Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Wednesday, March 09, 2016

Missionary Heroes and Villains (end)

Bishop Whipple at Ft. Snelling with the Dakota Captives
It is not impossible to argue that no single cultural force was as intensely destructive of the Dakota way of life as the work of Christian missionaries. Confessing Jesus Christ as savior changed most everything about the Dakota, exactly as its best missionaries wished and promised it would. Belief in Christ altered passions and behavior, and prompted those who did convert to renounce behaviors they often simply deplored and equated with a Dakota culture they tried to set behind them. Rev. Riggs, like his fellow missionaries to the Native people, wished more than anything to bring all God’s children home to his love. But that soul-change was impossibly tangled up with changes that were undeniably destructive to native cultures.

And it’s instructive to remember that by 1862, there were already hundreds of Christian Dakota, some of them—maybe many of them—the children of mixed-race marriages, “mixed-bloods.” Christian believers frequently distinguished themselves by wearing the white man’s clothes, cutting their hair, and becoming “farmer Indians.” Those Dakota who hadn’t converted often hated “farmer Indians” and mixed-bloods just as deeply as they did the white people who’d taken their land.

Still, we all know that in August of 1862, more than a few “Christian Dakota” became as angry as any, as if their conversions had amounted to nothing more than a haircut. Little Crow himself, a reluctant general, had attended Sunday worship on the Sabbath before the war commence.

 Stephen and Mary Riggs don’t appear to have been brutal or bigoted. They were simply a 19th-century American evangelical mission family couple, subject to all the prejudices we might expect; but there can be little doubt he loved the people he served.

No single moment in his own retelling of the 1862 story more fully documents his 19th century Christian enthusiasms than his reaction to what he considered the remarkable occurrences of spiritual renewal and conversion among the suffering Dakota men and women, first at Mankato and then at Ft. Snelling. When the attacks had begun at the Lower Sioux Agency back in August, Riggs admitted, in his memoir, that he’d thought about that day he simply couldn't help but wonder whether all of that work had been in vain.

But when he ministered to those who were imprisoned that winter, he was shocked by how many Native people were suddenly voraciously hungry to hear about this man Jesus Christ:

Some of these men, in their younger days, had heard Mr. Ponds [another missionary pastor] talk of the white man's religion. They were desirous now, in their trouble, to hear from their old friends, whose counsel they had so long rejected. To this request, Mr. G. H. Pond responded, and spent some days in the prison assisting Dr. Williamson. Rev. Mr. Hicks, pastor of the Presbyterian Church in Mankato, was also taken into their counsels and gave them aid. For several weeks previous, many men had been wishing to be baptized, and thus recognized as believers in the Lord Jesus Christ. This number increased from day to day, until about three hundred—just how many could not afterward be ascertained—stood up and were baptized into the name of the Father, of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. The circumstances were peculiar, the whole movement was marvelous, it was like a “nation born in a day.” The brethren desired to be divinely guided; and after many years of testing have elapsed, we all say that was a genuine work of God's Holy Spirit.

That phenomenal procession to grace was, to Riggs, an answer to prayer—and the answer to the riddle so many of us face so often in life—why so great our suffering if a loving God is in control of our world?

(#33—quote) This first communion in the prison made a deep impression upon myself. It began to throw light upon the perplexing questions that had started in my own mind, as to the moral meaning of the outbreak. God’s thought of it was not my thought. As the heavens were higher than the earth, so his thoughts were higher than mine. I accepted the present interpretation of the events, and thanked God and took courage. The Indians had not meant it so. In their thought and determination, the outbreak was the culmination of their hatred of Christianity. But God, who sits on the throne, had made it result in their submission to him. This was marvelous in our eyes.

In some ways, his reaction to this chapter of this frightful story is completely understandable to his mind and his soul. It was the best way he had himself of making some kind of a sense of the horror that Minnesota (and Iowa—Spirit Lake) can’t and perhaps shouldn’t forget, even though it happened, now, more than 150 years ago.

But that assessment, to those who don’t share his religious view, makes God into a monster who perpetuated the horror of what had gone on in August of 1862 in order to bring some Indians to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ, an argument that may well be analogous to our saying that God created Auschwitz and Buchenwald, not to mention World War II, in order to save those who found the Lord within in the deprivation of the camps, as some certainly did.

It’s just not an argument many Christians are willing to make with such unbridled enthusiasm.

As a Christian myself, I’m not so sure as Riggs is of God’s specific plan—for the Dakota or the settlers—although it is impossible to doubt the confessions of those, like the thief on the cross, who truly sought the Lord in such god-awful extremes. Riggs was a fine man, a courageous Christian, someone who didn’t abandon the Dakota, when every other white person did. His need for comfort and grace had to be immense amid all the suffering he’d witnessed—on both sides.

But Stephen and Mary Riggs were nothing more or less than who they were—neither angels from heaven or demons from hell. There were beasts on both sides during that war—beasts who perpetuated the slow death of the Dakota people, and beasts who murdered the defenseless in a fashion many of their own didn’t and wouldn’t condone.

But between those extremes some were not, and at least some of those were missionaries, and a portion of them were really on a mission of the gospel of peace.



Ron Polinder said...

Brother Schaap:

Thank you for the excellent job of telling the painful story of the Dakota War and more. I found myself gasping in horror, and gratitude--the mystery of it all.

But it is your perspective that is missing from the dreadful DOCD Task Force report that has been submitted to the Synod of the CRC. That report was unable to muster a single celebratory of how the gospel has taken root in the Southwest. Your balance of "heroes and villains" gets at the complexity of our human and missionary experience.

I am curious that there have not been more comments along the way from your readers. I hope that doesn't mean that they are disinterested in these matters. We should care--a lot, out of respect for our Native brothers and sisters--and their story.

Anonymous said...

Today at 4:01 AM

I found Dakota War provocative. My dad knew Fykama when they were young. My Mom walked her dad's milk cows from Sanborn to their new farm at
Worthington when she was 12.

I hope to someday pursue --the mystery of it all. Tom Woods claims most tribes fought for southern independence. One tribal chief was a confederate general. Disraelli gave himself credit for the north - south war. There could be no ethno-states (especially white ones) in the new world order. Somewhere in the Red Ice archive is program challenging the First Nations presumption.

The prevailing narrative seems to be anything goes which keeps the white tribe on the run.



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