From Jerusalem to Standing Rock, victors recast past to reflect their religious worldviews

Jerusalem's Temple Mount -- as Jews call it in English, or the Noble Sanctuary, the English version of its Muslim name -- is arguably the world's most fought over bit of sacred land.

Today, the area is under Muslim control and houses the magnificent shrine known as the Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa Mosque. Of course these Muslim structures are only the latest in a long line of religious structures that have graced the leveled hilltop.

Over the many centuries, Jews, Romans, and Christians preceded Muslims in claiming the site as their own, as I'm sure most GetReligion readers are well aware.

If so, why reiterate this history?

To make the point that dedicating a location to whatever God or gods are favored by the faith of whoever happens to hold political sway over the site at any given moment is a time-honored way to humble the vanquished and exalt the victorious.

In other words, constructing churches atop the ruins of synagogues, and mosques atop the ruins of churches, or -- as happens in India -- Hindu temples atop the ruins of mosques, and vice versa, seems to be just another bit of nasty human disregard for those who are different from us but over who we have power.

Now to my question of the week.

Was the just concluded (for now, anyway), months-long Standing Rock Dakota Access pipeline protest a contemporary example of -- no pun intended -- literally lording it over Native American spiritual beliefs about the intrinsic sacredness of ancestral lands?

If my analogy works, the victor in this case would be the culturally Judeo-Christian construct of American beliefs concerning land ownership and use as stipulated by the government. In short, think of the North Dakota episode as a continuation of the European subjugation of what were historically dismissed as matters of Native American pagan religious ignorance.

Standing Rock was not an easy story to report or follow. In addition to the physical hardships reporters onsite had to endure, the story encapsulated myriad issues that were hard to tease apart. As such, it allowed journalists to approach it from an angle that suited their individual buttons, political and even religious.

Environmental issues focused on potential drinking water contamination should the pipeline leak, and the larger question of continued fossil fuel reliance and climate change. Economic issues included the more than $3.8 billion previously invested in the almost completed pipeline, jobs and fuel costs for Americans. Legal issues involved property rights and the regulatory permitting process.

Then there was the religion component, of which two angles come to mind.

The first is the involvement of non-Native American (primarily culturally liberal) religious leaders and groups who, for various reasons, sided with the Standing Rock protesters.

The second, and more pertinent to this post, is the question of dealing with the sacred spaces of others. My GetReligion colleague Julia Duin previously addressed this in relation to the pipeline back in November.

To restate my question from above: Was Standing Rock, at its unspoken core, another example of a kind of physical replacement theology of which humans seem so fond, and that we've seen in Jerusalem?

Moreover, was the decision of the judge who dismissed a suit brought by the Standing Rock and Cheyenne River Sioux tribes who sought to halt the pipeline on religious freedom grounds no different in its essence than how more powerful victors with a favored religious world view have always acted?

Pope Francis weighed in on this deeper issue in a general manner just last week. Here's the top of The Guardian story on his comments.

In the 15th century papal bulls promoted and provided legal justification for the conquest and theft of indigenous peoples’ lands and resources worldwide - the consequences of which are still being felt today. The right to conquest in one such bull, the Romanus Pontifex, issued in the 1450s when Nicholas V was the Pope, was granted in perpetuity.
How times have changed. Last week, over 560 years later, Francis, the first Pope from Latin America, struck a rather different note - for indigenous peoples around the world, for land rights, for better environmental stewardship. He said publicly that indigenous peoples have the right to “prior and informed consent.” In other words, nothing should happen on - or impact - their land, territories and resources unless they agree to it.
“I believe that the central issue is how to reconcile the right to development, both social and cultural, with the protection of the particular characteristics of indigenous peoples and their territories,” said Francis, according to an English version of his speech released by the Vatican’s press office.
“This is especially clear when planning economic activities which may interfere with indigenous cultures and their ancestral relationship to the earth,” Francis went on. “In this regard, the right to prior and informed consent should always prevail, as foreseen in Article 32 of the [UN] Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Only then is it possible to guarantee peaceful cooperation between governing authorities and indigenous peoples, overcoming confrontation and conflict.”

The Rev. Martin E. Marty -- a church historian who should need no introduction to religion-news consumers -- also addressed the larger issue of native sacred sites in this post on Sightings, the blog he started at the University of Chicago School of Divinity that also takes a close look at media religion coverage.

He began his piece from early February with a blunt question.

What if the Sioux Nation decided to build a pipeline through Arlington Cemetery?

Yeah, I know. Won't ever happen.

But it's a pertinent question nonetheless, particularly if you consider how many burial grounds -- de facto sacred sites, i'd say -- have been destroyed by members of religions other than the one practiced by those buried there.

So I'll ask again.

Is what happened at Standing Rock a latter-day form of triumphant supersessionism? (Yes, I know supersessionism, strictly speaking, refers to Christian-Jewish relations.)

What do you have to say, religion scribes and other interested readers? Please share your opinions in the comment section below.

Also, get ready for another possible Native American sacred ancestral land story if President Donald Trump tries to press forward with his Mexico border wall pledge in any shape or form. This time it will involve the Tohono O'odham tribe whose ancestral land is split by the Arizona-Mexico border.

Many of the details are in this New York Times story. Stay tuned.

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