Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Ahead of His Time or Just in Sync with God?

I mentioned here the latest book my wife and I are reading together in our longer jaunts: Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War by Nathaniel Philbrick.

In that earlier post, I cited Philbrick's discussion of how the Pilgrims' pastor, John Robinson, who remained in Europe when one-third of his flock sailed to North America aboard the Mayflower, had envisioned a secular government in the New World, one that, in its way, anticipated our contemporary vision for pluralistic democracy.

I also mentioned that, early in his book, Philbrick makes clear his intention of portraying the relationships of the English settlers and Native Americans in all its complexity. Mayflower is no simplistic white hat v. black hat telling of the Pilgrims' story.

We saw the complexity to which Philbrick referred in a part of the narrative we read today, on our way to the gym to work out.

Several years after their arrival in the New World, the Pilgrims (and the "Strangers," non-Separatists, who were part of their settlement) had formed something of an alliance with the Pokanoket tribe and their sachem, Massasoit. Massasoit got wind of a conspiracy involving other tribes. They intended to attack and eliminate the Pilgrims at Plymouth, as well as another settlement of English at Wessagussett. The Pokanoket weren't disinterested in the conspiracy because it was aimed at them as much as at the English.

According to Philbrick, Massasoit demanded that the English engage in a preemptive strike against the conspirators. Partly for fear of offending the Pokanoket, the Pilgrims felt compelled to undertake a wanton slaughter.

But avoiding offense was only one part of their motivation. So was the desire to show the Native American conspirators who was boss. Governor William Bradford bragged about the killings at Wessagussett in a tract published in England, Good News from New England. And, Plymouth's military leader, Miles Standish, had a particular desire to kill one of the Native American leaders, having earlier been offended by the latter's supposed arrogance toward him.

When Pastor John Robinson, still back in the Old World, received word of what the Pilgrims had done in New England, he was not pleased:
[Robinson] refused to forgive the Pilgrims for "the killing of those poor Indians." When he heard about the incident back in Leiden [in the Netherlands], Pastor John Robinson sent Governor Bradford a letter. "Oh, how happy a thing had it been," he wrote, "if you had converted some before you killed any! Besides, where blood is once begun to be shed, it is seldom staunched of a long time after. You say they deserved it. I grant it; but upon what provocations and invitements by those heathenish Christians [Englishmen at Wessagussett]?"

The real problem, as far as Robinson saw it, was Bradford's willingness to trust Standish, a man the minister had come to know when he was in Leiden. The captain lacked "the tenderness of the life of man (made after God's image) which is meet," Robinson wrote, and the orgiastic violence of the assault was contrary to "the approved rule, The punishment to a few, and the fear to many."

Robinson concluded his letter to Bradford with words that proved ominously prophetic given the ultimate course of New England's history: "It is...a thing more glorious in men's eyes, than pleasing in God's or convenient for Christians, to be a terror to poor barbarous people. And indeed I am afraid, lest by these occasions, others should be drawn to affect a kind of ruffling course in the world."
Robinson's characterization of the Native Americans hardly passes muster today, of course, and rightly so. But he clearly saw the tragic stupidity of unprovoked attacks by people who professed to be Christians, members of his own flock.

In that sense, John Robinson might be seen as having been, once more, ahead of his time.

But, in another sense, the values he espoused in the wake of the massacre are timeless. God's laws of right and wrong have always been written on our hearts. Most of the human race, most of the time though, in big ways and small, prefers to suppress that truth, following the road of perceived self-interest or convenient acquiescence to the prevailing winds of opinion. John Robinson, at least in this instance, didn't fall into that trap.

Every human effort to do the right thing is simply an example of our trying to catch up with God. The truth of what's right and wrong is know to all of us. But when you want to be your own god--the common human hang-up, displayed in many different guises--you don't want to know about God or God's will. That's why Pilgrims, who claimed to be pious Christians, killed Native Americans and it's why so many people today claim that truth is a relative term. God's will can be so inconvenient. 

Pastor John Robinson


Joy said...

Governor WILLIAM Bradford (not John).

Mark Daniels said...

You're right, Joy. I will correct that.