This is the second article in a series that further explores themes and issues identified in my book Native Americans, the Mainline Church, and the Quest for Interracial Justice (Chalice Press, 2017). The pursuit of interracial justice in the United States in the twenty-first century requires that we not only address pressing contemporary injustices, but also that we understand the role that American Christianity played in the subjugation, exploitation, and extermination of Native Americans. We have to go to what Aimé Césaire identifies as “the principal lie” that is the source of all the others . . . . The dishonest equations Christianity = civilization, paganism = savagery.”(Césaire 2000: 33). Only by deconstructing this “principal lie” can we, white Christians, recover the historic meaning of Christianity as a religion of an oppressed people seeking freedom.
In this article we examine “the principal lie,” by focusing on the apparent paradox between the second sentence of the Declaration of Independence and the twenty-seventh grievance listed as a justification for the American colonies’ break with England. The second sentence of the Declaration affirms:
"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.
Governments, the authors attest, are instituted to secure these rights."
When governments “become destructive of these ends,” the document asserts, it is both the right and the duty of the people “to throw off such government.” This bold proclamation is followed by a list of grievances: taxation without representation, depriving colonists of the right to a trial by jury, and so forth. The colonists claimed that the listed grievances gave them both the right and the duty to declare themselves to be “free and independent states.” But the authors of the Declaration of Independence explicitly excluded Native Americans from the company of people who were endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, thereby denying them the right of revolution.
The twenty-seventh grievance declares that King George III, “has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavored to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.”
How do we explain the explicit exclusion of Indians from the ranks of humanity in the Declaration of Independence? It is plausible to argue that battles such as Pontiac’s Rebellion and the Paxton Boys Raid—both of which happened in 1763 after the French-Indian War opened up the area west of the Appalachians to white settlers and land speculators—provided the immediate context for why Thomas Jefferson and other signatories of the Declaration described Indians as they did. But this explanation is not sufficient.
The myth of Indian savages is more deeply embedded in America’s past and in American Christianity. Elizabeth Cook-Lynn, a member of the Crow Creek Sioux Tribe, alleges that “Anti-Indianism in America . . . gained momentum as a fundamental element of American Christianity. Indigenous America was not Christian, therefore it was seen as an opposing force to be obliterated at any cost” (Cook-Lynn 2007: 3–4).
Arguing in a similar vein, historian Roy Harvey Pearce reports that the Jamestown settlers believed:
America had to be planted so that sub-humans could be made human. This was one of the civilized
Englishman’s greatest burdens. . . . The practical problem of bringing savages to civilization was to be solved by bringing them to the Christianity which was at its heart” (Pearce 1953: 6). He illustrates his point by noting: “By 1619 at least fifty missionaries had been sent to Virginia to take charge of thirty Indian children who were being educated into Christianity and civilization” (Pearce 1953: 9).
It was only after the “Powhatan Uprising” of 1622 that the Virginia Company abandoned the idea that Jamestown Colony was, to use Frederick Fausz’s description, a “Holy Experiment” (Fausz 1978: 576). By 1625, the commercial success of Virginia tobacco had supplanted Christian evangelism as the focus of the Jamestown experiment. The few Powhatan who survived the war were either sold into slavery or forced to serve as domestic servants of white masters. It was illegal for Powhatan people to speak their own language or own property.
The pattern in colonial New England was in certain respects remarkably similar to that in Virginia. Historian Alan Taylor tells us that the Pilgrims and Puritans wanted to establish a “Bible commonwealth” (Taylor 2001:178). As in Virginia, religious differences contributed to misunderstandings and tensions between the settlers and the natives. The uneasy truce ended with the outbreak of the Pequot War, which culminated in the massacre of six hundred to seven hundred Pequot men, women, and children encamped on the banks of the Mystic River in May 1637. Nathaniel Philbrick concludes that “with the Pequot War, New England was introduced to the horrors of European-style genocide” (Philbrick 2006, 179).
Understanding a small bit of history enables us to offer a more complex interpretation of the apparent paradox that is the focus of this essay. What people today might consider a paradox in the Declaration of Independence most likely was a matter of common sense for Thomas Jefferson and other signatories of this document. Pearce offers a clear distillation of the situation by describing their problem as “the problem of the relation of savage to civilized life”( Pearce 1953: 48). Americans sought to solve this problem through the idea of progress. Since we share a common humanity, Jefferson said Indians had no right to live in a state of nature, independent of civilization as the settlers knew it. They must either be civilized or extinguished for they were, in the words of Pearce: “at best a symbol of what men might become if they lived far from God’s Word” (Pearce 1953: 23).
Destroying the savage gave Christianity and civilization a common purpose. But, as Césaire warns, a campaign to civilize barbarians has a “boomerang effect” that “dehumanizes even the most civilized man” (Césaire 2000: 41). Fortunately there are a number of postcolonial scholars who are presently engaged in the work of deconstructing what Césaire termed “the principal lie.” However, as one of these scholars, R. S. Sugirtharajah, observes: “The master discourse no longer talks about civilizing mission” (Sugirtharajah 2003: 32). The new master language, he tells us in this same passage, uses “the language of success, efficiency, performance and profit.” People who are interested in claiming the tradition of prophetic Christianity therefore face a two-fold task: to deconstruct “the principal lie,” and to develop a narrative that is grounded in an affirmation of life.
Césaire, Aimé, 2000. Discourses on Colonialism, translated by Joan Pinkham, New York: Monthly Review Press.
Cook-Lynn, Elizabeth, 2007. Anti-Indianism in Modern America: A Voice from Tatekeya’s Earth, Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
Fausz, J. Frederick, 1978. The ‘Barbarous Massacre’ Reconsidered: The Powhatan Uprising of 1622 and the Historians, Baltimore: Maryland Historical Society.
Pearce, Roy Harvey, 1953. The Savages of America: A Study of the Indian and the Idea of Civilization, Baltimore: The John Hopkins Press.
Philbrick, Nathaniel, 2006. The Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War, New York: Viking.
Sugirtharajah, R. S., 2003. Postcolonial Reconfigurations: An Alternative Way of Reading the Bible and Doing Theology, London: SCM Press.
Taylor, Alan, 2001. American Colonies, New York: Viking Press.
Author: Native Americans, the Mainline Church, and the Quest for Interracial Justice (Chalice Press, 2017)