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The One Who Opens Doors: Tenskwatawa

2 Advent B

10 Dec 2023

Note: this reflection contains some of the same material used in the Dec. 3rd reflection.


Do you remember your days in elementary school?  I have some vivid memories; small instances that are, for whatever reason, seared into my brain.  One of those was times on the playground: climbing the jungle gym, doing pull ups on the bars, and hanging upside down or, like a gymnast, twirling around on the bars.  One time I picked a bar that was too low and smacked my head on the ground.  We played red rover, Simon says, and a host of other games like hopscotch and jacks (and envied the person who had a golf ball instead of the poorly bouncing rubber balls).   In retrospect, I see the racism and sexism and otherism (never getting picked because you were too slow or too weak for tug of war).  Yet there was an idyllic aspect, and perhaps that is what I choose to remember.  But there was one thing I remember: the nuclear shelter signs that were all over the building.  As if we would or could be the least bit safe in the event of a nuclear holocaust. The apocalypse was always just around the corner.  Our leaders knew that the shelter concept was a hoax; it was lies from those in control to keep up pacified.

We still face the very real possibility of nuclear annihilation.  But other forms of end times are in front of us.  Wealth is being concentrated in fewer and fewer hands.  Too many people use a false scenario, making some group the “other” or the enemy, so that they can start conflict to enhance their personal power and wealth.  I have heard so many stories from Sudan and South Sudan about who really wants a war there and who comes away wealthier.  We hear of wars and rumors of wars.  We perhaps see less clearly how laws benefit a few at the expense of the many.

Right now, we have horrific conflict in Gaza, where the fires of hatred and self gain are leading to the deaths of thousands of people. But this is just the latest and currently the most prominent for those of us in the west.  Go around the world and there are plenty of conflicts for all sorts of nefarious reasons.  Is there such a thing as a “just war?” 

People have seen the end of the world and found salvation in the voices of their prophets. Amid desolation Isaiah spoke to the people of Israel offering them comfort and a way forward.  This is part of the role of the prophet.  Prophets don’t predict the future; they name the present wrongs and injustices done to a people and point to a way forward, a way different from the destructive course the people are currently on.

Our own nation undertook the intentional destruction of Native peoples to obtain the land and all it contained. [1]  Manifest Destiny, the patently false belief that God ordained all of what is now the United States to be the realm of white Europeans, was something I remember learning in school.  I wish I could remember what I was taught.  I hope in my heart of hearts I was not taught that it was the Truth with a capital T

Against the evils being perpetrated against Native Peoples, prophets arose, just as they did in Jesus’ time. People had come to believe their lives do not matter; prophets emphatically tell us they do matter! They warn, reveal (not predict), instruct, and as mystics help people find the future within themselves. Isaiah speaks words of comfort and tells the people what life will be like. John, gruff as he seems to be portrayed in the Gospels, offers a way for the people to purify themselves and start walking on the right road again.

Last week I spoke of a Native American Seneca prophet whose English name was Handsome Lake.  He started a new religion among the Iroquois, stressing individual responsibility, which was a new concept for a people who lived and thought communally.  His prophecy and the implementation of his instructions saved the Iroquois peoples. 

This week I speak of another prophet, a member of the Shaunee nation who is known to us as Tenskwatawa.  His older brother is perhaps better known: Tecumseh.  Both lived in the early 1800’s when the U.S. government was dispossessing the tribes in the Ohio Valley of all their lands. It was very much intentional.

Tenskwatawa was apparently a man short on talent and good looks.  He couldn’t make it as a warrior and nor as a healer.  He fell into alcoholism and was in ill health; he had lost hope.  One day he fell into such a coma that everyone thought he was dead, another victim of alcohol and depression.  His body was prepared for burial, but to everyone’s shock, he awoke a couple of days later and announced he had been given a vision. A messenger had showed him heaven, which was very much as the Shaunee believed it to be: a peaceful place full of fish and corn and beauty.  But the messenger showed him something different: hell.  There had been no concept of such a place in the Shaunee belief system prior to Tenskwatawa’s vision. He said that fire and damnation awaited those who were drunkards or had lived lives that were not filled with good behavior. He had other visions that led to an articulation of a new religion emphasizing traditional ways, but also collaboration and cooperation among Native tribes, along with respect for women, reverence for the earth, no land ownership, and staying away from White people. He also elaborated another very new concept: that of a holy city, a place of unified faith for all followers.  This was very radical for Native peoples to have one place that was sacred for all tribes.  Indeed, the city was built.  It was called Prophetstown, near present day Lafayette, Indiana. It must have been an incredible place; several thousand Native Americans from many tribes lived there.  Many thousands of other Native peoples visited, learned from the prophet, and returned home to spread the word.  It was a beacon of hope for thousands of Native Americans facing displacement, if not frank genocide. Eventually the U.S. government decided it had to be destroyed. Like the Romans did 1800 years earlier, Jerusalem was destroyed in order to destroy a people.  Tecumseh died in battle, Tenskwatawa fled to Canada.  He later returned and went with his people to Kansas, where he died. He named the place where he spent his last years Prophetstown.

Steven Charleston[2] states we all need our city on the hill, whether be called Mecca or Jerusalem or even Shangri-la. This is the place where we find refuge, where we come together as a community.  And we can choose to carry that light, be that place of refuge.  In the end that is just what Tenskwatawa did.  Prophetstown lived inside of him and in the way he lived his life. We can do the same; we can become a meeting place, we can learn from one another; we can offer refuge to one another and even ourselves.  If we fear we can no longer live together, then the apocalypse will come.  It takes a unique type of courage to say no to the prevailing wisdom and build an alternative community. 

What will that community be?  It is up to you and I, working through the prophetic voices of Isaiah and of John.

[1] If you would like to learn more about the Doctrine of Discovery (the over 500 year old pronouncement by a pope that any lands not occupied by Christians were to be claimed by Christians as their own) Sarah Augustine’s The Land is Not Empty is a good starting point.  Much of our current law concerning land and Indigenous peoples is grounded in that proclamation.

[2] Steven Charleston: We Survived the End of the World: Lessons from Native America on Apocalypse and Hope.  This book looks at several Native prophets through the eyes of an Indigenous elder who is also a retired Episcopal bishop.

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