Unsettling the Settler Church

by Liza Minno Bloom


"American Progress" by John Gast (1872)

I have been fortunate enough to begin racial justice organizing in a church community where I live in New Jersey. The "Racial Justice Project" at the Episcopal Church I attend is small but growing.

I have been an organizer and educator for many years and have focused on issues of racial justice and Indigenous solidarity. It is encouraging to see many white Christians begin to take the issue of racial justice or racial reconciliation so seriously.  Trinity Wall Street's annual Trinity Institute focused this year on racial justice. ESA has dedicated significant space to dealing with this topic as well. Churches of all denominations and faith leaders around the country are stepping up into roles of moral leadership and speaking out against violence and systems of oppression that disproportionately target people of color.

There is a particularly urgency for the church to respond to the calls being raised by the #BlackLivesMatter movement, and I am deeply encouraged by the churches that are doing just that.

As someone who has worked in solidarity with an Indigenous community that is resisting a forced relocation for nearly a decade, I have an understanding of all oppression, including racial oppression, that is framed by the concept of settler colonialism.

Settler colonialism is the kind of colonial control that exists in "settler states" such as the USA, New Zealand, Australia, Israel/Palestine, Canada, and other countries. It incorporates elements of both external colonialism—in which a colonizing power exports Indigenous peoples (as slaves or laborers), resources, knowledge, plants, metals, and/or animals to increase the wealth of the colonizer—and internal colonialism—which is marked by the violent management of an underclass of people and lands within the "domestic" borders of the imperial nation via ghettos, reservations, borders, prisons, police, surveillance, and educational systems.  Settler colonialism is unique in that it combines internal and external colonialism—so the empire is in the same geographic location as the colony.

So when what is now known as the USA was colonized, settlers came for good, not just to take things and return to an imperial center based in Europe. This is why scholar Patrick Wolfe calls settler colonialism a process of "destroying to replace." Slowly, the Indigenous versions of governance, land management, cultural practices, etc. are destroyed—through violent conquest, disease, land theft, cultural genocide, etc.—and replaced with the settler version of those things. Therefore, it is vital to understand settler colonialism not as an event that we can neatly box into one historical moment but rather as a persistent structure that impacts everything in settler states—provides privileges, justifies oppressions, and informs governing logics and assumptions.

The end goal of settler states is the eradication and assimilation of Indigenous peoples and their replacement by settlers.  In this sense, the ongoing presence of Indigenous peoples in settler states is evidence of the incomplete project of settler colonialism.  However, it does not mean that the project has stopped; it simply evolves.  From "Indian Wars," to the Trail of Tears, to instituting the reservation system and privatizing collectively held tribal lands, to forced boarding schools, to the decimation of Indigenous languages, to the sale of Indigenous lands for resource extraction, to cultural appropriation, to the invisibilization of Indigenous people in art and popular culture—the methods change, but the goal is still the same: destroy to replace, annihilate, and assimilate.

Settler colonialism is unique in that it combines internal and external colonialism—so the empire is in the same geographic location as the colony.

This is partially why, as a political choice, I self-identify as a "white settler."  Settler is a term that came into usage relationally—that is, Europeans were not settlers until they came into contact with Indigenous peoples in the so-called "new world." For that matter, Indigenous people were not "Indigenous," "Native," or "Indian" until they were identified as such by the interloping European settlers. However, while "Indigenous," "Native," and (problematically) "Indian" have persisted as ethnic/cultural markers, "settler" has fallen out of use. The result of this is to normalize the presence of white settlers and to mark Native people as something other than the norm—even on their ancestral homelands.

This is somewhat comparable to the phenomenon of media outlets identifying a "female senator" while a male senator has no gender marker, or identifying a "black professor," while a white professor in the same article has no race marker. Regardless of the intent behind this, the impact of this all-too-familiar practice is to reinforce the normality and neutrality of maleness or whiteness or any other dominant category while subtly pointing out that non-maleness, non-whiteness, non-heterosexuality, etc. is something that needs to be marked.

I am not advocating colorblindness, or genderblindness, or blindness to sexuality, age, ability, nationality, etc.  Our race, age, gender identity, sexual orientation, ability, etc. are fundamental aspects of our humanity, and it is dehumanizing to deny the unique life experiences that are born out of life at the intersections of those multiple categories.  The way that we use language not only reflects but can also constitute the way power functions.  So in order to shift power, categories that are considered "normal" or dominant need to be marked along with those that are considered "other."  Therefore, I choose to identify as a white settler. It is a small but important way to acknowledge the persistence of settler colonialism and the ongoing reality that most white people in the USA are benefiting from the theft of Indigenous land and resources.

In the prayer of confession that we pray corporately each week at my church, we ask for forgiveness for "evil we have done, and evil done on our behalf." As a white, settler-identified person, I think about the evil of the project of settler colonialism that is being carried out on my behalf.  I am the beneficiary of the destruction of Indigenous people, lands, and lifeways.  Even if I oppose the system of settler colonialism, I still benefit from that evil done on my behalf by having access to housing, food, education, etc. all on land that was stolen.  I must ask for forgiveness, but that is not enough.  I also have a responsibility to work to dismantle the evil system of settler colonialism from which I benefit.

Just as the church is in an ongoing process of reckoning with institutional racism, I hope that we can reckon with settler colonialism; the two are intimately connected.

Just as the church is in an ongoing process of reckoning with institutional racism, I hope that we can reckon with settler colonialism; the two are intimately connected.  We must deal with the reality that the physical places that we gather for worship— church buildings—exist on stolen land, and we can enter them freely as a result of a violent and ongoing project of conquest. I have a few thoughts of how we may begin to do this:

  • Know whose land you are on. This is a very basic step to acknowledge that if you are in the USA, and you are not Indigenous, you are on occupied land, land that was not peacefully ceded but forcefully, violently stolen. There are Indigenous nations or tribes who belong to the land you and your church now inhabit.  Acknowledging those tribes or nations is a way to honor the people whose connection to the land you are on stretches infinitely back.  It is also a way to recognize the ongoing struggles for Indigenous self-determination that may be taking place on that land. Do the research. Is the nation or tribe still in the area? What are they struggling for at this moment? Can you move resources to further their efforts? This is a deeply humbling practice and can profoundly challenge your sense of belonging if you are a white settler, because it reminds you that, most likely, your ability to be on the land that you are on is as a result of great and ongoing violence.
  • Cultivate an ability to be in the uncomfortable space of confronting violent history and complicity with ongoing settler colonial systems. This is a type of confrontation that is creative and transformative. Spiritual practices like centering prayers and mindfulness can be really useful here, especially when learning more about the church's role in the project of settler colonialism. As Taiaiake Alfred says, "There needs to be struggle in order to lay a path to co-existence, and the process of being uncomfortable is essential for non-Indigenous people to move from being enemy to adversary to ally."  Stay with it. It is also helpful to undertake this process in spiritual community, to hold each other's grief, guilt, or shame, and hopefully encourage those feelings to become the catalyst to take action for justice.
  • Develop new ways of listening. As James Tully says, "We [non-Native people] need to listen differently…we need to shake free from the sediment of colonial history to listen to why First Nations resist."  How can you as a non-Native person develop new ways of listening about the reality of settler colonialism and the ongoing struggles of Indigenous people for land return, cultural sovereignty, resource sovereignty, etc.?  There are plenty of writings and talks available by Indigenous scholars and activists. Again, take steps to educate yourself. I will list a few at the end of this article.
  • Move resources to strengthen Indigenous-led efforts for the return of land and resources, self-determination, cultural preservation, and/or healing.  The Christian church as an institution in the USA is incredibly well resourced not only in cash but also in land.  Many, if not all, Indigenous-led movements in this country call for return of land to Indigenous stewardship.  Land is central to Indigenous cultures, spiritualities, languages, and lifeways. The theft of land from Indigenous people is directly linked to cultural (and physical) genocide.  How can the church leverage its many resources in solidarity with Indigenous-led efforts for land return? There is a new project in California that is working for the return of urban land to Indigenous stewardship.  Could your church start a conversation about putting land in trust and working with a local Indigenous group to steward it?

Indigenous feminist Sandy Grande refers to America's "original sin: the genocide of American Indians."  It is only by confronting systems of evil at their origin that we can transform them.  Settler colonialism is integrally related to racism, economic inequality, sexism, etc. Taking up the task of dismantling settler colonialism as an institution and as individuals is a key to moving us closer to decolonization and collective liberation.

Liza Minno Bloom is an educator and Indigenous Solidarity and Racial Justice organizer of Anglo and Slovak descent. She lives in occupied Lenni Lenape land in Asbury Park, NJ. She teaches Women's and Gender Studies at Georgian Court University. Her writing has appeared in Waging Nonviolence, make/shift, Left Turn, The Indypendent, Jesus Radicals, and elsewhere.



Conquest by Andrea Smith

Wasáse by Taiaike Alfred

What Does Justice Look Like? by Waziyatawin

For Indigenous Eyes Only: A Decolonization Handbook by Waziyatawin and Michael Yellowbird

indigenous booksArticles:

"Colonialism on the Ground" by Waziyatawin

"Understanding Colonizer Status" by Waziyatawin

"Un-Settling Settler Desires" by Scott Morgensen

"Moving Beyond a Politics of Solidarity Towards a Practice of Decolonization" by Harsha Walia

"Decolonizing Anti-Racism" by Lawrence and Dua

"Appreciation or Appropriation"

"A Transformative Framework for Decolonizing Canada: A Non-Indigenous Approach" by Paulette Regan

"Decolonization Is Not a Metaphor" by Tuck and Yang

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3 Responses

  1. Jim Welch says:

    The gospel is good news. That is the definition of gospel. When the gospel is not good news , we need to step back, quit mucking up things by trying to save ourselves. The gospel is also simple. Believe on the Lord Jesus, and simply trust His adequacy. Everything else is sinking sand.

  2. Rich Gutowski says:

    Great article Lisa, Forgive Us is a new book that might be aligned as Canon, Harper, Jackson, Rah http://www.amazon.com/Forgive-Us-Confessions-Compromised-Faith/dp/0310515963
    We are working to rename a street near a national historic district in the name of the local tribe and we are trying to include indigenous people of that tribe on some of our local boards.
    You are in NJ also, we are a small band…can we get together sometime and compare notes

    • Liza Minno Bloom says:

      Hi Rich, I would love to hear more about that work! Sounds important. Thanks for the book suggestion. Where are you based?

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