Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Blind Spots

We all have blind spots. We all have areas of our moral imagination that we have left unexamined, or in which we have made commitments that are in contradiction with the rest of our moral character.

The Church has had some enormous blind spots over the centuries. It takes quite a blind spot to imagine you are serving the Prince of Peace by burning witches - or that you are upholding the purity of the Church by prosecuting heresy. In every era the Church has been blinded, as well, by the prevailing culture into drawing boundary lines between people who we should be proclaiming have been made one in Christ. We draw lines to exclude women, or savages, or homosexuals. While we proclaim liberty with one breath, in our next we are keeping certain people in captivity.

A truly remarkable example of how destructive these blind spots can be is the life of John Milton Chivington. He is rightly excoriated in the history books as the man responsible for the Sand Creek Massacre. After encouraging a group of peaceful Cheyenne and Arapaho natives to treat with him under the American flag, he led 700 US Soldiers in an attack on the unarmed encampment murdering around 400 women, children and elderly Native Americans. The victims were scalped and mutilated, and soldiers were seen later showing off "trophies" - scalps, fingers, and genitalia.

We would assume that a man guilty of such an atrocity must be deeply violent, and probably harbor beliefs of his own racial superiority. He never demonstrated remorse for the massacre in his life, and even threatened people who testified against him in congressional hearings about the event. One man, Captain Silas Soule, who served under Chivington and was present at Sand Creek, refused to follow Chivington's order to fire on the encampment. Soule testified against Chivington in the hearings and was later murdered by a soldier loyal to Chivington. So we are dealing with a guy who was absolutely convicted that his actions were justified.

So here is the twist - Chivington was an ordained Methodist minister and a committed abolitionist who had received death threats, and been moved for his protection, because of his preaching and acting on behalf of slaves.

How could a man committed to the gospel, who indeed gave his life in service to the Church, and clearly understood that service to mean risking his own life to free others from oppression and violence, then turn around and feel justified in murdering hundreds of unarmed human beings?

One parishioner remembers hearing John Chivington in a sermon, say:
It is an abuse of the dignity of God's children, an abuse of God's son Jesus Christ, to keep any human being in bondage...
Compare that with these words from the same man:
Damn any man who sympathizes with Indians! ... I have come to kill Indians, and believe it is right and honorable to use any means under God's heaven to kill Indians.


Jodie said...

That's an incredible story! A parable for all times.

Michael Westmoreland-White said...

My mother, a tiny bit player in the Civil Rights movement, taught me early that all people are made in God's image and all are persons for whom Christ died. Ergo, all deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. She lived what she preached. . . except when it came to Asians, especially Japanese and Filipinos. She knew it was wrong and tried to overcome her prejudices, but she never got over the fact that her father fought the Japanese in WWII--taking him from her during her early childhood.

It was very hard to reconcile these two aspects of my mother.