I’d like to believe most Americans, and in particular most Christians in America, find the genocide of Native Americans morally repugnant. I’d like to believe that people who claim to follow Jesus look back with a sense of shame on the treatment inflicted on those we have called Indians. We wonder why there was no great outcry from a large number of church leaders over the barbarous abuse heaped upon those who lived in the “New World” for many centuries before the appearance of Europeans.
It could be that many of those leaders thought in ways like David Barton. Barton, the head of the Christian right organization WallBuilders and “historian” of dubious reputation made popular by Glenn Beck, has a large following. Barton’s interpretations of both scripture and history are given little support among credible scholars in either area. However, he dismisses critics who are far more informed than himself as “elitists” as he boldly asserts his views to his fans.
Barton recently compared the Native Americans who resisted the encroachment of “white guys” –his words- to “terrorists.” Never mind that it was the Native Americans who were the ones defending their land. They were not the ones who initiated the killing. Yet as Barton has it, “What the Indian leaders said was that ‘they’re trying to change our culture, ’ and so they declared war on all the white guys.” Yes, the poor “white guys” were the victims of terrorism, rather than the people whose lands were being taken and culture being wiped out.
Barton took a stand in support of the death and destruction inflicted on Native Americans, saying, “A lot of it is based on what you have to do to secure justice and to secure the protection of life and liberty for your citizens and you do what you have to do at times but you play on the rules sometimes that the other guys set up…it is based on how the enemy responds.”
Barton shows no concern about the justice, life or liberty of the Native Americans who faced uninvited threats. With moral tunnel vision he can see only what was in the interests of “the white guys.” Totally disregarding the biblical admonition, “Do not repay anyone evil for evil, ” (Romans 12:17; 1 Peter 3:9), the standards of behavior he sanctions are “do what you have to do” and act toward others as they have acted toward you. He turns upside down the Golden Rule of Jesus, “Do to others as you would have them do to you” (Matthew 7:12; Luke 6:31).
Not only does Barton disregard the nonviolent teachings and example of Jesus, he tramples over anything resembling the Christian “just war” tradition. By embracing the “whatever it takes” approach, he strips away the limits the teachings of “just war” attempt to put in place. Barton adopts what John Howard Yoder called “the blank check” position that funds any deplorable violent behavior useful in defeating an enemy. Constraints are pushed aside in order to achieve victory at whatever cost. Barton doesn’t think in any framework that is recognizably Christian. He knows nothing of the principle of proportionality or of noncombatant immunity. Barton supports the concept of total war.
This is most apparent when he speaks of the destruction of the vast herds of buffalo in the western plains by the American military and hunters. “Doing that is what brought the Indians to their knees because…that’s where they got their meat. That’s where they got their coats; the hides provided coats. They provided cover for their teepees. The military wiped out the supply line by wiping out the buffalo.” The “just war’ tradition certainly allows for cutting off the supply line for weapons or equipment related to armed conflict. But to cut off the supply line for food and the essentials for life for an entire people offends against the principle of noncombatant immunity.
According to Barton, on the one side there were white people “really trying to be civilized, ” and on the other side “the Indians [who practiced] torture” until the settlers started doing the same and the Indians said, “Oh, got the point, they’re doing to us what we’re doing to them, okay, we’ll sign a treaty.” That’s Barton’s twisted version of history and his equally twisted idea of the ethics of war. And, sadly, many people look to him and others who think like him for Christian leadership.
I come from a family with very deep roots in America. My great, great…grandfather on my mother’s side was Hiram Gregory, who was known as a “hardened Indian fighter.” He led those who brought about the Yahoo Fall Massacre in 1810, near where my family lived for generations. As a report of the incident put it, “Although the tragic butchery at Yahoo falls was not unique or extraordinary in the history of western settlement, most Americans know nothing about it and very little about other similar events. Such genocidal actions continued for most of the nineteenth century. Gregory’s men killed elders, raped women and younger female children of all ages, and cut bellies open. Altogether, they senselessly murdered and scalped over 100 Chickamaugan Cherokee women and children that had begged for their lives.”
When I first read this report I wept, ashamed of my forebear. But I should note that I’m also related through my father to Cornblossom, who was grievously wounded at the Yahoo Falls Massacre and died a few days later. Unlike Barton, all of us who seek to follow Jesus should weep, not only in the face of genocide but for all use of deadly force. In the end, each of us are part of one family, all of us the offspring of God (Acts 17:28). We should cease making excuses for violence and learn from Jesus those things that make for peace.