Christian history has frequently been a history of ideals betrayed. Jesus once asked what would happen if salt were to lose its flavor. In like manner, after 1600 years of fascination with Caesar’s wealth and power, it is often easier to find Jesus outside Christian churches and cultures. Claiming to follow the compassionate Christ, Christians have been among the worst oppressors in history. We are now victims of the oppression we have wrought, reaping what we have sown as our cultures crumble. Our one hope is to name our demons, to admit the truth about what we have done. Perhaps then we can be healed.
No people in North American history have suffered as much from oppressive lies and stereotypes as the Apaches. A proud, monotheistic people of desert and mountains, their religion and history are strikingly similar to those of the ancient Jews. Like the Jews, they were enslaved to produce wealth for others. The history we hear tells of noble conquistadors and humble friars who suffered at the hands of bloodthirsty Apaches. History passes over 300 years of Hispanic slavers who took every Apache woman and child they could find to work in Mexican mines and haciendas. Northern Mexico and New Mexico depended on the labor of Apache and Navajo slaves.
Like the Jews, many Apaches were also carried into distant captivity by an invading empire. The swamps of Florida and Alabama became the Apache “Babylon.“ The armies of the United States were the force of that empire. Hollywood and western dime novels have found excellent mileage in the quarter of a century the United States pitted its strength against Apache tribes. The truth, however, is less glamorous than the popular myth.
The Apaches were a nuisance to U.S. squatters. They were herded onto small reservations, only to have the reservations taken away when white settlers coveted them. In the end, many Apache bands were placed on a desolate patch of land in southeastern Arizona that could not possibly support them. When some left to survive, they were hunted like animals. Together with those who had remained on the reservation, they were sent as prisoners of war to Florida and Alabama swamps. Many died there of malaria and other diseases before the United States allowed them to return as far west as Oklahoma. In Oklahoma they were forced to become ranchers and farmers, until the reservation there was also broken up for White use.
While most American Christians applaud the birth of modern Israel, even though it has caused the displacement of millions of Palestinians, few would consider giving sacred ancestral lands in Arizona back to the Apaches. We consider the ancient Jews religious heroes because they fought slavery and defended their lands. When Apaches did these same things during the last four centuries, Christians called them bloodthirsty savages and did their best to destroy them as a race. Somehow we fail to see any parallel between the Apaches and the ancient Jews, or between the modern state of Israel and the United States.
The Apaches have survived four centuries of Christian genocide, however, and continue to tell their children stories of their heroes and prophets. While we believe Jewish Scriptures contain divinely inspired truth, God’s self-revelation has never been limited to Christians and Jews. In a sense, every culture has its own “Old Testament,” its own divinely inspired truth that has prepared it to receive the mystery of Christ. This is certainly true of the Apaches, many of whom are now Roman Catholics.
In 1989, Brother Robert traveled to the Mescalero Apache Reservation, near White Sands, New Mexico. For four days he spoke with native medicine men and women, asking their input for an image of an Apache Jesus. While their initial reaction was suspicion, because of bad experiences with Christian missionaries in the past, at the end of the four days there was an excited consensus in favor of an Apache icon. Two weeks later he returned to the reservation, to climb 12,000-foot Sierra Blanca, their sacred mountain, to pray and collect water from mountain springs to mix with his paints.
The Gospels record times when Jesus read from the Torah in synagogues and then interpreted the inspired texts. In Brother Robert’s icon, Jesus fills a similar role, but as an Apache medicine man or shaman. He is greeting the sun on the fourth morning of a traditional female puberty rite, having chanted for several nights the entire sacred history of the Apache people. Like the Jewish Jesus, Apache shamans are healers. Like the Jewish Jesus, they interpret for their people what God is doing in their midst. In this icon Jesus stands atop Sierra Blanca, the Apache equivalent of Mount Zion. Behind him flies an eagle, the guide who first led the Apaches to their “promised land.” The inscription at the bottom of the icon is Apache for “Giver of Life,” one of their names for God. Because the New Mexico reservation is now home for both Mescalero and Chiricahua Apaches, the clothing he wears comes from both cultures.
When the icon was completed, traditional medicine men and women blessed it with cattail pollen during Mass. Weeks later one of the Franciscan sisters working in the mission told Brother Robert a story about a young Apache man’s reaction when he first saw the icon. Like many young native men, he struggled with alcoholism and was often in jail after a rowdy weekend. This particular Monday morning he had come to the parish office after getting out of jail, and was looking for work. Because the staff was in a meeting, Sister Juanita asked him to wait in the church. When she met him there after the meeting, she saw he was looking at the new icon of Jesus and was crying. Not knowing anything else to say, she asked him, “What do you think about Jesus as an Apache?” He answered, “Sister, that is what he has always been.”