Thoughts from ‘Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee’

This article from CNN, “Life is Bare Bones on the Lakota Reservation” reminded me of blog post that I started a couple of weeks ago after watching the HBO movie “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.” I think it was a great film (and I love Netflix – have I said that before?), though I couldn’t convince Lynn to watch it with me. It made me incredibly sad – a sadness that was stirred again reading the article. But it also made me think.

Here’s the Netflix description: “A dark chapter of U.S. history comes to light in this epic saga (which earned an Emmy Award for Best Made-for-Television Movie) of the U.S. government’s deliberate extermination of the American Indians. Beginning after the Sioux victory at Little Big Horn, the film traces the stories of three men: a Sioux doctor (Adam Beach), a lobbying senator (Aidan Quinn) and the Lakota hero Sitting Bull (August Schellenberg).”

The film reminded me of two things. First, we should be very (very, very, very) hesitant to speak of America being a Christian nation. In fact, I would argue we shouldn’t say that at all. I don’t think we should say it because it doesn’t line up with the facts. For example, Ian Barnes and Charles Royster point out that in 1775 fewer than 20% of the population was attached to any church in a meaningful way (Historical Atlas of the American Revolution). Recognize that this is just a couple of decades after the Great Awakenings! Barnes and Royster continue, “One estimate in 1780 suggested that church attendance in Boston, New York and Philadelphia failed to reach 17 percent, and probably only 10 percent in the later two cities.” Compare that to recent statistics that show nearly 40% of Americans claim to have gone to church in the last 7 days, though admittedly other studies show it to be much lower – closer to 20%. Either way, the point is the same. We can’t claim to be a Christian nation (yes, most people in America claim to be Christian, yet we should probably look more to what people do than to what they claim). Never were.

Oh I can hear people arguing that even if church attendance was as low (lower) we are still a Christian nation because we were founded on Christian, even Biblical principles. Hear what DA Carson says in his book Christ and Culture Revisited, “The heritage of this Deism [the deism of Jefferson and Paine, etc.] left various forms of civil religion that believed in one God, in God-sanctioned moral law, in some loose form of providence, and in some kind of rewards and punishments after death…Unfortunately, however, naive Christians often think that these signs of residual civil religion and the Deism on which they are based constitute solid evidence of Christian commitments. Conversely, they see the erosion of civil religion, and the Deism on which it is based, as an erosion of genuinely Christian committments. Neither assessment is realistic…Arguing for morality from the assumption of Deism is a far cry from upholding Christianity…Deism is not a halfway house between secularism and Christianity; it is in fact a form of secularism.”

So I don’t think we can legitimately say America was a Christian nation, nor do I think we should want to! Saying the nation was a Christian nation brings a lot baggage I don’t want – like the US’s treatment of Native Americans or it’s treatment of Africans, or, for that matter, the British. I believe that such claims – that America is a Christian nation – have done much to discredit the gospel in many places.

Such is the argument offered by Steven Keillor in This Rebellious House
– at least as I remember it. “In the college classrooms of today, Christianity is often considered disproved on the basis of history. The author presents a provocative, compelling and robustly pro-Christian reading of American history. He examines U.S. history from Columbus to Clinton and disabuses us of the notion that our nation has ever been a genuinely “Christian” one.” I am looking forward to rereading in the next couple of weeks and unpacking some of these issues as I explore Christ and Culture in our Sunday morning ACG (9am for all those interested).

Second, the movie and the article made me remember how important the doctrine of eternity is. Some wrongs just cannot be undone in this life, this side of eternity. How could we make the dispossession of the land right? Give it back? That would dispossess a whole bunch of other people now who had no hand in the initial evil. As Christians, we look forward to the day when Christ comes and establishes righteousness and justice – all evils punished, all wrongs done to God’s people set right. Maranatha.

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