Friday, May 04, 2007

Theology of Jamestown

Jamestown 1606 -- Unknown artist

Ask the average person about the founding fathers and the answer will likely be that they came in the Mayflower and landed at Plymouth Rock in 1620. That would be a full 13 years after the founding of the Jamestown Colony, the first English settlement in the New World. Many people's knowledge of the Native American tribes might not go much beyond Pocohontas, who married the settler John Rolfe and went to England to die of smallpox in 1617 - and that thanks to the Disney movie.

The Queen of England visited Jamestown today to commemorate the 400th anniversary of that event. Although it was originally billed as a celebration, according to news reports, the organizers say that the word is banned at this year's special events because it was an "invasion" that resulted in a "holocaust."

"You can't celebrate an invasion," Mary Wade, an influential Jamestown 2007 Commemoration planner and Native American activist, has stated. After all, the tribes "were pushed back off of their land, even killed. Whole tribes were annihilated. A lot of people carry that oral history with them, and that's why they use the word 'invasion,' because it truly was an invasion, and I'm sure some of the Indian people will probably want to tell that as a part of the story of 400 years."

Historian Howard Zinn in his popular People's History of the United States tells the alternative story of the invasion.

The Jamestown colony was established in Virginia in 1607, inside the territory of a Native American confederacy, led by the chief, Powhatan. Powhatan watched the English settle on his people's land, but did not attack. And the English began starving. Some of them ran away and joined the tribes, where they would at least be fed. Indeed, throughout colonial times tens of thousands of indentured servants, prisoners and slaves -- from Wales and Scotland as well as from Africa -- ran away to live in Indian communities, intermarry, and raise their children there.

In the summer of 1610 the governor of Jamestown colony asked Powhatan to return the runaways, who were living fully among the Native Americans. Powhatan left the choice to those who ran away, and none wanted to go back. The governor of Jamestown then sent soldiers to take revenge. They descended on a Native American community, killed 15 or 16 people, burned the houses, cut down the corn growing around the village, took the female leader of the tribe and her children into boats, then ended up throwing the children overboard and shooting out their brains in the water. The female leader was later taken off the boat and stabbed to death.

By 1621, the atrocities committed by the English had grown, and word spread throughout the villages. The tribes fought back, and killed 347 colonists. From then on it was total war. Not able to enslave the Native Americans the English aristocracy decided to exterminate them.

A few years after the first landing, the settlement also saw the start of slavery with the arrival of the first manacled Africans in 1619.

"It is very easy, with the Pilgrims and the Mayflower, to ignore those aspects of early America that were tough and not a pretty story," said James Horn, author of a book about Jamestown, A Land As God Made It. The bloody history of the last 400 years can not be undone. "When you think of Jamestown, if you are native, you see those images of pain and suffering. But on the other hand, you see where you are today, you see the rights we have today," said Stephen Adkins, chief of the Chickahominy tribe. "One of the legacies of this commemoration was that our story will find its way into the history books."

What is often ignored in such conversations is the religious motivation and legitimization of such invasions. For instance, the "Doctrine of Discovery," a papal bull (authoritative statement) issued by Pope Nicholas V in 1452, or forty years before Columbus' journey, essentially declared war against all non-Christians throughout the world, and specifically promoting and sanctioning conquest, colonization and exploitation of non-Christian nations and their territories. It is imperative that Christians today self-critically examine the the role Christian theology and doctrine played in such violence. This is the first step towards ridding ourselves of the violence that is still very much a part of us.

The NCC's Interfaith Relations Commission is planning a Missiological Consultation early next year, to examine this question and to think about how we can have alternative ways to think about our theology of mission.


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