My church’s antiracism discussion group is almost four years old now, and we recently started a new book. We are addressing the issue of environmental racism, beginning with the book As Long as Grass Grows: The Indigenous Fight for Environmental Justice from Colonization to Standing Rock. One of my initial reactions to reading the Introduction was that time is certainly moving faster as I age—I cannot believe the Standing Rock protests took place almost eight years ago!

I’m also really struggling with the American governmental and business interests’ continued disregard of Native lands and holy places. One very real and ongoing example in Arizona is the battle over Oak Flat, a mesa sacred to the San Carlos Apache. Apache people are buried there, young girls have their coming-of-age ceremonies there, and a planned copper mine would destroy the mesa. (This is not what is pictured here, as I haven’t been to Oak Flat. Above is Cliff Palace at Mesa Verde, which has been completely overtaken by governmental interests for the sake of tourism.)

As our group discussed Oak Flat in a recent meeting, one member spoke of her internal struggle over such holy places. She recognizes the sacredness of that space, but also the need for minerals like copper to support our modern way of life. She noted that over the course of human history, just about every place could have become a holy place—and then where would the copper come from?

I didn’t have an answer for her then, and I don’t now. I also found myself thinking about how we Christians build churches wherever we want, then turn them into homes, apartments, or restaurants when worship patterns shift and we don’t need those buildings anymore. That makes it more difficult for us to recognize the long-term sacredness that imbues some holy places.

So, in our discussion, I offered this parallel (which I’ve thought through in more detail since our meeting). It’s not exact, but I think it makes the point. Think about the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. It’s a large church complex that includes the traditional sites where Jesus was crucified and then buried. It’s been a Christian pilgrimage site for over 1700 years. It’s also still a place where local Christians worship.

However, Christians make up only a tiny portion of Israel’s population—just 2 percent. They don’t have power or influence in the Israeli government. Imagine the outcry from Christians around the world if precious metals were discovered under the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, and the Israeli government permitted a mining company to tear down the church or tunnel beneath it in order to harvest the minerals.

Yes, religious tourism is a mainstay of the Israeli economy, so that might prevent it from happening—but not all of that tourism is Christian. Much of it is Jewish and Muslim. As I said, it’s not an exact parallel…and if the digging didn’t disturb the Dome of the Rock or the Western Wall, those other religions might not object.

No issue is without complexity, and we should not treat any such situation as black and white, right or wrong—as the conflict in Gaza has so clearly shown us. Sometimes, all we can do is hold the tension and live in the best way we can discern, continuing to learn and respond faithfully, day by day.

If you wish, you can learn more about Oak Flat and find some links to take action here.

I also invite you to prayerfully consider what makes a place holy. What thoughts and feelings do you have about protecting Indigenous holy places?

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