I think it was the day we walked through the purple St. Charles Borromeo Catholic Church in St. Francis, SD (pictured). Was it in a museum there or the nearby Beuchel Memorial Lakota Museum? Perhaps it is indicative of the national self-medicating historical amnesia that neither do I remember exactly where I was.
One of the students in our big group was facing this part of history more directly than she ever had. At least, that’s what it seemed like given the tears she couldn’t stop as we walked from the beaded jacket to the handwritten native histories to the equestrian tack artifacts. Most of us mistook those tears for some personal sadness, but another leader noted to me, “It’s conviction.” You see, when not out having her worldview imploded, the student lived on the Great Plains on her family property, which had belonged to her grandfather and been passed down. She now stood on the reservation of the people whose it was before it was her grandfather’s.
I don’t know what she did with that experience after she went back home. Did she learn to live as a guest in someone else’s home? To honor those present before her by stewarding the land well? To resist being caught up in a grievous evil tied to her identity yet salvage an identity disentangled from the power and privilege that makes theft a triumph?
I still haven’t figured out how to do all that. Not with regard to the Ho-Chunk people who used to live where I do now and where New Hope Church’s building is situated. Not with regard to the Ho-Chunk people who used to live where I do now and where New Hope Church’s building is situated. Not with regard to the almost endlessly far-reaching effects of the fact that much of my country’s strength was built on the free or exploited labor of marginalized people. Chances are that the advantages of being a white, middle-class (A.K.A. filthy-rich relative to six billion other humans), Protestant male will continue. As an individual, it’s not inherently bad to be in those categories, but set in the collective and in history, there is a trainload of baggage and injustice. Genuine human compassion can’t ignorantly pull that along the track of life forever.
Like the young woman in the museum, I’ve had my own various moments of conviction. For myself and others interested in Christ’s way of reconciling all things, those moments are not to be avoided. One cannot just move on from a past that haunts the present. Repentance is not a moment, but the shape of a sinner’s life directed toward God. If anyone who has benefitted from systemic privilege wants to form and nurture a fully-developed conscience, that person must choose to face the systemic evils of which they are a part, and choose the pain of conviction.
But part of my culture and my personality always wants to act. Fix it, heal it, answer it, build a different future. So what do I do? Advocacy when I can. I try to be a guy who gets it when it comes to race in America. I try to cross cultural lines in personal and professional relationships. I am hungry to be part of institutions and communities that are diverse. But for all these constructive responses, for all the ways I may react when I am convicted about my place in the broken history of the world, I still can’t fix my identity, nor remake it innocent. Nor can I accept it wholesale.
So now I parse my culture and my mind and my values. I try to discern what patterns are truly Biblical ways of thinking, as opposed to those habits that are convenient and functional products that gain me standing in a society bent toward me. I press my life through the filter of the gospel, trying to squeeze out those elements incompatible with Christ’s upside-down Kingdom. I buy less. I send money to counter-cultural Christian causes. I read my daughters books which have avoided blond-haired disciples sitting at blue-eyed Jesus’ feet. And yet I can’t change who I am, nor who they are, nor what that means amidst forces bigger than my own will.
This is where personal conviction must meet a conviction. Again, I cannot fix my own identity. If I would reconstruct a healthy identity, who I am must be transformed by one conviction in particular around which history turns, The Conviction:
“By oppression and judgment He was taken away. And who can speak of His descendants? For He was cut off from the land of the living; for the transgression of my people He was stricken. He was assigned a grave with the wicked, and with the rich in His death, though He had done no violence, no was any deceit in His mouth.” (Isaiah 53:8-9)
How does this make it possible to accept my inherited identity? To begin, I need the clear judgment of God to cleave me apart from the sin in and around me, and a sense that even the evils I did not choose for myself are still covered by forgiveness. If Christ, the one who suffered much injustice can choose people like me for Himself, that’s grace. And Christ’s continued determination to rehabilitate who I ought to have been, individually and systemically, will make me who I will be.
So I can rest knowing that I don’t have to know perfectly how to fix my identity. It will be fixed in Him who has promised one day to present me holy and whole. About that I feel some degree of conviction.
 [Correction 1-15-19] As one reader pointed out, I appear to be mistaken about which tribe was present in NHC’s area. French historical records are clear that the Ho-Chunk people were in Wisconsin. The Ho-Chunk were later pushed into NW Illinois and around Wisconsin. In modern times, an attempted Ho-Chunk casino near here is actually not on their tribal land. The tribes more easily verified to have been in this area are: Miami, Potawotami, and Peoria (https://native-land.ca/) (http://www.museum.state.il.us/muslink/nat_amer/post/). However, the late Dr. Robert Hall, of the University of Illinois at Chicago, and one of the world’s experts on Native American culture according to the 3-22-12 Chicago Tribune, suggested Ho-Chunk presence in NE Illinois (https://www.nwitimes.com/business/local/ho-chunks-move-ahead-with-casino-plans/article_002c244b-d2af-5503-878f-fee14d17d574.html). A good general resource for Native history is In The Hands of the Great Spirit by Jake Page. In any case, though the irony of serving on the Winnebago reservation may be lessened due to lack of a specific connection, there remains the simple fact that Native Americans in general lived where I do well before I did. I live on land that belonged to someone else and was taken by force.