I recently took a week off work to go with a group from my church to visit the Eastern Band of the Cherokee people. The plan was for my wife and me to ask questions of key people about the status of uniquely Cherokee language and music among those still living in the traditional Cherokee area. We had been warned that the Cherokee language and music were all but dead, but my wife is an incurable optimist, and I would like her to be right, so off we went.
Say “Cherokee” to me and I think “Trail of Tears,” the forced expropriation of the tribe that included a march of thousands of miles in the dead of winter that killed thousands, so I went expecting to be made uncomfortable by what I heard from those we spoke with and hoping that the other white people at the camp would have their eyes opened.
Lest I think too much of my own innocence in the conquest of the Indians, God reminded me before we left of Jesus’ hard words for people like me:
Woe to you,...you hypocrites! You say, “If we had lived in the days of our forefathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the
prophets Indians.” So you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets Indians. (Matt 23:29-31)
It got even more uncomfortable. We got to our base camp, and on the first morning I had my quiet time with the next psalm after the one I’d read the day before. If this wasn’t a providential opportunity to wrestle with an issue I thought was cut and dried, I don’t know what would have been:
We have heard with our ears, O God; our fathers have told us what you did in their days, in days long ago.
With your hand you drove out the
nations Indians and planted our fathers;
you crushed the peoples and made our fathers flourish.
It was not by their sword that they won the land, nor did their arm bring them victory;
it was your right hand, your arm, and the light of your face, for you loved them.
You are my King and my God, who decrees victories for
Jacob white Americans.
Through you we push back our enemies; through your name we trample our foes.
I do not trust in my bow, my sword does not bring me victory;
but you give us victory over our enemies, you put our adversaries to shame.
In God we
make our boast all day long trust, and we will praise your name forever. (Ps 40:1-8)
Oy. How do you argue with that? If God isn’t ultimately responsible for the conquest of the Indians, who is? The church was almost the most important element in the American society of the day while the Indians were being dealt with, so how do we deny that God loved the conquerors? No exegete I would put my faith in would consider my crossouts and substitutions legitimate, but I have every reason to believe that what I did was precisely what was done in sermons all over the land at the time to justify what “our heroes” were doing to the Cherokee before Lincoln’s war, to the farmers of Georgia and the Shenandoah during it, and to the Plains Indians after it. If the success of the three conquests isn’t proof that their interpretation was the truth, what would be? It was the conquest of Indian country, even more than the enslavement of the blacks, that enabled the United States to become the economic envy of the world and at least at one time to support more missionaries and mission organizations than the rest of the world combined. Some Cherokee are Christians, and Old Glory flies in so many places on the reservation that one can only conclude that the Cherokee are patriotic Americans.
So who am I to speak against what God has so clearly endorsed?
Maybe I need to let a Cherokee answer that. We campers from seven churches throughout the east were gathered to get a Cherokee-eye view of our work from a tribe-appointed cultural resource person. Having already heard from Cherokee and white alike that the Cherokee church is weak, we wanted to know what a non-believer thought we were up against. The speaker explained what it meant for them to have Americans make treaties and break them, to have them “kill the Indian and save the man” by taking children to boarding schools far away and forbidding them under penalty of beatings to speak Cherokee, and for missionaries to condemn almost everything about them that made them Cherokee.
As he spoke, it became apparent that he didn’t really understand the Christian message. A dear older saint attempted to expound unto him the way of God more accurately, as it were, to which the speaker replied, “Here’s how I understand Jesus. The New Testament tells how he came to his own land, and he spoke about God’s love. But when he came here, he came with a gun.” Remember, this is almost two hundred years after the Trail of Tears. And I don’t think he’s alone in his view of American Christians.
There are some Cherokee Christians, as I said, but does that mean the Great Commission has been fulfilled among them? If so, we can dust off our hands and move on, and the missionaries currently being sent there can go do something more useful elsewhere. But if not and we are to fulfill it, do we do it best as white Americans who play on Cherokee red-white-and-blue patriotism, or as unadorned Christians who “know only Christ and him crucified”?
Because our forefathers had irresistible force on their side, they considered themselves justified in making the rules in Indian country. For example, a phrase we heard often during our culture lesson was “restoring the balance.” One application of that if I’m an Indian is that if one of your people kills one of my people, our people kill that person. If he can’t be killed, then someone from his nuclear family is to be killed. If we can’t get one of his nuclear family, then we go for his extended family and so on until we restore the balance by killing someone from his side. This is Moses, ¿nó? “Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed. Life for life.”
Even I can figure out how if ten Indians and two whites are killed in what the whites would consider a “fair” firefight (i.e., one in which the whites have the superior firepower), the Indians are going to restore the balance by killing eight whites somewhere, and not in a “fair” firefight (that they’re bound to lose) but by guerrilla tactics (the same ones used by the American colonists against the British and celebrated in Mel Gibson’s movie The Patriot). But because the whites had the superior firepower, they were able not only to win the battles but afterwards to “treat the Indians as the despicable scum that they were,” Moses, let alone Jesus, be damned.
Does this sound like anything we hear today? About whom is it said, “They don’t wear uniforms?” What is the American view of those who fight with improvised explosive devices? In short, could it be that we’re making the same mistake in the Muslim world that our forefathers made in Indian country, that we’re winning the military war and alienating people from the kingdom of God, not only those people alive today but their five-times-great grandchildren?
I’m sure those soldiers who escorted the Cherokee on the Trail of Tears were otherwise decent guys who wrote their parents and tithed to their churches. And maybe God was with them and considered them kingdom builders. But they made life difficult for those who would build God’s kingdom even today. And no, I don’t pretend to know what it was like to be them at those times. But I would like to think an omniscient God who cannot bear to look at sin could have come up with a way for them to meet their immediate needs without muddying the water for those who have come after them, and the same goes for us today.