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Part 1: What Do Reparations Have To Do With the Gospel?

By Dr. Matthew Cobb and Rev. Matt McWaters

Broken Lands is a series about reparations and honoring our treaties with Native Americans. Bringing together both settler and Indigenous voices, this series reflects on our shared history and possibilities of how we can begin to live well together here now and into the future.

In episode 1, host Dr. Matthew Cobb talks with Rev. Matt McWaters, chairperson of the finance committee that recommended to the Northeastern Minnesota Synod Council of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. They talk about the synod's decision to offer reparations to the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe of $185400 + $100 + $1100. The amount honors the treaties made between the U.S. government and Ojibwe nations in 1854, 1855, and 1866 that ceded the land making it possible for settlers to build lives, establish communities, and benefit economically in the area.

To open our series Broken Lands, Rev. McWaters shares how the synod came to the decision to offer this reparation and how theology informed the process. The following transcript has been edited for clarity and readability.

Dr. Matthew Cobb Can we begin by talking about your own connections to land?

Rev. Matt McWaters I grew up in Grand Forks, North Dakota, but my roots from my mother's side and my father's side are both in agriculture in eastern North Dakota and the rich soils of the Red River Valley and just a little further west. So as a young child, I would help out with harvest time. And beyond that, since I was five years old, my father would take me out hunting ducks, geese, and waterfowl on the land.


A lot of people describe the landscape of North Dakota as cold, flat, and boring. I never quite understood that because beginning as a young child laying in the middle of a field that's been tilled and next to cattails and a slough, I came to appreciate the gentle undulations of the land and the wind. Watching snow geese tornado down into the water and come into the decoys and watching them slip the wind that would burst every now and again. I just really came to appreciate the subtleties of the places that we were. So as a young child, I had my fingernails in the soil and in the dirt. I would love it when the farmer missed the small patch of grain. I would take that and shake it in my hand a little bit and put it in my mouth and chew it for 15-20 minutes.

The particularities of land have always been something that I've come to appreciate. And now living in Minnesota, everything my family loves to do is tied to the creation and the subtleties of this place. Hiking in the woods, being out in the lake on the beach and swimming, camping, and spending time in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness–these are the things that we love to do as a family.

Dr. Matthew Cobb Let’s talk about the fire of the Holy Spirit that was lit for us a couple of weeks ago at a synod council subcommittee meeting for finance. We were taking up a recommendation in the Northeastern Minnesota Synod. Can you take us back to that subcommittee meeting? My experience of committee meetings in churches is that I'm usually repelled, but I was not this time. I was so pulled in and attracted because of the business that we were taking up.

Rev. Matt McWaters Absolutely. When we think of a finance committee, we think of looking at numbers and reports and those sorts of things. On the NE MN Synod Finance Committee, going back five or six years, we've had certain members who have pushed us to think beyond numbers and to think about the story and the narrative that undergirds those numbers and reports.

In this case, we had gathered to look at a windfall of income from the sale of some property. Initially, we looked at the numbers, but then we dove immediately into the story and into the narrative. We started asking, “What does this mean for us as people here in northeastern Minnesota, as those entrusted with the responsibility of making some decisions around finances that are good, right, and responsible?” We were looking at this from our role as elected leaders, but also as our role as the people of God in this place.

As we began talking about decisions and about numbers, Bishop Amy Odgren brought up the Land Back Movement and some of our synod and church-wide resolutions regarding the Doctrine of Discovery and our relationship to Indigenous peoples on these lands that have been passed over recent years. She invited us to think about how we might offer reparation to our neighbors here across Minnesota.


As she brought this up, there seemed to be a sense of uncertainty as we began that conversation and she introduced the idea of making reparation. We went immediately to the place we often do as Christians. We asked, "What does scripture demand of us? What is our obligation?" One of the first suggestions was, "Well, we should tithe this. We should look at giving back 10 percent.”

Dr. Matthew Cobb But there was a reason that you actually couldn't give the land itself back.

Rev. Matt McWaters That's right. The property is landlocked in the middle of a parking lot. It is a church facility that was sold as well as the communications tower lease on that property. The idea of handing that particular piece of land back just didn't seem right. It seemed as though making a financial offering of reparation made a little more sense.

Dr. Matthew Cobb Also, the municipality of Duluth says that land has to be a church because of how it was zoned. So it seemed to me like offering that piece of land would be a total liability to the recipients rather than an asset. Is that fair to say?

Rev. Matt McWaters Absolutely. The city holds control over what happens in that place and in that facility.


Bishop Amy used a couple of words very intentionally when introducing us to this conversation of offering reparation. I really do appreciate the way that you framed reparation as “repairing.” I think it's undeniable that there are relationships to be repaired. And as Bishop Amy introduced this idea of offering reparation as at least the biblical tithe of 10 percent.

We then began discussing that a tithe was simply our obligation to the Law. As a gospel people, I believe we've kind of moved past obligations to the law. The Law is not the Gospel. The Law is not Grace. Though the law is a gift from God, the law doesn't get us where we need to go. And so we continued to discuss it. We asked, “How do we dive more deeply? How can we offer a reparation that's rooted in a story of what has been torn apart that we're trying to repair?”

Dr. Matthew Cobb And that's a covenant, actually. When something is ripped asunder or ripped apart, the spirit often passes straight through when you have a new covenant.

Rev. Matt McWaters Right.

Dr. Matthew Cobb That is gospel­–a new covenant.

Rev. Matt McWaters Yes, so as we discussed what beyond the “at least” of the tithe that we might do, we talked a little bit about sovereignty. We were reminded that this place does not belong to us. We returned to our theological roots and really committed ourselves to whatever action we do ought to come from our theological convictions. And so, recognizing that all belongs to God, our Creator, we began to recognize that that the tithe wasn't going to be enough. That just didn't feel right in order to really repair anything.

So the idea was offered of really rooting the reparation that we were offering in our story, in our shared narrative, in this place.

Dr. Matthew Cobb Shared narrative with whom?

Rev. Matt McWaters With our Native American neighbors here in northeastern Minnesota and really across all of Minnesota. That is the relationship that was torn asunder.


Specifically, if we go back to 1854, that was a time in our shared narrative when suddenly the power dynamic shifted and changed. And our narrative has been torn and split since then. The sense is that we [as settler colonists] have been walking a false narrative because it's not a narrative that we are writing together or that we are living together.

So we said, “Okay, if we're going to do something that returns us to that place in some way or some sense, what about offering a reparation?”


I'm really intentional about that language about “offering reparation.” We are not paying for something in the past as though this is some kind of exchange of goods. We are not offering goodwill so that we feel less guilty or anything like that. But instead, offering a gift–something that really doesn't belong to us in the first place and beginning to do that work of repair.


So the suggestion was made: “What about offering a reparation of 185400 USD?”

And there was a sense of silence, perhaps a moment where the spirit was leading us in discernment. Perhaps it was a feeling of unease of being in an in-between place and wondering, where is this going to go? Within myself, I sensed some questions coming up: “What is going to lead my own discernment and decision here? Is it going to be my concern over the bottom line? Being fiscally responsible when you're the chair of the finance committee? Or is it going to be something deeper than that?”

And it became clear as we began really offering support for the idea that this is the direction that the Spirit was leading us in: offering a reparation that was tied to a number that is not just a number. This number has meaning. It has meaning for our shared narrative in this place with our Native American neighbors. And it was here we were reminded that if this was a number that we were going to use, that it would be a number that would be recognized.

Some of the discussion that followed was along the lines of perhaps we should offer this in grants, or something like that. But that idea got shot down pretty quickly, particularly because if we are granting money and there's an application process, we would still hold the strings, and we would still hold the power. When I think about violence, I define that as a power imbalance in a relationship. If we are holding the power in deciding how this is being used, that's not a relationship that's being repaired.


So we kind of threw that idea out the window and recognized that in the same way that God so freely gives us, we were simply going to offer this reparation and pray that the Spirit would do its work. So we are beginning that work. It's a beginning. It's not the end. It's not the last step. We are just starting to find our place here together and to write this narrative together again.


2 comments

2 Comments


Dorothy L Sand
Dorothy L Sand
Nov 09, 2022

Thank you for leading us in this important work.

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Thank you - for your leadership and guidance as we look for our way back to common ground. Dee O

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