Decolonizing our Faith

a sermon by the Rev. Jill Cowie


Our world is in flux. Global polarization of power, growing income disparity, a looming environmental crisis, and political turmoil in so many parts of the globe, begs the question, “How does liberal religion respond?” Ibrahim Farjaje, interfaith scholar of beloved memory, once said, “Decolonizing religion means looking at how it can subvert the dominating paradigm instead of merely reflecting it or having a reactive response to it.” Decolonizing our faith is a wake-up call and an invitation to reclaim a way of being that is subversive, but also is liberating, restorative, and just. Come and explore with me what decolonizing our faith means and looks like to us?

The Sermon

For as long as I have been a UU minister I have wrestled with the implications of living in the end time of the modern world, a transition that has generated countless apocalyptic predictions. While I’ve always held at bay these gloom and doom scenarios, scholars confirm the era we call modernity is ending. Increasing economic disparity, sea level rises and spiking carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, as well as loss of rainforest, and species diversity undermines modernity’s grand narrative of continual economic and political progress. Scholar Stuart Sim believes the 2008 market crash was the final death knell of modernity, “An end” he says “that leaves an ideological vacuum that is an opportunity to construct a more just lifestyle.”i What this claim may mean for our liberal faith is a question that my minister study group considered a few years ago, and one that my colleague Josh Pawleck wrote about extensively. His research is present today as we consider together what living at the end of modernity means to us, and how as Unitarian Universalists we can engage in refashioning the world.

This sermon then is about awakening, greeting a new dawn, opening our eyes, stretching, and seeing a new world that is both new and ancient. A world that has been hidden, marginalized, oppressed, attacked, poisoned, polluted, and betrayed. A world of persistence and resistance, that is asserting itself anew, calling, singing, reaching out across the ages with wisdom, healing and hope like the golden rays of the warming sun. We begin, says Ibrahim Farajaje by looking closely at how religion has helped shape the expulsion of what he calls “the dark other” and all the corresponding horror.ii We must understand the way our religion grows out of this history if we are to interrupt the oppressive paradigm. We must know ourselves and then de-colonize our faith.

Five years ago, the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) said yes to decolonizing our faith and undoing the ways in which religion is at the heart of modernity’s violence and oppression. At our 2012 General Assembly (GA) in Phoenix, delegates voted overwhelmingly to repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery. I was not familiar with this term until that GA. In short, the Doctrine of Discovery provided the intellectual, moral and spiritual justification for European colonization and slavery at the dawn of the modern era. It has its roots in … papal decree[s] … that specifically sanctioned and promoted the conquest, colonization, and exploitation of non-Christian territories and peoples.

The first decree, entitled Dum Diversas, issued in 1452 by Pope Nicholas the fifth to the King of Portugal, officially sanctioned the African slave trade. Here’s a quote: “We grant you full and free power, through the Apostolic authority of this edict, to invade, conquer, fight, subjugate the pagans, and other infidels and other enemies of Christ, and … to lead their persons in perpetual servitude. Then in 1493, in response to Christopher Columbus’ first Atlantic voyage, Pope Alexander VI issued a decree entitled Inter
Caetera to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain that said “We … out of the fullness of our apostolic power, by the authority of Almighty God … give, grant, and assign to you and your heirs and successors, kings of Castile and Leon, forever … all the islands and main lands found and to be found, discovered and to be discovered towards the west and south, by drawing and establishing a line from the Arctic pole to the Antarctic pole.”iii This decree of ownership led eventually to the displacement and deaths of the majority of the 95 million indigenous people living in the Americas at the time.

These decrees were eventually used by our Protestant ancestors of the Mass Bay Colony and the Virginia colony to justify the subjugation of indigenous people in this country. A conquest that led to multiple broken treaties, the trail of tears, the formation of over 300 reservations, mandatory boarding schools, cultural obliteration, and genocide. In 1872 as the boarding school program got underway, the Board of Indian Commissions assigned over 200,000 native children to religious schools operated by different denominations including our American Unitarian Association. We operated two schools that assimilated nearly 4,000 indigenous children.iv Hundreds of years of decisions and laws continuing right up to our own time, can ultimately be traced back to the Doctrine of Discovery—laws that continue to invalidate or ignore the rights, sovereignty, and humanity of indigenous peoples in the United States. As recently as 2005 the Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg cited the DOD to rule against the NY state’s Oneida tribe’s claim to their sovereign status.v

That’s why as we gathered in Phoenix in 2012 to bear witness to the harsh immigration laws our Arizona partners started talking to our leaders about the Doctrine of Discovery. They said, essentially: the reason state and federal governments and the sheriff’s department can treat us this way, can racially profile us, can raid our neighborhoods, can keep us from accessing our ancestral lands, can tear families apart in the middle of the night is because the United States still believes in the Doctrine of Discovery. They asked us: Will your General Assembly repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery? Will your General Assembly call upon the US government to fully implement the standards of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples? We voted, resoundingly, yes. A yes that means that we are holding ourselves accountable to people of color in this country and that we are committing to decolonizing our faith. We are saying yes to a different vision of a world than the violence and oppression that is at the heart of modernity.

Last week I traveled to Maine, and met two Wabanaki women, Maria and Denise who shared what this vision means for them. Wabanaki are a people indigenous to mid coast Maine for the last 11,000 years. Waban means the “the period of time just before the new dawn breaks” and aki means “the place of that time.” Maria told us that everything that native people had to endure had been prophesized by the 7-fire prophecy. The fires are eras, or epics through which native people would have to live. The seventh fire talks about a time when the world is befouled. A time when the rivers and the water run bitter with disrespect and the fish are poisoned. The Wabanaki believe we have been in this time for a while, and what is coming next is a time of great hope, of great healing, the period when the new dawn breaks.

Denise, a Wabanaki who lives on the reservation in Perry Maine said, “It’s the great harm that will be the awakening. For the healing to begin the truth must be told.” She goes on to say, “When the settlers first came, they dammed our water ways, and the fish, our primary source of food, were destroyed, land was deforested, and the game went away. We faced severe starvation. The children were taken to boarding schools. The motto back then was “kill the Indian save the man.” The tragedy is that in the wake of these genocidal practices, the attacks have not stopped. She was taken from her home when she was seven because the government decided white people could raise indigenous children better than their parents. The physical abuse she endured in her foster home was severe, a pattern she replicated as a young parent. Rediscovering her culture saved her. Because of the prophesy of the 7 fires the Ojibwa tribe in Canada knew of the sacrifices the tribes of the east would be making so they took their sacred bundles to keep them safe all these years. Denise and the youth of the reservation traveled to Canada to get their bundles back. They received their drums and their songs. They spent a week with the Ojibwa learning to speak and sing their language, to dance, and perform their rituals. When they came back, they were empowered. The youth asked the tribal council to give back the rec center that the council had claimed for their offices. When the tribal chief said no, they staged a sit-in, drumming and dancing the whole time. After five days of media attention the council agreed. Saying yes to the new dawn, means feeling both the pain and the hope. It means, waking up to a new way of being in the world—a new way of being whose roots are also ancient.

Josh Pawleck writes, “If Professor Farajaje is right—and I believe he is—that one of the central strategies of modern domination was the demonization of the Dark Other, which connects the demonization of the earth to the demonization of women, people of color, indigenous peoples and cultures, immigrants, Jews and Muslims, and LGBT people, and on and on, then this new way of being must point us away from demonization, away from division, away from distancing us from them; it must point us towards balance. The modern world has been out of balance since its inception. We need to regain our balance—our own, internal sense of balance and a collective, global sense of balance.”

What does balance look like? Maria said she find hope when people of European descent listen with compassionate ears to the truth. When they do, she says, they cannot help but to undo the colonialism clouding their heart and our world, colonialism motivated mostly by greed. In July, a federal appeals court ruled, contrary to a 1980 treaty that her tribe does not have fishing rights to the Penobscot River waters around their reservation, and hundreds of White allies are standing with them in their protest. Last week, the Chamber of Commerce in Skowhegan Maine launched a campaign “Hunt the Indian” that involved putting Indian decals in windows to inspire shoppers to find sales. Public outrage stopped the campaign. In addition, Christian Peace teams are mobilizing across the country to undo colonialism. Rich Meyer, former UCC minister says that “every white settler must know who was on their land before they came, how the indigenous people lost their land, where their descendants are now, and how things are going for them.”vi Finding balance for us is in the possibility of a relationship with the Nipmuc tribe of central Ma. At the time General Sterling first met them, 475,000 Nipmucs lived on this land. Now their descendants live in Grafton on 4 acres of land that was never colonized. They have a museum and an economic development council. I would love to learn more.

More broadly, restoring balance in our post-modern world says Stuart Simmeans losing our “political obsession with economic growth and the cult of progress.” Moving away from our overtly consumerist culture, and materialism and towards an economy of “enough,” based on sustainable energy, balanced agricultural practices, and regional economies. To do so he said we need to create a “monitory” democracy in which citizens are mobilized to monitor our elected officials to insist on this change. A focus that will create a moral agenda that will only strengthen our compassionate nature. Can you see this happening now around us, with the Indivisible movement and the Poor people campaign?

Restoring balance means replacing the old religious heteropatriarchy paradigm upon which modernity was founded with one that honors the mix of both male and female energy and power. That is why we ring the bell today to honor the fifty-one transgender people who gave their lives this year and last year as living testimony of the ways in which human beings can change, integrate and evolve towards balance. Restoring balance means moving beyond national boundaries to address poverty and hunger everywhere and to honor all cultures, respect all religions, to listen to all voices in the public square globally so the work of the people can bring justice and peace. Restoring balance means slowing down, spending less time on our gadgets and more time with another. This balance is the new way that is asserting itself and singing upon the evening breeze. Yet it is as ancient as the Dao, as the Buddha, the Ying, the Yang, as ancient as Namaste, the Middle Way, the Goddess, Shalom, and the Four Directions. And it is new because we are present now to the dawning of a new era. Let us begin to find balance, let us manifest the great healing, and let us be present to greet the new dawn. Blessed be and Amen.

  • i Stuart Sims, The End of Modernity” part I, Edinburgh University Press, 2010
  • ii Ibrahim Farajaje, “Queer(y)ing Religious Education: Teaching the R(evolutionary) S(ub)V(ersions)! Or Relax!…It’s Just Religious Education” UUMA Selected Essays, 2001
  • iii Josh Pawleck, “De-Colonizing Our Faith” paper, 2012
  • iv Hand-outs at Clergy conference on Decolonizing our faith, Augusta Maine, Nov 6th 2017
  • v Pawleck, paper, 2012
  • vi Movie, “Dismantling the Doctrine of Discovery”