It’s Not Christian Love If You Would Not Want It – September 4

A sermon based on Luke 10:25-37
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on September 4, 2022
by Rev. Scott Elliott

Four-hundred-and-twenty-two years ago this month my tenth great grandfather, Edward Doty, who was an indentured servant at the time, left England on a small ship with a hundred-and-one other passengers and thirty or so crew members. The year was 1620, the destination was the northern part of the colony of Virginia; and the crowded little ship was called The Mayflower and it famously landed north of Virginia in what’s now called the state of Massachusetts.
About half the passengers aboard that famous ship were from a branch of Puritans that had illegally separated themselves from the Church of England. Today we call those separatist-Puritans, Pilgrims. They, however, called themselves “Saints” but were infamously known throughout England as Separatists. The other half of the passengers on the Mayflower were mostly NON-separatists Puritans and support workers and servants (like my great grandfather). These folks were brought along to help start a Christian settlement. The Saints referred to these other folks as “Strangers.”
Having been blown off course and after first landing on Cape Cod, those Christians ended up starting their now famous Congregational Christian community in nearby Plymouth, Massachusetts. Mount Vernon First Congregational Church is a direct descendant of that Christian community. There’s a sense of honor in our culture to that.
Descending from a Mayflower passenger also provides a sense of honor in our culture. Which I find an interesting notion since Great Grampa Doty was a non-Pilgrim indentured servant who was sort of forced to come along, and whose other claims to fame are mostly, well, to be honest, not at all saint like. I assume he professed to be a Christian since he was not thrown out of the community, but his conduct belies devout dedication to the ways of Christ. He was in the first duel in New England and stabbed the other dueler, which led to the first criminal case in New England. Good ol’ Great Grandpa got stabbed himself so he and his dueling partner were the first convicts in the history of New England! From then on Edward Doty apparently continued to be a rascal accumulating the longest record of misbehavior by a Mayflower settler, appearing in nearly two dozen court cases . . . and those were just records of the times he got caught and people spent the time to drag him to court.
My most famous American ancestor was a stranger and a convict and a con artist, and apparently not a nice man. In short, by all accounts he was a scallywag, yet the Christian Pilgrim Community– this church’s ancestors– appear to have treated this “stranger” and criminal as Jesus commands that the least among us be treated, as we would want to be treated . . . with love. Edward Doty was not expelled from the Christian community and he seems to have been treated well. Even all these years later, despite his record of misconduct his “first comer” status, and signature on the Mayflower Compact and the wealth he garnered later in life by acquiring Native American land, has him counted among the early heroes of our nation.
In fairness, half the Mayflower passengers died by the end of the first winter, and Great Grampa did not. Culturally we sense something heroic in our European ancestors who survived crossings of treacherous seas and killer winters and diseases in order to start our first settlements. Great Grampa Doty did all that. He lived to see, and be a part of, the very first Thanksgiving. He lived on to help firmly establish Plymouth. I can sense heroism in that. But also in fairness, we often let the heroic survival of the Christian Pilgrims overshadow that their survival – and that first Thanksgiving– only came about because the local Wampanoag Indians rescued my Great Grandfather and the others.
And this part we especially seem to forget, the Wampanoag rescued them in the manner that Christ taught with care and compassion that tended to others’ well-being. They loved their neighbors– arguably their enemies– with no strings attached just as they would have wanted to be treated. In fact, as far as I can tell the Wampanoags were the first recorded demonstration in American of what being a Good Samaritan looks like in real life.
If the Mayflower survivors are heroes, then surely their rescuers after that first winter are fairly considered even more heroic especially since their experiences with Europeans– mostly Christian– up to that point had not been positive. White diseases and violence and kidnaping and enslavement had already infringed on the Native Americans’ lives and would, of course, tragically continue to do so. The Wampanoag who rescued the settlers at Plymouth overlooked those terrible infringements by White people, by Christians, and instead focused on the well-being of the suffering people at hand. Thomas Merton observed that “Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy.” We think of that as a Christian job, but it is all humankind’s job and the Wampanoags did it better than the Christians who came over from England.
Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate the Pilgrims cared for my renegade relative, and there is a story about one of the Pilgrim leaders, Edward Winslow, medically saving the life of Massasoit, a Native American leader, but as a whole Pilgrims clearly did not follow Jesus’ teaching when it came to groups of non-Christians and non-Whites. From the start Native Americans were treated unequally in the laws and courts of Plymouth, they were even sold into slavery for purported crimes– and land and food were nefariously taken from them. The disparity in treatment and the other-wising of Native Americans, was the beginning of hundreds of years of oppression, theft, violence, enslavement, displacement, war, attempted assimilation, concentration camps and genocide of Native Americans by Whites, many, if not most, of whom claimed to be Christians.
I often hear or read apologists for oppressive misconduct in the past and present claiming the misbehaving Christians believed at the time it was for the well-being of those being oppressed. With Native Americans it disingenuously goes something like; “Christians back then believed God meant for us to save them and they tried. Christians good heartedly put them on reservations and took their children to send to White schools so they could assimilate and be like us.” The idea is, we look back with hindsight and say our ancestors were only wrong under the standards of our time, not the standards of their time. This. Is. Not. True! Such excuses for the oppression of Native Americans fly in the face of Jesus’ timeless teachings about love which are unambiguous, and leave no room for excuse.
It’s pretty simple math. The Greatest Commandment (love God and others), plus the Golden Rule (do to others what you’d want done to yourself), together mean that the love Christians provide to others must be love they’d want for themselves. Let me restate that simply: The Greatest Commandment plus the Golden Rule equal love provided to others must be love Christians want for themselves. No Christian in history has ever wanted beliefs forced on them. No Christian in history has wanted to be treated unequally before the law. No Christian in history has ever wanted to be forcibly displaced, assimilated, confined, enslaved, warred upon or victims of genocide. No Christian in history has ever wanted done to them what the colonists and the early republic did to Native Americans while wielding Bibles and pseudo-Christianity.
Forcing Christian beliefs and ways on others has never been, nor can it ever be, Christian love. Christians misnaming or claiming any of that as love, or holding a belief it is love, does not make it love. Love Jesus’ way, Christian Love, can only be something you’d want done to yourself. Love can never be something you would not want done to yourself– no matter what you call it or believe it to be, it is never ever love. Simply put, the litmus test for Christian love is does it provide others the well-being you’d want if you were in the others’ shoes.
How do I know this? Because the Greatest Commandment plus the Golden Rule equal love provided to others must be love Christians want for themselves. We can apply that formula to our Congregational Church forebearers and easily conclude that the Pilgrims provided the love they’d want to Edward Doty my misbehaving ancestor. When it came to Great Grampa they followed Jesus’ mix of the Greatest Commandment with the Golden Rule to provide to him love they wanted for themselves.
We can also apply that formula to our forebearers and easily conclude that they did not, as a rule, provide the type of love they wanted to the Wampanoag or other Indian peoples as a whole. They did not follow Jesus’ mix of the Greatest Commandment with the Golden Rule to provide love they wanted for themselves. They failed the test. But ironically – and instructively and wonderfully and selflessly– the non-Christian Wampanoag provided exactly that to the Pilgrim people their first year in America. The result was well-being and thanksgiving so powerful that we talk about it still and have a national holiday to celebrate it.
The Good Samaritan Wampanoags passed the test. We can look back and see that. There is no need for apologetics for them. The sure sign of failure to provide love, is the existence of apologetics for not providing well-being you’d want now. What’s good now, was good then and always. The type of love Jesus taught and calls us to give does not change over time. It’s immutable.
The litmus test for Christian love has been, and always will be, does it provide others the well-being you’d want if you were in the others’ shoes. To state what should be obvious, every act of oppression, things like xenophobia, sexism, racism, heterosexism, antisemitism, classism, and ableism fail the test. Taking people’s land, enslaving people, treating them unequal, not honoring their life, liberty and pursuit of happiness all fail the test and have since the day Jesus taught his followers the Golden Rule. We can apply this to pressing matters today. Taking away a woman’s pregnancy choices, not treating Black lives and women and LGBTQ+ as mattering equally, not making reparations for centuries of mistreatment of Black Americans and Native Americans, all fail the test. Christians claiming acts that lead to such things are or were acts of love, are, and always have been, wrong. Our Christian forebearers’ knew, or should have known, this. Christians today know, or should know this. Jesus set the rules out two thousand years ago, and we have been taking about them openly for just as long.
The Pilgrims proved they knew how to properly love when they cared for my rogue great grandfather. He was a stranger (in more than one way) and the Christ within him was honored. As a rule, the Pilgrims did not provide that love to Native Americans. In 1621, that first year of the Pilgrims settlement, however, Native Americans provided it to the Pilgrims and saved their lives in Good Samaritan fashion.
Who were good neighbors? Our Pilgrim ancestors? Or the Wampanoag? Well, the Pilgrims seemed to be good neighbors when it came to individuals like Edward Doty and Massasoit. But the Wampanoag were good neighbors when it came the whole group of people, the Pilgrims. What would our nation have been like if the Pilgrims had behaved as Christian as the Wampanoag did that first year and the two groups, Whites and Native Americans, had loved their neighbors and done to each other what they’d have wanted done to themselves? What would our nation be like if all the diverse groups did that to one another today? I’d love to see that. God’s will would be done on earth as it is in heaven. There’d be peace and good will to all. It’s certainly good to provide love to individuals. It’s even better to provide it to everyone in need of it. May we learn to do both and bring heaven to earth. AMEN