John Winthrop & Roger Williams on Native Americans | A Long Repentance Post #2 | New Humanity Institute: Sangwon Yang & Mako Nagasawa

Roger_Williams_and_Narragansetts

Pictured: Roger Williams and the Naragansetts, Wikimedia Commons.

The Purpose of A Long Repentance Blog Series

People talk about issues of race and justice in the United States as issues of ‘justice and injustice.’  Sometimes we launch into debates about ‘the proper role of government.’  But is that the original framework from which these issues were asked and debated?

The purpose of the blog post series called A Long Repentance: Exploring Christian Mistakes About Race, Politics, and Justice in the United States is to remind our readers that these issues began as Christian heresies.  They were at variance from Christian beliefs prior to colonialism.  Since Christians enacted and institutionalized what we believe to be heretical ideas, they were very destructive and harmful, then as now.  And we bear a unique responsibility for them.  As a result, we believe we must engage in a long repentance.  We must continue to resist the very heresies that we put into motion.  Thus the title of this blog series, A Long Repentance.  The journey is long and challenging.  It may be impossible to see the end.  But along the way, it is also inspiring and sometimes breathtaking.

We also encourage you to explore this booklet, A Long Repentance: A Study Guide, for further reflections and discussion questions.

Read Post #1.

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Christian Heresy as the Root of American Manifest Destiny

Eric was starting to glimpse the sheer magnitude of the problem, even as he felt resistance to it.  Bill was speaking Eric’s language about evangelism, too.  He couldn’t argue that Bill had become a “liberal” in that sense.  He clearly did care about presenting Jesus to people.  So Eric ventured, “To partner with Native American Christians, do you think we need to address the legacy of colonialism?  What do you think would happen to American culture?”

“You mean white American culture?” Bill asked.  “We can choose between John Winthrop or Roger Williams on that, too.  Winthrop wanted to create the ‘perfect’ church, and the ‘perfect’ Christian nation with the ‘perfect’ Christian government.”

“Okay,” interjected Eric.  “But don’t we all want that?  Don’t you?”

“Not in the sense you might mean it,” replied Bill.  “Because as soon as you have a person who doesn’t believe, whether it’s your kid or someone else, church and nation become different communities.  As soon as you have to ask someone to leave a church because of excommunication, even if done well, church and nation become different communities.[1]  That’s why there is no such thing as a Christian nation.  There are only Christians in a nation.”

“Okay,” said Eric.  “I think I can agree with that.”

“So Roger Williams,” continued Bill, “believed in freedom of religious conscience.  He welcomed people into Providence who had been declared heretics by the Boston Puritans.[2]  He founded the first Baptist church in America.  He created the environment for the first Jewish synagogue to start later on, in Rhode Island.”

Eric nodded and said, “He’s really the father of the First Amendment in the separation of church and state.  That much I know.  But what about influencing the laws of a nation?”

“Absolutely,” said Bill.  “Christians can and should stand up for a general human rights platform.[3]  But Roger Williams believed that Christians cannot set up a ‘perfect society just for Christians’ because we have not yet been morally perfected.  Neither have our children.  Or our neighbors.  And, we have to be careful to not confuse our culture with Jesus.”

“What do you think will happen to our culture, then?” asked Eric soberly.

“Would it be so bad,” asked Bill, “If we learned more about environmental sustainability?  If we resumed a conversation Roger Williams was already having with the Native Americans?”

“So how did our two forebears regard the Native Americans?” Eric asked soberly, bracing himself for some less inspiring history.  “Start with John Winthrop.”

“Winthrop,” said Bill, “Called them savages.  He believed they were culturally and racially inferior.  Even if they came to faith in Christ, he believed they should adopt English culture, and leave theirs behind.”  Bill paused.  “Like I said before, Winthrop used that cultural inferiority argument to explain to himself and everyone else why they could just take Native lands.”

“And Roger Williams?” asked Eric.  “He treated them better?”

“Yes, absolutely.  Roger Williams also wanted to share Jesus with the Native Americans around him.  He wrote a bestselling book about them because he learned their languages and even admired their culture.[4]  In the mid 1600’s, the colonies of Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Plymouth formed an alliance against the Narragansetts and Roger Williams’ Providence.”

“Why?” asked Eric.

“The Puritans thought they were heretics because they weren’t white Protestant nationalists.  They were a growing into a genuine community of white and Native peoples, anchored by Christian faith.”[5]

“So if we all had followed Roger Williams’ model, what do you think the United States would even be?” said Eric.

“Let me address an assumption you might have, Eric,” said Bill, “That we as white Christian people would only lose.  What if we have a lot to gain?  To learn?  And to remember?”

“Remember?” asked Eric.  “What would we as Christians remember?”

 

“If I Work Hard Enough, I Can Take Your Land”

“Before the age of colonialism,” said Bill, “We Christians believed certain glorious truths.  But in order to take Native lands, European Christians had to forget those truths, and then create justifications for teaching something else.  We lost both truths and practices that we used to have.  We can recover those truths.  And everyone would benefit.”

“Like what?” asked Eric.

“For a while,” replied Bill.  “Catholics believed in something called ‘the Doctrine of Discovery,’ which Pope Nicholas V declared in 1452.[6]  He was hoping Portugal and Spain wouldn’t fight each other.  So he said that European Catholic rulers could just take the lands of non-Christians, and whoever got there first got first dibs.”

“But Protestants,” said Eric, “Couldn’t just accept the Pope’s word for it.  What did Protestants believe?”

“Protestants,” replied Bill, “Had to read the Bible in a heretical way.  John Winthrop had one method:  make a covenant with God involving taking land.  John Locke, an overt heretic, developed another.  Locke believed that God made the land for those who are ‘rational’ and ‘work hard’ by English standards:  ‘private property’ as opposed to ‘communal property,’ and industry with tractors and guns to show for it.  That was a major failure in conflating English culture with Jesus.  John Locke read that out of the language of ‘dominion’ from Genesis 1.”

“Genesis 1 has taken some heat because of that,” said Eric.

“Very true,” said Bill.  “But that’s not what Christians believed about Genesis 1 before colonialism, stretching all the way back to Jesus.”

“Really?” Eric asked.  “I’m curious.  What did Christians say about Genesis 1 before John Locke?”

“Christians,” Bill replied, “said that every human being was supposed to have a share of ‘dominion’ in creation, and be nourished by creation, too.  ‘The earth belongs to all, and not only to the rich.’[7]  ‘Are not the earth and the fullness thereof the Lord’s?  If, therefore, our possessions are the common gift of the Lord, they belong also to our fellows.’[8]  Which meant God wanted to bless every person with the wealth of creation.  We can see that in Leviticus 25:  God pressed a ‘reset button’ to give land back to Israel’s families, because Israel was supposed to be living like Adam and Eve and their children if they never fell.  God looked at Israel and said, ‘You’re all my kids.  I regift the garden land to all My kids.’”

“I’ve never preached on that text, I admit,” said Eric.

“Not many have,” said Bill.  “And notice that God in Leviticus 25 was not establishing a culture of ‘private property’ in Israel with regards to land.  It goes back to God’s original vision behind Genesis 1, and for human beings to live generously towards each other.  To enslave someone else was to violate Genesis 1, because masters took away what God wanted that person to own.  To reduce a person to poverty was also to violate Genesis 1.  In our society, we believe wealth should come through being rational and working hard.  But in Scripture, God gives good land, clean water, and clean air.  God gives every person a share in the wealth of creation.  Each person is made in God’s image.  We are supposed to pass it down as an inheritance to all of God’s children.  It’s not just their smarts, but just their personhood, that matters.”

“But Americans have always believed in this idea of manifest destiny,” replied Eric.  “Which obviously served to take land from the Native Americans.”

“Right,” said Bill.  “We believe that God gave us this land, from sea to shining sea.  The so-called “manifest destiny” of taking land has always been bound up with work and whiteness, hasn’t it?  It’s like being white is part of a permit system that allows you to own something and belong here.[9]  But white people have to justify stealing Native lands by pointing to how much more we produce.  It’s an ‘end justifies the means’ form of reasoning.”

“Maybe that,” said Eric, “Is what helps fuel white American workaholism?  It seems like John Locke would have to say that land should go to the most productive person.”

“Exactly,” said Bill.  “There is no rest for the unrepentant.  It’s not just that we feel guilty about taking land from Natives that drives our workaholism.  We also feel anxiety that other people are going to take our land, even by the rules we set up.  And why are so many white evangelicals in denial that we’re destroying the environment?  Only 28% of evangelicals believe human activity is contributing to climate change – the least out of any religious group.”[10]

“Because all that matters to us is productivity?” Eric offered.

“That’s one reason,” said Bill.  “If you start questioning productivity, other people look at you funny, or brush you off.  So Michigan Congressman Tim Walberg told his constituents, “As a Christian, I believe that there is a creator in God who is much bigger than us, and I’m confident that, if there’s a real problem, He can take care of it.’[11]  It’s strange how evangelicals are not as confident that miracles will bring down abortion rates.  Or protect religious liberty.  But when it comes to the environment, we rely on miracles?  Pope Francis said we have to care for the environment.[12]  Eastern Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew is called ‘the Green Patriarch’ because he insist we have to care for the environment.[13]  But we white evangelical Americans don’t have to care?  We justify robbing our children of a clean world by saying we made stuff and some people got rich.  Thank you, John Locke.”

“I see,” said Eric.  “When people don’t want to repent, look at the lengths we will go to deny our sin.”

“Right,” said Bill.  “White American Christians built heresies to take Native people’s land.  And that set psychological and social forces into motion that are still with us.  The real question now is:  How can we repent of heresies if we still live by them?  And how can we recover Christian truths and practices that European Christians had before colonialism?  It’s not just an issue of injustice, or race.  It’s an issue of faith and repentance.  How can we claim to be Christians, when we’re not even repenting of heresy and sin?”

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[1] Mark A. Noll, America’s God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), chs.1 – 3 discusses this; see also Robert Bellah, Richard Madsen, William M. Sullivan, Ann Swidler, Steven M. Tipton, The Good Society (New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1991) p.241 – 243

[2] In 1637, Providence welcomed and assisted Anne Hutchinson and other dissenters, who had been exiled from Boston by the Puritans.  Roger Williams helped them buy land from the Narragansett native people on fair terms.

[3] Michael Gerson, “A Case Study in the Proper Role of Christians in Politics,” Washington Post, June 21, 2018; https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/a-case-study-in-the-proper-role-of-christians-in-politics/2018/06/21/39acd0bc-7578-11e8-b4b7-308400242c2e_story.html

[4] Roger Williams was a linguist who knew English, Dutch, French, Hebrew, Greek, and Latin before he learned Native tongues.  He wrote A Key Into the Language of America: The First Book of American Indian Languages, Dating to 1643 – With Lessons Concerning the Tribes’ Wars, History, Culture and Lore, which won him much admiration in England.

[5] James A. Warren, God, War, and Providence: The Epic Struggle of Roger Williams and the Narragansett Indians against the Puritans of New England (New York, NY: Scribner, 2018)

[6] We will explore the meaning and significance of the Doctrine of Discovery in the next blog post.  For more information, see Navajo Christian writer Mark Charles, “The Doctrine of Discovery – A Buried Apology and an Empty Chair,” Wirelesshogan: Reflections from the Hogan, December 22, 2014; http://wirelesshogan.blogspot.com/2014/12/doctrine-of-discovery.html and Doctrine of Discovery; https://doctrineofdiscovery.org/.

[7] Ambrose of Milan (340 – 397 AD) said, “When giving to the poor, you are not giving him what is yours; rather, you are paying him back what is his. Indeed, what is common to all, and has been given to all to make use of, you have usurped for yourselves alone. The earth belongs to all, and not only to the rich… You are paying back, therefore, your debt; you are not giving gratuitously what you do not owe.” (boldface ours)

[8] John Chrysostom of Constantinople (340 – 407 AD) said, “Are not the earth and the fullness thereof the Lord’s?  If, therefore, our possessions are the common gift of the Lord, they belong also to our fellows, for all the things of the Lord are common.”  (boldface ours)  The Epistle to Diognetus (2nd century), ch.5, says that Christians “have a common table, but not a common bed.”  Gregory of Nyssa (c.335 – c.395 AD), Fourth Homily on Ecclesiastes, demonstrated this remarkable understanding of Genesis 1:  “You condemn a person to slavery whose nature is free and independent, and in doing so you lay down a law in opposition to God, overturning the natural law established by Him.  For you subject to the yoke of slavery one who was created precisely to be a master of the earth, and who was ordained to rule by the creator, as if you were deliberately attacking and fighting against the divine command… What price did you put on reason?  How [much money] did you pay as a fair price for the image of God?  For how [much money] have you sold the nature specially formed by God?  God said, ‘Let us make man in our image and likeness.’”  Basil of Caesarea (329 – 379 AD) said, “That bread which you keep belongs to the hungry; that coat which you preserve in your wardrobe, to the naked; those shoes which are rotting in your possession, to the shoeless; that gold which you have hidden in the ground, to the needy. Wherefore, as often as you were able to help others, and refused, so often did you do them wrong.”  All are cited in Charles Avila, Ownership: Early Christian Teaching (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 1983).  The greatest of Roman Catholic medieval theologians, Thomas Aquinas (1225 – 1274 AD), said, “In cases of need, all things are common property.  There is no sin in taking private property when need has made it common.”  These quotes demonstrate the Orthodox and Catholic stance on Genesis 1, that God gifted the earth to all human beings in common, before they did any work or technological development.  It confirms that John Locke’s view of Genesis 1, and all Protestants who followed him, were specifically following a Protestant error.  John Locke effectively reversed Thomas Aquinas, in believing that there was no sin in taking what was held in common or even privately!

[9] The legal construction of whiteness reached its final stages of clarity and absurdity with Ozawa v. United States (1922) when SCOTUS ruled that whiteness was defined as being of the Caucasian race, and with United States v. Thind (1923) when SCOTUS ruled that whiteness was defined by “common sense.”  These Supreme Court cases were never officially overturned in principle.  The legislative actions of the Luce-Celler Act in 1946 allowed 100 Filipinos and 100 Indians to immigrate into the U.S. per year, functionally overturning the Thind decision.  The Hart-Celler Act in 1965 changed the immigration quota system which had been in place since 1921 which favored immigration from northern and western Europe.

[10] Cary Funk and Becka A. Alper, “Religion and Views on Climate and Energy Issues,” Pew Research Center, October 22, 2015; http://www.pewinternet.org/2015/10/22/religion-and-views-on-climate-and-energy-issues/

[11] Steve Hanley, “Why White Evangelicals Don’t Care About Climate Change,” CleanTechnica, April 5, 2018; https://cleantechnica.com/2018/04/05/why-white-evangelicals-dont-care-about-climate-change/; Lisa Vox, “Why Don’t Christian Conservatives Worry About Climate Change? God.” Washington Post, Jun 2, 2017; https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2017/06/02/why-dont-christian-conservatives-worry-about-climate-change-god/; Sarah Pulliam Bailey, “Why So Many White Evangelicals in Trump’s Base Are Deeply Skeptical of Climate Change,” Washington Post, June 2, 2017; https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2017/06/02/why-so-many-white-evangelicals-in-trumps-base-are-deeply-skeptical-of-climate-change/ details evangelical tactics to deny climate change or its seriousnss

[12] Pope Francis I, Laudato Si: On Care for Our Common Home (2015)

[13] Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew and John Chryssavgis, On Earth as in Heaven: Ecological Vision and Initiatives of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew (New York: Fordham University Press, 2011); see also John Chryssavgis and Bruce V. Foltz, Toward an Ecology of Transfiguration: Orthodox Christian Perspectives on Environment, Nature, and Creation (New York: Fordham University Press, 2013)

 

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