The movement to celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ Day challenges Christians like me to confront my own faith tradition’s complex history and, at times, complicity with empire.

As a student of and participant in Christian mission, I feel that burden acutely; but I also know that relatively few people in American pews or the pastorate study such matters at all. Instead, we Americans, prefer to think of ourselves as “doers of the word,” to quote James 1.

By some estimates, American churches spent $5 billion per year on short-term mission trips in the early 2000s! But in the absence of serious evaluation, how do we know if such activism was a good or faithful investment? Is it possible some of those activities still operate within unexamined colonial assumptions?

By contrast, the one place American Christians have invested their energy in reflection as much as activism was the 20th-century debate over biblical interpretation.

Both sides, however, often ignored the factor most likely to result in the misreading of Holy Scripture: namely, American Christians read the Bible from an unparalleled position of privilege that places us at odds with the experience of the early saints we seek to understand and emulate.

In the context of the New Testament, we are, in a word, Rome. And our failure to recognize the ways that our political, economic, cultural and military might shape our faith can render us blind not only to basic elements of the biblical story but also to the ways it distorts our activism.

It brings to mind the words of Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel when he denounces the religious leaders of his day for neglecting the “weightier matters of the law” like justice, mercy and faith while they blindly “strain out a gnat but swallow a camel” (Matthew 23:24).

So, how should American Christians think about and respond to advocacy movements for Indigenous peoples?

First, Jesus would exhort us to join up, because love demands it.

Jesus’ criticism of the scribes and Pharisees in Matthew 23 follows immediately after his command to love God and our neighbors in Matthew 22. Jesus constantly advocated for the poor, the outsider, the oppressed.

To miss that truth in the Gospels requires an almost willful blindness to our privilege. Indeed, the author of Hebrews contrasts the high priest who carries his offering into the Most Holy Place with Jesus who “suffered outside the city gate to make the people holy through his own blood” and then summons readers “to go to him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore” (13:11-13).

Surely, if we want to find Jesus “outside the gate” in America, then we will find him on tribal lands suffering with the people he loves. Moreover, if Hebrews is right, then love demands that we follow Jesus there to build relationships with actual Indigenous people rather than offer charity or advocacy at arm’s length.

Second, besides love, Indigenous Peoples’ Day challenges American Christians to practice lament.

An honest historical assessment of Christianity’s entanglement with colonialism resists facile depictions of missionaries as saints and Indigenous peoples as sinners or the converse.

But since 1932, when the blue-ribbon Layman’s Foreign Missionary Inquiry issued an incendiary report on its two-year, global fact-finding mission, some Christians have decried all mission as colonialism. By the 1960s, even some leaders in the ecumenical movement called for a “euthanasia of mission.”

The irony of such calls, however, was that Henry Venn, leader of the Anglican Church Missionary Society, called for a “euthanasia of mission” a century earlier at the zenith of British imperialism when he described the goal of the missionary movement as planting self-sustaining, self-propagating and self-governing churches among Indigenous peoples.

Lamin Sanneh, an African convert to Christianity and later Yale professor, observed that whatever mixed motives missionaries may have had, the process of learning local languages and cultures and translating the Scriptures into them “aroused a sense of national pride … and decisively undercut the alleged connection often drawn between missions and colonialism. Colonial rule was irreparably damaged by the consequences of vernacular translation — and often by other activities of missionaries.”

Sanneh neither denied nor excused the churches’ many failures in mission, but as a historian, he also recognized the ways Christian mission preserved indigenous cultures and elevated the oppressed in those societies.

Given the contested histories, conflicted motives and the diversity of Christian communities across time, repentance for mission engagement with colonialism is not always clear cut.

Can Baptists in America repent meaningfully of doctrines adopted by medieval Roman Catholics in Latin America or practices of the Dutch Reformed in 18th-century Indonesia? Probably not, but we can — and we should — lament abuses wherever we find them, wherever pain or injustice endures.

We may not always be culpable, but we nevertheless are responsible to join Christ outside the gate and to share our enormous privilege not only through charity but through friendship. That is the way of cruciform love.

In her book Jesus Wept: The Significance of Jesus’ Laments in the New Testament, biblical scholar Rebekah Eklund observes that in the life and prayers of Jesus the church discerns a practice of lament, which bridges the sins of the past, the pain of the present, and the eschatological hope of “God’s kingdom fully to come.”

A church formed deeply in lament and love stands with Indigenous people against colonialism, because “here we have no lasting city, but we are looking for the city that is to come” (Hebrews 13:14).

Editor’s note: This article is part of a series this week to call attention to Indigenous Peoples’ Day in the U.S. The previous articles in the series are:

Who First Discovered America? | Machaela Murrell

Why Truth Must Come Before Lamentation and Reconciliation | Jessica Banninga

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