25 October 2017

Theological Reflections on the Fourth World (1)

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The Sand Creek Massacre -- 8 Hours that Changed the Great Plains Forever The Sand Creek Massacre -- 8 Hours that Changed the Great Plains Forever https://www.nps.gov/sand/index.htm

I got interested in the indigenous peoples of the world while doing research at Yale University. Though my main focus was writing about Islamic law and how modern scholars like Morocco’s Allal al-Fasi, Algeria’s Malek Bennabi, and Tunisia’s Rached Ghannouchi were recalibrating its traditional methodology and concepts, I was also reworking my dissertation into book form.

I just posted in “Resources” a couple of excerpts from that book, Earth, Empire and Sacred Text, in which I crafted a Christian theology of creation in parallel with the Qur’anic one, best expressed in contemporary Islamic theology as the “trusteeship of humanity.” It’s clear from the Qur’an and Bible that God empowered humankind to take care of the earth and of one another in his name – and for how well or poorly they fulfill that mission they will each give an account.

As the Qur’an puts it, “On that day, people will come forward in separate groups to be shown their deeds: whoever has done an atom’s-weight of good will see it, and whoever has done an atom’s-weight of bad will see that” (Q. 99:6-8, Abdel Haleem). Or: “God does not burden any soul with more than it can bear: each gains whatever good it has done, and suffers its bad” (Q. 2:286, Abdel Haleem). Each individual will stand on the Last Day before God to be judged.

But this Christian, Muslim, and Jewish eschatological vision also has a collective dimension to it. Again and again, in the words of the Hebrew prophets, nations are called out for blessing or judgment. God chose Israel as a nation for a purpose. In the words given to its progenitor Abraham: “All the families on earth will be blessed through you” (Gen. 12:3, NLT). They did not live up to this great calling, reneging on the covenant they agreed to at the foot of Mount Sinai, and the curses of the covenant eventually came crashing down upon them.

At the same time, Babylon, the nation chosen by God to carry out his punishment upon the nation of Israel, was to meet a terrible fate:


You rejoice and are glad, you who plundered my chosen people.

You frisk about like a calf in a meadow and neigh like a stallion.

But your homeland will be overwhelmed with shame and disgrace.

You will become the least of nations – a wilderness, a dry and desolate land.

Because of the Lord’s anger, Babylon will become a deserted wasteland.

All who pass will be horrified and will gasp at the destruction they will see there” (Jeremiah 50:11-15, NLT).


Amos, the shepherd turned prophet from Tekoa in Judah, receives God’s messages for Damascus, Gaza, Tyre, Edom, Ammon, Moab, and Israel. Here’s just one example:


This is what the Lord says:

‘The people of Ammon have sinned again and again, and I will not let them go unpunished!

Whey they attacked Gilead to extend their borders, they ripped open pregnant women with their swords.

So I will send down fire on the walls of Rabbah, and all its fortresses will be destroyed.

The battle will come upon them with shouts, like a whirlwind in a mighty storm.

And their king and his princes will go into exile together’” (Amos 1:13-15).


This small kingdom of Ammon occupied the Trans-Jordan plateau (just south of the Syrian Kingdom of Damascus) from about 1800 BCE to 500 CE. Their capital, Rabbah, is now Amman, Jordan. The military campaign mentioned here took place at the same time the Babylonians attacked the Kingdom of Judah, destroying Jerusalem in 587 BCE. The Israelite tribes which had settled east of the Jordan (Gad and Manasseh) in Gilead thus became an easy target for Ammon. But notice that it is not so much their attack to enlarge their territory that God is condemning here but their utter cruelty toward the general population, and pregnant women in particular.

The prophet Jeremiah goes into more detail about their crimes, but singles out their worship of the Canaanite deity Molech, to whom his people sacrificed their children through fire. He also lists their arrogance, announcing that God will “bring terror” upon them. Yet God intends to “restore the fortunes of the Ammonites in days to come” (Jeremiah 49:1-6).

God singles out cities for judgment too. Babylon was both capital city and empire. By contrast, Nineveh repented at the preaching of the prophet Jonah, Yunus in the Qur’an. In fact, a whole sura is named after him (Sura 10) and his story is told in Sura 37:139-148. Sadly, the ancient and impressive mosque that bears his name and housed his tomb (previously an Assyrian church) was destroyed earlier this year by ISIS.

Similarly in the Qur’an we find a recurring pattern according to which God sends a prophet to a particular people to warn them of impending judgment but there were always those who turned away and were met with God’s wrath as a warning to others. This was the case of the Arabian prophets Hud and Salih sent respectively to the people of Ad and Thamud. Others like Noah and Lot were met with total rejection and had to be saved miraculously by God himself. Here is the brief story of Noah, who preaches this message, “My people, serve God: you have no other god other than Him. I fear for you the punishment of a momentous Day!” They answer that he was “far astray,” to which he responds,


“‘My people, there is nothing astray about me! On the contrary, I am a messenger from the Lord of all the Worlds: I am delivering my Lord’s messages to you and giving you sincere advice. I know things from God that you do not. Do you find it so strange that a message should come from your Lord – through a man in your midst – to warn you and make you aware of God so that you may be given mercy?’ But they called him a liar. We saved him, and those that were with him, on the Ark and We drowned those who rejected our revelations – they were willfully blind” (Q. 7:61-64, Abdel Haleem).


So both in the Qur’an and Bible God deals with individuals and nations, calling them to repentance, and then to follow his ways. This part of the Apostle Paul’s message to the philosophers in Athens seems so close to the oft quoted Qur’anic verse, which says that God created people from a single couple and then made them “into races and tribes so that you should know one another” (Q. 49:13):


From one man he created all the nations throughout the whole earth. He decided beforehand when they should rise and fall, and he determined their boundaries. His purpose was for the nations to seek after God and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him – though he is not far from any one of us” (Acts 17:26-27, NLT).


John Dawson’s Healing of America’s Wounds

Dawson is a missionary from New Zealand who came with his family to work in East Los Angeles in the early 1970s. Then in 1992, just a block from their apartment, an African-American man, Rodney King, was brutally beaten by four police officers. Largely because it was caught on video, five days of looting and burning followed. Fifty people died in the riots and over 2,000 were injured.

This is where John Dawson’s book begins [it is out of print, but you can find used copies on the internet: it was published in 1994 by Regal Books, Ventura, CA].

Dawson’s message, primarily addressed to American evangelicals, is that they should pray with hope and faith for God to heal their land. That’s the easy part of his message, but the second part is a harder pill to swallow: the deep wounds in the American psyche can only be healed by facing our egregious crimes of the past, by repenting and asking forgiveness from the aggrieved parties, the African-American community we enslaved and the indigenous population we decimated and betrayed again and again.

This message deserves to be heeded once again. That healing never took place. In fact, since the 2014 fatal shooting of Michael Brown, riots have spread to numerous cities, the Black Lives Matter movement sprung up, and White Supremacists march openly, brandishing Nazi symbols in defiance.

Now back to the Native Americans and their plight … Dawson speaks about a groundswell of engagement with the issue by “prayer networks all over the nation,” with close coordination with Jean Steffenson who heads up the Native American Affairs chapter of Colorado. They were holding “solemn assemblies” in churches as well as on the actual ground where atrocities have taken place. I quote,


“In November 1992, such an assembly was held at Confluence Park, the birthplace of Denver. The event was attended by politicians, pastors and representatives of the Native American peoples of the front range. This was followed in January 1993, by a gathering of Christians of all races at a remote massacre site near the town of Chivington, Colorado. Events took place there in the 1860s that are a major cause of bitterness and rejection of Christianity by increasing numbers of young Native Americans” (137).


Dawson devotes a whole chapter to that massacre, because it kept coming up in his conversations with Native Americans over the years. Yet few anglo Americans have ever heard of it. Though he goes into great detail, quoting from several history books, I’ll close this first part of the two-part blog post with some details I found on the Smithsonian website. The good news here is that several archeological teams accompanied by Native observers discovered the site of this horrendous massacre in 1999. One thing led to another, and in April 2007 the site was dedicated as America’s 391st National Park, the only one with such a tragic name (“Sand Creek Massacre National Park”).

Tony Horwitz, the author of the Smithsonian article, a substantial one, is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, and he includes not just details of the massacre itself, but also the trail of bloodshed and numerous broken treaties that followed (300 altogether, before and after, writes Dawson). He also details some of the controversies, from 1998 on, that marked the development of this national park.

Here is the short version of what happened. Around November 1864, “about 1,000 Cheyenne and Arapaho lived in tepees here, at the edge of what was then reservation land. Their chiefs had recently sought peace in talks with white officials and believed they would be unmolested at their isolated camp.” Then the unthinkable happened:


“When hundreds of blue-clad cavalrymen suddenly appeared at dawn on November 29, a Cheyenne chief raised the Stars and Stripes above his lodge. Others in the village waved white flags. The troops replied by opening fire with carbines and cannon, killing at least 150 Indians, most of them women, children and the elderly. Before departing, the troops burned the village and mutilated the dead, carrying off body parts as trophies.”


To add insult to injury, Col. John Chevington who carried out the raid was a towering man with a booming voice. He was also a preacher who had been an active abolitionist. How is this possible? Only God knows, but he carried on the slaughter in many more Native settlements. Part of the answer is that there was a reigning paradigm in American culture, which we know as “Manifest Destiny.” Horwitz puts it thus:


“There were many such atrocities in the American West. But the slaughter at Sand Creek stands out because of the impact it had at the time and the way it has been remembered. Or rather, lost and then rediscovered. Sand Creek was the My Lai of its day, a war crime exposed by soldiers and condemned by the U.S. government. It fueled decades of war on the Great Plains. And yet, over time, the massacre receded from white memory, to the point where even locals were unaware of what had happened in their own backyard.”


Hence his title, “The Horrific Sand Creek Massacre Will Be Forgotten No More.”


Last thoughts …

The continuing plight of America’s First Nations came into focus for me recently when in nearly Carlisle, PA, the Army exhumed the bodies of three Arapahoe boys forced to assimilate and erase their own culture. Like many others of the 10,000 Native children who were subjected to such horror in other locations, they died within the first two years of their stay. One of the Arapahoe elders, Crawford White Sr., said, “It’s a long time coming. It’s something that had to be done for our tribe, and the healing begins.”

Healing is the operative word in Dawson’s book too. I will start the next half with the historic gathering of indigenous nations from all over North America and several other continents at the edge of the Standing Rock reservation in North Dakota. Over 280 Native tribes and many allies, including Black Lives Matter people and various celebrities, came to protest the construction of the Dakota Access pipeline. The action failed in the end. But that was the first such gathering since the 1973 Wounded Knee incident in South Dakota Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Such unity brought with it hope, and even a palpable dose of healing within the Native community.