There’s a story in Judaism that is told in different ways. One version goes something like this:
A prospective convert to Judaism wanted to know if anyone could teach him the whole Bible while he stood on one foot. The great teacher Hillel told him, “Love your neighbor as yourself. The rest is commentary.”
And that’s really what a lot of different religions get after, isn’t it? Be decent. If believing in a God who may punish you for not being a decent human helps you, great. Whatever it takes.
The Seneca tribe of indigenous people in the U.S. lived in what is now Central and Western New York. During the Revolutionary War, they fought with the British. It seems by then enough white men had encroached upon their land that they were already fed up and suspicious.
Sagoyewatha was a tribal leader known for wearing any one of a number of red coats given to him by British forces, so we know him today as Red Jacket. A missionary named Rev. Jacob Cram asked for an audience to attempt to convert some of the Seneca to Christianity and Red Jacket respectfully and succinctly told him to go away.
Red Jacket pointedly says, look, there are lots of indigenous tribes across this land. We’ve battled over resources — land and food, for example — but never over religion. If there’s only one true religion, as you claim, why are white people always fighting over it, and why is it based on this book that somehow only you have and only you can read?
Look, he continues, I would love to trust you about what that book says, but we’ve heard a lot of promises from white men coming over from Britain and most of them have been broken and a lot of us have died because of those broken promises.
He said it all eloquently and succinctly, and sent Cram and his disciples on their way.
“I can’t trust you” is a terrible truth to hear. It’s even worse when two things facing Cram are true: (1) Red Jacket’s distrust of Cram is based on behavior independent of Cram, and (2) Cram may very well have honestly believed that preaching Christianity to the Seneca was an ethically good thing to do.
Red Jacket makes what I think is an excellent point about the Bible. It’s one that carried from Martin Luther all the way through the second Vatican council in the mid-20th century: Hey! How come only the people who ask for money and dole out punishment know what that book says?
I come from a non-missionary faith. You’ll hear some Jews try to convince other Jews to worship the way they worship, but they never approach non-Jews. Surely they’re not getting killed on North Sentinel Island or kidnapped in Haiti.
And I came up in a Jewish sect that encourages asking questions, challenging clergy and lay leaders. No one in my life was ever trying to convince me that something was right; they were trying to guide me toward my own discovery.
I guess I’m lucky in that.
Red Jacket also had to take into consideration that white men who had come to the Seneca before had asked to share land, but had instead taken as much as they could, spread disease, and introduced liquor, killing a whole bunch of Seneca (and other indigenous peoples) before Cram came with Christianity. Why would he trust Cram, who came bearing similar promises to those that came before? That’s not something Cram could control, but he had to deal with it.
Good lesson: When you break trust, you make it harder for others to gain trust.
Cram also had what I’m going to call the curse of faith. He was so convinced he was right that he was disappointed he couldn’t hold an audience with more Seneca. The sort of convinced that might have sent him to North Sentinel Island or Haiti, but sent him to Western New York instead. I don’t know. Maybe it is a blessing to believe that much in something, but it seems the disappointment would come so much worse.
The most important takeaways from this episode are from Red Jacket. Stand up for what you believe. Don’t avoid uncomfortable confrontations. Say what you need to say politely, briefly and clearly.