The Guilt and Riches of our Ancestors: Take it or Leave it (Sort Of)


“Land was acquired back in the day through theft and murder …

I agree to a point that individuals shouldn’t be held guilty for the sins of the past. But if that is true, then individuals shouldn’t at the same time be able to benefit because of the sins of the past. [WHOAH!] [#WhyDidINeverThinkOfThis]

I don’t believe land can be owned by a person or a bloodline.”

~Mark Van Steenwyk [brackets mine]

When I shared this excerpt, a friend asked me: “So does that make purchasing or inheriting a home/plot of land wrong?”

My reply, revised a bit for a blog post, went along like this:

The above quote is definitely fairly radical, especially the lattermost sentence. The middle paragraph is of greatest interest to me. The lattermost sentence is, for me, an interesting application of the middle paragraph.

The middle paragraph resolves something that I’ve been chewing on. We needn’t inherit the guilt of our ancestors, but neither then should we inherit their ill-gotten gains.

To the question: I think that specifically avoiding buying or owning land would miss the point. Even renting is basically temporary land ownership. Inheriting wealth and using it to rent stolen land all your life is not really very different from inheriting stolen land and living on it.

In a way I think that Christians etc. have a useful mental model for how to think about this; we’re used to saying “everything I have is God’s, I should use it accordingly”. (Not that we’re great at living it out! But I digress.) The point isn’t, then, that everyone must sell everything and give all the money to the church (though doing so is a well-known and powerful approach/calling). But rather, you should live with a posture of humility and dedication, and be willing to and seeking out ways to leverage what you have toward the good of those the resources are intended to bless. With God, it’s all intended to bless those who are suffering, marginalized, poor, etc.

That goal isn’t too different than when we say “all this land and lots of this wealth I have was gained from genocided natives and enslaved africans (and people across the world who were colonized, etc.)”… you’re basically saying “nearly everything I have belongs to people who are now suffering, marginalized, poor, etc.”

All I have is actually God’s, who wants me to use it to serve the poor and oppressed. // Almost all I have actually belongs to people who are poor and oppressed.

It’s hard or impossible to parse out just how much of our parents’ wealth stems from theft and genocide and slavery vs. honest hard work. It would require mountains of historical work, calculous and economic modeling, etc. So refreshingly, a legalistic approach here is completely unfeasible.

What would definitely be “no dice” would be to say “I accept the wealth stolen by my ancestors – it is mine now and is for my enjoyment, but I reject their guilt and responsibility in having stolen it”.

Now, legalism certainly won’t work; no purity can be earned here; even if I were to do all the calculus and give back everything that was stolen, that wouldn’t be any different than giving back the money my grandfather gave me after he mugged and killed someone else’s grandfather.

As my spouse just wisely and succinctly summarized:

“Of course it’s sinful [to own stolen land]. But this is a sinful world so everything is sinful… we can’t avoid sin, but we just need to do the best we can.”

My brain’s understanding of “doing the best we can” would entail seeking to learn and follow the will of those to whom my wealth and land belongs. Following my metaphor; like a Christian who knows all is God’s would seek to know and follow God’s desired uses of the resources, a person who realizes that most of what they have is stolen would seek to know and follow the intent of those from whom it is stolen. Conveniently, a person can coherently be both of those things!

Admittedly, the latter realization is less perky. Honoring and giving to the grandchildren of someone murdered by your grandfather comes with a lot more pain and trauma than honoring and giving to a God who has willingly entrusted you with resources. But I suppose in both cases a deep need for mercy and forgiveness is present.

Speaking of mercy and forgiveness… as well as regarding intent of the bereaved: Native voices I know of are not asking all whites to pack up and leave and go back to Europe. As from Black americans, I hear a deep cry for truth and reparations, but “go back where you came from” is not something I hear. It is up to each to do their own integritous listening to the voices of these communities. There’s a book called What Does Justice Look Like?: The Struggle for Liberation in Dakota Homeland, written by native scholar and activist Waziyatawin. She first overviews what happened 1500s-1900s, and then lays out point by point her recommendations for reparations. “Without justice, many Dakota say, healing and transformation on both sides cannot occur, and good, authentic relations cannot develop between our Peoples.” (from author’s excerpt here)

She is one voice among many in her community. To continue my drawn-out metaphor: like a person of faith attempting to discern the voice and call/will of God through various and nebulous sources, a grandchild and beneficiary of the murderer has a tough task to try to listen to the many grandchildren of the murdered.

Engaging with and supporting reparations and reconciliation on a large scale is one valuable response, but it’s also quite distant. Personal-scale donations to good native+black-led efforts around these communities is a good “other half of the coin”. Painting houses on the Rez (like I did with my church and family ~15 years ago) is really not the ticket. Our group eventually quit going because natives running multiple different nonprofits out there said to us (“we don’t need your paintbrushes, we need your money”). Rebekah and I are sitting on the idea of paying “first rent”. Basically loosely/non-legalistically figuring out what it would cost to rent the space we live in, and “paying rent” to a combination of Native and African American nonprofit organizations. This wouldn’t earn us any purity or whatever… but rather would just be a way to say “hey this is theirs not ours… we should probs be paying them for our use of it…”.

I’m not sure how to conclude, so instead I’ll hold in tension those two quotes:

“Of course it’s sinful [to own stolen land]. But this is a sinful world so everything is sinful… we can’t avoid sin, but we just need to do the best we can.”
~ Rebekah, my wife.

“Without justice, many Dakota say, healing and transformation on both sides cannot occur, and good, authentic relations cannot develop between our Peoples.”
~ Amazon excerpt for What Does Justice Look Like?: The Struggle for Liberation in Dakota Homeland

Why I have found it hard to have sincere theologically liberal/postmodern faith

Saying, as I sometimes do, something like

“I can’t tell you whether My God is THE God, but I can tell you that My God is My God”

sounds fancy and good… but is actually really hard FOR ME to live out.

People of what I’ll call [warning: buzzword ahead]”indigenous” faith, as I have experienced, do this all the time. A pan-african drum troupe’s leader told the audience “every faith, all Gods worshipped, are true”. A Dakota who prays to and sees spirits and ancestors also worships Christ the son of God, and minds hindu Gods and wisdoms. A Mohican told us the story of the Celestial Bear (Ursa Major / “Big Dipper”) whose blood gives us a red sky, but I don’t think he’s saying that those stars are ONLY a bear and not whatever other people’s faiths hold.

I, on the other hand, don’t know how to get excited about and motivated by my faith unless it’s the only  true faith. I feel like my moments of religious experience, faithful passion, etc., are vestigial/residual. I cry when I pray a doctrine (e.g. God is present in all people, loving and loved through us all) that I learned when I thought the Bible dispensed truth.

Different people see God through different lenses. Different people see Rebekah (my spouse) through different lenses. I see someone who is tender, warm, deep, wise… James sees her as proficient, efficient, competent. But it’s the same Rebekah. But how far does that really stretch? Mono vs. Triune vs. Many? Different structures for afterlife, etc?

I KNOW that James and I are observing the same set of matter that consists Rebekah… but are Hindus and I actually observing anything that is indeed the same? How could they see millions and I see 3? We see different parts of the same elephant… a classic reference. But when I hear that, I’m saying “okay, well, I don’t want to worship a trunk (‘snake’), or a leg (‘tree’), I want the full truth”. I tell myself something humble sounding like “far be it from me to tell God which parts of God’s self to show me”. But at that point I’m already checked out. My reassurance does me nothing. With Rebekah, I get the full her; I know the whole picture. I may experience some things more, but I even hear about the version that James interacts with. Rebekah shapeshifts, but not so much as to go from being 0 to 1 to 3 to 330,000,000 people…

It’s tough for me to get excited about a God who is just one image (i.e. a Christian one) of God, even when I say “but that’s the image of God that God chose to show me”.

With Wave and Particle Duality (where we see that light behaves as both a wave and a particle, even though those two things are different) I just assume that there’s an UNDERLYING reality that manifests as following both of these contradicting patterns (wave = widely spread out / particle = in one tiny place). An underlying reality like… a “waveparticle” (I just made that word up). But as soon as I acknowledge that, I’m interested in the UNDERLYING reality… I don’t want to sit there and stare at the wavy part only…

Just like how the proposition of functioning as specifically a Christian is hard for me. I’m observing that the likelihood of me having found the 1 religion out of thousands out there that happens to be true approaches nil… but it’s tough for me to say “but this one’s mine so I’m going to focus on that”.

I do this in marriage though.

Rebekah is the most ______ (superlatives superlatives superlatives) in the world. Without having cause to believe she’s truly actually objectively the best out of all the ones out there… I can nonetheless unwaveringly say she’s definitely the best.

Indigenous people [whatever that means] – it seems to me – can do this with religion/faith/belief. Quite handily.

Whereas I feel like theologically liberal euro/western culture is basically merely — as I feel I am — milking the emotional remnants of a faith-nostalgia while finding ways to be okay and feel okay while not actually believing anything.

Meanwhile various sects claiming exclusive truth squabble over who has it, all believing themselves the lucky winner. So no, I can’t just go back to that.

I guess in a way I’ve been trying to be like my understanding indigenous faithful people… approaching religion to draw strength but not being hung up on exclusivity. And in a way, I feel like it’s not really going so hot. I feel basically faithless.

I have a dear friend who believes he’s got exclusive truth… not because he has evidence that it’s exclusive (he’s fairly open about the lack thereof), but because he can’t figure out a way to believe it’s true at all if it’s not exclusively true. And I kinda can’t blame him.

And of course there’s good old atheism (and its variants) right around the corner. Which is basically a religion with zero Gods, no less exclusive a claim than any of the others, and not qualitatively more defensible.

Finding myself, ironically, somewhere I’ve found myself continually: with the conclusion that there’s no good place I can be. Tempted to say that the ancient/indigenous way is better/best… but even if that’s true I’m not sure I could get there…


Capitalist gov’t is an absurdly large mercenary guard service.

squirrel with ak47.jpg

Some economic musings. Don’t mind me. I hold this all pretty loosely. Thought experiment follows:

I drafted this a few months ago and wasn’t going to publish it, but in light of Trump’s tax dodging, and people’s response saying he’s just “keeping what he earned”, I figured I might as well hit the “publish” button.


In a world without any weapons, it’s easy to steal from someone who has lots of food/possessions. Non-human animals in nature work like that; if a squirrel has 1 billion acorns, they will be ceaselessly stolen until the point where the squirrel has only the acorns it can defend with its bare teeth. Let’s say, 100 or 1000 acorns. (Let’s call this scenario “Squirrels in Nature”)

How can the squirrel accumulate more acorns, then?

Weapons. The squirrel now has a spear. Or a bow an arrow. Or an AK-47. It can guard substantially more acorns now. Maybe ten thousand acorns. But still not a million or a billion. (let’s call this “Stone Age Squirrels”.)

Militia/guards. The squirrel hires his own troop of independently contracted guardsquirrels. On a good day, with his hefty posse, they protect his million acorns. But on a bad day, the captain of the guard stages a little coup, kills Bob the squirrel, and is the new (albeit probably temporary) owner of all the acorns. (Let’s call this “Feudal Squirrels”.)

Well-reputed militia/guard services. Bob the squirrel needs a guard service brand he can trust — one reputed to prevent this type of coup. An armed organization so large that it has more to gain by building a reputation of faithfully guarding acorn piles than it could ever gain by stealing them. So large, perhaps, that competing military entities are thousands of miles away, and unlikely to ever overrun and plunder the territory of his own. His ten million acorns are very safe. (Let’s call this “Imperial Squirrels”.)

Business is the means whereby acorns are accumulated.

Government is the means whereby they are guarded for whoever has accumulated them.

Some people think that governments “play robin hood” by taxing its rich constituents and creating services for all its constituents.

Here’s what I’ll say to that:

If government were to “get out of your life”, you would be a lonely squirrel with bare teeth, or maybe an AK47.

You would be terrified.

To defend yourself better, you would perhaps form a pact with your neighborsquirrels to protect each other, so that you were not SO lonely of a squirrel. You might agree to how that protection would work, what support was required of the constituents, etc. Guess what you just created. Yup … Government. A cooperatively owned and governed guard service.


A reason the wealthy pay more in taxes [OR SHOULD, AT LEAST!] is because they have the most to benefit from a guard service. If there were no conglomerations of martial power, I could guard my little house with my spear or AK-47 well enough to de-incentivize any individual thief from breaking and entering. But your real-estate, manufacturing, or technology megacorp? It needs so much protection that if somebody halfway across the country or world conquers your hotel or factory or even takes your ideas or information, you’ll be covered.

That is, perhaps, why the population gets real mad when you think you should pay a flat tax. [or when you completely dodge taxes!] 95% of your assets would need police forces to protect them from individual thieves, whereas maybe only 10% of mine (macbook, car, bike) do.

At this point, the U.S. is serving as the Huge Guard Service for vast chunks of the world. Whether that’s a good thing or bad is outside of scope here… but you’d better believe that the fees paid to it (taxes, etc.) are [OR SHOULD BE] paid by the people who benefit most from the protection.