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

Whoah:

“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

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