Commentary: 2012 Act of Repentance of The United Methodist Church

March 01, 2012

By Thom White Wolf Fassett*

Editor's Note: "An Act of Repentance Toward Healing Relationships with Indigenous Peoples" is scheduled for the evening Plenary Session with Worship on Friday, April 27 at the 2012 General Conference.

Those of us who come from Native American communities in the United States are well aware of the general invisibility of Native people in the life of our nation. One might argue that with a population of fewer than 10 million it is difficult for Native people to have a noticeable presence in numbers that would command "air time" as citizens or participants in the body politic. While some Americans have a warm and sometimes  romantic feeling about Native Americans and their wisdom stories, or what they know of their spirituality or their artistic accomplishments, most have little knowledge of Native history or the struggles currently faced by Native people to stave off disease, hunger, unemployment, and poverty. In fact, large numbers of Americans still believe that Native peoples have long vanished. That perception continues to be reinforced as our education systems neglect teaching about the role of America's first people in the history of the United States.

Fortunately, in recent years, The United Methodist Church has been doing its homework regarding Native Americans and worldwide indigenous peoples. Schools of Mission have raised consciousness around critical issues. Studies have been written commanding attention to justice issues. General Conference legislation, along with resolutions related to the survival of Native Americans, has been adopted and incorporated into our Book of Discipline and Book of Resolutions. Attempts also have been made by the Church to recognize its role in the painful and destructive history of Native Americans that has resulted in their present condition.

However, in all of this there has been no apology that has powerfully and effectively entered the consciousness of The United Methodist Church. There has been no repentance prompting the Church to change its relationship with Native people and become partners in healing the destructive forces of history. There has been little acknowledgement of the Church's complicity in the historic physical and cultural extermination policies by the United States, directed at its first people.

The Act of Repentance scheduled for the General Conference of 2012 in Tampa, Florida, was created to change all of this. Some members in the Native United Methodist communities believe the act is premature. They believe the Church has not sufficiently prepared itself to understand the profound nature of this act, nor has it planned programs and actions that would carry it out. Others who love the Church are skeptical. Too many promises have been made that never materialized. Once the Act of Repentance service is over, what happens when everybody goes home? What difference will it make to the Native American tribes, communities, and families who still suffer historic trauma that is as real and fresh to them as this morning's coffee?  How will the high expectations of repentance, forgiveness, and atonement rest upon the shoulders of a great Church that finds its own self in the middle of restless change? And what impact will all of this have on other indigenous peoples around the earth in Asian, African, and Nordic nations who also have also been the inheritors of this history?

The Act of Repentance not only addresses the communities and tribal nations of Native Americans in the United States – it encompasses the indigenous communities and tribal/nation entities of the various countries around the world where The United Methodist Church has spread its blanket. Taken together, the similarities are real and palpable. They reflect issues of self-determination, sovereignty, cultural integrity, and how Native and indigenous peoples embrace The United Methodist Church as truth-carriers of the Good News, declaring the Gospel of Jesus Christ with no other allegiances.

*Fassett (in photo above) is a member of the Seneca Nation and General Secretary Emeritus of the United Methodist General Board of Church and Society. He also has served as a chair of the 2012 Act of Repentance General Secretary’s Advisory Council of the General Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns.

GCCUIC is a general agency of The United Methodist Church that engages and works with other Christian denominations toward greater visibility of our essential unity in Jesus Christ. It also works toward better interreligious relationships with all of God's children.