thy teachings, thou shalt cause my church to be established among them." (Doctrine and Covenants 27:3a-b) The city of Zion was prophesied to be built "on the borders by the Lamanites" (Doctrine and Covenants 27:3d) and it was promised that "the Lamanites shall blossom as the rose" just as "Zion shall flourish upon the hills, and rejoice upon the mountains." (Doctrine and Covenants 49:5a-b)

This co-mingling of images connecting Native Americans and Zion, while rife with theological and cultural problems, may have the potential to ultimately provide us a foundation on which to build. It would be well for us to inquire as to what it means for Native Americans to "blossom as the rose" and for Zion to "flourish upon the hills" in a twenty-first century global society. This is the time in which the church is called to peacemaking and reconciliation and in which we declare ourselves to be the "Community of Christ," acknowledging we have much to learn about how to do that. It is for us to renew our church’s dream of Zion and to express it in contemporary terms that touch the hearts of people around the world. Perhaps we can explore the ways in which Native American cultures can contribute to that dream from out of the uniquely spiritual heritage which is theirs.

But before doing so, we must speak truth in search of wholeness. Throughout this weekend we have heard cries for acknowledgment, sometimes choked out through sobbing voices, sometimes expressed with indignation, sometimes unspoken but layered into the hurts and memories of life experience. It is, in Christian parlance, a call for confession, without which there cannot be forgiveness, a call for acknowledgement, without which there cannot be reconciliation.

I will not deny that such calls often engender defensive responses or carefully-crafted replies. It is hard to apologize for that which one does not feel he or she personally did. It is hard to acknowledge one’s participation in systemic repression or in sin which extends over centuries, and thereby emerges from a time when one did not even live. It is also hard to speak for everyone, to be a collective voice, because soon we will be reminded that "you do not speak for me."

All of this is hard, but still we must seek to give voice to that which causes division between us, to remove the barriers that keep us from being brothers and sisters. Our scriptural tradition reminds us of the importance of self-knowledge before judgment, as we read in Matthew: "Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye." (Matthew 7:4-5 NRSV)

The church is the body of Christ, which exists solely for the purpose of extending into the present time the ministries of Jesus. The church was charged with continuing the message which was embodied in the life of Jesus as he walked the earth. We become his body, called to live as he would live, do as he would do. The popular culture has simplistically adopted the phrase, "What would Jesus do?" and put WWJD on bracelets and t-shirts. Historical critics quickly explained that we cannot really know what Jesus would do, because this passage or that event is questionable in terms of its authenticity. And in the midst of the over-simplification and the over-complication people twist in the wind, awaiting a word of hope from those who would be the body of Christ.

We must be reminded that the central message of the Christian faith is that Jesus died for sins he did not commit. The journey to the cross was a lonely one and Jesus cried out in anguish for understanding, even for his own understanding. But he went to the cross that we might have life and life eternal. And now we are his body. What would Jesus do?

The story of Native peoples has been chronicled with eloquence and passion this weekend. It is a story of a deeply spiritual tradition that carries within it many, if not all, of the principles long ago embraced by the Christian faith. If expressed in a variety of cultural forms, invoking a spirit world not well understood by those of us with European roots, it still embraces the heart and soul of the ministry of Jesus. All cultures reflect their values imperfectly, and so it is with Native Americans. We do not speak of the perfect embodiment of values but of the inherent meanings that are at the core of who we are.

But the legacy of history is undeniable. A people who believed we are one with the land were exploited by those who believed land is property to be bought and sold. A people who believed that animals are relatives who teach us much about ourselves watched as the buffalo were slaughtered and left to rot on the prairies. A people who believed that the trees and the plants are the gifts of the earth to be used with thanksgiving witnessed the defoliation of forests and the strip mining of lands set aside for nurture. A people who believed that space is sacred and that it is visited by ancestors and becomes a source of spiritual knowledge experienced the desecration of sacred places and the loss of ancestral meaning.

And now the legacy is seen in the tragic demographics of contemporary life. Native Americans have the second lowest life expectancy of any population in this hemisphere. One-third live below the poverty level, deaths linked to alcoholism are over five times the national rate, teen suicide is 70% higher than the U.S. population, and unemployment exceeds 50% on reservations.1 The cycle of poverty, lack of education, drug and alcohol dependency, and bitterness about past and present realities create a people living on the margins, and seemingly unable to escape.

As products of our own people and culture, we must acknowledge our culpability in the vast mosaic of abuse, violence, disinterest, and insensitivity that has marked the experience of Native peoples in America. We are inheritors of a history that was exploitive and destructive to Native peoples, and thereby exploitive and destructive to the souls of all of us. We have benefited indirectly from choices made by previous generations that now weigh heavily on the shoulders of our brothers and sisters among Native Americans. We still participate in choices that allow the repression and neglect to continue.

As a church called to be the community of Christ, we must acknowledge our own failure to respect and honor the culture and lives of Native peoples. We were well-meaning in our efforts to share the gospel of Jesus Christ, but we had not seen the log in our own eye. In doing so, we were grievously ethnocentric, seeking to drape the central message of the gospel of Jesus Christ with culturally-driven assumptions that did not recognize the spirit of God already at work among Native peoples. We did not mean to hurt, but we did. We were sometimes blinded by our fears and our ignorance. We remain products of our respective pasts and to the extent it is humanly possible we express our sorrow and regret that we were not more sensitive to the enormous contribution Native people can make to the fulfillment of our visions and dreams.

I am sorry, and I believe I speak for many of our people who are also deeply sorry for the pain experienced by those Native peoples who populated this continent long before it was "discovered" by those from another land. We acknowledge the hurt inflicted by the forces of political, military, and cultural exploitation. If words can give life to the possibilities of the future, then let us say the words. We are sorry. We ask for your forgiveness and pray that God’s reconciling spirit will permit the healing to begin.

Sorrow and acknowledgement are not enough. I pledge the energy and resources of this church in an effort to replace words with actions and to embody the yearnings of our hearts with the labor of our hands. Even as I speak these words I know we will, at least in part, fail. How can we fully respond to the enormity of the task, not only with Native Americans, but with the other people of the world who are repressed and marginalized? But if you will grace us with patience and challenge us with love, we will try.

And now is the time for us to look for points of convergence, to discover patterns of meaning that acknowledge the journey of all people called into this community which dares to take on the name of Jesus Christ. I earlier referred to the statement in our Doctrine and Covenants which says that Native peoples "shall blossom as the rose" and shall be a part of a time when "Zion shall flourish upon the hills, and rejoice upon the mountains." (Doctrine and Covenants 49:5a-b) Perhaps it is well for us to ask in a new time what that imagery may mean and how we can embrace it as a framework for creating a future that fills in the empty spaces and replaces a legacy of violence with a vision of love.

W. Paul Jones, a Catholic/Methodist theologian who has become a friendly critic of the RLDS tradition, has referred to our "Native American magnetism" in this way:

There is a special relation between the RLDS movement and native Americans. While this has sometimes led to confusion of mission and ambiguity of attitude, there is something in this intriguing passion and compassion that is worth exploring. Christendom is in need of learning from native Americans a holism of lifestyle, a sacramental spirituality, an ecology for the earth, a sensitivity to the rhythm of living and dying, a respect for the wisdom of the elderly, and the profound oneness of spirit and body. That is, it needs help in exploring Zion.2

One of the advantages of a friendly voice from outside our own tradition is that it can sometimes permit us to see ourselves in ways we would otherwise miss. Not loaded down with the baggage that often accompanies our self-perception, they can call us to accountability for our own proclamation and heritage. I have always believed that the church is judged the most by our own words, not by those who would criticize from beyond our fellowship. Inherent in the things we proclaim is the recognition that we are rarely close to what we would call others to be. And so we continue to live in the judgment of our own humanness and shortcomings, called again and again to consciousness and integrity.

The wonderful people from the communications firm which has been trying to understand our tradition in order to help us in our transition to our new name, have read extensively in our literature and talked with hundreds and hundreds of our people. They have perceptively noticed that we have very little symbolic language in our church and very few physical symbols that are meaningful to us. That is perhaps why we cling so tenaciously to our church seal as a visual expression of who we are.

But they made an observation which caught my attention and has played on my mind ever since. We have, they say, "inherent metaphors of movement, journey, and path."3 I was struck by how true that is. As one looks at our church’s history, one quickly sees that we were a people driven from location to location, displaced by violence, misunderstanding, and fear. To be a people in search of a home, a place to settle and declare to be the land of promise, seems to be an inescapable image for us. We dreamed of a homeland, a place we called Zion. We even marked a spot where it would be built. But it eluded us, kept slipping from our grasp, as we tried to seize it and hold it tight.

Over the years the sense of displacement and journey has become less geographic than spiritual and intellectual. Now we seek identity and meaning, and we wind our way through conflict and malaise in search of a compelling mission. Still we move, a bit afraid to settle perhaps, worried that we will only be driven out again, not by a mob this time but by indifference and lack of vision.

I have thought about all of that during this conference as you have sought to tell your stories. I thought about how even though we have been participants, conscious or unconscious, in the loss of your cultural and spiritual homeland, so have we as a church experienced what it means to be uprooted and had the integrity of witness challenged and dispersed.

Perhaps here, in the convergence of our journeys, there is a reason to talk about whether the dreams and visions of our ancestors can find a new resting place in a new era of human history. I have quoted from scriptural phrasings that, read in context with their times, may have troubling images for us, even as I have shared earlier. But my desire is to avoid entanglement with the life-denying literalism of ancient language and instead to discover the spirit that breathes hope into the words and recasts the vision for a new century and on a new frontier.

And so on the spot marked for the city of Zion we have erected a Temple spiraling to the heavens, a gigantic teepee or wigwam some of you have called it. We no longer think of the "city" in the same way, but does the dream of a spiritual homeland still carry meaning for us? I daresay it does and if this nautilus shell in which we worship can be a symbol for that vision perhaps it can be a shared sacred space that brings us together in a song of peace, affirming the sadness of our remembering and the hopefulness of our dreaming.

And so what, as a church, do we have to learn from Native Americans? There is so much to say, but as I have reflected I have been amazed at the confluence of ideas and symbols between the Restoration tradition and Native American spirituality. It is, of course, expressed in different terms, but the meanings bristle with possibility.

Jimmy Durham, a Cherokee, writes these words:

In Ani Yonwiyah, the language of my people, there is a word for land: Eloheh. The same word also means history, culture and religion. This is because we Cherokees cannot separate our place on earth from our lives on it, nor from our vision and our meaning as a people. From childhood we are taught that the animals and even the trees and plants that we share a place with are our brothers and sisters.

So when we speak of land, we are not speaking of property, territory or even a piece of ground upon which our houses sit and our crops are grown. We are speaking of something truly sacred.4

This concept beautifully expresses some of the earliest Restoration understandings of the dream of Zion. There is no distinction between sacred and secular, for all things are sacred and the elements are eternal. That is why the early Latter Day Saints sought to build literal cities. They believed that the kingdom of God was built with bricks and mortar and was in harmony with the land and the time, not awaiting some future time when the kingdom would "come." Instead, we believed that the kingdom is here in our midst, at least in part, and that from the natural world comes the city of equity and justice, where all persons have worth and share with each other from their bounty.

Perhaps you can help us with the physical symbols we so urgently need to give life and vibrancy to our words of meaning. If we have moved away from a literal city of Zion, recognizing that such a place on only one piece of ground becomes real to only a small number of our people, we still need the symbols that make the land holy and that make this time sacred time. The great Lakota leader who we have known as Sitting Bull spoke these words while walking barefoot, "Healthy feet can hear the heart of Holy Earth."5

When I read those words I thought about how my feet on this ground in America can "hear" the feet of my brothers and sisters in Africa or India on the other side of the world. It is not a matter of them coming to this place which we consider sacred, but to recognize that this place is a symbol of God’s sacred creation. If our feet can hear the heart of Holy Earth, our vision of Zion, which is a dream of brotherhood and sisterhood the world around, can take on a form that has power and meaning.

Our people love to go to camps and reunions. It is a time, they say, to "get away from it all." It is a time to discover one’s true self, apart from the strains and pressures of everyday life. People speak of our camps as "holy ground," usually meaning that important spiritual experiences have happened to them there, that they have met special friends there, or that it has been a good time with family. But can Native peoples help us discover new understandings of what it means to camp on holy ground? We have limited it to what we have experienced there, never thinking about its sacred center, it’s ancestral character, its connection with our community in other places. Can you help us see?

We have embraced a church seal that depicts a lion and a lamb and a child. It is a powerful symbol for us, based on the scripture in Isaiah which depicts the peaceable kingdom as the place where "the wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. …They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea." (Isaiah 11: 6, 9 NRSV) But as meaningful as that symbol is for us, I do not believe that most of us in the church are close enough to the earth to understand its power.

I read the words of a Laguna Pueblo, Leslie Silko, who was seeking his homeland and said it thusly:

I climb the black rock mountain
Stepping from day to day
Silently.
I smell the wind for my ancestors
pale blue leaves
crushed wild mountain smell.
Returning
Up the gray stone cliff
Where I descended
a thousand years ago.
Returning to faded black stone
where mountain lion laid down with deer.6

It is, you see, precisely the same imagery as the one from Isaiah that has been etched into our church buildings and appliquéd to our signage. But for all its power and meaning, it does not speak to most of us with the heartfelt witness of many generations. It is the symbol for our church and for our dream of Zion. Can you help us see?

In the earliest writings of our church, we see the wrestling with concepts that cause us to be builders and creators of Zionic community. In the Doctrine and Covenants we read, "The elements are eternal, and spirit and element, inseparably connected, receiveth a fullness of joy; and when separated, man cannot receive a fullness of joy. The elements are the tabernacle of God; yeah, man is the tabernacle of God, even temples.." Such a view moves us toward a vision of Zion that sees the things of this world as sacred things, that recognizes every moment as a divine moment, that discovers God in the midst of the ordinary and commonplace. But our culture denies such a view. It says that the elements are temporary, that they can be used up and tossed away, that many moments are without meaning, and that God appears now and then in a spectacle of glory but is more usually absent.

But listen to Black Elk, who speaks thusly:

We should understand well that all things are the works of the Great Spirit. We should know that the Great Spirit is within all things: the trees, the grasses, the rivers, the mountains, and the four-legged animals, and the winged peoples; and even more important, we should understand that the Great Spirit is also above all these things and peoples. When we do understand all this deeply in our hearts; then we will fear, and love, and know the Great Spirit, and then we will be and act and live as the Great Spirit intends.7

There could be no clearer statement of the Restoration principle that the elements are eternal. Black Elk speaks in words that not only embrace the principle but recognize the response in how we live once we understand its meaning. It is, in our terms, the call to discipleship. Can you help us to see?

This evening we invite you into a journey of brotherhood and sisterhood. It is one that acknowledges the past, its pain and its suffering and its betrayals, and discovers in its ashes the redemptive love of faith in Jesus Christ. He was one who carried within him the sure knowledge of the Great Spirit, seeing that spirit in the despised, the rejected, the marginalized, the poor, the lost. It is a journey that acknowledges that we have things to learn from one another, and that sometimes our differences are but another side of the same mountain, our experiences only the shadings of a new day. It is a journey that embraces the dreams of all our ancestors to live in a world which is sacred, which honors the wisdom of age and celebrates the vibrancy of youth, which nurtures the land, lives in harmony with the animals, and redeems the past through the hopes of the future. It is a sacramental journey to which we are summoned.

We are a people of covenant. We are called, together, as brothers and sisters, into a journey of trust with one another. Perhaps these prophetic words from the Restoration tradition speak to us here in this place this evening: "Know, O my people, the time for hesitation is past. The earth, my creation, groans for the liberating truths of my gospel which have been given for the salvation of the world." (Doctrine and Covenants 155:7)

And may these words from the Yaqui tradition, expressed as a morning prayer, send us into engagement with that challenge by recognizing that each of us must find our path if any of us are to arrive at our destination:

to the east:
where grandfather lives
to the north:
where cold comes from
to the south:
where warm winds blow
to the west:
where grandmother earth has her place
I offer my song.
ask clarity for my confusion
ask purity for my heart
that I may know my purpose
my harmonious place in the order of things.8

May we journey together as a covenant people, discovering the joy that comes from knowing each other’s hearts, that all of us may truly "blossom as the rose," permitting our shared dreams to "flourish upon the hills, and rejoice upon the mountains."

 

 


 

1. Report of the Task Force on Ministry to Native American Nations, World Conference Bulletin 2000 (Independence, MO: Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints), page 199.

2. W. Paul Jones, "Demythologizing and Symbolizing the RLDS Tradition," Restoration Studies V (Independence, MO: Herald House, 1993), page 115.)

3. "Twelve First Principles for the Community of Christ Identity Program," unpublished paper, Crane Metamarketing, January 2001, page 2.

4. Jimmy Durham, as cited in Joseph Bruchac and Diana Landau (eds), Singing of Earth: A Native American Anthology, Berkley, California: The Nature Company, 1993, page 57.

5. As cited in Bruchac and Landau, page 46.

6. As cited in Bruchac and Landau, page 66.

7. Black Elk, The Sacred Pipe, as cited in Alive Now (September-October 1984), page 23.

8. Carol Lee Sanchez as cited in Bruchac and Landau, page 54.