Tecumseh was born into the bloody and brutal mess of American westward expansion. An early biographer describes him this way.
“The implicit obedience and respect which the followers of Tecumseh pay to him, is really astonishing, and more than any other circumstance bespeaks him one of those uncommon geniuses which spring up occasionally to produce revolutions, and overturn the established order of things. If it were not for the vicinity of the United States, he would, perhaps, be the founder of an empire that would rival in glory Mexico or Peru.
Drake, Benjamin. Life of Tecumseh, and of His Brother the Prophet With a Historical Sketch of the Shawanoe Indians (Kindle Locations 2002-2005). . Kindle Edition.
He would go on to organize what became known as Tecumseh’s Confederacy where the remnants of many tribes dispossessed by American imperial expansion would organize together to bargain collectively and try to resist the insatiable appetite for “free land” of the European settlers.
His brother Tenskwatawa
Together they would found not just a confederacy but a religious movement.
Laulewasika had been disfigured by losing an eye; he used a handkerchief to cover the socket. He had passed his youth drunken and dissolute until one day, as he smoked in his wigwam, the pipe dropped from his hand, and he fell into a trance so deep that the other tribesmen thought he was dead.
When he awoke, he told of having been carried away to a realm where he had spoken with the Great Spirit. After that, he took to calling himself Tenskwata and to preaching a radical gospel. His new disciples called him the Prophet.
Tenskwata assured the tribe that they were the first creations of the Master of Life and the greatest of all his children. But that distinction carried responsibilities. The Shawnee had to renounce all the habits they had picked up from the white man and were forbidden to take white wives. They must give up their rifles, which they called fire sticks, and return to the traditional bows and arrows. “Pay the white traders only half of what you owe because they have cheated you,” the Prophet said.
Indians must abandon their linen and wool clothing for old-fashioned buckskin. They must eat no meat from sheep or cows, only from buffalo and deer. And they must shun the firewater that had brought such discord to the tribe.
The subject of whiskey raised the Prophet to his most sulphurous: “It is the drink of the Evil Spirit, made by the Americans,” he announced. “It is poison. It makes you sick. It burns your insides.”
The Americans themselves “grew from the scum of the great water, when it was troubled by the Evil Spirit. They are numerous, but I hate them. They are unjust. They have taken away your lands, which were not made for them.”
Langguth, A. J.. Union 1812: The Americans Who Fought the Second War of Independence (p. 159). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.
Thomas Jefferson’s Hammer
William Henry Harrison was Thomas Jefferson’s man on the ground in charge of securing land for American expansion. He would negotiate treaties with tribal groups and payment for their land. The rise of the Tecumseh Confederacy was obviously a threat and his attempt to address it lead to the battle of Tippecanoe. This would be part of the folklore that would make Harrison the nation’s ninth president and the one with the shortest tenure after contracting pneumonia during his inauguration.
Tecumseh and his Confederacy would play an important role in the War of 1812 force the Americans to defend their Western border from combined British, Native American forces. Tecumseh would be killed in battle in this war.
The political picture was enormously complex for both sides. America was nervous about falling back into British hands. The Native American side was a patchwork of tribal relationships. Some tribal leaders wanted to cut deals with the Americans, others with the British. Tenskwatawa and Tecumseh tried to keep their coalition together by accusing those who would cooperate with the Americans of witchcraft and were executed. Not all tribes would respond to Tecumseh’s call especially when he would call them to arms. Many wars at this time in frontier had opposing sides with combined European and Native American forces working together against common enemies.
Where was God in this?
Two weeks ago I proposed we consider a theme of tribe and empire when reading the Bible. Israel asked Samuel for a king, not a judge/chieftain. Last week God chooses Saul, pushes him on Samuel, Samuel tries to push him on Israel, some buy it, but others have some real doubts for good reasons. Saul looks the part but doesn’t seem to have the leadership gifts to do much of anything.
This week stories come in that give us a fuller picture of what life was like for Israel, why her leaders were very much looking for better military and political technology to handle the very dangerous community they were living in.
It’s a Jungle Out There
The story in 1 Samuel shifts to what was “normal” for Israel.
1 Samuel 11:1–5 (NIV)
1 Nahash the Ammonite went up and besieged Jabesh Gilead. And all the men of Jabesh said to him, “Make a treaty with us, and we will be subject to you.” 2 But Nahash the Ammonite replied, “I will make a treaty with you only on the condition that I gouge out the right eye of every one of you and so bring disgrace on all Israel.” 3 The elders of Jabesh said to him, “Give us seven days so we can send messengers throughout Israel; if no one comes to rescue us, we will surrender to you.” 4 When the messengers came to Gibeah of Saul and reported these terms to the people, they all wept aloud. 5 Just then Saul was returning from the fields, behind his oxen, and he asked, “What is wrong with everyone? Why are they weeping?” Then they repeated to him what the men of Jabesh had said.
Now there are some interesting things here. To us this sounds horrible but what is being relayed was pretty standard operating procedure for this world. The strong take the weak. Will anyone save Jabesh Gilead?
It’s important to remember that a lot of this story has roots in the book of Judges. Gibeah, where Saul is from, was allied with Jabesh Gilead in that disastrous civil war.
If you remember the story Gibeah raped and killed the concubine of a Levite given as a token when the men of Gibeah wished to rape the Levite himself. The Levite cut his concubine up into pieces and send the pieces to the tribal elders and this launched the civil war. Jabesh Gilead refused to go to war against Gibeah and so she was nearly wiped out, as was Benjamin and Gilead. In the end women were taken from Jabesh Gilead as wives for the tribe of Benjamin. What this means is that for Saul Jabesh Gilead was family.
How Saul Becomes King
1 Samuel 11:6–11 (NIV)
6 When Saul heard their words, the Spirit of God came powerfully upon him, and he burned with anger. 7 He took a pair of oxen, cut them into pieces, and sent the pieces by messengers throughout Israel, proclaiming, “This is what will be done to the oxen of anyone who does not follow Saul and Samuel.” Then the terror of the Lord fell on the people, and they came out together as one. 8 When Saul mustered them at Bezek, the men of Israel numbered three hundred thousand and those of Judah thirty thousand. 9 They told the messengers who had come, “Say to the men of Jabesh Gilead, ‘By the time the sun is hot tomorrow, you will be rescued.’ ” When the messengers went and reported this to the men of Jabesh, they were elated. 10 They said to the Ammonites, “Tomorrow we will surrender to you, and you can do to us whatever you like.” 11 The next day Saul separated his men into three divisions; during the last watch of the night they broke into the camp of the Ammonites and slaughtered them until the heat of the day. Those who survived were scattered, so that no two of them were left together.
Well, this is quite something. This time instead of a concubine getting dismembered it is Saul’s oxen. Israel responses again and the town of Jabesh Gilead is saved. Is God’s plan and the elder’s plan working?
1 Samuel 11:12–15 (NIV)
12 The people then said to Samuel, “Who was it that asked, ‘Shall Saul reign over us?’ Turn these men over to us so that we may put them to death.” 13 But Saul said, “No one will be put to death today, for this day the Lord has rescued Israel.” 14 Then Samuel said to the people, “Come, let us go to Gilgal and there renew the kingship.” 15 So all the people went to Gilgal and made Saul king in the presence of the Lord. There they sacrificed fellowship offerings before the Lord, and Saul and all the Israelites held a great celebration.
So How Do We Look At This?
One take is to say “well you know how this works. History is written by the winners. The Bible is a book of stories told by a tribal people about their tribal God. Cheering for one side of the other is immoral.”
Commentators have many takes on passages like these. Walter Brueggemann see this as a story of God’s justice. The Ammonites were acting unjustly and God used Saul to rescue Jabesh Gilead.
The justice angle is complicated too though and the Bible doesn’t shrink from those questions. The Ammonites are Israel’s cousins, descendants of Lot and his daughter from the story in Genesis 19. While we look at the practice of the Ammonites in demanding the right eye of all the men, such practices were not uncommon in the ancient world. This was a particularly brutal way of subjugating a city and keeping them militarily weak so that they can’t rise up.
You might say “oh that is terrible. The residents of Jabesh Gilead have a right to self-determination” yet if we’re going to get into the talk of land rights we’re going to have to deal with the assumption that Israel came late back to Canaan and perhaps the Ammonites see Israel coming in not unlike how the Native Americans saw the Europeans coming in. The Native Americans got there first. Israel’s claim seems based on their religious claim.
Looking at our own Filters
Now many of us today might read these stories and say “but they’re all part of one human family…” and this would be very much in keeping with our cultural perspective.
On one hand we want to say “each culture should be respected” but on the other don’t we really privilege our universal humanity cultural perspective when reading these stories? Isn’t this the basis of our suspicion, disrespect or condemnation of either the American Manifest Destiny story or the Biblical story or perhaps the Ammonite perspective or the Native American perspective?
Recently the world was shocked when a majority of British voters decided it would be better for Great Britain to leave the European Union. This has cause political and economic uncertainty now. How could Great Britain do this?
Damon Linker in an opinion column noted how this posed at least a challenge or perhaps a roadblock onto cultural assumptions of the progress of universalist humanity.
Whether or not it’s expressed in explicitly theological terms, progressivism holds out a very specific moral vision of the future. It will be a world beyond particular attachments, beyond ethnic or linguistic or racial or religious or national forms of solidarity. In their place will be the only acceptable form of solidarity: humanitarian universalism.
And this means that the progressive future will even result in the end of politics itself — at least if politics is understood as encompassing more than the jostling of interest groups, bureaucratic administration, and the management of government benefits. Politics in that narrow sense will remain. But politics in Aristotle’s sense — this particular community in thisplace with this history and heritage, determining its own character for itself, deciding who is and who is not a citizen, who will rule, and in the name of which vision of the good life — that existential form of politics will cease to exist in the progressive future.
Politics in this expansive sense will come to an end in the imagined progressive future because there will be nothing left to debate. The big questions of politics will already be answered, the big disputes settled once and for all. Everyone will understand that all particular forms of solidarity are morally indefensible (just various forms of racism) and that all strong political stands against humanitarian universalism in the political realm are politically unacceptable (just various forms of fascism).
It would be one thing if progressives understood their universalistic moral and political convictions to constitute one legitimate partisan position among many. But they don’t understand them in this way. They believe not only that their views deserve to prevail in the fullness of time, but also that they are bound to prevail.
This universalist political vision of the good was supposed to transcend all divisions and to therefore make all wars cease. The victory of Brexit and many see the rise of Donald Trump’s wall building and race bating to be a pushback.
Christianity’s Role in the universal picture of humanity
So in the old scheme we have tribalism and empire with their gods aligned with them. We have the suspicion that Yhwh is simply a tribal God and the Old Testament simply tribal propaganda.
Now we have this new universal picture of morality where humanity, each human being is privileged. We should pause for a moment to respect the fact that the rise of this perspective in the west seems clearly attributable to both the Old Testament’s assertion that human beings are made in the image of God and therefore deserving of a privilege and a status that should be regarded by our politics and our economics. We should also note the vision of the New Testament in Jesus’ critique of Israelite nationalism. While sent to the Jews and being a Jew himself he clearly reaches out to Romans and others. This gets followed up by the church’s missionary movement to enfold peoples of every race tribe and tongue.
I don’t think we can avoid seeing at least part of the roots of Western progressive moral universalism as being fruit of the long influence Christianity has had on this branch of human civilization.
Christianity Reveals the Empty Hope of Atheistic Universalistic Humanism against particularism
While Christianity I think bears some responsibility for the rise of this vision of humanity I believe it also critiques it. Secular or even atheistic visions of moral universalistic progress tend to paper over the particulars not only of history, or Native Americans against European expansion of Israelites vs. Ammonites but even of our own as seen in the popularity of Donald Trump and Brexit.
- There ARE important particular interests that deserve attention and respect.
- There ARE conflicts in this world that are zero-sum games.
- There ARE winners and losers in history.
This too quick papering over does do injustice to the billions of stories of genocide, theft, rape, oppression, and every other evil perpetrated between human beings. While this vision attempts to establish a vision of justice by flattening all particular claims of individual persons, tribes or communities it reveals itself powerless to actually anticipate any justice for all of the injustices that have been perpetrated against the children of Adam and Eve.
God’s Justice in Saul’s Violence
Christianity asserts not that humanity is flatly universal, but particularly universal in its regard by God. This particularity affords a space for justice to be done.
When the “Spirit of God” moves in Saul’s heart to threaten the rest of the tribes to defend Benjamin’s particular friend and does violence against their cousins God does bring justice, not universal but particular. God gets involved.
On the basis of this action Saul now becomes a real king. Is he a king like William Henry Harrison or a leaders like Tecumseh? We will see later that he will be a particular king, in a particular time and place and that he will have his own flaws and failings and even with those problems his role to play in God’s unfolding plan.
Does it offend you that God would get involved in picking winners and losers?
History is always filled with winners and loses and as we see in the story of Saul for the most part God’s ways in all of this seem inscrutable.
- Why would God pick such a man to be Israel’s king?
- Was Saul a revelation to Israel of the ways kingship and empire abuse in this world?
- Was Saul the perpetrator or the victim of these dynamics?
- Was God saying Israel was right and Ammon wrong in this conflict?
- Is it just for God to take sides and use his power so some win and others lose?
It is easy for us to be offended at God’s action or use of his power, whether overt or perhaps through seemingly agnostic circumstance, but history IS the story of winners and losers.
Whether you believe there is a God or not William Henry Harrison will win and use the overwhelming technological and military superiority of the United States to crush the Tecumseh Confederacy. The British will have a hand in it too and many Native Americans will feel betrayed by them in prioritizing their imperial interests over the tribes who looked to them as a counter-balance to American aggression.
Do you feel better if all the winners and losers of history simply win by virtue of might or chance? Why?
Do you feel better if there is no final justice for the losers of history whose legitimate claims are simply destroyed by human violence and subsequently forgotten by the steady stampede of claims against new perpetrators by new victims made very day? Why or why not?
On one hand we distrust the stories we hear as fabrications by history’s winners. Yet distrusting these stories doesn’t bring any justice to dead victims. In the end the grave takes them all.
Does this vision of universal moral humanity actually address the particular claims of injustice?
Does trying to not take sides by simply condemning all violence actually recognize the multiple-layers of non-violent injustice that pervade every day life of every particular group in their myriad complexity?
Is there an answer of justice and mercy to the human story? To your story?
Christianity asserts that God came into our story as a particular person with individual needs, an particular story, and a particular perspective. He was involved with particular lives even though he was sent to address us all. He came into the violent mixture of tribe verses empire yet refused to be either tribal or imperial in the ways his audience expected him to be. He rescued and reached out to particular winners and losers around him, at times speaking harshly and strongly and at other times softly and gently.
At the moment he was declared king by the imperial authority they executed him as a subversive to their claims of dominion. He wore a crown of thorns given in mockery as an instrument of torture. He was killed and his killers imagined he would stay dead and silent with all of history’s forgotten victims. They were wrong.
On the third day he rose again from the dead and showed his particularity in wounds on hands and feet and side. He claimed lordship over all of the earth, over all of creation, over all of history. In his resurrection as Lord he suggests to us that he will be the judge over all of history’s silented victims and that his decisions will be more just than any human court could ever be.
If you believe in a atheistic vision of universalized humanity where does this leave you with respect to justice?
On one hand your reach is limited by your power. Maybe you will aspire to win some grand office or position of power or influence where you will weigh into right the world’s wrongs. Will you do so with justice? Will you be able to escape the particularism of your perspective either from your interests, concerns, filters or bias? Haven’t all who ruled or judged with human power faced these challenges and don’t we today judge them for the ways they brought injustice because of these?
On the other you are overwhelmed with duty because every day the grave swallows victims and perpetrators alike. Just this month Reinhold Hanning was convicted of his crimes at Auschwitz at the age of 94. How long can he be held? What would it take to balance the scales for the 170,000 who died in the camp where he served? He choose who would work and who would be gassed. Would his 94 year old body hold up under whatever mistreatment you might imagine could pay the price for his victims? For how long? Will his stint in a prison cell with free meals and health care for the rest of his life do it?
And this is one man, one chapter. What about all of the brutal husbands or abusive mothers or violent neighbors or greedy consumers who use up the earth impoverishing future generations. If there is no God and we are justice’s only hope it has little hope indeed.
If, however, you believe that justice and mercy met at the cross of Jesus and his Lordship, Kingship and Judgeship is history’s best and only hope, one may live their life pursuing both justice and mercy with the knowledge and freedom that our partiality while never getting everything right can point to a justice and partiality that does.
We can sacrificially lay down what the age of decay says we can never keep to bear witness to the one who began its end by laying down his own life.
We can read the story of Saul and the Ammonites both seeing the justice of God, knowing the limitations of our capacity to judge, and trusting that in Christ the sons of Israel and the sons of Ben Ammi can find their hope, along with the living and the dead of America’s first people’s and its European imperialists.