Last November, I traveled to Standing Rock with more than 500 clergy members across many denominations. We met in North Dakota to help fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline through a planned “day of action” for clergy, gathered in solidarity.
On the night prior to the collective action, the leaders of the gathering made sure everyone knew their civil rights and what to do in case of an emergency. Everyone seemed to be on the same page until the leader of the solidarity movement, a father from an Episcopal church, reminded us of the specific call we answered by gathering together at the Oceti Sakowin Camp.
“We want to continue the call for non-violent protection action with law enforcement protecting the free speech rights of those who are standing with Standing Rock," he said. "We know that our freedoms have limitations that are imposed by law and some imposed by our faith. We intend to stay within the bounds of each. Civil disobedience has a well respected history in this country. We are not coming to exercise civil disobedience this time.”
To be fair, I had no idea what to expect after arriving at the camp. I have never fought for water before. I have never battled over land that was stolen from my people. My family’s history consisted of immigration and slavery, both of which have disconnected me from the land. Although I’ve had the privilege and honor to learn about creator God from the Duwamish in Seattle, Wash., I knew that I still had so much to understand.
It was the Duwamish and their continual fight for federal recognition that taught me to check my posture before entering a battle for justice. They taught me to honor my elders and the ones who came before me. At the rare opportunity to gain wisdom from an elder, I felt compelled to learn at their feet.
That was my mindset as a group of friends and I traveled to North Dakota from Washington. I had no idea what I was getting myself into, but I was confident that the elders of the Sioux — and indigenous people around this colonized country — did.
But could we who answered this call label ourselves a solidarity movement if we came to a battle with our own agenda and own non-negotiables?
As Christians, we determined for ourselves what was correct in terms of showing solidarity with our Native family. Why were Christians designating yet another standard for how justice should be fought, despite knowing that we were guests on Native land?
The demonstration did not feel collaborative at all. Most of us had not spoken with any indigenous elders before the day of action — a glaring red flag. By joining with our own conception of solidarity, and with our own ethnocentric ideals and end goals, we were inevitably co-opting the whole movement.
I knew how this gathering would look: The church was finally practicing what it preached from the pulpit each Sunday. The church would be applauded by denouncing the Doctrine of Discovery and distancing ourselves from our bloody past. The church would then pack up and head home.
The church would win and benefit, even if the battle was not over. The forms of success were divorced from the success of the Native gathering, and therefore from the salvation of water.
I cannot imagine a more disturbing truth: That the success of the church was not based on the success of the resistance movement, but only determined by its participation, on which the church capitalized through photo-ops and more. The bitter truth is that our solidarity did not require achieving the justice for which Sioux and others were fighting.
As I stood with my fellow Christians on that November afternoon, I felt alienated by their approach to the movement. I had sisters and brothers who had been arrested, beaten, and risked their lives to protect something sacred to them.
But assuming positions of leadership within this movement, even if it is for our own group, did not sit right with me. This negligence manifested, as it often does, in well-intentioned colonization, in a well-intentioned hijacking of others’ revolution. But our intentions can never justify the consequences of our domination.
Solidarity as Christians is a concept I’ve wrestled with for years now, especially as marches and protests are becoming increasingly normalized in our country. We as Christians have irresponsibly thrown around the term “justice” to describe various types of ministries that we as Christians are involved with. We must acknowledge that justice and charity aren’t interchangeable notions. Mixing up charity and justice can lead the church to believing they are doing both. It diminishes true works of justice while turning works of charity into the standard of how Christians should tackle injustices. When we continue to look at oppression strictly from a surface level, we believe that our charitable ministries are enough to uplift people.
Charity addresses vulnerable people’s immediate needs, many of which are created by the injustices of our world. Examples of this are organizations like Samaritan’s Purse and Operation Christmas Child. This is what community psychologists call a first-order change.
Charity work does not eliminate the sources of injustice. It merely mitigates its immediate effects, while allowing the charitable participant to believe things are changing. This may soften injustice, but it also sustains it. A true effort for justice seeks to solve the sources of injustice, and therefore make charity obsolete.
Justice addresses the short and long-term effects caused by injustice. This can be done by looking at issues systemically and by figuring out why a problem occurs as well as looking at what the problem is. Organizations like Stand with Standing Rock, El Centro de la Raza, and No New Youth Jail give people the opportunity to deconstruct/reconstruct the structures these injustices are built upon while working on solutions to help create a world where these issues are no longer a problem. Community psychologists call this second-order change.
Justice work is often collective and public. Unlike charity, justice work requires both conviction and analysis.
As important as solidarity is for justice, justice is equally important for solidarity. I was driven to this realization by the uncertainty I sensed regarding my own acts of solidarity, namely whether they were really composed of the justice the people I was marching with were fighting for. I had to ask myself a difficult question: Was my solidarity based on a deep commitment to seeing out the fruition of justice, or was my solidarity and presence momentary, divorced from a long-term commitment?
Congregations’ engagement with grassroots efforts — like BlackLivesMatter, LGBTQ advocacy, and others that fight for equity for all — has drastically increased over the last decade. But the more I examine the way Christians choose to exist and function within these justice-centered movements, the more I am convinced many Christians are ultimately hurting the very movements we are attempting to fight for.
In his book Pedagogy of the Oppressed, revolutionary educator Paulo Freire argued that it is the very people in need of liberation need to be leading the effort for everyone’s liberation. The voices that belong to the most vulnerable are the ones that need to be centered and lifted up.
As a Christian activist, it also means acknowledging the pain Christians have caused oppressed groups of people. This does not exclude progressive Christians. Progressive Christians are often some of the most unaware of how we reproduce the same forms of oppression that we are working against. Our woke fragility — our defensive insecurity towards one’s quality of social-consciousness — can prevent us from recognizing or admitting that.
Churches have felt the need to step up and teach people their own methods of how to lead resistance movements. But teaching, in this form, recreates a power dynamic and designates power to the very church that is unequipped with the consciousness and methodology to achieve true justice.
The church must become the student of the oppressed and submit itself in humility, by listening to the people most impacted. Grassroots organizers and civil rights elders have been fighting this battle for a long time, even during times in which churches on both the Left and the Right have rejected any forms of resistance.
When my sister is on the front lines at Standing Rock getting shot with rubber bullets because of her peaceful protest, the government can now point at the clergy’s afternoon of solidarity and justify that she deviated too far beyond what was acceptable.
We, as Christians, have recreated the blueprint for resistance; sterilized it of its righteous fierceness; sanitized it of its unhindered selflessness; and in so doing, diminished the power of the people.
We have yet to transcend our history of taking away the voice from the voiceless.