“The Fourth Generation” with Rev. Jordinn Nelson Long
Click here to start at the sermon.
In 1853 the treaty of Mesilla was signed, placing a border across soil that had not known one before. The treaty of Mesilla is better known as the Gadsden purchase, and was the last major land expansion of the continental united states. The land, all of it, belonged to native people- the Apache, the sand Papago, the Tohono O’odham, or to Mexico, a nation created by the forcible and violent union of a land of native people with the desires of European men. When we celebrate the US independence day, we are in part celebrating all the men who saw someone else’s land, said MINE, and then turned to violence to enforce the claim. Let’s not sugar coat this. Our chosen faith calls us to hold that truth and that tension.
The treaty of Mesilla happened in that spirit, a capitulation by Mexico to the acquisition of 33,000 square miles of its territory for the equivalent of $270 million dollars. This happened under threat, in the wake of the losses of the Mexican American War five years earlier, in which Mexican lands were seized to become Texas, Oklahoma, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah, and California, and the offer sounded, accurately, like “sell, or die.”
John Robert Bartlett of Providence Rhode Island was the chief surveyor on the American side, and when he and his men were finished something that had existed only in the imaginations and on the papers of white men became a reality. They drew a line across sand, a line that would eventually become a wall, a trap, a battle, a symbol, a desert named Desolation.
In recounting this history, I am indebted to the work of Francisco Cantu, international relations scholar and border patrol agent, to Luis Alberto Urrea, who spent a year traveling the desert known as Desolacion, where southern Arizona meets Mexico, and to Vine DeLoria, a lawyer and scholar of the Ogalala Sioux nation and member of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe.
Forty years after the treaty of Mesilla, in 1892, a commission is sent to re-draw the line. They establish a line of obelisks roughly 1.5 miles apart all along the land border. The record of letters from the U.S. officials notes both “the grasping and overreaching action of the United states settlers” and “the kindness and courtesy of the Mexican officials.”
And in fact, the behavior of those on the American side of the new line should be discussed at every juncture.
Americans, many of them new to the country themselves, crossed the desert as emigrants and died in droves along the same path in which immigrants are still dying in the desert. Enough from the American south settled in Arizona that the territory declared itself for slavery and seceded from the union though it didn’t gain statehood until 1912 and actually had no such powers. Meanwhile, it was Mexican cities that served the American frontier, that kept these people fed and watered and clothed until American-style industry could gain a toehold in the desert.
We should talk about the Filibusters. Dutch- privateer, robber. Filibuster William Walker . In the name of slavery and manifest destiny—a term coined on behalf of one of these expeditions. Walker’s actions were such a violation of commonly held values and U.S. and international law that the American jury took 8 minutes to acquit him. Walker later takes over Honduras, very briefly, where he is then executed.
Mexican Revolution, ultimately left up to two million people dead,
Sold tickets for viewing. So fascinated were people by the carnage that seven people died on the American side of the line, watching too closely. Disaster tourism took root in the weeks following. See the ruined city from the safety of a car, said a poster. One dollar. Groups leaving hourly.
This, my friends, is the nation and the history at issue in our current immigration conversation. The line runs through a desert that has claimed so many lives no one dares to count. It runs 700 miles. Across those 700 miles it crosses five running streams. They call the line El Camino del Diablo, the Devil’s Highway.
And meanwhile the fruit industry isn’t hiring and the gangs are armed with US made weapons and there isn’t food and there isn’t safety and there isn’t hope. And so, from Juarez, from Veracruz, from Honduras, from Guatemala, they are here.
And so, they are here, cleaning fish, processing chickens, scrubbing floors, paying taxes, being separated from their families. Family separation has been occurring for a long time, but child detention has not. More than 12,000 minor children were detained this year; it’s an all-time high. Some will never see their parents again.
And, the question comes, what should we do now?
The nations of the Haudenosaunee native tradition have a saying. In our every decision, we must consider the impact not only on ourselves, but on seven generations. And the late Oglala Sioux leader and scholar Vine DeLoria shared a perspective on seven-generation thinking, and one that I think we might find relevant as we wrestle with what to do in light of history, and in light of the horrors of this present moment. What if honoring the seven generations doesn’t mean thinking 200 years into the future, but honoring those with whom we share a connection. Seven generations we hold in our hearts and our imaginations. Three generations back. The history and legacy of our great grandparents. Three generations forward. The future and possibility of our great grandchildren. And ourselves, right now, in the middle.
This wisdom and its interpretations belong to native peoples. We borrow them with permission, with the gravity of respect, with a belief that with shared humanity comes shared destiny, and only for purposes compatible with the wishes of native people. In short, the real history of seventh generation thinking will not be settled by those of us who identify as white. But the meaning that flows from Vine DeLoria’s offering can help us to do right, right now.
We need to be faithful to those three generations back. We need to do right by those three generations forward. And there is a fourth generation, counting from either direction. That generation is us. The power of this moment lies with us.
This past week, I had a couple of fourth-generation opportunities to think more directly than usual on the hope and promise of America.
I attended the visiting art exhibit at the Nelson, 30 Americans. Have you seen it? There is much there for reflection, contemplation and individual and collective soul searching. There are questions and response cards in some places, which are then hung from pegs in a grid, creating a layered conversation in which it’s possible to listen in and to take part. I felt both invited and challenged, and one of the most unexpected asks was that I check my cynicism about the possibility of America and instead work to secure more of its promise for more people.
One of the art pieces on exhibit is Glenn Ligon’s “America,” a neon sign creation in black and white that reads, AMERICA, in all capital letters. It’s all illuminated, but every twenty seconds or so it goes dark ever so briefly, and then reilluminates. The story shared next to the piece is of a twelve or thirteen year old boy in Afghanistan, whose home has been destroyed and family shattered by an American drone attack—on the wrong house.
The boy is crying and cursing America, but that’s not all he has to say. He uses his moment with the news cameras to remind the world of what America is supposed to be. Of what America says it intends to be. Of what America, ours, this one, promises that it will be. Incredible pain and rage, yielding not to nihilism, but to a fierce reminder: you have to become what you said that you were.
And the light continues to flicker.
And then, at the end of the week, we went to St. Louis for the 4th of July.
This was our family’s tradition for a decade, City Museum, Fitz’s soda, and fireworks under the arch, and it was fun to be back. But the truth also is that my awareness as a white person of colonialism and its legacy only continues to deepen, and that at this moment in feeling my way through that, I find the arch itself problematic. And by awareness, I mean a deepening call to be in relationship—right relationship—with those who have been most directly harmed, and by problematic, I mean expansion and empire and the fictive and selective storytelling that supported it.
There is a museum under the arch—there has been for awhile, but now it’s bigger and better and it has two entrances. And maybe that is a bit telling, for a did find something different inside. Instead of a variety of fur hats and a highly edited romance between white people and the land, what we walked into last week was an exhibit on the treaty of Mesilla. Called, of course, in huge letters, the Gadsden purchase. There was a semi-interactive component, where different groups of people were listed on individual scrolls, and you could roll the leather scroll back with an alarming thunk as its wooden end hit the wooden display case- and consider how the treaty of Mesilla affected the Spanish (not the Mexicans; the Spanish), the French, Americans, and Indigenous people. I stood, considering the entire effect, while Soeren read one of the scrolls, and then read it again, and again. Thunk. Thunk. Thunk. And then he said, “come read this.” I was ready to leave, freezing in the air conditioning, wondering where we would watch the fireworks, but he insisted, pointing. “This one about native people doesn’t go far enough. I guess it’s better than if it said nothing, but it doesn’t really tell the truth.” He was right.
It doesn’t go far enough. This vision, this version, of America, it doesn’t go far enough. Adolescents will call us to account, and they will use the tools that we have given them to do it.
And so, my people, all of us living in our own fourth generation: what should we do now?
We should start by lifting our voices, and that doesn’t just mean shouting. It includes quietly and with one another.
Soeren, the adolescent with whom I live, now gets in the car after we go to the movies, and says, “I’m guessing you have some social commentary.” I usually do. And you perhaps don’t have to take your own social commentary quite this far—I actually enjoy critique and analysis, and this kind of engagement is part of our family life even when there is much less at stake. Sometimes when there’s nothing at stake.
But as a matter of faith, and of faith formation, I encourage you not to remain silent in your family and friend spaces. When something, as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez might say, is wack, we need to name it. We cede too much space in the public dialogue, and underneath that, too much space in the moral dialogue, when we do not speak, and that speech perhaps necessarily starts at home. In our intimate spaces, with those we trust to hold us, we test ideas and call one another toward something better. Toward something braver, by which I can only mean more boldly loving.
We begin, in the words and legacy of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, not to be silent about the things that matter. We begin, in the words of Unitarian minister and poet Lynn Unger, to put our shoulders to the wheel. For revolution, the kind that means change that comes from the people.
We are not just the benefactors or the victims of our national policies, we are its witnesses. We are, together with teachers and journalists and artists and readers, the conscience of our nation. When the truth isn’t told, it is on us to speak it. And we are people who think learning to be people who feel and to bring both of those things with us as people who show up. Lifting our voices has private and public roles, and our public presence is needed on July 12th at Washington Square Park. Lights for liberty begins at 7 pm; let us demand, together, that America live more fully into its promises.
Relatedly, we need to delve deeper into history. To zoom out, as it were, so that our acts of zooming in—of examining details—might mean something other than the unthinking glorification of this moment, or the categorically unfaithful and empirically flawed—and it is both—giving in to nihilism and hopelessness that is its necessary counterpoint. The possibilities are deeper and realities more complex than everything is awesome or everything is awful, and therein lies hope. So start digging. Whether it’s the founding of Kansas City or the story of your own family or the tales we aren’t supposed to know, much less tell, about banana companies and oil companies and our collective ties to Latin America, there’s a deeper world than you know. Do some exploring. Do some reading. It will break your heart, but it will also set you free, show you the false walls and the real ones, guide your hands and your hopes as you begin to build a truer narrative. I’m happy to give some tips and resources if you want to do some archival reading, but accessing history can start with a simple web search. Then follow the trail.
And finally, for an America more boldly real, and more fully realized, we need to participate in the collective reparations conversation. As Ta-Nehisi Coates testified before congress last week, the descendants of enslaved people have 1/10 the wealth of white families, 4x the rate of death in childbirth (it’s actually more than four times here in Missouri, which makes the anti-abortion legislation that was passed here in May a calculated homicide of women of color), and are the majority of those locked up in a nation that has the largest prison population of anywhere on the planet. House resolution 40 would create a commission to “identify (1) the role of federal and state governments in supporting the institution of slavery, (2) forms of discrimination in the public and private sectors against freed slaves and their descendants, and (3) lingering negative effects of slavery on living African-Americans and society.”
In the words of poet and native Kansan Langston Hughes, I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!
And it will . . . if we make it so.