For over 12,000 years, tens of millions of bison roamed the entire North American continent from Alaska to Mexico. The largest mammal of North America could be found in every state of the union. In describing the prolific bison, Colonel Richard Irving Dodge recalled in 1871, that the animals moved in herds “as irresistible as an avalanche.” [“Bison Bison Bison” by Elif Batuman, “The New Yorker,” May 13, 2016, http://www.newyorker.com/tech/elements/bison-bison-bison-americas-new-national-mammal%5D
This one species supported the lifestyle of the native peoples of this continent providing food, tools made from the bones and sinews, clothing, hides and skins for dwellings. Even the dried manure was used for fuel. The bison was the foundation that supported the lives of indigenous people of North America for some 12,000 years. Life depended on the bison. John McDougall, a missionary to the Stoney Indians, observed in 1865, “Without the buffalo they would be helpless.” [Bison Bison Bison, “The New Yorker”]
That was life in North America into the 19th century. And then, within 100 years, the bison was almost driven to extinction. The introduction of horses, improved weaponry, and the railroad contributed to the decline of the bison from tens of millions to far fewer than a thousand. We’ve all seen the pictures of people shooting bison from trains for sport.
But all this killing of the buffalo, another name for the same species as bison, was not just done in sport. The elimination of the bison was a policy pursued by the government to ensure the elimination of the Native American Indians. Government officials knew that Indians were dependent upon the bison, and getting rid of the bison would mean getting rid of Indian culture. It would make it easier for the government to coerce the Indians into doing what they wanted them to.
In 1873, Columbus Delano, who was the US Secretary of the Interior, wrote: “I would not seriously regret the total disappearance of the buffalo from our western plains, in its effect upon the Indians.” [“It’s official: America’s first national mammal is the bison,” Elahe Izadi, May 9, 2016, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/animalia/wp/2016/04/27/how-the-bison-once-nearing-extinction-lived-to-become-americas-national-mammal/%5D And this strategy worked. As the bison disappeared, the Indian cultures were weakened and inducing capitulation was all the easier.
Decimating the bison population did not just have the unintended consequence of bringing the Indians to their knees. The bison population was intentionally pushed to collapse to push the Indian population to collapse. Nature was used as a weapon against an enemy; as a tool of extermination.
The demise of the bison was furthered by industrial development in the US in the late 19th century. The hides were used to make elastic leather drive belts for textile mills. The bones were used in pigments, fertilizer, and sugar refining. In one year, the Michigan Carbon Works in Detroit processed 8 million pounds of bison bone ash, and 10 million pounds of black bone – all delivered via railroad. [Bison Bison Bison, “The New Yorker”]
While there were many factors that contributed to the decimation of the bison population, the survival of the species can be attributed to the efforts of just a few men. In The New Yorker article, “Bison Bison Bison,” Elif Batuman tells of the movement to save the species:
Luckily for the species, it had friends in high places. In 1905, the American Bison Society (A.B.S.) was founded by a group of wealthy New York-based zoologists and philanthropists, including William Hornaday, Andrew Carnegie, and Teddy Roosevelt, an avid buffalo hunter who felt, according to the author Steven Rinella, that ‘the total annihilation of the buffalo would do irreparable damage to the manly mystique of the West.’ In 1907, the A.B.S. set out to reinvigorate the bison . . . population by sending fifteen bison from the Bronx Zoo, by train, to the Wichita Reserve Bison Refuge. As Rinella observes in his book American Buffalo, ‘One of America’s great ironies is that not only did New York’s aristocrats help save the West’s buffalo from extinction, but they used New York’s buffalo to do it.’
Batuman goes on to tell us that, “A group of Comanche came up to the train once it reached Oklahoma; the adults remembered what bison looked like, but the children didn’t.”
Thanks to the American Bison Society and the efforts of Hornaday who was director of the Bronx Zoo, the species has survived. Once numbering in the tens of millions, the population sank to a few dozen. Today, there are about half a million bison in North America and most of them are in captivity. Apparently the biggest herd belongs to media mogul Ted Turner. They are served in his 45 Montana Grill restaurants which offer bison nachos, bison chili, bison pot roast, bison short ribs, bison meatloaf, bison steak, and bison burgers. [Bison Bison Bison, “The New Yorker”]
There is also a herd of nearly 5,000 bison roaming free in Yellowstone National Park.
While the bison is no longer in danger of extinction, the thundering herds no longer survive. What remains is a shadow of the massive presence that dominated North America for 12,000 years. Yet, the species remains and just recently received due recognition when it was named the official mammal of the United States. This recognition came as a result of an unlikely coalition of ranchers, conservationists, and tribal groups. In response to the efforts of this coalition, Congress actually banded together and took bipartisan action making the bison the official mammal of our country.
In the reading we heard from the story of Job, Job is getting lots of advice and counsel from his friends which he feels is basically useless and misguided. He thinks they are way off target in their understanding of his situation and God’s role in it. So in the speech we heard, Job responds to his friends, saying, “But ask the animals and they will teach you; the birds of the air, and they will tell you; ask the plants of the earth, and they will teach you; and the fish of the sea will declare to you.” [12:7-8] So on this 4th of July Sunday, we will see what we can learn from the newly designated official mammal of the United States, the bison.
Some would say that the church in the US in our time is being decimated and is in danger of becoming extinct. Church membership is down. The percentage of the population self-identifying as Christian is diminishing. The influence of the church in the culture is decreasing.
While the demise of the bison and its salvation were due to outside intervention from humans, from what I have observed, the situation with the church is due not so much to an outside threat, but is more a result of internal issues. Some Christians like to blame secularists, the government which they believe is hostile to the church, and the increase in immigrants that are not Christian as some of the causes of the decline of the church. I myself think that the church has mainly itself to blame for its decline.
The church is to be the body of Christ, a witness to the love and healing that we see in Jesus, freely offered to all people for the good of the world. But this is not what the church is known for, really. What is the church known for? There could be many answers to that question. I’ll give you a few of mine. I think the church is known for worrying about getting people into heaven after they die. And along with this, less of a concern for the quality of life while people, all people, are here on earth. I think the church is known for its big fancy buildings and comfortable clergy even in the face of glaring poverty and need. I think the church is known for unequal treatment of blacks and women and sexual minorities. That hardly speaks to Jesus’ healing love freely bestowed upon all people. I think the church is known for promoting hell and the fear of hell to motivate obedience. I think the church is known for demeaning and criticizing other religions and promoting Christianity as the only true religious path. This is seen as insulting and disrespectful to people of other religions.
I also think the church is seen as irrelevant. What are the big issues facing the world? Environmental collapse. Violence: from handgun violence to nuclear war. Economic injustice which is continually decreasing people’s access to the needed economic resources. As my son told me recently, “Mom, there are no jobs.” Then I heard it again from someone on NPR this week: “There are no jobs.” Jobs that pay a living wage. Then there is still the issue of equality: equality for women and people of color, and similar pressing concerns. But the church is not known for being outspoken about this unless it is for being anti-gay.
While the church as a whole may not be known for a high level of concern about these issues, there does seem to be one ray of light, in an international sense, and that is Pope Francis. He actually is addressing himself to these issues, even if the Catholic Church is not stampeding in support of his positions. He seems more concerned with being faithful to the gospel of Jesus than pleasing his subjects.
In terms of the decline of the church, another contributing factor as I see it is the archaic, magical, superstitious thinking that is associated with the church. It’s one thing to appreciate ancient rituals and the symbolism of archaic language. It is quite another to expect people to accept religious tradition as factual truth and to follow the Bible literally. For the post modern, educated mind, much of what is associated with the church simply cannot be accepted with integrity and authenticity because it conflicts with reason and science. So the church, in my opinion, largely makes itself obsolete and irrelevant.
For the most part, I see the declining trend in the size and power of the church as the result of the internal life of the church, not as coming from external threats. And this is due, in my view, to the church straying from the core teachings, message, and witness of Jesus. The New Testament shows us a church that is an all-embracing community of compassion characterized by radical diversity, acceptance, and love. Church was not something you did on Sunday morning. It wasn’t an extracurricular activity, a hobby, or a club. It was a person’s core identity, utterly defining their self concept. It was the air they breathed, the skin that covered their bodies, the blood rushing through their veins. The church was filled with Jesus-followers who were fearless and had radically departed from the society around them. They were imbued with the sacred and they knew it. They found God in every person and took delight in the relationships they formed. They were awed by life and the world around them infused with the Divine. That is the church in its glory, like the bison in their glory thundering in endless herds across the plains.
The bison have survived and can now be designated the national mammal because a core of people believed in their grandeur, their magnificence, and their symbolic importance. It was believed by some who went to great extremes that the bison was worth saving. And so, I believe it is with the church. While the church overall in the US may be in decline, I believe there are core groups that believe in the kind of radical, all-embracing community imbued with divinity that we see in the stories of Jesus. There are those who are committed to the survival of the message of compassion and justice that we have from Jesus. I believe there are still true Jesus-followers who are keeping the gospel alive in the world today. And this is not about self preservation. It is not for personal pleasure. It is not to hold on to power. It’s not to get into heaven. It is not a quaint obsession with antiquity, like Civil War re-enactors. There can be only one valid reason for perpetuating the way of Jesus, for being his follower, for living by the gospel, for committing to universal love, justice, and forgiveness, and that reason is the good of the world. The church exists for the world, to serve the world, to heal the world, to help the world survive. This precious world that is the self-disclosure of God. I’m not so sure it is a bad thing if a church that exists for the self-interest of its members diminishes, declines, and dies.
The story of the survival of the bison shows us that even a small core of the church can be responsible for perpetuating the desperately needed gospel of Jesus Christ as a blessing to the world. My prayer is that we, who have the freedom to do so in our land of the free and home of the brave, may be part of protecting and saving the gospel for the good of the world. Amen.
Note: After the sermon, the congregation joined in singing 3 verses of “Home on the Range.”
A reasonable effort has been made to appropriately cite materials referenced in this sermon. For additional information, please contact Lakewood United Church of Christ.