It appears our society is coming apart at the seams.
Our seemingly irreconcilable differences, fueled by bad actors’ desire to capitalize on fear and hatred, drive wedges between us in ways that mirror some of the darkest periods of our national history. You might look at the state of our disunion and reach the reasonable conclusion our differences are insurmountable.
I admit, I have shared that gloomy outlook. But, I was blessed this week to be reminded of humanity’s tremendous capacity for reconciliation and the ties that bind us with much greater strength than our petty differences.
My feet tend toward church — in my case, St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church — when I am in need of hope. And, I was not disappointed this Wednesday during Fr. John’s sermon on David Pendleton Oakerhater.
A Cheyenne Indian, Oakerhater’s birth name was Okuh hatuh, yielding the loose English translations “Sun Dancer” or “Making Medicine.”
When he was just 17 years old, on Nov. 29, 1864, Oakerhater witnessed 148 of his people, mostly women and children, be massacred at Sand Creek, Colo., by troops under Col. John Chivington, who was both an Army officer and an ordained Methodist minister.
The Congressional Joint Committee on the Conduct of War denounced the attack as stemming from “the worst passions that ever cursed the heart of man,” and surmised Chivington may have been “pandering to the inflamed passions of an excited population” for political gain.
Oakerhater vowed to avenge his people, and fought in several battles against the U.S. Army. And, having seen so many of his people murdered by someone who was both a commissioned Army officer and an ordained minister, it would have been completely reasonable for Oakerhater to live out his life under a cloud of hatred toward the United States, white people and Christianity.
But, while imprisoned at Fort Marion, in St. Augustine, Fla., Oakerhater steered himself down a radically unreasonable path. Instead of stewing away in hatred, Oakerhater embraced Christianity — the faith of his oppressor — and dedicated the remainder of his life to fostering peace, reconciliation and love.
The former warrior was ordained a deacon in the Episcopal Church, and returned to the Cheyenne and Arapaho people in Oklahoma. Near Watonga, in 1881, he told them of his change of path — from the external war for revenge to the internal war against hatred and fear.
“You all know me,” he told his people. “You remember when I led you out to war, I went first, and what I told you was true. Now I have been away to the East and I have learned about another captain, the Lord Jesus Christ, and he is my leader. He goes first, and all he tells me is true. I come back to my people to tell you to go with me now in this new road, a war that makes all for peace.”
Oakerhater waged that “war that makes all for peace” until his death in 1931, and his legacy lives strong today in Oklahoma, among the descendants of both Native peoples and those who once oppressed them.
Oakerhater was extraordinary. But he was not alone. Throughout history, and in our midst, we see these beacons of peace, reconciliation and justice among the darkness of our worst human tendencies.
Reflecting on Oakerhater, my mind raced to Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who committed themselves to the irrational, nonsensical goal of achieving reconciliation with their oppressors after the end of South Africa’s apartheid in 1994.
Tutu, in his 1999 book “No Future Without Forgiveness,” described this desire for reconciliation as stemming both from Christian teaching and from the African Bantu philosophy of Ubuntu, which loosely translates as “I am because we are.”
“Ubuntu is very difficult to render into a Western language,” Tutu wrote. “It is to say, ‘My humanity is caught up, is inextricably bound up, in what is yours.’”
There is a tie that binds us together. All of us. Regardless of party, nationality, ideology, creed or religion. We are bound together by ties that transcend our differences. Those ties mean we cannot rise, alone, while oppressing our neighbor, or turning our hearts toward revenge.
For Oakerhater and Tutu, those ties are woven in faith. But, whether you define these ties in terms of faith, philosophy, or just the intrinsic worth of human life, the ties remain — no matter how imperfect we are at recognizing them.
Oakerhater, Mandela, Tutu and countless others like them made, and are making, a difference in this world because they looked above the illusion of our differences, and focused instead on our common humanity. They chose peace, forgiveness, reconciliation and love — to a nonsensical level. And, in doing so, they freed themselves, and those whose lives they touched, from the bondage of revenge, hatred and fear.
Looking about us, it may seem impossible to escape that bondage. We’re not the first to feel this way. Others have had it worse, and they have shown us the way out.
It is a way that makes no sense, in our false sense of “me first” and “me only.” But, when we rise above that, and see ourselves as we truly are — inextricably linked together — we will begin to heal the forces tearing us apart, and set this nation on a truer course to our yet-unrecognized potential.