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In Zoom worship last Sunday, we said a prayer that we’ve said many times before, part of our prayers for the Confession of Sin. It read, in part, “We repent of the evil that enslaves us, the evil we have done, and the evil done on our behalf.”

We say the confession in some variation each Sunday, but on this particular day, I couldn’t get that line out of my head. The evil done on our behalf.

Just a day before the service, I’d finished Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States. My best friend and I had been working our way through it together this fall. It was this book, in particular, that prompted me to make the connection to the prayer we said together on Sunday morning. As the title suggests, the book traces the history of the United States from an indigenous perspective, highlighting the brutal nature of the founding of the United States and its expansion across the continent.

As a white American, this means centuries of evil done on my behalf, evil that I am still benefiting from today. I live on stolen land in a country built by slavery. I benefit every day from systems of racism and oppression.

I haven’t actively participated in something like the violent genocide against indigenous people, but as a white American, great evil has certainly been done on my behalf, both in the past and at present.

Dunbar-Ortiz centers on settler-colonialism in her narrative of the nation’s founding and expansion. She makes a compelling argument about the complicity of white Americans in our nation’s imperial project and in our oppression of indigenous populations. It’s a difficult read as she documents the manifold ways individual Americans as well as the government set out to destroy native peoples and their cultures in the name of manifest destiny and white supremacy.

Some of my favorite themes that Dunbar-Ortiz revisits throughout the book are the role of history and memory, especially the power of national myths to obscure the truth, letting white Americans off the hook. Dunbar-Ortiz contends that not only is there a refusal to deal with our past, but also a concerted effort to maintain the myths about the nation’s origins and expansion. These myths allow white America to avoid dealing with any of the problems or oppression that indigenous people continue to struggle with today. She notes a “lack of motivation to ask questions that challenge the core scripted narrative of the origin story” by most Americans, including by many scholars who should know better.

Unfortunately, it’s been easy and convenient for white Americans to forget or deliberately overlook all of this evil done to expand and fortify the United States. Even those who do encounter this sordid history often desire to pass it off as someone else’s problem — our ancestors or the government did those terrible things but certainly not us. Dunbar-Ortiz calls this commitment to obscuring this history “a race to innocence.” This is the assumption by individuals that “they are innocent of complicity in structures of domination and oppression.”

If it’s “not our problem,” then nothing can be done to fix it. In her concluding chapter, Dunbar-Ortiz writes, “The late Native historian Jack Forbes always stressed that while living persons are not responsible for what their ancestors did, they are responsible for the society they live in, which is a product of the past.” This is a heavy responsibility. The only way forward is accepting responsibility for this past and working to fix things — it’s the only path toward “survival and liberation.”

And that’s why I think the phrase in the prayer of confession is so vital and why I couldn’t stop thinking about it last Sunday. It’s a reminder that sin isn’t just our individual actions. Sin is also the broader problems in society, the systems we are complicit in, and the wrongs we refuse to address.

Each Sunday, we lament the evil done on our behalf and ask Christ to restore us to his love and align us with his will. But are we committed to full repentance — doing what it takes to address the centuries of evil done on our behalf and the systems that still ensnare us?

Allison Vander Broek

Allison Vander Broek is a historian of American religion and politics. She earned her doctorate in history from Boston College, Her research explored the origins of the right-to-life movement in the 1960s and its rise to national prominence in subsequent years. Though she swore she'd move back to the Midwest after grad school, Allison still resides in the Boston metro area and now works in academic advising at Tufts University.


  • Daniel J Meeter says:

    Yes, and why the books of Numbers and Joshua are so difficult for us. We justify it by the sins of the Canaanites, and then we Americans (implicitly), like the Afrikaner Boers (explicitly), figured we had Divine license to exterminate and replace the Jebusites and Girgashites.

  • mstair says:

    I took a similar tack as Daniel. Contemporary quote summarizing your reference from the O.T. :
    “ Our Declaration of Independence of 1776 and Constitution of 1787, as well as the Bill of Rights, all presumed a religious order based on Christ Jesus as their cornerstone and building block. To assume a secular state is to misread the history of our founding.” (Anonymous from Kinston, NC)

  • Gregory Van Den Berg says:

    Let us not forget the revered Puritans. They bred slaves who were to Jamaica for goods not able to be grown in New England. The founding fathers were very secular. They were more influenced by the Greeks than the writers of the New Testament. The United States is not a theocracy. How could a group of men declare all men are created equal when there was millions of people enslaved in our country. Forget about the evil done on our behalf in the past. How about the evil being done daily in our country through the criminal justice system, what we are in seeing in the current electoral process, and the millions of Americans living in poverty. We shouldn’t just feel bad about the past but we must rise up in the name of Jesus and revolutionize the system. The ancient Israelis were condemned by the prophets due to turning their backs on the poor, sick, elderly, and downtrodden. Jesus said, “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.” Do we show true mercy to those who need mercy? Are these just words just forgive us for the evil done on our behalf. This is the time to respond to the call of the gospel and show the world how injustice will no longer be tolerated in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.

  • Keith Mannes says:

    This is powerful. Thank-you.
    And I think I’d like to read your dissertation…

  • John Kleinheksel says:

    And let’s not forget the settler/colonialism of European Jews to the indigenous Arab Palestinians, still unfolding there today.

  • Doug Vande Griend says:

    Adding to the “let’s not forget” mantra: let’s not forget, well everyone, of every race, ethnicity and historical era.

    To gain some perspective on these issues, I’d recommend reading Thomas Sowell’s “Race and Culture.” There is not a human being alive, now or ever, who cannot be indicted for doing these kinds of wrongs “by association,” whether that “association” is skin color, ethnicity, culture, or some other other categorical grouping that the accuser wishes to deem cause for derivative guilt.

    And anyone who genuinely feels guilty because they have stolen indigenous lands by white or other association, I feel comfortable advising them that they are quite free, legally speaking, to righting that wrong by deeding their real estate, and conveying all their other assets, to any number of tribal groups that are yet identifiable in the United States. Or to those who lost their lands by the conquests of those tribal groups if they can find and identify them.

  • Daniel J Meeter says:

    I think of South African Methodist Bishop Peter Storey’s famous quotation: “American preachers have a task more difficult, perhaps, than those faced by us under South Africa’s Apartheid, or Christians under Communism. We had obvious evils to engage; you have to unwrap your culture from years of red, white, and blue myth. You have to expose, and confront, the great disconnect between the kindness, compassion and caring of most American people, and the ruthless way American power is experienced, directly and indirectly, by the poor of the earth. You have to help good people see how they have let their institutions do their sinning for them. This is not easy among those who really believe their country does nothing but good, but it is necessary, not only for their future, but for us all.” I believe that Bishop Storey is now at Duke.

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