By the Rev. Bryan D. Jackson
In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.
— Matthew 7:12
I recently tried to access a local American Baptist church website. Like many others, the church and the website had closed. Some of our successful churches are closing because we lack the ability or desire to adhere to Jesus’ commands in a synchronous fashion. What happened in the church 180 years ago is repeating.
When I asked for an opinion on the subject, I received this response: “Christians are hypocrites.” These words are familiar, as are the behavior they describe. We Christians hurt people, and they are leaving the fold. Again.
Let’s face it: When forced to cut our hair and change our language, we are not hip to engage. The subject of American Indians won’t go away. And it aligns with today’s dissolution of Christian church membership.
Consider the Gospel of Matthew, particularly 7:12, 22:37–40 and 28:18–20. Unless we have gained information on our own outside traditional school curricula, we Americans do not know our history, which explains, in part, the reason that today’s “mission field” can be as egregious as the one my ancestors faced.
On Dec. 30, 1838, the Rev. Evan Jones, a Baptist missionary to the Cherokee Nation, filed a report to the American Baptist Missionary Board from Little Prairie, Mo., writing, in part: “I am afraid that, with all the care that can be exercised with the various detachments, there will be an immense amount of suffering, and loss of life attending the removal. Great numbers of the old, the young, and the infirm, will inevitably be sacrificed. And the fact that the removal is effected by coercion, makes it the more galling to the feelings of the survivors” (Baptist Missionary Magazine, 19 [April 1839], 89, Sequoyah National Research Center: Collections and Archives, “Evan Jones to the American Baptist Missionary Board — December 30, 1838,” https://ualrexhibits.org/trailoftears/letters/evan-jones-to-the-american-baptist-missionary-board-december-30-1838/).
Jones was with a U.S. Army-led Cherokee detachment on the “Trail Where They Cried,” known today as the “Trail of Tears.” Jones, along with the Rev. Jesse Bushyhead, an ordained Baptist Cherokee, made the trek to Indian territory with the Cherokees, burying many men, women and children along the way. Ironically, the Cherokees reportedly sang “Amazing Grace” as they marched to their destiny, be it death or displacement.
In everything, we are to think concurrently about Christ’s teachings. The Greek in Matthew 7:12 translates from “all then as much” to “in everything” in the New Revised Standard Version. Hence, “all then as much” should we follow his directions to do to others as we would have them do to us. This command and our comprehension of the consistency of Jesus’ character infer that Jesus did not command aggression, violence, physical and verbal abuse, sexual assault, shame or psychological warfare — all things some Christian missionaries imposed on American Indians. Sacrificing the Golden Rule to achieve the Great Commission makes us less portraits of God than portraits of how we wish to be seen. Jones and other ministers of the day had a mandate — as we do — to learn and honor the teachings of Jesus in such a way that we leave no question about his goodness.
The focus of many Christians is Matthew 28:18–20. Most have fixated on the declaration that begins at verse 19: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations.” This aspect of our mandate is a standard; it is admirable and life-giving when done appropriately. Yet, if we are to be “all as much” (as the word everything in verse 20 is translated) in our obedience to Christ’s teachings, our sanction ought to be to love as Jesus loved, so that in everything we achieve the Great Spirit’s desires.
When we examine both the Golden Rule and the Great Commission in the context of love before the law, we see that Matthew 22:37–40 speaks to the same idea. When Jesus was confronted by a lawyer on the matter, he was clear — as he was with his statement on the Sermon on the Mount — that the greatest commandment is love — of both God and neighbor.
Matthew is an apt examination for us on this subject, as the Cherokee Chief Yonaguska (also known as Drowning Bear) had something to say about it. After reading it, he reportedly said, “Well, it seems to be a good book — strange that the white people are no better, after having had it so long” (Horace Kephart, The Cherokees of the Smoky Mountains [Laura Mack Kephart, from the papers of Horace Kephart, 1936], 31, https://www.accessgenealogy.com/native/the-cherokees-of-the-smoky-mountains.htm/6).
The point, in our context, is not a racial one but one of character. In Drowning Bear’s experience, he had little reason to believe that, in everything, Christians would offer any real hope to the Cherokee people. How can we do better? What resources will we need to avoid chasing off so many good people?
The answer probably rests — all then as much — not only in how we comprehend the commands Jesus left to us but in how we think and pray about approaching people that are more like us than different.
The Rev. Bryan D. Jackson is a writer in Washington state and a member of the Mount Hood Cherokees, a Cherokee Nation satellite community in the Pacific Northwest. His ancestors traveled the Trail of Tears in the Bell Detachment.
The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.