Date: July 31, 2016
Sermon Title: Christianity and Culture
Scripture: Romans 14:13-17
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells
The last time I visited Gordon Terrell was less than a week before his unexpected death in May. In that conversation, he referred to Narcissa Whitman and asked if I knew about her. I didn’t. Well, he told me, I should. This was near the beginning of our conversation that day. Before I left, he brought it up again. Made sure I had the name right so I could find out more about her. Whitman made a big impression on Gordon and he wanted me to know about her. So, now I know much more about her and soon you will, too.
Narcissa Whitman was born Narcissa Prentiss and lived with her large family in upstate New York in the early 1800’s. She and her mother and siblings went to the Presbyterian Church. It was the time of the Second Great Awakening and there were revivals and inspiring church services firing up believers. At one such service, Narcissa felt compelled to devote her life to God. Eventually she determined that the way she was to do this was by becoming a missionary. She read accounts of other missionaries, since her mother would not let her read novels, and she wanted a life of adventure and service. She made it known that this was her intent and she waited for the occasion to present itself. In the meantime, she was educated and worked as teacher.
As it turns out, one obstacle in her path was the lack of a husband. The American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, sponsored by the Presbyterian Church and the Congregational Church, only sent married couples out to the mission field. To be a missionary, Narcissa would have to be married, and to someone who shared her passion and calling.
About the same time, Marcus Whitman, a doctor in upstate New York, heard about the initiative to send missionaries to the western region of North America, and he decided that he wanted to pursue that calling. He applied to the mission board, but he was rejected due to health issues. He applied again when his health was stronger and he was an appealing candidate, but, alas, he had no wife. Marcus was told about Narcissa, so he went to meet with her and after two days they determined that they would marry and proceed to the west.
About a year after they met, they were married. At the close of the wedding ceremony, the congregation sang a hymn with the words, “My native land, I love thee, Can I leave thee, far in heathen lands to dwell. . . Glad I bid thee Native land! Farewell! Farewell!” And with that, the Whitmans were married and they left for the west the next day. [http://www.historylink.org/index.cfm?DisplayPage=output.cfm&file_id=10088]
It was 1836, and the Whitmans traveled 3000 miles in 7 months, by boat, wagon, horseback and foot, over the prairies, deserts, and the mountains to the Oregon Territory. There was a group of missionaries that went in hopes of Christianizing and civilizing the West. Narcissa and her female companions were the first women of European descent to cross the Rocky Mountains. They survived on, yes, buffalo meat, and fed their fires with buffalo dung, both of which were still plenteous in those days.
While the trip began as a great adventure, by the end it had lost its romance. The trek was exhausting and uncomfortable especially since Narcissa had become pregnant along the way. En route, they encountered various Indians who had never seen white women before and found the women to be curiosities. The four couples that arrived in the Oregon Territory as missionaries decided that they would start 4 separate missions hundreds of miles apart. As Cassandra Tate puts it in her essay on the Whitmans, “The same strong-minded idealism that fired people with Christian zeal made it difficult for them to cooperate.” [http://www.historylink.org/index.cfm?DisplayPage=output.cfm&file_id=10088] The Whitmans started their mission among the Cayuse Indians near what is today Walla Walla, Washington.
Shortly after their arrival, their first and only child was born – on Narcissa’s 29th birthday. The Indians were captivated by the white baby and considered her Cayuse since she was born in their territory. But sadly, the child drowned when she was 2. This left Narcissa bereft and eventually she took in foster children and adopted a number of children some of whom were of mixed race – white and Indian.
At the mission outpost, the Whitmans introduced worship services, religious ceremonies, told Bible stories, started a school, instructed the Indians in white domestic chores and customs, and Dr. Whitman practiced medicine. This combination of religion and medicine made Marcus Whitman seem like a medicine man to the Indians. But Narcissa found it difficult to communicate with the Indians since she never learned their language, Nez Perce. She did not feel that they were making sufficient inroads in Christianizing the Cayuse. The Indians did not adopt white customs. They continued to practice polygamy. They did not take to farming and gardening and other aspects of the lifestyle of white Euro-Americans. Narcissa installed venetian blinds in their home to keep the Indians from looking in the windows. She would only allow the Indians into one room of their home. To Narcissa the Indians continued to be dirty, lazy and sinful. They ignored the standards of privacy and cleanliness that Narcissa was trying to impart.
Word reached the Whitmans that the mission board was going to discontinue supporting the efforts in the Oregon Territory due to lack of results. On behalf of the mission to the Cayuse, and the other 3 missions that had been established, Marcus Whitman went to Washington, D.C. to try to get the board to change its mind. When this was unsuccessful, Whitman returned to the mission with 800 white emigrants in tow. He and Narcissa proceeded to open a hotel and trading post. The next year 1500 more settlers arrived. And the pattern continued. Buildings went up, fences were installed, fields were plowed, walls were built, and the Cayuse looked on in alarm. The tribal leaders tried to express their dismay. They asked the settlers to leave. Their way of life was being destroyed and their land was being taken. Tensions mounted.
By the fall of 1847, over 10 years after the arrival of the Whitmans, there were 4,000 white emigrants living in Cayuse territory. And then there was an outbreak of measles. Dr. Whitman treated the victims, the whites and the Indians. But while half of the Indians died, including most of the children, most of the white children survived due to differences in their immune systems. The Indians felt this was calculated in some way. Why hadn’t their children been cured as the white children were? Had they been poisoned?
Finally, on November 29, 1847, things came to a head and several Cayuse attacked the Whitman outpost. Marcus and Narcissa were killed along with 12 others. 49 people were kept as hostages for a month. The situation escalated into a war between the Cayuse and the white settlers. Eventually, 5 Indians surrendered and were executed. At the execution the chief declared, “Did not your missionaries teach us that Christ died to save his people? So we die to save our people.” [http://www.pbs.org/weta/thewest/people/s_z/whitman.htm]
So, why should we know about this story? Certainly the Whitmans are an inspiration in their devotion and sacrifice. They were well intentioned. But the story brings up the complex interplay between Christianity and culture. This has been an issue since the first century and will continue to be an issue well beyond the twenty-first century. Where does faith end and culture begin? What is culture and what is Christian?
When I heard the story of Narcissa Whitman, I heard a story of the clash of cultures and a story of imposed colonization. I heard a story of power struggle and domination. To me, there didn’t seem to be much Christianity in the story. Yet the Whitmans were undoubtedly motivated by their faith and devotion to God. Narcissa Whitman was devout. She committed to giving her life to God. She faced peril and hardship to do so. She lived out of faith not fear. Her intentions were good and pure. But she really did not know how to separate faith and culture. To her, the Christian faith involved installing venetian blinds and keeping the Indians out of her home. It meant putting a fence around her house to keep her distance. It meant giving things to white people but not to Indians. It meant running a school for white children that Indians were not allowed to attend. Narcissa could not see that colonization was fraught with injustice and arrogance that is at odds with the message of the gospel. As a good Christian, she would have found the idea of stealing anathema. But she could not see how to the Indians, what the white people were doing was stealing their land and life. Her immersion in her cultural context made her blind to how her behavior was perceived by others and how she was betraying the very gospel she had given her life to.
Jesus was imbued with his culture AND his religious tradition. He was not outside of culture or beyond culture. In fact, what we see in Jesus is how to apply eternal spiritual truths and values within culture. We look at Jesus and see how he takes the theoretical concept of, say, universal love, and puts it into action within his cultural setting. Then we are inspired to think about how we are called to put universal love into action in our cultural setting. How does Jesus honor the image of God, the divine, within each and every person in his cultural context? We see the conflicts, the challenges, the consequences of that. This helps inform our understanding of what it means for us to honor the image of God in each and every person in our context. And it may very well be that when we are involved with someone of a different religion or culture than our own, we need to be even more thoughtful about what we say and our behavior so that we don’t undermine our own intent and betray our faith. There is no place in Christianity for arrogance, disdain, superiority, or condescension toward another person or culture or religion. Each and every person is to be treated as a manifestation of the image of God.
We see this message in the verses that we heard today from Romans. The writer is talking to this new faith community about how to deal with the cultural diversity around them and within their faith community. The writer advises don’t be judgmental. In other words, try to understand those who are different. Don’t assume the worst. Don’t put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of new believers. The message is don’t let culture get in the way of the gospel. In those days, the Jews were very concerned about food that was clean and unclean according to the dictates of the Torah. This created problems when Jesus followers from the Jewish tradition blended with Jesus followers who were not of Jewish heritage because the non-Jews did not have the same dietary guidelines. So what can and cannot be eaten? Paul tells the Christians in Rome that no food is bad, sinful, or immoral, in and of itself. To make things clear, Paul says that if what you are doing is injurious to someone else, then you are not walking in love. The gospel should bring peace and be mutually up-building. Well, we don’t see the Whitmans adhering to the teachings of Paul that we heard today because they were blinded by their cultural context. They were not able to separate out what was Christianity and what was culture, and to approach the Indians without judgment, in love, seeking peace and mutual up-building.
One historian, Michael Schaubs, assesses the Whitman mission this way:
The Whitmans early on made the mistake of being unable to separate the differences between faith and culture. They quickly defined many tribal customs and traditions as “sins” and barriers to salvation. The Indians must give up their songs, dances, gambling, horse racing, and everything else that Indian people found enjoyable. The Indians felt that they were being told that to avoid Hell in the afterlife, they must exist in a living Hell in the here and now. This message was not well received.
In 1843 he [Marcus] wrote Narcissa’s parents ‘It does not concern me so much what is to become of any particular set of Indians, as to give them the offer of salvation… I have no doubt our greatest work is to aid the white settlement of this country.’ Although doubtless Marcus never expressed this to the Cayuse, the fact that provisions, goods and services were freely supplied to emigrants as gifts, and the white travelers were openly invited into the home of the missionaries (a place which was generally off limits to the Indians), the Cayuse could only have interpreted to show that the Whitmans were working to displace them from their own country. [http://www.mman.us/whitmanmassacre.htm]
The Whitmans simply were not aware of the clash between Christianity and culture in what they were doing. They could not see how their behavior was perceived by the Cayuse. We do not want to ignore culture or discount culture. It is part of our identity as human beings. It is part of the grand diversity of our species. What we need to do is be aware of culture. Of our own culture. The messages and rituals and assumptions and behaviors that form and shape us. We need to be very conscious of our cultural milieu. It can seem invisible, like the air we breathe, and yet we know it is there. We need to be aware of that. Examining and acknowledging our culture. And we need to be aware of our faith. We need to understand the values and commitments that are part of the Christian path. We need to study the example of Jesus. Reflect on the stories we have from his teachings. And look for the deeper meanings. Then we need to have that awareness be in conversation with our awareness of our cultural context. Where are the conflicts? Where are the consistencies? Where is the influence flowing from faith to culture? When is the influence flowing from culture to faith? How are our choices and behaviors influenced by culture? How are they shaped by faith? This kind of examination is an ongoing process. It is how we figure out how to live our faith in a way that is constructive and healing for us and for the world.
The story of the Whitmans reveals a toxic mix of Christianity and culture. And this is a common occurrence. We know the human propensity to use religion to further economic, political, and social goals. We can see it in the European colonization of the Americas. We can see it in ISIS and the other expressions of extremist Islamic fundamentalism. We can see it in the Lord’s Resistance Army in Congo. It happens again and again.
But can we see it in our own culture and in our own religion? There are those who defend the second amendment to the Constitution of the United States that protects the right to bear arms as Christian. They see the Constitution as divinely ordained. So the right to bear arms takes on authority akin to the 10 Commandments. And this becomes a way of saying that God wants people in the United States to have guns. They are needed to defend our families and communities and churches. This is God’s way of protecting his own. I say ‘his’ because this expression of God is always and exclusively male. So churches hire armed guards and offer training classes in how to use guns. And all this is seen as consistent with, even inspired by, the Christian faith.
Where does that leave the teachings of Jesus – Love your enemy. Do good to those who persecute you. The one who lives by the sword dies by the sword. Turn the other cheek. Well, that was for that time. That was for those circumstances. That was so that nothing would interfere with Jesus being killed by the authorities because that was God’s plan. Those teachings were for that cultural context, not ours, so the thinking goes.
Now, I specifically picked an example that most of us would find glaring and clear cut. But there are plenty of examples of things that you and I, who are probably not gun owners, do each and every day that are at odds with the values of Christianity but fully accepted in our culture.
We look back at Narcissa, we look at the second amendment defenders, not to point the finger at them, but so that they help us point the finger at our own inconsistencies. We examine the interplay of faith and culture so that we can learn to be more discerning about our lives and our choices. We look at the context of culture and Christianity so that we can critically examine how our culture, our economy, our fossil fuel dependent life-style, our diet, and our politics and all the rest stack up against the teachings of Jesus. The political conventions of the last two weeks and the election at hand give us plenty of food for thought.
Our religious identity always exists in a cultural context that should and does influence our practice of our religion. There is interplay, there is cohesion, there is consistency and there is conflict. There has always been the allure of ignoring the tension. Some Christians have convinced themselves that they are purely Christian and that they are abstaining from participation in the culture. They think they have immersed themselves fully in the Christian life, in the church, and that there is no cultural influence. They go to Christian schools, Christian movies, Christian gyms, listen to Christian music, play on sports teams with Christians, etc. etc. etc. They think they have successfully eliminated the influence of culture and that they are living a purely Christian life. This also happens with other religions and it is not exclusive to the US.
Another way of dealing with the fraught interplay of religion and culture is to decide that your culture is reflective of your religion. You see the culture you are living in as Christian, or Islamic, or Jewish, or whatever religion you subscribe to. So, you believe that your religion and culture are fully in sync and so there is no conflict or compromise. Some people choose to believe that the US is a Christian country meaning that our culture is consistent with the teachings of Christianity. When there is something that seems amiss, the solution is to implement a Christian policy or solution. This seems simple but what version of Christianity is applied? What expression of Christianity has authority? What teachings of Jesus hold sway? Who decides?
What happens with both of these scenarios is that the heart of the religion, the deep teaching, the power of the spiritual path is compromised. Christianity at its most faithful is always in dialogue with culture. The way of Jesus always presents challenges because it confronts our innate sinful self-aggrandizing tendencies with pure goodness and love, honestly, without deception. Which is why it is a religion of love, forgiveness and grace. To experience that love, healing, and grace, we need to be honest in our examination of the relationship between our faith and our cultural context.
Gordon Terrell, a wise elder of this congregation, thought that we should know something about Narcissa Whitman and I think he is right. We should know about Narcissa Whitman. Her story helps us to understand the intricate complexity of the relationship between Christianity and culture.
In one of her rare moments of self-reflection, Narcissa Whitman, who was a prolific writer and has left many letters and diaries, revealed to her family that she questioned her own motives for becoming a missionary. Had she done it “with a single eye for the glory of God or from some selfish principle”? She insisted she didn’t regret the decision to come to Oregon, but added: “I find one of my most difficult studies is to know my own heart.” (October 6, 1841). [A biographical article about Narcissa Prentiss Whitman by Cassandra Tate, April 13, 2012, http://www.historylink.org/index.cfm?DisplayPage=output.cfm&file_id=10088
] I think the same can be said for us and for our country. One of our most difficult studies is to know our own heart. May we invite Jesus to show us our hearts and then to heal them. Amen.
The following sources about Narcissa Whitman were used in the preparation of this sermon:
Whitman, Narcissa Prentiss (1808-1847) by Cassandra Tate, April 13, 2012 at http://www.historylink.org/index.cfm?DisplayPage=output.cfm&file_id=10088
Marcus Whitman (1802-1847)
Narcissa Whitman (1808-1847)
Mountain Men and Life in the Rocky Mountain West, Malachite’s Big Hole, The Whitman Massacre at http://www.mman.us/whitmanmassacre.htm
A reasonable effort has been made to appropriately cite materials referenced in this sermon. For additional information, please contact Lakewood United Church of Christ.