My text is from 2 Samuel 12:1-14, and from John 12 where Jesus says, “The truth shall make you free.”
The historical baseline for this sermon on Indigenous Peoples’ Day weekend is King Philip’s War, so-called, considered the bloodiest war in US history, on a per capita basis, between the English colonists against Metacomet and his nation in 1675-76 in this very region.
1. START. David wanted Bathsheba, killed her husband, and took her. The first son died, but the second one, Solomon, became king himself and built up legendary wealth.
A great parable this is for American history.
What King David saw in Bathsheba, the colonial settlers saw in the vast continent spread out before them—namely, freedom without responsibility, emancipation from social constraints, realization of the male prerogative—there was rich soil for an abundant harvest of whatever you want so badly.
That’s what settlers saw as the frontier moved forward, past the Massachusetts woods, past the Connecticut River, the Hudson River, the Delaware and the Ohio Rivers, past the great Mississippi River and beyond. The pioneers were the foot soldiers before there was law and order, who broke and invaded the ground and “settled” the West, that is, to make it fit for European habitation.
It’s breathtaking, the sweep of the pecuniary harvest at a time when “law and order” was employed to control everybody but speculators who went about realizing our wildest dreams of lucre and pleasure.
After 400 years, and through the advancing frontier, today the theme of “law and order” we are hearing so much about from certain quarters is being invoked by people in power, again and true to type, who actually don’t want it applied to themselves. The refrain of “law and order” goes back a long way in human civilization because of the universal need to keep violence in check that was used to secure food, shelter, family—and fortunes.
Other than love, there’s nothing more personal than violence and, therefore, nothing more fundamentally threatening to us. Everyone wants to live out our lives in health and tranquility and keep the wolf from the door—that’s how cities grew and walls were built around them, and how nations and empires came to be, including our empire which has 800 military bases in 70 countries around the world.
The American situation today was born from the collision of the colonists with a wild continent both stimulating and fearful to them, a land whose natural assets required law and order to be imposed on everyone but me. The “Indians,” which is what the colonists called the occupants of this “empty” continent, were the only obstacles to those riches.
The Massachusetts Bay Colony (Boston) founded in 1630, in order to remove impediments to clearing the forests and their occupants, used our own laws and courts against the Wampanoag nation, who were being educated through the schools created for them, including a special program for them at newborn Harvard College. The Boston colonists were the first to earn the expression that the White man speaks with forked tongue, by manipulating English “law and order” in the service of extirpating the subhuman population.
An important part of the story, however, is that while the “Indians” inspired fear, they also inspired a certain envy in the newcomers, especially in the male subconscious as they could not help but witness the liberty with which the Indian communed in nature, because they perceived the spirit of the hunter and the physical grace that came with that.
The “savagery” of the savages was paradoxically both repellent and attractive for its promise of freedom in the wilderness life which the colonists wanted on our orderly terms—legal, cultural, religious—a contradiction in terms that has us working at cross purposes with ourselves all these years.
One particular tactic of the colonists was to convert the native Americans to Christianity—to set about saving their souls from damnation and civilizing them in order to make them subservient to colonial needs. Thereby, the colonists established a psychic homestead in native heads which ultimately proved fatal to the Indian populations because it drove a wedge between the different tribes and the different families of those tribes.
Our John Eliot was part of this colonizing of the mind—his mission began right nearby, preaching a Calvinist deity to believers in Father Wisdom and Mother Earth.
A variation on this story took place on Cape Cod and the Islands where that branch of the Wampanoags were evangelized by a more “ecumenical” variety of Christian missionary (who came from Plimoth colony, not Boston) and so, when it finally came to the bloody war in 1675, they took the side of the English against the mainland Wampanoags.
The literature on this subject is now vast, and the conclusion is impossible to miss—John Eliot operated, albeit humanely, out of the same aggrandizing assumptions as his iron age society facing a stone age people; nevertheless, those assumptions fated a brief experiment in coexistence to succumb in short order to the logic of conquest.
2. STOP. King David committed murder for the sake of his adulterous affair with Bathsheba. But his violence against a man and a woman and against his God came in for a reckoning through the ministrations of the prophet Nathan who cleverly made Yahweh’s righteous expectations plain to David. A moral law straight from the spirit world brought David to face his own sin—inconvenient, but liberating—without truth there can be no order.
Who was there to bring a reckoning to the colonists as we converted, harassed, attacked, and extirpated the native peoples? The colonists had no prophet Nathan to our King David, except Anne Hutchinson and Roger Williams (she kicked out of Boston and Williams expelled from his Salem church), both of whom exiled to the region he renamed Rhode Island and Providence where they defended and took the side of the Indians.
The colonists had no authority beyond their sponsors in far-off England to account to, except experience itself. At one point in the war, actually, a day of fasting and prayer was declared by the clergy when everybody came to the realization that they had become the brutes that they thought they were sent by God to fight. In the midst of the war, that they had discovered they were no different—the preachers cried out how they had become like their enemies and deserved the judgment of God.
The prophet Nathan in effect came, but nothing changed, and in the short and brutal one and a half years from 1675-1676, the Indians had been driven out, leaving barely a trace of their former civilization and way with Nature. 3.THINK. How do we take in this history, and what do we do with it, standing here a mile from Nonantum, 350 years later? (Newton is a contraction of Nonantum.) What is to be “done?”
The history can’t be changed, but we can change ourselves. The first step is always confession. You can’t do that often enough, though many like to say, once is enough.
Samuel Sewall, one of the “hanging judges” in the Salem witch trials, stood in the midst of the Sunday morning congregation of Old South Church once a year thereafter to repeat publicly his role in condemning the accused in Salem to death.
To what would we be confessing? That our society is captive to a frontier mentality, to which you can directly trace our fights over climate change, gun control, Wall St. regulations, women’s rights, reproductive rights, gay rights.
Having compared the President to Samson last week, which showed the unreliability of flexing your own muscles, I will resist the temptation to compare him with King David. However, we could wish that a visit from some prophet today would levy the heat of Yahweh’s righteousness upon the President’s soul that would result in his saying, as David did, “I have sinned before the Lord.”
Instead, I want to draw a different parallel, because we are King David’s heirs, and Solomon’s heirs, who sit upon riches made on a genocidal policy. To confess means to say publicly we know the truth, and so saying we are able to be held accountable, to repent and without which no one is able to reform.
So on this particular weekend, we must confess that we still make decisions as if our mother Earth and our own immediate environment, will continue to yield us sustenance and profits without side effects.
4. SPEAK. 1. We could make our confession once a year, too, on our own property, on Thanksgiving just as they will be doing in Plymouth again for the 51st time. Maybe we need to renew the prayer and fasting of the Mass. Bay Colony to acknowledge the horror we feel at having become the brutes we thought we were putting in their place.
2. Open a conversation between the John Eliot Church of Nonamtum with the Wampanoag nation—study the history of the partial remediations made over time and learn from them where to go from here. The hunger felt because of the pandemic disproportionately among native populations is an illustration—hence our special offering today: Neighbors in Need.
3. Co-write the letter with our four UCC congregations letting the City of Newton redesign its Seal. I will bring such a proposal to LC next week. And note the name change at Plimoth Plantation to Plimoth-Patuxet to honor their 400th anniversary 1620-2020.
4. Justice Thurgood Marshall gave us our orders—“Speak out.” So, don’t just stand there, Eliot pillars and steeple: say something. That’s my very message to the Art(iculation) Mob. We have the whole exterior of this property (originally belonging to the native Americans)—it is essentially mute (like every other beautiful Congregational meeting house on our New England village squares). Can’t we get some money, form a jury of professionals, commission an artist, and erect a monument that acknowledges our history? Look at the message the Monument to Forgiveness by Danish sculptor Francis Jansen (attached) sends. It stands now at the foot of the 1000 mile-long Trail of Tears at Northeastern State University in Oklahoma (go to www.graceinstone.com). We have our own memorial in our stained glass panel at the rear entrance of the Sanctuary to consider in that light. Of course, we will have other ideas and craft our own message and form for it. But let’s be thinking about this on Indigenous Peoples’ Day!
If we Stop, and Think, and then Speak our confession, we thus lay the foundation necessary for reforming our national attitudes and policies toward Native Americans. As someone said, the truth will make us free, but first it will make us mad as hell. We will be reminded of Christ’s gospel that true freedom is seeking the freedom of others. May it be so!