Matthew 11:12-17. From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force. For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John came; and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come. Let anyone with ears listen! “But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another, ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.’
The last shot of the Civil War was the one which killed President Lincoln. It could also be called the first shot of the war which gained new life on January 6th.
There are two kinds of wars--civil wars and foreign wars. Our Memorial Day came out of the American Civil War. It was said to have started at Gettysburg with President Lincoln’s address there. At some point much later, Memorial Day became a memorial for the dead of our foreign wars.
And by the war dead, I mean our war dead. The 3100 Union dead were interred and memorialized at Gettysburg. But not the 3900 Confederates who died at Gettysburg. Today, our memorials for WWII, Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq memorialize only OUR dead, although between 25,000 and 250,000 German civilians in the firebombing of Dresden died. [Ambrose Beirce/Kurt Vonnegut (Slaughterhouse Five[
Isn’t our true spiritual challenge to mourn all the dead of war, which is an equal opportunity employer, because war is the enemy. Isn’t war the enemy, truly? Whether war is fought for land, for food, for pride--it is the enemy. Whether it’s Napoleon or Eisenhower, whether it is Sergeant York or Lt. Calley. It’s a fine line between memorializing the war dead and glorifying war.
There’s no accounting for war. People have tried, but war and the suffering it imposes defies comprehension. There is no adequate explanation nor satisfactory way for humans to disgorge the welled-up grief of it, although we try. Then we get this grief all mixed up with patriotism and martial pride and lately, white Christian nationalism has been added to the mix. Memorial Day parades mix flags, floats and fire engines with the military on full display in their gorgeous uniforms and weapons as they march to the local cemetery where a 21-gun salute follows prayers by the clergy. To say “thank you for your service” to those who go as our proxies into battle doesn’t have much credibility until we unite in identifying the true enemy--war itself.
Now it is 2021. Memorial Days will have to feel different after the Covid memorial for the 400,000 deceased at that point led by President Biden on Inauguration Eve, a quiet, solemn affair. Pres Biden and VP Harris set a wonderful example for us today.
The Greeks had The Iliad, a sustained diatribe against the cruelty and arbitrariness of war. And so do we, too, and maybe we should be reading selections of it aloud at our Memorial Day events. Compare the Iliad in its great length and depth with President Lincoln’s address at the Gettysburg Cemetery in 1863. Ironically, we have no Homeric epic to memorialize the war dead, just this short speech of 272 words that could have been written on the back of an envelope but epical in its impact.
No, America never produced a literary epic for our Civil War like the Iliad. But our national poet, Walt Whitman, who produced his epic “Song of Myself” in 1850, did visit the Union hospitals in Washington D.C. in 1863, looking for his brother who was wounded in the war and where he signed on as a nurse and wrote many poems, collected in a volume titled, “Drum-Taps”, that documented his experience-- Bearing the bandages, water and sponge, Straight and swift to my wounded I go, Where they lie on the ground, after the battle brought in; Where their priceless blood reddens the grass, the ground; Or to the rows of the hospital tent, or under the roof’d Hospital; To the long rows of cots, up and down, each side, I return; To each and all, one after another, I draw near—not one do I miss; An attendant follows, holding a tray—he carries a refuse pail, Soon to be fill’d with clotted rags and blood, emptied, and fill’d again.
I onward go, I stop, With hinged knees and steady hand, to dress wounds; I am firm with each—the pangs are sharp, yet unavoid- able; One turns to me his appealing eyes—(poor boy! I never knew you, Yet I think I could not refuse this moment to die for you, if that would save you.)
On, on I go—(open, doors of time! open, hospital doors!)
The crush’d head I dress, (poor crazed hand, tear not the bandage away;) The neck of the cavalry-man, with the bullet through and through, I examine; Hard the breathing rattles, quite glazed already the eye, yet life struggles hard; (Come, sweet death! be persuaded, O beautiful death! In mercy come quickly.)
From the stump of the arm, the amputated hand, I undo the clotted lint, remove the slough, wash off the matter and blood; Back on his pillow the soldier bends, with curv’d neck, and side-falling head; His eyes are closed, his face is pale, he dares not look on the bloody stump, And has not yet looked on it.
I dress a wound in the side, deep, deep; But a day or two more—for see, the frame all wasted and sinking, And the yellow-blue countenance see.
I dress the perforated shoulder, the foot with the bul- let wound, Cleanse the one with a gnawing and putrid gangrene, so sickening, so offensive, While the attendant stands behind aside me, holding the tray and pail.
I am faithful, I do not give out; The fractur’d thigh, the knee, the wound in the abdo- men, These and more I dress with impassive hand—(yet deep in my breast a fire, a burning flame.)
Ceremonies in military cemeteries often gather at The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. It symbolizes an unidentified soldier (from WWI). All the other gravesites at Arlington have full identification--we know their names, dates, and ranks. But, we don’t know what these youths would have become were it not for war. They too are, in another way, unknown soldiers to us. The change of Armistice Day to Veterans’ Day in effect trades the sacrifice of those buried youth for the survivors of war.
Most memorials have to be borne in private--like that of Whitman’s, the grief of widows and orphans. We can’t bear so much pain in public. It has to be dressed up. Then we forget when the time comes again. However, the conscientious objectors try to remind us. The protestors try. The draft dodgers, so-called, in their way, do too. Bob Dylan tried in his way to undress war’s realities.
In our gospel today, Christ gives us permission to find the joy in life and permission to cry the tears if we can find them on Memorial Day 2021. Christ’s church has the obligation not to fall into the role of those who wouldn’t dance and wouldn't mourn. We can lead by example when the prayer we lift tomorrow is a prayer of confession and contrition. Bob Dylan gave us one such prayer, where is ours? We didn’t know it at the time, but the protest songs were memorials in advance. Shouldn’t we lead the nation’s change of perspective and make war the enemy? What we all have in common is grief at our human lot. An appropriate action, after confession and contrition, would be an act of repentance, to ensure that war’s survivors are cared for--through the Veterans’ Administration or through the Veterans’ Homeless Shelters. What used to be called the “walking wounded” we appreciate better now to be suffering PTSD.
The tragedy of power is that we have it to use it or not use it. Either way, the result is tragic. When Chamberlain refused to challenge Hitler, it was tragic; and when Churchill did, it was tragic, too. Maybe war is just the inevitable price we have to pay being human?
We are about to leave the longest war in American history, if we can actually go through with it. When will they ever learn, when will we ever learn--that war is the enemy?
John Eliot and January 6th Christian nationalists were among the supporters present at the insurrection upon the U.S. Capitol building last January 6th, and around the country generally that day.
What is a Christian nationalist and what’s the deal with them? Should Christian churches be concerned? Should we be concerned? YES.
A Christian nationalist is a contradiction in terms. It is a logical and a spiritual impossibility, simply because Christ said his kingdom was not of this world, not in the way the Zealots of his time or ours understood it. Christ loved the world as it is, in order to improve it. The Christian nationalist wants to improve the country first, and by force of law, in order to love it. Christian nationalists exist in this country by that name who espouse this manifesto in a 1987 book titled Biblical Principles for Political Action by the executive director of D. James Kennedy’s Coral Ridge (FL) Ministries:
“Christians have an obligation, a mandate, a commission, a holy responsibility to reclaim the land for Jesus Christ–to have dominion in civil structures, just as in every other aspect of life and godliness. It is not just a voice, it is dominion we are after. It is not just influence, it is dominion we are after. It is not just equal time, it is dominion we are after. It is dominion we are after–world conquest.” Their words.
What did Jesus instruct his disciples to do? Heal them, heal their souls, deliver their souls from captivity. Paul saw mission the same way. Heal them with love, the content of the word love being forgiveness of sins that Christ preached. The eponymous apostle in Duvall’s 1997 movie, is a God-intoxicated and Bible-centered revivalist minister of the holiness variety, who became a free-lance missionary in Louisiana to escape the law. It is a charming and persuasive depiction of someone who willed only one thing: to save people’s souls, heal them with love. What you don’t see, because it is beside the point of the movie to show it, is the dominion theology implicit in Sonny’s evangelical fundamentalism. Duvall himself may or may not subscribe to that theology, but the actual religious superstructure invisibly surrounding Sonny wants not only the individual souls, and not only many souls, but it wants all souls for Christ. To conquer the whole nation, if not the whole world, for Christ–that is Christian nationalism, and white Christian nationalism at that. [Christian Union for Ivies]
The Rev. John Eliot also was a God-intoxicated, Bible-centered minister, like the holiness preacher of Duvall’s movie who willed one thing–to live in the Bible. They were both missionaries, but what we at the John Eliot Church of Newton should want to know is, does that make them the same? Was John Eliot’s motivation the same as Sonny’s–was it Eliot’s mission to liberate the souls of individuals, or to start building a Christian empire?
We have seen Christian nationalism in every century of the Christian era. Was John Eliot any different? There is evidence that he was very different from the colonial clergy and their Puritan followers.
And yet fantasies of Christian hegemony insidiously seem to spread among the sincerest of believers who start out only seeking to pursue the care and nurture of souls. Otherwise, how did a counter-cultural religion become an engine for empire? Moral ministers do give way to immoral churches. But did John Eliot? NO. Before Eliot’s time and after, the religion of a Jewish Jesus had become the religion about a Jesus that wants you to conquer the world for him. American evangelical communities, starting from the date of the 1927 Scopes trial in Tennessee, grew to fulfil the colonial era dream of a city on a hill finally by attempting on January 6th to take over by force the Congress, the state houses, the courts, the educational system and the whole apparatus of government. The grandiose hopes of past movements like the Moral Majority, Focus on the Family, Heritage Foundation, Trinity Broadcast Network, Constitutional Reconstructionists all were fulfilled because, until Trump, they were just so many decentralized white nationalist movements, and then on January 6th they suddenly coalesced and merged into a larger, unified force under the Presidential cover he provided. Thus, a once-legitimate conservative wing of American Christianity made common cause with unChristian values and behaviors. How biblical is that, how is it even Christian?
Let’s step back a little and assess. They claim a biblical mandate for abolishing the separation of church and state, for replacing welfare with charity, for substituting creationism for evolution. None of these has clear warrants from the Bible, because the Bible is not a blueprint for society; it is the record of a spiritual experience.
Let’s assess further. Biblical literalists claim that the Bible doesn’t need interpretation, which is folly because everything requires interpretation which travels from God to thee, and from thee to me. In effect, dominion theologians have fetishized the Bible and made it into a sort of God. Whereas the most that anybody can say is that the Bible points to God.
Let’s assess again. Out of the Bible stories and legend and poetry they distill many doctrines and dogmas. These are used as a hammer by dominion Christians to subdue your brain and violate common sense. Christian nationalists have made the Bible into a paper idol.
Let’s assess once more. The unity which dominion theologians demand requires uniformity, whereas we know that each person comes to God in her or his own way. Jesus is our door to a righteous God, who knew that we would need forgiveness until we got it right.
How far we have come from the solace of the Psalms to pursuing enemies of the faith! How far we have come from the Beatitudes to cursing doctrinal deviants! How far we have come from St. Francis’ prayer that we prayed earlier this morning, although Francis too set out on a missionary journey himself from Assisi through Eastern Europe to Egypt. Folks, it is natural to share the excitement of your liberation–but it remains a mystery, and a tragedy, that Christian faith metamorphoses so often and so malignantly into an “invasion within,” as proselytizing has been characterized?
John Eliot ministered to his congregation in Roxbury for 14 years without being otherwise much concerned with the native Americans that ventured into colonial precincts for trade and to satisfy their curiosity. Eliot may not have been as independent a thinker as Anne Hutchinson or as liberal as the banished Roger Williams, but I believe Eliot charted a different course in that he saw the Indians for themselves.
I have picked up three qualified evidences of this so far–a) Eliot approached them pastorally, b) he sought to put his Bible into their hands in their language, and c) he advocated on their behalf during the disastrous King Philip’s War which he sought to avert [to be explored later in my teaspoon curriculum]. Yes, strict Calvinist that he was, Eliot preached a gospel which has been deconstructed at least two times by his own spiritual descendants–meaning us. Yes, patriarchal paternalist that he was, Eliot made a strategic mistake by segregating his Indian converts into “Praying Towns,” although his intention was only for them to foster their own Christian communities and their own churches, since the colonists wouldn’t have them on any terms. John Eliot was a man of his times, and yet not. Let’s review. If there is a direct line between the colonists and Jan. 6th, and if there was an indirect line from John Eliot and Jan. 6th, that line was broken by the U.S. Constitution in 1789 which white Christian nationalists want to reconstruct without the separation of Church and State. And furthermore, the disciples were sent out by Jesus to heal; St. Paul declared that love is the healing agent. St. Francis gave us our loving orders. Where can one find therein the remotest rationale to overturn the halls of our own democratically elected government? Our problem in America basically is a Christianity distorted by the grandiosity of high school kids. If they won’t grow up, then do we have to pray for a God who will save us from religion? Dietrich Bonhoeffer dreamed of “a religionless Christianity.” Come, Lord Jesus, come.
Not to get involved in another religious war or anything, in the meantime our church must articulate its faith to the world, because not to articulate the Christian faith is either to endorse white Christian nationalism or to be mistaken for the secular society which elects life without Jesus at all.
Let us repeat for our Benediction this morning the Prayer of St. Francis of Assisi-- Lord, make me an instrument of your peace: where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy.
O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console, to be understood as to understand, to be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive, it is in pardoning that we are pardoned, and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen.
When is a minister a missionary? When the minister is the Rev. John Eliot.
John Eliot was a minister before he was a missionary. But he eventually became a passionate and compassionate missionary. The image portrayed in the emblems of John Eliot proselytizing the native Americans is not fully representative, as no one image can be, of course. But our stained glass portrayal of him needs completion and complexification. I hope we will take on that project this summer.
To understand the Eliot story, though, first it’s necessary to understand Christian ministry, at least better than people generally do. How does anyone decide to become a minister, anyway? Why do people want to be ministers? What is behind what is known as a call from God? Where does the imperative to preach and teach the Word of God come from? Where does the missionary impulse come from that marks world history the way that it has. Where does John Eliot fit among the 2000 years of ministers before and after him?
Where can we turn for answers to these questions, for insight into Christian ministry, its motivation and purpose, outside of the usual theological tomes? It is tempting to start with the infamous Rev. Arthur Dimmesdale from Hawthorne’s novel, The Scarlet Letter.
The story takes place in our colonial Boston in 1642, just ten years after Eliot’s own arrival here at the age of 27. The novel features the minister of Boston’s first church, the actual John Wilson, for whom the actual John Eliot substituted for nine months while Wilson was in London persuading his wife to come to New England. Eliot had never served a congregation before, and that should tell us something of his maturity and spiritual capacities. It is a fun fact–drum roll–Eliot himself gets a cameo reference in Hawthorne’s novel as the object of a visit by Dimmesdale to “the Apostle Eliot, among his Indian converts.” Eliot would be known to Hawthorne’s 19th century readers as a saint, so the reference is in purposeful contrast to Dimmesdale. Rev. Dimmesdale suffers in anguish over a sin he only confesses to after seven years upon his death. This leaves the woman, Hester Prynne, to continue bearing the burden of punishment all alone. His training, his community, and his Bible told him he was grievously wrong. But he knew his offense would be professionally terminal as it would be, in fact, today for violating parishioner/minister boundaries. Dimmesdale could not bear the pain of public shaming.
Hawthorne portrays the Puritan ministers as a gloomy bunch. Hawthorne’s caricature is rooted in truth. They preached a strict Calvinist doctrine of sin and sanctification on earth, heaven or hell in the afterlife. It illustrates the gravity with which colonial religion was taken—both government and religion revolved around the Bible. It was a theocratic state, and strict uniformity of belief was paramount in importance. Anne Hutchinson and Roger Williams were banished from Boston in Eliot’s time, and so was Mary Dyer who was executed by them.
Compare this picture of ministry with the one portrayed in Robert Duvall’s 1997 film, The Apostle. There are remarkable parallels between our Rev. Eliot and the protagonist, Rev. Euliss F. “Sonny” Dewey. They aren’t obvious at first, because of the huge distance between them in time and culture. The movie opens with Sonny coming upon a multi-vehicle car accident beside the highway. The police have already arrived and the ambulances can be heard. Sonny pulls right over, grabs his Bible, and approaches one of the cars which, he discovers, has two young people in the front seat apparently mortally injured. Sonny prays first then reaches his head in to speak to the young man about God’s love for him. Sonny would appear to be following the standard formula we associate with fundamentalist Christianity, but we are persuaded of the genuine importance of this to the fate of the dying boy. Prayer is always close to the surface–Sonny drops into it readily like dropping to your knees. So Sonny gets shooed away by the police and goes on his way back to home and church where his ministry is being overthrown by his musician wife and her lover, the youth minister. We learn that Sonny is a dynamic preacher sought after on the tent meeting circuit, but that he is also an overbearing, abusive husband. When his wife’s lover shows up at the Little League field for his son’s game one day, Sonny takes a baseball bat to the youth minister and leaves him possibly dead and tended to by the spectators. Sonny knows what he has done and flees the scene and home and town altogether. He travels incognito to evade justice and takes up life as a missionary. He calls himself “Apostle E.F.,” being his initials. He tells no one of his origins nor, of course, what he has left behind. With the help of a retired black preacher, he starts a church that becomes a modest success in the town, complete with radio broadcasts and revivals.
Like Dimmesdale, Sonny too is living a lie. Or is he? We see a minister who is committed to preaching the Bible, like Dimmesdale, but with a difference. Sonny certainly is deeply flawed personally–anger management problems and homicide. But in the holiness faith he practices, Sonny exemplifies a prime characteristic of ministry–they know the Bible so well, they are so close to the world of the Bible, that they seem to be living the story, living IN the story. Sonny’s well-thumbed volume finds its way into his conversation, his preaching and his praying. The Bible’s widely disparate elements nevertheless form an interconnected archipelago of images and personages that are constantly ready to hand. The minds of his people are saturated in the Bible’s dramatis personae. You listen to Sonny speak, and it makes a kind of word jazz. He loops the symbols around and through each other continuously.
I repeat, ministers live the story, they live IN the story. They will one thing and one thing only, to see the Word become alive in others, so alive that Abraham can speak to Moses, and Joshua can speak to Jesus and Mary can speak to Miriam. Ministers don’t care about people living a “spiritual life” or adopting spiritual practices—we want each person to give up “the good life” for “a good life.” The news, and it is news, that a good life is even possible becomes the prime responsibility of such men and women to proclaim–like the newspapers which years ago had little boys on street corners shouting, “Extra, extra, read all about it–!” In a world where goodness is scarce, the good word of God has to come out. When the obviousness of the good news emerges from obscurity, the result is excitement, enthusiasm, possession by the Holy Spirit. The Good Book contains sacred words, and so it is a sacred object, a talisman. In the movie, Sonny places the book on the ground before the advancing bulldozer driven by a hostile skeptic, and it stops him. It’s a holy object with holy powers. That leads us to the importance of translation into the local vernacular–just as Luther and his martyred predecessors did before him, John Eliot did when he translated the Bible into Algonquin, with the help of 5 or 6 very intelligent young native men.
Dimmesdale lived a lie; Sonny Dewey lived the truth, at least, the spiritual truth as he saw it. He was trying to avoid being caught for more time to bring light and life to others–hence, the “apostle” title. Of course, he knew the day was coming, and should come, when the piper had to be paid. Dimmesdale on the other hand, wouldn’t have confessed except for collapsing under the weight of his guilt. Sonny is remanded to his expected punishment, but nothing changes his mission. This minister remains ever the missionary, as was Eliot and perhaps every minister.
Ministers are god-intoxicated men and women. Religion, in the minds of the god-intoxicated, is a total thing. And not only John Eliot, but every minister is in some degree a missionary, some set apart to evangelize his/her congregation, others to be sent out (“apostle” means sent away) to dispense this indispensable knowledge among the unbelievers, sometimes to foreign countries.
The question we are left with is, when it comes to evangelizing, how could something so not-the-point become the point? In Eliot’s day, and before him and after, the proof of faith meant assenting to intellectual formulas. The Trinity, the virgin birth, the miracles of Christ were taught at the point of a sword; in American revivalistic religion, accepting Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior issues from emotional manipulation. It’s what one scholar calls, “the invasion within.” Christ has been prosecuted with a kind of madness, even cruelty, to enjoy someone forced into submission beneath the economic expansion of empires.
But this is not true of all Christian missions. Eliot’s conduct was very different, we will learn further down the road. The Puritan minister-become-missionary was more pastoral and more practically oriented when it came to his indigenous constituency. But for that story we have to wait.
What we see today is that a minister has a Book and an alternative Life to share, be it near or far, or foul or fair.
I want most of all this morning to interest you and excite you about a spiritual opportunity that is knocking on Eliot Church’s door. My text is from Ephesians: “We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro, but speaking the truth in love, grow up in Christ.”
Let us pray. . . I. There is no vacation to be had from social and political conflict. Groups within society have always vied for power to determine what is right as they see it.
Worse, cultural groups, tribes, nations frequently get it wrong. From the point of view of individual conscience, national policy fails. The good a person would do, the state does not. We always seem to be protesting, and that is as it should be. The great 20th century theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr, put it this way: “As individuals, we believe that we ought to love and serve each other and establish justice between each other. As racial, economic and national groups we take for ourselves, whatever our power can command.” (Moral Man and Immoral Society, 1932)
The people who find themselves on the wrong end of those conflicts are often mortally vulnerable. Hymns from every era reflect this. Take the hymn we will sing following the sermon—a mighty fortress is our God, our present help amid the flood of mortal ills prevailing. Martin Luther, writing 500 years ago, meant not death in general but, specifically, death at the hands of his religious superiors. It could as well refer to the persecution of the Jews, slavery in America, or the internment of Japanese Americans during WWII. Such is the human prospect, the same hymn is perpetually valid.
The mortal ills Luther referred to obviously have human sources, as we read in the 2nd Commandment—the sins of the fathers will be visited upon the third and fourth generations of children and beyond. Many events described as “punishment” of God in the Bible, as they are here, is another way of expressing simple cause and effect in the moral domain.
Moral cause and effect has been having its way with us in America since slavery, and longer. Successive generations—and we’re far beyond the third and fourth generations—have had their moments of reckoning, some of which ended with good results but at great cost—the Emancipation Declaration, Women’s Suffrage, the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts, legalization of same sex marriage in 2015.
We are this year in the midst of another era of reckoning—will there be good results and are we willing to pay the price?
The sins of the fathers in question are the sins of the mostly white fathers, of course. The accumulated grievance over police killings of unarmed black men, starting with Michael Brown and Eric Garner, really broke open the collective American conscience upon the murder of George Floyd.
As it happens, the tide of suppressed outrage led by Black Lives Matter seems to have lifted the visibility of indigenous grievances that also go back to the very origins of this country in Boston and Jamestown. The experience of Native Americans was the almost complete dispossession of their land and the almost complete annihilation of their populations during almost 400 years of war, deception, and betrayal.
Our era of reckoning has had a glimmer of good results for African-Americans—the passage of H.R. 40 in the House, the intense light now being put on police reform. It remains to be seen if this momentum builds.
And what of Native Americans, what will this era of reckoning bring about for them? What is to be our part in their future on what is indigenous soil?
This is a question of great pertinence to us at Eliot Church because our namesake, the Rev. John Eliot, was the “Apostle to the Indians” who led the mission to convert the “Indians” to Christianity. It would seem natural that we would not only be curious about John Eliot himself as a man, as a Christian, and about his impact on history, but we should also want to know what the Rev. John Eliot means to us at Eliot Church today. It is, of course, an historical matter but also a spiritual matter, as presumably any institution takes its heading from the head. So, who was John Eliot and what is his place in our vision of ourselves?
If it doesn't matter to us, it certainly does to others. Because of John Eliot’s part in the colonial settlement of this region, the catastrophic climax of which was King Philip’s War, in 1675-76, the City of Newton is studying whether he deserves to be memorialized on the City seal. The 13-member committee commissioned by Mayor Fuller for this study just submitted its report last week. It is 70 pages in length and would certainly appear to have scooped us. I have read it and it is very good.
We have made a good start of our own with Rebekah Mitsein’s excellent article on John Eliot, posted in our archive, and which I used in my October 2019 Columns issue. But while the article lays out a history and a tentative assessment of John Eliot, the task of learning that history in greater detail and depth as well as owning it spiritually remains to be done. At present, I wouldn’t say we are in a position to have much of an opinion about the Newton City decision to remove John Eliot from the seal as recommended by the Committee (p. 24). Informally, I met with Lisa Dady and her staff at Historic Newton more than a year ago, and three of us Newton UCC clergy gave Mayor Fuller our blessing a year ago, and basically stating that we had no proprietary claim on John Eliot despite being his spiritual and institutional descendants. If the members of this community want to register their opinions, there is a way to do this.
The current reckoning over American slavery has made waves through major institutions. The images of athletic mascots in professional sports and local high school teams are being replaced. Buildings in universities are being renamed—Yale University renamed Calhoun College, whose namesake was a passionate promoter of slavery and white supremacy, to honor Grace Murray Hopper, a trailblazing computer scientist and Rear Admiral of the U.S. Navy. Likewise, Princeton removed Woodrow Wilson’s name from its school of international and public affairs. Boston is contending with the choice between removing Faneuil’s name or adding a sculpture exhibit that makes clear his slave-trading past.
The same issues that apply to names and images of African-Americans in our public spaces apply to native American history. The MFA has yet to grapple with what is right to do about its Indian statue outside of the main entrance called “Appeal to the Great Spirit.” If we were asked about John Eliot Apostle to the Indians, what would we say? Have we ascertained what the truth is about John Eliot’s relationship to the Indians he sought to convert and what relation that bears to horrible events that unfolded thereafter, for better or for worse?
It’s a huge subject, but it needn’t sink our ship. My great wish today is to excite you about undertaking a spiritual process that would prepare us better to participate in the public discussion in our particular era of reckoning.
First, we need to do our own reckoning. I am calling upon us to undertake the spiritual search for the historical John Eliot. And to this end, I am now developing a “teaspoon curriculum” that breaks up this complex story into (so far) 23 teaspoons that will each appear in successive weeks in different formats in our different media—our website, TWEC, One Minute Minister, Columns, and Facebook. This will be a collaborative process, involving partners in the indigenous nations of Southern New England, other non-native activists and scholars that you know like Judy Battat. I will try to form a core group from among you to lead and model this process.
Everybody will have access to an experience that people can pursue voluntarily and at your own pace with regular opportunities to join a Zoom conversation. We will devise a way to incorporate your research, your learnings and observations into it, Wiki-style. This would be equally accessible to congregational participants as well as the general public who might in this way find its way into this community.
I have no preconceptions about what actions might be deemed appropriate by the conclusion of it all—only I do believe in a method not of subtraction, but addition. Rather than remove names or images, I believe in adding them. For instance, I would like us to hold a “competition” to create images of John Eliot that would augment the one you see behind me. By a process of addition, we can best complexify a story over-simplified by the single image created a century ago. This won’t work in the case of the Confederate memorials, which are not memorials but tools of intimidation. There are other exceptions. But the point remains, part of reckoning with history is not to reject it but to complete and fulfil it.
Next Sunday, I will speak of the farther horizons possible for us to aim for—perhaps to co-found with indigenous people an educational institute for the propagation of native cultures. That could have an environmental dimension. Perhaps, put Eliot Church on the register of Sites of Conscience.
Such a process is a spiritual process—unless we have made an idol of John Eliot, we can commit to “speak truth in love,” for the sake of the truth and for the sake of our integrity as members of the Rev. John Eliot Church of Newton. As the poet wrote, “I know the time has come for me to walk through the door, to take a look at that dark part of what is calling, to touch that place of willingness to look again.”