Sabbath Day Thoughts — “Out of Bounds” Acts 11:1-18
Canadians were shocked last May by the news of unmarked graves at residential schools. 215 graves of indigenous children were found at the Kamloops Indian School in British Colombia. A few weeks later, 751 graves were discovered at a residential school in Saskatchewan. Those schools were part of a national policy of assimilation for First Nations’ children which was in place from 1869 until the 1990s. Indigenous children were removed from their families and sent to state-sponsored Christian schools. There they received a basic education and the gospel. Seventy percent of the residential schools were run by the Catholic Church. Duncan Campbell Scott, who served as the Deputy Minister of Indian Affairs and ran the boarding school program from 1912-1932, once said, “Our objective is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic.”
Those residential schools were often run by people with little training, empathy, or cultural sensitivity. 65-year-old John Jones recalls his experience as a 7-year-old, taken from his family on the Nahoose Nation and sent to the Alberni Residential School. There he was punished for speaking his native language or talking about his cultural heritage. At the residential school, John was subjected to daily physical punishment—paddled, slapped, and hit with belts. He remembers being regularly berated as a dirty, stupid, good-for-nothing Indian. He was sexually abused by a teacher who traded chocolate bars for illicit late-night visits.
The impact of the residential school system cannot be overstated. Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission determined that many of the 150,000 children who were sent to the schools were subjected to the same sort of abuse as John Jones. Thousands died of malnutrition, tuberculosis, and other diseases caused by poor living conditions. Alcoholism, drug addiction, mental illness, suicide, and domestic violence have been rife among survivors. The Commission estimates that the 966 graves discovered last year are only the tip of the iceberg in a growing national tragedy. As Christians, it’s painful for us to hear of the church’s complicity in state-mandated assimilation. It hurts to imagine the gospel of Jesus Christ being shared in a shroud of cultural expectations and demands that have had such far-reaching, destructive consequences.
In our reading from Acts 11, Peter was in hot water for his cross-cultural sharing of the gospel. Peter’s mission had scandalized the Jewish believers because he had taken the good news of Jesus Christ to Gentiles of the very worst sort. Cornelius was a centurion of the Italian Regiment, a leader of the foreign occupation of Israel. Not only had Peter preached to Cornelius and his substantial household, but he had also baptized them, stayed with them, instructed them, and eaten with them.
It’s this last transgression, sharing the table with Gentiles, that was most troubling to Peter’s Jerusalem colleagues. Keeping a kosher diet was an essential dimension of observing the Torah. Leviticus 11 made it clear that some foods were pleasing to God (clean) and some were not (unclean). Eating “clean” foods made the people of Israel holy as God is holy. Eating unclean Gentile foods, like shellfish or pork, was a sin against God which separated you from God and your Jewish neighbor. There was more to it. As an occupied nation, that Jewish diet was a symbol of resistance. Keeping a clean table reminded the people of Israel that they belonged to God, despite their social and political realities.
In his defense, Peter shared a systematic accounting of his actions. According to Peter, his every move had been a response to the initiative of God and the work of the Holy Spirit. God had sent that crazy vision of the sheet descending from heaven, filled with unclean beasts. God had commanded him to eat. God had sent a vision to the God-fearing Gentile Cornelius, telling him to summon Peter. The Holy Spirit had fallen on Cornelius’s household, even before Peter had finished preaching. The whole mission had clearly been God’s initiative. Who was Peter to get in God’s way? There truly had been nothing left to do, other than to baptize, welcome, and affirm what God had already done.
As the apostles followed the Holy Spirit’s leading out of bounds and across the Roman Empire, one of the greatest struggles of the early church was determining what should be demanded of Gentile believers. Did they need to keep a kosher diet? Should they be circumcised? Should they be treated as second-class, lower tier Christians? Must they become Jews? After hearing Peter’s testimony, those earliest of Jewish believers in Jerusalem simply rejoiced and decided to follow the Spirit’s lead without any strings attached. That wide and inclusive welcome became official in Acts 15 when the Jerusalem Council gave its stamp of approval to Paul’s Gentile mission.
Over the centuries, as Christianity expanded and became enmeshed with the political power of empire and nation, we have struggled and sometimes failed to live into those accepting, welcoming, inclusive expectations of the Holy Spirit and the earliest church. We’ve often wrapped the gospel in a cloak of culture that demands assimilation. It played out on the geo-political stage from the moment that Constantine had a vision of the cross and sent his legions into battle with that symbol painted on their shields and the motto, “In this sign conquer.” We saw it as Galileo was forced to recant his scientific findings because they contradicted church teachings. We saw it as Spanish conquistadors forced indigenous captives to be baptized at the point of the sword. As a seminary student more than twenty years ago, I saw the devastating impact of forced assimilation first-hand, on Rose Bud and Pine Ridge Reservations in South Dakota where the Catholic Church and the Presbyterian Church operated government-sponsored boarding schools.
The Apostle Peter might remind us that the Holy Spirit is always way out there ahead of us. We may want to draw lines and make demands, but salvation always rests in the initiative and power of God alone. As faithful people, our task is not to insist on a kosher diet or circumcision; our job is not to judge others and insist that they conform to our way of seeing and doing things; our role isn’t to separate children from their families and rob them of their culture. When the Holy Spirit takes us out of bounds, the best thing to do may be to get out of the way, to watch, to listen, to be uncomfortable, to learn, to support, to sit down at the table with folks and break bread. As Peter so eloquently said, if God gives others the same gift that God gave to us when we believed on the Lord Jesus Christ, how can we possibly hinder God?
Healing on the Rosebud and Pine Ridge Reservations has come slowly. Indigenous scholars like Albert Whitehat, Sr. learned again their Lakota language and developed curriculum so that it can be taught in schools. Addiction, which at its worst troubled 90% of reservation families, is slowly declining. Indigenous priests, pastors, and directors of religious education are sharing the gospel in new ways. In the suffering of Jesus on the cross, they see their own suffering. They know that their experience as an occupied nation, subjected to terrible abuse, is closer to the life of Christ than most of us could ever imagine. They know that Jesus walks with them.
Shortly after the residential school scandal broke in Canada last year, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, a member of the Laguna Tribe, announced that the U.S. would be conducting its own investigation into our extensive history of Native American Boarding Schools, about half of which were federally funded but operated by churches. In 1926, 83% of our Native American children were in residential schools, some voluntarily, some forcibly removed from their homes. Just as in Canada, residential schools have had devastating consequences for Native American communities.
Dzbahe remembers the day in 1953 when her parents made the difficult decision to send her to a residential school and she left her Navajo home. At the school, her Navajo clothes and moccasins were taken and she was issued a uniform. Her hair was cut. She was forbidden to speak her language. Not knowing English or American customs, she was repeatedly punished for not doing what was expected of her. Even her Navajo name, Dzbahe, was taken away, and she was forced to respond to the new name Bessie Smith.
This week, the Department of the Interior released an initial report with findings from just 19 of the more than 400 US residential schools. That report included news of more than 500 unmarked graves of children at those 19 schools. The commission warns that as their work continues, the hidden deaths of indigenous children will rise into the thousands, perhaps even the tens of thousands. Lord, have mercy.
James Boyce. “Commentary on Acts 11:1-19” in Preaching This Week, May 2, 2010. Accessed online at workingpreacher.org.
Karl Kuhn. “Commentary on Acts 11:1-19” in Preaching This Week, May 15, 2022. Accessed online at workingpreacher.org.
Brian Peterson. Commentary on Acts 11:1-19” in Preaching This Week, May 19, 2019. Accessed online at workingpreacher.org.
Jonathan Chang and Meghna Chakrabarti. “Stories from Canada’s Indigenous Residential School Survivors” on On Point, July 28, 2021. WBUR Boston. Accessed online at wbur.org.
Claire Cleveland. “Indigenous Schools Leave a Legacy of Generational Scars” in The Associated Press, August 8, 2021. Accessed online at apnews.com.
Kalle Benallie. “US boarding school investigative report released” in Indian Country Today, May 11, 2022. Accessed online at https://indiancountrytoday.com/news.
1 Now the apostles and the brothers and sisters who were in Judea heard that the gentiles had also accepted the word of God. 2 So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, 3 saying, “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?” 4 Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying, 5 “I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners, and it came close to me. 6 As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. 7 I also heard a voice saying to me, ‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat.’ 8 But I replied, ‘By no means, Lord, for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ 9 But a second time the voice answered from heaven, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’ 10 This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven. 11 At that very moment three men, sent to me from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were. 12 The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house. 13 He told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, ‘Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter; 14 he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.’ 15 And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. 16 And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ 17 If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” 18 When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, “Then God has given even to the gentiles the repentance that leads to life.”