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.”