Church Colonization: Searching for hope on stolen land

CTA Dec 9 Written By Tess Gallagher Clancy

This post is part of our Church & Colonization series. Using the themes of Advent (faith, hope, joy, and love), Re/Generation participants and CTA leaders reflect on aspects of how colonization in the United States has been intertwined with Christianity, and the Catholic Church in particular.


I grew up in a white family in western Montana, on lands from which the U.S. government forcibly marched the Bitterroot Salish (Séliš) only a hundred years before my birth. My family cherishes our Irish-American heritage and our Roman Catholicism that comes part and parcel with our background. Through this background, we understand ourselves to be the descendants of poor, working people who left the British Empire’s economic and political oppression, making a new life in North America. My ancestors fled the violence of British colonization and battling empires, and unwittingly became playing pieces in a geopolitical game that saddled their children with the dissonance of loving the land their predecessors had soaked with blood.

In light of my background, I find my thoughts often dwelling during this Advent season on where hope can be found in the midst of such a complicated position. Hope can be a tired word, especially when we hear it in association with political parties, corporate Christmas commercials, and generally those committed to upholding the very social relations that resist our visions of a better world. Every word we use at Advent — hope, peace, faith, joy, love — takes on a different meaning for each of us. For me, hope becomes tired when the powerful feed us an anemic, washed-up hope, recreating the same patterns of exploitation and greed as though one day the result won’t be poverty, racism, and undue suffering. Many of us share a sense of powerlessness to put an end to such social sins. While I don’t know anyone who individually has much social-political power in this country, I am a member of a group in the United States upon whose presence and consent this country has operated; first as a colonial outpost, and then as a growing empire that has murdered, disappeared, and erased those in its way. Those of us who belong to this group, white settlers or people of white European settler descent, find ourselves born into tacit consent to  this country’s sins. In this piece, I examine this positionality within the U.S. Empire, and seek some ways forward that point toward justice.

White settlers in the United States, the descendants of European colonial settlers, colonizers, refugees, and immigrants, are born into a complex social contract, particularly those of us tied to the Roman Catholic Church’s participation in colonization and wealth-building. First, European powers used our ancestors’ presence and desires to expand their power — and enforce murder, removal, or assimilation upon Native people in this land. Then, our ancestors and ourselves became integrated into the privileges of a new society built on the very same principles that kept our ancestors poor and exploited, and still exploit us. To top it off, our integration into this society has slowly dropped the veil over our eyes. Many of us cannot see the foundational oppressions in this country unless they are reflected back to us by those who experience the dissonance between what white settler society calls reality and what they experience.  

Consent is supposed to be an active process, so there are some ways we can work to undo the tacit consent so many of us were born into and raised on. Many of us give tacit consent to the sins of this empire when we allow ourselves to remain too sensitive or distressed to engage those who confront us about whose land we live on, whose labor we benefit from, and whose lives our decisions control. We explain away and justify familial and social wealth and power and fail to question if it prevents  us from engaging fully in struggles for justice. We have to grasp that most of the forces around us have a vested interest in our continued disengagement, lack of knowledge, and inability to accept the complexities of ourselves. Each of us has to grapple with our own lineages, and that grappling will be painful and resistant to essentializations.

I think hope can come from reclaiming our rights to consent to the social forces we exist within. We have the capacity to understand our histories and to resist indoctrination even when it has been heaped onto us our entire lives. The lives of our ancestors and predecessors, both biological and social/spiritual, can be a source to draw upon. Our ancestors have harmed others. Our ancestors have been harmed. Our ancestors also struggled to survive, and many of them wanted to survive with integrity even when the structures around them made that difficult or impossible. Lyla June, a musician and community educator of Diné (Navajo), Tsétsêhéstâhese (Cheyenne) and European descent speaks to her own ancestral lineages that point to a path forward in her piece, “Time Traveler.” She speaks, 

This is insane, living for fame, living for the next quarter profits and gains/ You forgot love, you forgot truth, you forgot how to live for a time beyond you/ It’s not about you, it’s not about you, it’s about the song that is travelling through/ It travels through time, the singers will die, but the song lives on through matrilineal lines.

Lyla June’s message, coming from an Indigenous American perspective, speaks to something in each of our stories. Our time here is, “Not about you, it’s about the song that is travelling through.” Centering her ancestors’ wisdom and connection to this story that each person taps into, she continues,

So before you take a book off the shelf, take a look at yourself. Answers come to you at lightspeed/ I’m searching for knowledge that I can’t find on a newsfeed, knowledge found through intuition, knowledge found through fasting and dancing/ This ain’t superstition. It’s ancestral tradition. 

For settlers of European descent, much of our ancestral understanding of a greater story that values all life has been erased or obscured from us, especially as our ancestors became a part of European colonization.  However, the knowledge of these ways of living, as Lyla June says, exists in our bones, and is worth seeking. So, looking toward our own spiritual and bodily knowledge of right relationship with life, how can we act in tandem with others? We have to know what justice means to us, and what stake we have in struggles for justice. 

Dr. Cornel West recently spoke on the way forward after the 2020 election in an interview with The Dig, a Jacobin Radio podcast. The interviewer, Daniel Denvir, asks West where we look for hope, particularly for the young people who had so much hope in coming radical changes that seem to have dissipated in the months leading up to November. Dr. West responds,

Well one is, I mean, I go back to my own tradition, to Black folk. Our anthem is “Lift Every Voice.” And you have to lift every voice in the face of all the hatred come at you, and you’re dishing out the love warriors…All the trauma coming at you, got to dish out the wounded healers. All the terror coming at you, you’ve got to dish out the freedom fighters…We’ve got to be voices of courage and vision. And in the end, with the need for our identities grounded in integrity and solidarity, we have each other. I got Daniel, Daniel got me. You know what I mean? And you’ve got your identities and I’ve got my identities, we can come together in terms of our visions of a new world, our analysis of predatory capitalism, and our critique of white supremacy and male supremacy and the way in which empire connects with that predatory capitalism, keeping track of the humanity of trans [people] and others. And then, in the end, act courageously and say we are going to be in solidarity. And that’s all we’ve ever had in human history…Now, most of the folks who raised their voices in the past, they paid a major cost. And that’s why we need each other. Brother Daniel, Brother West. Are we willing to pay the cost? Ohhh, are we willing to hold on, are we willing to be constant and consistent all the way through? 

Denvir notes, “You keep circling back to that politics of solidarity,” to which Dr. West replies, 

Absolutely. So, in that sense there’s never a guarantee that what we’re trying to do is something we can pull off. But there is a real possibility if we can fortify ourselves…If our vision, if our analysis is in place, then we’ll know we’re headed toward the empowerment of those that Franz Fanon called ‘the wretched of the Earth,” or from my own Biblical tradition, ‘the least of these.’ And I’m building on the genius of Hebrew scripture. Not all the genocide and patriarchy and so forth, but that genius that says that steadfast love is going to focus on the orphan and the widow, the motherless and the fatherless, the poor and persecuted, the subjugated the exploited, the oppressed…it’s a high moral and spiritual standard that’s bigger than all of us, but it is a gift we build on and say, ‘yes, that is worth our energy, our vitality, how we look at the world, how we feel, how we act.’ That’s what it is to be a revolutionary or a radical or somebody who wants to be fundamentally decent enough to transform the structures of domination of all sorts that are coming at us.

Dr. West speaks to the complexity and simplicity of seeking justice, especially for those of us (Catholics included) who understand the Bible as tapping into something of the divine, of the transcendent, of God. The arc of our scriptures points again and again to a relationship, a solidarity with all life, excluding none, and centering that life which is subjugated and exploited. Our complex ancestries can lead toward paths of justice, and they can lead us to ally with oppression and injustice. We have the understanding within ourselves and in our relationships with other people to orient ourselves toward a song older, deeper, and wiser than each of us individually. The gift of that song is that as we understand what ourselves or our ancestors have done to others, we also begin to understand what that has done to us, robbing us of the ability to experience the fullness of our own divinity, and the richness of our spiritual and religious traditions. In this Advent season, may we seek to heal ourselves, our ancestries, our relationships with all creatures of the Earth, and may we seek to return that which was never ours to own. In this work, I believe we can ground our hope.AdventTess Gallagher Clancy

Tess was born and raised, and developed many of her perspectives in western Montana on the unceded lands of Salish, Kootenai, and Kalispel peoples. She spends a lot of time thinking about her Irish-American, settler family’s relationship to place and space in the American West. Having dabbled in environmental and labor organizing, she studies theology and social ethics at Union Theological Seminary. She looks to build alignment and comradery with those who also seek beloved community against empire and toward liberation, particularly focused on what justice and equity look like in organizing work. Tess joined CTA through Re/Generation 2020.

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