I was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota. I am the son of two white Americans. Both of my grandfathers are Swedish, my grandma Delores is German, and my grandma Alice is Irish, Dutch, and Scottish. The Swedish ancestor who I know the most about emigrated to Minnesota in 1884, during a time of rapid industrialization and urbanization in the U.S. This is how I learned to introduce myself from Mark Charles, one of the plenary speakers at the annual Church of All Nations Conference in October 2014.
I think this brief family history helps make sense of how I heard and experienced Mark’s words during his plenary, “The Doctrine of Discovery & The Church.” During that talk, Mark highlighted several points in American history that show the nation’s true character as a colonial power.
1)European land-ownership in North America was established by a papal bull from 1452 (before the Protestant Reformation, mind you, and forty years before Columbus). This document granted the legal right of discovery to whichever European Christian nation arrived first. The previous inhabitants, presumably “pagans,” could be reduced to slavery for profit.
2)The Declaration of Independence in 1776 was largely a colonial rebellion against the Royal Proclamation Line of 1763 which limited American westward expansion and established an Indian reserve in all lands west of the Appalachians and east of the Mississippi.
3)The founding document of the new nation, the Constitution, declared Enlightenment values for “all men,” yet entirely excluded African and Native Americans.
4)In 1862, Abraham Lincoln issued a death sentence for 38 Dakota men who had participated in the Minnesota-Dakota War. This still constitutes the largest mass execution in American history, and was a fundamental incursion on the sovereignty of the Dakota nation, which had declared war as a sovereign and independent nation, but was indicted for treason as a subject of the American empire.
This all happened before 1884, when my ancestors emigrated. I suppose the traditional line from a young white man at this point would be, “I was born in 1991 and my people came after everything bad happened, so there’s no way I could be held responsible for all that theft.”
As perplexing as the question of communal responsibility is, I have a different question in mind. I wish I could ask my ancestors what pushed or pulled them to North America. I’m half-willing to give a free pass to the Irish ancestors, since they probably came during a famine, but I am insatiably curious about the motives of the ones who came from Sweden and Germany. I wonder if it was the American Dream.
Mark Charles commented on the American Dream. He said that the only reason such a thing exists is because we believe the land is empty and the labor is free. Our nation became the powerful, industrial, attractive nation that it was in 1884 by evicting and executing millions of indigenous people, and by stealing millions of hours of labor from kidnapped and brutalized African-Americans.
Then the Sanborns showed up. That’s another story, right? Unrelated?
Well, where I come from, the twin ideologies of capitalism and individualism take root early. I don’t come from wealthy stock; I come from low-class industrial stock. So, if some older brother told my great-great-grandfather that God had blessed the land called Amerika, and that was why he could make so much more money here than in Sweden, he probably believed it sincerely without giving a second thought to history of slavery and ethnic cleansing in this godforsaken country. It’s possible that he just wasn’t savvy enough to see the larger forces at work that had colluded to benefit him and his descendants at the expense of others.
I want to believe that my ancestors knew very little about America before coming, because then I can plead ignorance on their behalf. I want to believe that they had only heard nice things from their friends and relatives about the Mississippi River and Lake Superior, and had never heard of such things as the Doctrine of Discovery, the Royal Proclamation Line, or the Dakota 38. Why? I think it’s because I am addicted to the pure and innocent feeling that comes from prolonged naiveté. I am simultaneously impressed and disgusted by how long we Sanborns maintained the illusion of innocence in this country. That naiveté is astounding.
Where did the land come from? By whose authority were we Sanborns given a plot of land to till and profit from? When my people came to the shores of North America and bought land that was first claimed under the Doctrine of Discovery, we were immediately implicated in the guilt of this nation. The double bind is like this: if my ancestors knew the gristly details about American history, they had blood on their hands the minute they occupied their plot of land, and were thus dehumanized; if they didn’t know, they were nonetheless bit players in the drama of American Empire, additionally condemned by their ignorance, and were thus dehumanized. Tragically, that is the situation American immigrants face in any era.
I don’t feel paralyzed by guilt when I say these things. Thankfully, I am a member of a strong community where reality and love are given primacy over self-deception and shame. This is why I feel gratitude for Mark’s words towards the end of his plenary: “You’ve been lied to. You are not God’s chosen people. This is not your promised land.” I don’t hear judgment in those words. I hear compassion and patience, but also a passionate sense of urgency for a people who have lived under the shroud of deception for too long. I pray for the reality and love of God to reign over this racist and unjust nation, and I pray that white people (including me) will have the character to shed our illusions and follow the way of Christ, rather than the way of Christian Empires.
Isaac Sanborn is an MDiv student at Underground Seminary in Columbia Heights, MN.