Baylor University recently published a land acknowledgment (LA). A few other Christian institutions and conferences have also created them (see for example here, here, and here). According to the Baylor University link, “A Land Acknowledgment is a traditional custom that dates back centuries in many Native Nations and communities. Today, land acknowledgments are used by Native Peoples and non-Natives to recognize Indigenous Peoples who are the original stewards of the lands on which we now live.”
Of course, the question every Christian university leader and faculty member should ask is: Can land acknowledgments be Christian? After all, we need to think Christianly about any cultural practice we adopt. I contend that current statements by Christian universities fail to redeem LAs in significantly important ways.
God Owns It All and We Are Stewards
The first problem with a straightforward adoption of LAs is how the adoption usually neglects God’s role in any land story. For instance, Baylor’s LA does not mention God. Neither, ironically, does this LA by the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship (a contrast to Ps. 60:6-8). I did find this exception from Whitworth University which reads, “We honor God with gratitude for the land itself….” That’s a great start that any LA at a Christian university should imitate. Christian LAs should start with expressions of gratitude to God who gave humanity the land.
The positive moral kernel of Native American LAs from which Christians can learn is how they express gratitude to the prior stewards of land or places. The BU statement acknowledges that Native Americans were “the original stewards of Baylor’s campus locations.” Similarly, the Whitworth statement simply “recognizes the first custodians of this land.” Interestingly, the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship statement proclaims, “we are grateful for the way these people cared for the land and loved it”—a touching but flawed statement of thanksgiving for prior stewards.
The problem with the last statement is that it praises Native Americans’ disordered love/worship of the land (“they worshipped and served created things rather than the Creator”—Rom. 1:25b). That worship is why most Native American LAs do not mention God. They start from a different sacred starting point. Christian LAs should not ignore this point. Thus, I agree with Ross Douthat who wrote recently that this “steward” emphasis “replaces the Noble Savage archetype with a Noble Steward alternative that can seem similarly flattening.” This flattening leads to Rousseau or Disney-like romantic expressions such as that found in the Whitworth statement, “Since time immemorial, the Spokane Tribe of Indians has lived prosperously on this land.” Christian LAs should not flatten identities, simplify history or overlook disordered loves.
Indeed, a Christian LA should order our loves properly and express gratitude to God first and then to previous stewards without a lack of Christian thinking about the stewards’ culture or practices. That being said, Christians can also love land in the wrong way, which leads to the next point.
Sinful Land Acquisition
The primary way Christian institutions try to redeem LAs is by using them, not merely as a statement of gratitude, but also as a place for an acknowledgment of sins committed by the U.S. government or European settlers against the original land stewards.
The Baylor statement starts by mentioning “We respectfully acknowledge that Baylor University in Waco and its original campus in Independence are on the land and territories originally occupied by Indigenous peoples including the Waco and Tawakoni of the Wichita and Affiliate Tribes, the Tonkawa, the Nʉmʉnʉʉ (Comanche), Karankawa, and Lipan Apache.” It goes on to state, “These Indigenous peoples were dispossessed of and removed from their lands over centuries by European colonization and American expansionism.”
What is striking about this last statement is the ambiguous nature of the moral story. It does not assign clear moral responsibility for the dispossession, although one could blame a whole host of specific entities (e.g., the U.S. government, railroad companies, particular European settlers, and even the Comanches who came from the Wyoming Territory and “dispossessed” other tribes of their land through violent means).1 The statement also implies a moral law was broken by these entities, but there is no mention of the moral law or a specific call to repentance and restitution. So, should the U.S. Government, other entities (e.g., the first European settlers, Baylor University, Comanches, etc.) or other individuals or entities repent of land theft and make restitution? Should they return the land, pay for it, or offer other forms of restitution? The acknowledgment does not say.
I contend that if a Christian LA attempts to do more than offer thanks to the original stewards of the land, it should be different. After all, the Bible gives various rules about land to God’s people (e.g., “Thou shalt not steal”), wisdom (e.g., “Do not move an ancient boundary stone or encroach on the fields of the fatherless.” Prov. 23:10), and judgment (“Judah’s leaders are like those who move boundary stones. I will pour out my wrath on them like a flood of water” Hosea 5:10). More importantly, it also commands restitution for past injustices (Ex. 20). As the whole section of Jubilee law (Lev. 25) indicates, God is genuinely concerned with the dispossession of land among God’s people, especially from those who lack political power. We should be as well.
The hermeneutical difficulty that Christians must acknowledge though is that these admonitions are largely directed to how the economy of God’s chosen people should operate. Plus, God approved his people taking land from other people groups facing God’s judgment through holy war (e.g., Joshua). Jubilee laws and holy war are not easily transferable moral models, especially if we recognize that America is not God’s chosen people. That is the Church.
Current land acknowledgements that try to confess sin fall short of doing much that fits this biblical pattern of ethical thinking. Oddly, the Baylor LA declares that our university is going to show kindness out of thankfulness for the Native American’s first stewardship, but it does not acknowledge U.S. government or European settlers’ wrongdoing. Instead, it promotes the “Noble Steward” archetype mentioned earlier: “In recognition that these Native Nations are the original stewards of Baylor’s campus locations, the University strives to build sustainable relationships with sovereign Native Nations and Indigenous communities through education offerings, partnerships, and community service.” The Baylor statement not only omits thanks to God, it avoids any specific confession of sin, repentance, restitution (e.g., Ex. 22), and reconciliation.
The LA by the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship is different. It expresses lament over general sins, “We lament the injustice of treaties and covenants between settler peoples and Indigenous peoples that were unjust or unkept.” Again, it would be helpful if particular treatises and injustices were named. We are taught as little children not simply to say, “I’m sorry,” but to say, “I apologize” and then be specific about the wrongdoing.
Moreover, as with the Baylor statement, it offers no specific calls for repentance, restitution, or steps for restoration (scholarships for all Native Americans of the tribe wronged?). Unfortunately, instead of providing moral clarity about guilt and adding important Christian practices to address any wrongdoing, these LAs by Christian universities miss setting forth the set of practices that should characterize Christian communities after confession of wrongdoing (repentance, restitution, and restoration/reconciliation).
Instead, they demonstrate similarities to another “apology” practice I’ve seen. If one plays or watches tennis one will notice a unique practice among players when a shot hits the top of the net and spills over to the other side. The winning player who hit the shot is supposed to hold up their hands in a sort of apology. Of course, the player does not ask for the point to be replayed. He or she simply acknowledges that the winning point was not primarily a result of skill. The winner did not intend to hit the top of the net and have the ball barely creep over the other side. I call it the “sorry but not really” gesture. When I read LAs, I find they are similar to this “sorry but not really” gesture in tennis. Similarly, one author calls LAs a form of “moral exhibitionism.”
Telling an Accurate and Honest Story through a Christian Lens
One could argue for a third Christian purpose for LAs. Perhaps Christians LAs could express gratitude to God and earlier stewards and then mention specific historically unjust land acquisitions for which the university is not necessarily directly morally responsible (and thus needs to repent) but from which it has indirectly benefitted (and perhaps still needs to offer some form of restitution as a means of reconciliation). The U.S. Government and various other entities committed wrongs but not the university.
Whitworth’s statement appears to hint at this approach by indicating “It is important to understand the history that has brought us to reside here.” Their LA claims that retelling this story will bring “a more united community that honors and embraces the first peoples of Spokane.” I don’t think we should assume the positive results trumpeted. As anyone who studies history knows, trying to tell an accurate story about the complex moral implications of previous land ownership and past injustices can often produce interminable fighting (e.g., the Israeli-Palestinian conflict). In this regard, the Whitworth statement claims a result for this practice that cannot be guaranteed.
Christian universities should do more than produce simple, unrealistic, and godless LAs. If Christian educational leaders want only to express gratitude, they should acknowledge both God and the original stewards. If Christians at a university also want to confess wrongdoing, they need to offer serious historical study, ethical reflection, and conversation with Native Americans (the question of how to discuss previous land ownership claims for migrating tribes in sparsely populated areas without ancient boundary stones is particularly difficult despite what this web site indicates). Then, we need to apply Christian thinking and practices to our understanding of moral responsibility and response and anticipate costly messiness that does not make everyone happy and united. Beyond these general suggestions, I offer no other specific way forward. Thus, I invite you, our readers to propose some specific options. In what other ways can we think about this thorny moral issue from a Christian perspective? What should a better response by Christian universities be?
What does not require serious historical study, ethical reflection, conversation, and action are LAs that offer godless thanks, promote a flat, romantic Noble Steward archetype, and offer vague confessions without redemptive actions. If LAs at Christian institutions ignore God and/or neglect encouraging Christian practices of repentance, restitution, and reconciliation and instead opt for an easier means of appeasing wronged parties by moral exhibitionism, they are not Christian. That’s saying we’re sorry, but not really.