Karen Armstrong’s recent book, "Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence," is a sobering reminder to anyone who believes that religion is entirely focused on love and peace. Among its stark chapters is the account of the arrival of the settlers who formed the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The landing of the Pilgrim fathers in 1630 ushered an epoch of horror for the people who already lived in that part of North America.
Contrary to folklore, the immigrants did not cross the stormy Atlantic hoping to found a community dedicated to religious liberty. They came to escape what they believed to be the Romish oppression they found in the Church of England. Religious freedom only for themselves was the goal. Indeed, every one of the original 13 colonies, except Rhode Island, had an established church, and the separation of church and state did not come until Thomas Jefferson pushed for it with the first amendment to the Constitution: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof …"
Nor did these Puritans immediately develop a kind fraternal relationship with the people they found living here. If there might have been a joyful thanksgiving feast, most of the interaction with native Americans was cruel and bloody. The settlers first wanted to save the Indians in that area from the “kingdom of the Antichrist,” meaning the French Catholic settlers in what was to be called Canada. Killing as many natives as possible, destroying their crops and seizing their hunting grounds were all permitted activities under the assumption that these primitives were really sub-human. According to the Rev. John Cotton, the Indians were "not industrious, neither having art, science, skill or faculty to use the land …"
Clearly these “Indian savages,” as they were called in the Declaration of Independence, did not own the land. So here came a people who had no land, into a land that had no people. Since all this vacant land belonged to nobody, why not claim it for England? The settlers in Jamestown had come to the same conclusion. Since these religiously motivated groups were always looking for divine justification for what they did, both bodies claimed that God, in his graciousness, had given them the land. The colonists were simply following divine orders. William Bradford posited that the odor of burning Indians was a sweet sacrifice God had “wrought so wonderfully to us.”
In a generation there developed a long war against the Indians. Even though battle after battle was concluded with peace treaties, the colonists never honored any of the arrangements in the cease fires. That duplicity was to continue all the way to the Pacific Ocean. The lesson here is that any occupiers should be very careful in proclaiming that the territory they seize is rightly theirs because God had given it to them.
In our day we are witnessing a repeated phenomena of the divine right of conquest. Israeli nationalists suggest that there has never been a Palestinian state, just a few tribes of wanderers who may have occupied the land, but never owned it. Indeed the rightful owners are the Israelis to whom God has given the entire territory, right to the Mediterranean Sea. The Bible clearly says so. The similarities between America’s early colonialists in Massachusetts and Jamestown, and the claims of Israeli settlers, is striking.
To view God as a divine real-estate mogul, who grants great tracts of territory to His favorites, is terrible public policy and worse religion. Human nature being what it is, to use God for one’s own purposes is a phenomenon that has occurred over and over in history, and is still going on. As long as God is seen as a big, aggressive, nationalist, we will continue to witness that sort of distortion. Every time I see the American flag framing some religious gathering, I wonder if religion can ever been reclaimed from those who want to use it for their own political purposes.