Spring 1992, Vol.44 No. 1, pp. 62-69

Megan McKenna:
      "Beyond this place, there be dragons!"

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Megan McKenna holds the Ph.D. in Liberation Theology and Scripture from the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California. A notable storyteller, Megan is also on the Board of Directors for Pax Christi, USA.

THESE words, found on every map more than five hundred years ago, are what the mapmakers wrote at the place where their worlds stopped. It is the place beyond that lures every adventurer, every dreamer who lives out the lure, every missioner, everyone who searches for God. It is the place that Columbus went beyond and stumbled upon the Americas. It marked for more than seventy million people (by some estimates) the beginning of the end of their worlds as they knew them. It began the destruction of cultures that were more than fifteen thousand years in the making, and it precipitated an invasion that resulted in the extinction of whole peoples (as much as 90% of the population) by slavery, disease and the sword.

Columbus' journey erased that saying from every map overnight and made the words obsolete. All plans to celebrate this stumbling upon land masses previously unknown need to remember the mutual benefits incurred to both sides of the ocean. But grass roots organizers of the indigenous peoples approach the celebrations with outright resistance, criticizing the events sponsored by European, Caribbean and North American nations as crassly insensitive and imperialistic at best. History brings out the dark sides of human nature and blurs the idealistic hopes - in reality there were invaders and the vanquished. What occurred five hundred years ago set in motion the history that we are now immersed in as North Americans.


Five hundred years ago marked the genesis of our modern societies and the cultural, economic and political/military dominance that western cultures and North American society still enacts and promotes. Even the United Nations has rejected a resolution calling for a celebration of the anniversary. In the larger world view, the Quincentenary must be seen as a time to honor a diversity of cultures, encourage indigenous nations and peoples and make restitution for past injustices. It is a time for owning responsibility, for telling the truth and balancing inequalities. Our beginnings do reveal the seeds that have borne fruit in the extremes of deprivation, destitution, violence, ecological destruction, extinction of species, military-industrial and technological dominance and insidious wealth and self-righteousness in world affairs. The World Council of Churches, the Latin American Episcopal Conference (CELAM), the National Council of Churches and the National Council of Catholic Bishops have all issued statements of varying degrees of selfcriticism and self-righteous indignation and triumphalism and repentance. One's point of view, obviously, is the critical place of disjuncture. From the peoples of Latin and South America come the cry: "How do you celebrate a massacre?" or a "day of continental disgrace?" or speak of their experience of evangelization as "the Christian God is a cruel God without pity."

The 'original sin' of the church in this continent lies in the fact that the institutional church and its patronage system took on the political work of dominating and exploiting the indigenous peoples and the African slaves using the gospel as one wields a sword. It was the bad news, not the hope of resurrection that seeped through the earth and the lives of those who were evangelized. Rigoberta Menchu, a Guatemalan indigenous leader and representative of the Committee of Campesino Unity (CUG) who lives in exile in Mexico because of repression talks about the church's word "evangelization" to describe the anniversary of 1992. "As a Maya, I am not offended by the word [evangelization]; however, we have to ask: Who should evangelize whom? Evangelization between the missionary and the indigenous people can work both ways. If history were to judge, who stands more in need of evangelization: the missionaries or the indigenous?"

She reminds us that five hundred years later we are still intricately bound up with the dominating cultures, institutions and political structures that are criminally responsible for continued death, repression, poverty, illiteracy, loss of human dignity, culture and a future hope for life. However, she also notes that portions of the church do live and struggle in' solidarity with the poor, the disappeared, the murdered and those who cry out for justice and peace. The past has produced and ushered us into our present histories. Dan Stifle, who works with the Saskatchewan 500 Years Coalition quotes a statement that is incriminating at least: Pope Nicolas V declared in 1452 "You may have full and free permission to invade, capture and subjugate the Saracens and pagans and whoever else is unfaithful or an enemy of Christ, in whatever location, and to reduce these people to perpetual slavery." And this declaration was supported by his three immediate successors. The church, along with other institutions that have played strong parts in the history of this continent, is caught in the debate over where to stand and what to celebrate and what to decry.


"Beyond this place, there be dragons" now could be written on every map of education, culture, religious ritual, and statement of intent and on every spiritual journey of truth. But there is a place to start to journey beyond the worlds we know now in 1992, and there is courage abounding to embrace in facing the dragons that lie just beyond our own place in history. In a first draft that represents more than fifty million indigenous people throughout continental America, who speak more than five hundred languages, we find a place to begin our journeys:

Let us now heal the injuries of the past. We indigenous people do not want to forever carry in our spirit the pain of crimes committed against our forebears. Social and ecclesial reconciliation is urgent today. Let us profoundly bond in the commitment to build a future where we will definitively eradicate the structural causes that gave rise to the crimes of the past. Let us guarantee all, but especially the poor, that such situations will never again be repeated. For this reconciliation, only the humble acceptance of the historical truth will set us free. In the judgment of history, the Church will not be liberated if, as a point of departure, she does not recognize her responsibility for the crimes that for five hundred years were committed against our peoples in her name and in the name of God. To the extent that she attempts to close her eyes to the truth, the Church runs the risk of losing the credibility that she now enjoys among the poor. Although we too are marked by sin, we indigenous peoples consider that the Spirit of God is what animates our historical walk. We feel that if God has confidence in his poor people, then our pastors also should. Do not hinder our search, assuming that we are ignorant because we lack academic preparation. We poor are the chosen of God because we have the sensus fidei, the instinct for faith, that is capable of demonstrating the vacuity of the supposed wisdom of the intellectuals who write books .... Support and accompany pastorally our processes for recuperating the land, the self-determination of the peoples, the affirmation of culture and the inculturation of the Gospel . . . . Encourage us to carry on with the construction of the Kingdom in history. Let us together, with audacity, assume the challenge of the "birth of the particularly indigenous church, with autonomous hierarchy and organization, with theology, liturgy and ecclesial expressions that are adequate for a cultural experience of faith" (CELAM, Bogota, 1985). The indigenous churches, with their new contributions, will revitalize and enrich the other churches in a truly multicultural and new scheme of Catholicism. Only in this way can we indigenous peoples, who have put our hopes in the Church see carried out in history that which our grandparents, our forebears dreamed and foretold. (An Indigenous Manifesto).
John Paul II has said that the new evangelization must be "new in its ardor, its method and its expression" and that "it is through culture that man [sic] lives a truly human life." The United Nations in 1988 declared a Decade of Cultural Development - it has seven years more to run. It is to be dedicated to changing attitudes and re-directing the whole focus of thinking so that development projects can be carried out and become people-centered, rooted in the existing cultures and not imposed according to a pre-conceived plan or pattern. (notes from Beshara, #13)


"Culture" is a word that eludes easy boundaries and definition. It includes the overall total quality of life in a country, a land and a society of people and gives a cohesion to peoples that is stronger than economic considerations, war and the break-down of structural mechanisms of governance. A look at our immediate past world history reminds us of its power: the Kurds, the Iraqis, the numerous republics and peoples of the Soviet Union, the nations of Indians in our own country, the Mayans and other indigenous nations all attest to the illusive and underlying power of culture. Francis Childe, one of the United Nations' Decade of Culture Programme Officers has said:

The word 'culture' comes from Latin, colere and culturare, meaning to till or cultivate the land. It is, then, something which is 'elaborated' by humankind; our artistic creativity, including our language, architecture, literature, music and art. But past this, it is also the way we live, the way we think, and the way we see the world; our beliefs, values, attitudes, customs and social relations. Culture transmits to us its own intrinsic understanding of the way the world works, as well as to lead us to see what is important within that world (i.e., values) . . . .
Perhaps as North Americans we need to look at how western culture has caused us to experience cultural deprivation and smallness of visions and thus to stay behind in our known, acceptable and comfortable worlds. Instead of facing, taming and learning the dragons of all life, we have sought only to subdue and destroy and eliminate the dragons that we thought were so dangerous to us. Perhaps it is time to see all dragons, all cultures, all peoples as invitations, as visions of hope, as promise of possibility, of redeeming grace. Perhaps it is time to look to culture to transform economics, politics and even religion to form a rich diversity of identities that bring integrity, dignity and gracefulness to the Word made flesh who dwells among us until the end of time.

Rigoberta Menchu reminds us: "Our sacred dream is to say that our people are weavers - a people who have woven history with our hunger, sacrifice and blood." ("Nuestro sueño sagrado es proclamar que somos tejedores. Somos un pueblo que ha tejido la historia con nuestra hambre, con nuestro sacrificio y con nuestra sangre.") We must begin to think in terms of earth, in terms of the universe and the world as our country, in terms of multicultural expressions of living, in terms of ecological theology, in terms of simple profound unalloyed human compassion as the basis of our institutions and ways of life.

In a note that Simone Weil wrote she said:

The children of God should not have any other country here below but the universe itself, with the totality of all the reasoning creatures it has ever contained, or ever will contain. That is the native city to which we owe our love . . . . Our love should stretch as widely as possible across all space, and should be as equally distributed in every portion of it, as is the very light of the sun .... We have to be catholic, that is to say, not bound by so much as a thread to any created thing, unless it be to creation in its totality . . . in our present situation universality, which could formerly be implicit, has to be fully explicit, it has to permeate our language and the whole of our way of life. (Waiting for God, 112)
The Quincentenary of the Americas can be a season of grace, a season of turning to face old dragons and new ones that dwell within our own hearts, ones of our own making and creation, made of fear, separation, isolation, nationalism, dominance, greed and war.
There is a Cherokee legend that tells of the coming of the light. It begins with the animals bumping into each other in the dark and knowing there is light out there and that those who keep the light to themselves must be very selfish. Perhaps the only way to get what they need is to steal it. So they send off a series of creatures who try, in vain, to capture the light. Possum loses his bushy tail because he hides the light there and it burns it away. Buzzard puts it on top if his head and loses all his feathers, and is bare to this day. Finally it is Grandmother Spider who offers to go. She is so tiny no one will notice her. She feels around in the darkness and finds a small piece of wet clay, molds it in her hands and comes up with a tiny bowl. They she heads into the east where the light lies, spinning out her thread behind her, so she can find her way home. No one notices that she has stolen a tiny portion of the light on behalf of her friends. She heads home, slowly along her thread. And as she moves, the light moves from east to west, filling the sky with light. The people all were thankful for her journey into the light, on their behalf. Even today, the spider's web is shaped like the disc of the sun and the spider's web is spun and clearly visible in the morning light. And today, all pottery must be dried in the shade slowly before they are put in the orno (the oven) and fire baked, just as Grandmother Spider walked slowly towards the light, baking her small bowl hard. And all who weave imitate Grandmother Spider who used what she had been given by the Creator-Spirit to find her way home with gifts for her people.
Perhaps it is time for us, the people of the dominant western European and North American cultures to learn the wisdom of the indigenous and native peoples, not only of our own continent but all the world. Perhaps this five hundred years commemoration is the beginning of the light moving slowly along the thread of those who have been often vanquished but not conquered, oppressed but not broken in spirit and truth. Perhaps it is the beginning of the dawn of resurrection for people who have endured the via crucis for generations. Perhaps it is the beginning of a new millennium where all nations evangelize those who profess belief in the Sun of Justice, the Child of Peace, the Dawn of Redeeming Grace, the Great Spirit, Manitu, Wakan Tanka, the God who has always been here before any of us ever arrived.


Perhaps our new image of God, our hope for a future in unity is not yet seen.

The image of our Lady of Guadalupe standing firmly on the earth in Tepeyac, Mexico, in mid-continent, stands pregnant. She stands with a black belt tied boldly around her waist announcing to the world that she carries within her the child that will be El Salvador, the light to the nations, the glory of the people, all the peoples. She speaks Nautl and knows Aztec symbols and theology and is mestizo --- a mixture of cultures, races and hopes for humankind. She evangelizes all of us and she says: "Do you not know that 1 am one of you? that 1 am the mother of the only true God, maker of all heaven and earth?" She is the first of the disciples, of what we are to become by grace transforming this history, this place, these peoples. She is the first again, to make the Word flesh, to point out misery and poverty and suffering and to assure those who experience injustice and despair that she is there to comfort, to heal, to stand in solidarity with them, to take on their histories and stories, their identities and dreams, to abide with them, to struggle for peace and dignity with them, with all of them, with all of us. It can be a time of dragons, of roses, of pilgrimage, of children to be born, of indigenous peoples evangelizing us, of cross-cultural and diverse language expressions of faith and shared adventures in the journey to justice and peace on this earth. "Beyond this place . . . God beckons . . . ."