God is Red fascinated me. Vine Deloria Jr. (1933–2006) was a Yankton Sioux activist. His great-grandfather was a medicine man. His grandfather was a chief who became a priest. His father rose to an executive position in the Episcopal Church. Deloria graduated from a seminary, but chose not to become a minister, because of his father’s frustrations. He sought a path that could be of greater benefit to Native American people.
There are three editions of God is Red (1973, 1992, 2003), spanning a turbulent 30 year era — aim for the newest version. The book provides important views omitted from the glorious saga of Western civilization. Even the 1973 edition was well ahead of mainstream society in foreseeing ecological catastrophe, the destination of our runaway train. We’re not a good path. Why are we on it? That’s the question that drives this book. Deloria’s search for understanding is presented from a Native American perspective.
All civilized people are descendants of tribal ancestors. Unique religions emerged in each tribal homeland, fine-tuned to its landscape, ecology, and climate. Every homeland had sacred places where the community participated in special ceremonies. All members of the tribe had deep roots in the homeland, and all shared the same worldview. A tribal person “does not live in a tribe, the tribe lives in him.”
In modern society, neighborhoods are constantly-changing swarms of occupants having highly diverse incomes, ethnicities, religious beliefs, and political views. People may live side by side for years, yet have nothing in common, and sometimes intense differences. Many do not know the names or faces of most folks in their neighborhood. This is not a coherent community sharing a profound sense of responsibility for the wellbeing of their ecosystem.
The Western conception of time is not about the eternal cycles of passing seasons; it is linear — a bloody one-way pilgrimage from the miracle of creation to the tumultuous end of the world, a constantly intensifying cyclone of population, progress, pollution, and bad craziness. Humans are simultaneously the crown of creation, superior to all other life on the planet, yet each newborn inherently flawed, via the curse of original sin.
Jesus of Nazareth was a radical and intriguing Jewish thinker who lived in occupied Palestine. He was not fond of the Roman storm troopers, materialism, or greed. Just live simply and be nice. At that time, in the Mediterranean basin, and in many surrounding regions, the tribal era was long gone. It had mutated into a number of civilizations. Common folks lived under the thumb of elites. Life was harsh. Regional bloodbaths were common.
For a while, the members of the Jesus movement were all Jews. When Jesus died, his followers believed that he was the long anticipated Messiah, and that he “would return almost immediately with an angelic army to judge the world.” So, they quit working. Before long, they went bankrupt. They had no doubt that he would return during their lifetime. They were wrong. He didn’t.
A bit later, they opened the door to allowing gentiles into the Jesus movement. From this point forward, it was no longer a community having a common ethnic identity. This was the first step on the path to becoming a multinational religion, the one and only absolute truth for everyone, in every place, for all eternity.
Over time, the Jesus movement expanded into other regions. In Rome, many joined the parade. Growing numbers led to the birth of a religious institution — the Roman Catholic Church. By and by, the Roman Empire was rotting away from decadence and delirium, softening it up for a spectacular blind date with vicious mobs of bloodthirsty barbarians. The collapse of the Empire created a power vacuum that was taken over by the Church, which proceeded to expand its domain and accumulate enormous wealth and power.
True believers waited for the return of the Messiah for years, then decades, then centuries. This was getting boring. One day, a revelation from God arrived — the Messiah could not return until all nations had heard the story of Jesus. So, believers shifted their preaching and teaching into high gear. Like the Roman Empire, the Roman Church became devoted to perpetual growth and the accumulation of wealth. Kings and Popes worked hand in hand to conquer, colonize, and convert distant lands. The missionaries wanted to save heathen souls, and the states wanted to relieve the converts of their valuable resources, exploit their labor, and collect taxes.
And so, Christendom spread across Europe, Africa, Australia, and Asia. Colonists eventually arrived in America. Epidemics of Old World diseases rapidly spread, killing maybe ninety percent of the Indians. The buffalo robe fad exterminated 40 to 60 million bison. Fur traders nearly eliminated the beavers. Loggers mowed down vast virgin forests. The cavalry slaughtered those Indians who resisted surrendering their freedom.
Tribal folks were not amused. They were confused, perplexed, and pissed. A missionary would convert them to the one true faith, and a year later the next missionary would inform them that the first one was a demonic fire hose of lies and deceptions. All the black robes read the same book, but none agreed on what it meant. WTF? Especially aggravating was the enormous gulf between the beautiful beliefs they taught, and the relentless brutality of the colonial society, and its frantic gang rape of their ecosystem. Meanwhile, back in Europe, instead of brotherly love, Christian nations endlessly waged war on one another.
When the Church shifted into globalization mode, and the Reformation shattered it into numerous denominations, the sweet teachings of Jesus largely got thrown under the bus. Many express deep concern for zygotes embedded in uterine walls, but display far less compassion for the infants that eventually squirt out of the womb. When American economic interests are threatened, reverence for human life stops, and the Marines are sent to mow down the enemy of the month, as well as innocent bystanders.
Deloria maintained a sense of humor. He had a lot of fun with his chapter on popular Christianity — the theme parks, Jesus freaks, pussy grabbing faith healers, shameless money-hustling televangelists, and mega-church prosperity cults. “The evangelical and fundamentalist wing of Christianity dwells on the figure of Jesus, and on the theology of old time religion. Yet their knowledge about Jesus, his times, and the early church is nearly nil.” Sunday school taught me nothing about the Crusades, the Inquisition, or the Thirty Years War.
Today we’re flying along on a joyride to Judgment Day, which is mere months or days away, maybe. In polite conversation, it remains rude to contemplate our responsibility for leaving behind a somewhat habitable planet for the kiddies. “It takes incredible willpower to pretend that history is the unfolding of a divine plan for humanity. In less than two and a half centuries, American whites have virtually destroyed a whole continent.”
Deloria concludes, “Who will find peace with the lands? The future of humankind lies waiting for those who will come to understand their lives and take up their responsibilities to all living things. Who will listen to the trees, the animals and the birds, the voices of the places of the land? As the long-forgotten peoples of the respective continents rise and begin to reclaim their ancient heritage, they will discover the meaning of the lands of their ancestors. That is when the invaders of the North American continent will finally discover that for this land, God is red.”
Deloria, Vine, God is Red: A Native View of Religion, 3d ed, Fulcrum Publishing, Golden, Colorado, 2003.
YouTube offers a number of Deloria videos.