Join 3,441 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


Acts of sacred violence
January 9, 2006 12:30 PM   Subscribe

What’s "Sacred" about Violence in Early America? Susan Juster discusses the "oversized colonial martyr complex" with its attendant paradox: "colonial martyrs were everywhere, religious violence... in short supply." She begins:
One of the most chilling images in early American history is the deliberate firing of Fort Mystic during the Pequot War of 1637. Five hundred Indian men, women, and children died that day, burned alive along with their homes and possessions by a vengeful Puritan militia intent on doing God’s will. "We must burn them!" the militia captain famously insisted to his troops on the eve of the massacre, in words that echo the classic early modern response to heretics. Just five months before, the Puritan minister at Salem had exhorted his congregation in strikingly similar terms to destroy a more familiar enemy, Satan; "We must burne him," John Wheelwright told his parishioners. Indians and devils may have been scarcely distinguishable to many a Puritan, but their rhetorical conflation in these two calls to arms raises a question: Was the burning of Fort Mystic a racial or a religious killing?
She avoids easy answers and makes some interesting connections. If you want to find out more about the Pequot War, there's good material in the History section of this site. (Main link via wood s lot.)
posted by languagehat (35 comments total)

 
A key paragraph:
Should we extend the concept of martyrdom to include those who did not use or recognize the term? Should the five hundred Pequots who perished in the Fort Mystic massacre be considered "martyrs"? What about the Praying Indians who were herded onto a pestilential island in Boston Harbor during King Philip’s War and left to die while the Puritan militias burned Indian villages from Maine to Massachusetts? Or the peaceful Indians of the Moravian mission town of Gnadenhutten who were slaughtered by vengeful Scots-Irish farmers a century later in the Pennsylvania backcountry? We know that the German Moravians considered their Indian brethren at Gnadenhutten to be martyrs to the cause, and I suspect that New England’s Christian Indians had their own martyr tales to tell of King Philip’s War, even if they left almost no written accounts of their ordeal. To move further into the dark borderlands of the colonial "violence frontier," how about the thousands of Africans who suffered (in Jon Butler’s provocative phrase) a "spiritual holocaust" when they were torn from their native villages and cosmologies and forced into slavery in the American South? Should the violence of renaming, the loss of African genealogical and spiritual roots, be compared to the violence of burning at the stake? And what of those slaves who were burned at the stake—the unfortunate men and women who fell victim to the southern slaveholders’ paranoia about fire and poison throughout the eighteenth century or, on a larger scale, the "conspirators" in the 1741 New York arson scare who formed a human bonfire at the hands of the city’s terrified citizens? How much of the ideological complex of European heresy hunting was recreated in the spectacle of slave malefactors or Indian villages being put to the flames?
posted by languagehat at 12:30 PM on January 9, 2006


Some interesting side reading about the history and rationalizations of violence: Rising Up and Rising Down
posted by Rothko at 12:38 PM on January 9, 2006


Very interesting stuff. Somehow related in my mind (alongside early emancipationists, who had racial and religious politics all aswim together) is Mary Lee Settle's incredible book "I, Roger Williams". In addition to a wealth of fascinating information about early america and the threads of liberty and legality running back though English and European history, it has a lot about the relationships between colonials and natives, from different perspectives. Amazing, amazing book.
posted by freebird at 12:53 PM on January 9, 2006


Hmm. It's an interesting article, but I can't say I can get behind the spirit of the conclusions. The article seems to best summed up by
it seems reasonable to suggest that the act of burning alive was an expression of religious anathema, whether reserved for heretics or racial others, and that those who suffered (and perpetrated) this horror were understood to be fulfilling religious roles. [emph added]
Note that those are two seperate assertions. It's one thing to point out the cultural meaning of an action, and another thing entirely to stretch the metaphor by mapping all parties into pre-defined roles. Try using the metaphor backwards: dos it really make sense to use colonist violence as a lense to examine the brutal european civil wars?
posted by allan at 12:59 PM on January 9, 2006


Mel Gibson comes to mind.
posted by Smedleyman at 1:01 PM on January 9, 2006


Question is, as a culture derived almost entirely by those who did the violence, should we hold those who were victims to be more than simply victims? The Pequots did not die for an American cause, unless you decide that their resistance to European encroachment is representative of American culture.

Is she advocating American martyrdom or Native American martyrdom? Its hard to decide when someone ceases to be a victim of a horrible crime and becomes something more. You might as well say that every person gunned down in a ghetto, barrior, or farm lane, is a martyr.
posted by Atreides at 1:03 PM on January 9, 2006


The concept of Sacred Violence comes from René Girard:
According to Girard, human culture has been founded on two principles, which he calls "mimetic rivalry" and the "surrogate victim mechanism." Mimesis refers to the propensity of humans to imitate other people both consciously and unconsciously... Girard observes that the desire to appropriate another person's possessions, loves and very being may seem innocent at first, but it poses a fundamental threat to community life. In imitating our models, we may come to approach their power and threaten their own position--in which case they quickly become rivals who tell us not to imitate them. When we imitate the model's thoughts, there is harmony; when we imitate the model's desires, the model becomes our obstacle and rival. Mimesis thus inexorably leads to rivalry, and rivalry leads sooner or later to violence... During the course of evolution, Girard believes a long series of primal murders, repeated endlessly over possibly a million years, taught early humans that the death of one or more members of the group would bring a mysterious peace and discharge of tension. This pattern is the foundation of what Girard calls the surrogate victim mechanism... For Girard, the sacred first appears as violence directed at a sacrificial victim, a scapegoat. Every culture achieves stability by discharging the tensions of mimetic rivalry and violence onto scapegoats. Scapegoating channels and expels violence so that communal life can continue. As mimetic tensions recur, a new crisis threatens, and sacred violence is once again necessary... The lynch mob is at the foundation of social order.
Victims, Violence and the Sacred: the Thought of René Girard.
More René Girard links here.

"We must burn them!" the militia captain famously insisted to his troops on the eve of the massacre, in words that echo the classic early modern response to heretics.

As the victims can be seen as martyrs, so can the massacres be seen as human sacrifice writ large.

This is a wonderful post.
posted by y2karl at 1:11 PM on January 9, 2006


Unfortunately I was not able to take Susan Juster's class on Colonial Violence here at UM as it conflicted with my TA responsibilities last year... Shoot! Nice link.
posted by Slothrop at 1:21 PM on January 9, 2006


Nice post, and a thought-provoking essay, even though I'm not sure at the end what she's after. I'd accept her contention that the slaughtered Indians were slaughtered for religious reasons, or for some combination of racial and religious reasons, rather than the pure racism that might seem more attractive as an explanation today, but I'm not sure why she asks her concluding questions about whether or not the vicitms were martyrs. They were heretics, I'm not sure that writing from her perspective they can be considered anything but that.

I'd love to see an examination of the shading of religious hatred into racial hatred, especially as it related to slaves, many of whom became quite christian. What was the turning point, how was the change understood? We know that there were Christians of conscience who found slavery unacceptable, just as there were people who used the bible to excuse slavery.
posted by OmieWise at 1:40 PM on January 9, 2006


The British colonies were thus "awash" in martyr literature, a fact that returns us once again to the central paradox of colonial martyrdom: colonial martyrs were everywhere, religious violence (of the kind recognizable to early modern Christians or to historians of the Reformation era), in short supply. What, then, are we to make of this oversized colonial martyr complex?

I don't see much support for this claim, at least within the article. Martyr tales may have been popular, but so were Revelation-soaked, fire-and-brimstone sermons. Without at least some better evidence for the preponderance of martyr literature, this location of the Indian-hating bloodlust of early settlers seems misplaced to me.

Almost anyone would agree that Americans are (possibly uniquely) obsessed with violence. The line from Indian genocide, witch burnings, and institutionalized slavery to lynching, Abu Ghraib, and video-game-horror-porn is perhaps too easy to draw. Really, what was--and what is--wrong with us? Surely it's more than a martyr complex.
posted by _sirmissalot_ at 2:39 PM on January 9, 2006


The question of religious versus racial violence depends upon the establishment of the concept of race. Wikipedia suggests that race was not a fully formed concept until the 18th century. This would make it difficult for 17th century violence to be properly considered racist violence. Juster makes a compelling argument that American colonists felt compelled to act out violence against the other, scripted by literature integral and peripheral to religious persecution in continental Europe.

A conclusion that could be drawn from Juster's essay is that we should be concerned not with the presence of violence in our literature, film, and video game entertainment, but the nature of that violence. If violence is uniformly directed at a certain kind of enemy (an outer-space alien, or foreign army), we might expect to see large scale violence against real-world people that fill psychological roles similar to those present in entertainment. However, if violence is random, it may not sum up to a cultural force sufficient to do real world damage.
posted by b1tr0t at 2:41 PM on January 9, 2006


This is a very good post. I am interested by her argument that the early colonists arrived imbued with concepts of martyrdom, which were reinforced by the relatively isolated status of their communities compared to indigenous inhabitants. It is certainly true that seventeenth century Europe was a far more viscerally religious, even apocalyptic place than one might imagine. Her point about Foxe's Book of Martyrs is well made - it provides one of the backdrops in England for a century of "troubles", anxiety about the Catholic Counter-Reformation and violence as society briefly turned in on itself. I find it hard to imagine that it and its counterparts didn't inform the beginnings of American society in some way.

And I suppose the interesting thing about martyrs is that you don't even need many - if you look at early Christian literature, for instance, there are heavy and often graphic martyr tales, but . A minority belief often ends up defining itself in opposition to something else, and just as it was in early Christianity's interests to define a relatively small sect against imperial persecutors, so I can imagine that it was in early colonists' interests to define themselves against Indian populations. What OmieWise says is the interesting point - how or if at all does this evolve into violence informed by a concept of race? My assumption has always been that the latter is a product of the Enlightenment, which was capable both of stressing the universality of mankind and the "scientific"/rational differences between different "races". But perhaps it has a longer legacy - an interesting one to think about. Thanks again for the post.
posted by greycap at 2:47 PM on January 9, 2006


Thank you, languagehat. I've got some reading to do.

The tradition of mass slaughter of the native inhabitants is something we in Canada have yet to come to terms with (opinion). I welcome any insights on the way people thought about their mission/mandate when this continent was being colonized. .
posted by reflecked at 2:50 PM on January 9, 2006


I must admit, however, that of late I tend to discount Religious motivation for much of anything. I realize this is an oversimplification, and mention it here in hopes of my own correction, but: it seems to me that in the vast majority of cases, the ostensibly religious motivations for events are conscious or unconscious disguises for the real reasons.

Did the Crusades really happen because of true religious feeling, or because of deeper socio-political and economic reasons? Did the settlers really kill natives for religious reasons, or because they wanted their stuff and were afraid? Were the wars between (say) England and Spain or France really about Protestant and Catholic belief, or was this merely the gloss on a deeper struggle about power and money?

Granted, these things are generally confounded and impossible to truly seperate, but I have been developing a sort of cynicism about people being motivated by high minded ideals, whether it's to do "good" or "ill".
posted by freebird at 2:58 PM on January 9, 2006


The question of religious versus racial violence depends upon the establishment of the concept of race. Wikipedia suggests that race was not a fully formed concept until the 18th century. This would make it difficult for 17th century violence to be properly considered racist violence.

Not "fully formed", perhaps, but the identification of humans of radically different (non-European) appearance as the "Other" is well-documented in literature and history. Consider the animosity generated by the skin colour of Othello (16th century). The underlying concept of race existed regardless of a lack of formal conception. The association of Otherness with physical appearance is a basic racism.
posted by mek at 4:46 PM on January 9, 2006


Almost anyone would agree that Americans are (possibly uniquely) obsessed with violence.

Please. Every culture on earth commits horrrible violence every day.

Really, what was--and what is--wrong with us?

Ugh, take your self loathing somewhere else. The idea that Americans have some unique thirst for bloodshed is so played. Our entire species is wired for killing.
posted by Scoo at 4:46 PM on January 9, 2006


Check out a piece of the mindset of Puritan thought. The New Englanders are a people of God settled in those, which were once the devil's territories; and it may easily be supposed that the devil was exceedingly disturbed, when he perceived such a people here accomplishing the promise of old made unto our blessed Jesus, that He should have the utmost parts of the earth for His possession. How big a step is it from looking at the Indians as "demons" to wiping them out?
posted by John of Michigan at 4:47 PM on January 9, 2006


How big a step is it from looking at the Indians as "demons" to wiping them out?

I think you've possibly got cause and effect reversed. Lots of groups get demonized but not wiped out. It seems more likely to me that there are practical reasons the settlers would have liked the natives wiped out, and that the demonization provides a handy rationale and motivation.
posted by freebird at 4:52 PM on January 9, 2006


As something of a counter-balance to the Puritan typology of lonely pilgrims (Israelites) in a Wilderness (Egyptian desert), there's always John Smith--my reading of him and his exploits in Virginia has little to do with fulfilling an imagined role, other than that of a he-man. He takes a visceral delight in killing Indians (and lashing them to his arms to use as shields), and in almost being killed by them. I suspect the pendulum gauging just how influential the Puritans were, as compared to the majority of settlers in America (a bit religious, but more interested in making a buck) will continue to swing back and forth, but as I've reminded students before, there were many more Smiths than there were Bradfords and Winthrops (the latter two where much better writers though, which makes all the difference).

Great post, great discussion.
posted by bardic at 5:01 PM on January 9, 2006


Bardic, I think you'd *love* the Roger Williams book I mentioned upthread. It's a fascinating perspective on a more liberal side of the early settlers and Puritanism that I'd never heard.
posted by freebird at 5:05 PM on January 9, 2006


Ugh, take your self loathing somewhere else. The idea that Americans have some unique thirst for bloodshed is so played. Our entire species is wired for killing.

You really think there are no differences between cultures when it comes to how they regulate, fantasize, and story-tell about violence? And any suggestions for where I should take my self-loathing?

Of course Americans aren't the only violent people in the world. But given our trumpeted ideals, I'd argue that our relationship to violence has always been perverted.
posted by _sirmissalot_ at 5:28 PM on January 9, 2006


American and Canadian culture have virtually no difference in the way they "regulate, fantasize, and story-tell about violence." And many other cultures are even more gruesome in depictions of violence (Asian cinema, anyone?). If you wanted to pinpoint the cause of whatever violence epidemic you believe Americans are wrapped up in, I'd look to legal and government approaches to crime, education (or lack thereof), poverty, etc. Those things called "root causes"?
posted by mek at 5:53 PM on January 9, 2006


Freebird, I'm looking forward to checking it out.
posted by bardic at 7:26 PM on January 9, 2006


American and Canadian culture have virtually no difference in the way they "regulate, fantasize, and story-tell about violence."

Wow. Let's compare gun laws, murder rates, military budgets, military exploits, histories of slavery, civil wars, nuclear bombs dropped, violent crime rates, content of movies and songs produced, Jim Crow laws, school shootings, numbers of apocalypse-obsessed televangelists and best-selling novels, incarceration rates, armed militias . . . am I making sense? Yes, there are more violent and violence-obsessed places on Earth than the United States. But I really don't think Canada is one of them.

Apologies for the side debate on an otherwise very interesting post.
posted by _sirmissalot_ at 8:33 PM on January 9, 2006


Interesting post and discussion.

In reading such my "mental geography" connects to other later events -- specifically the Raid on Deerfield -- those that focus on the struggle and tension of natives and 'settlers.'
posted by ericb at 8:41 PM on January 9, 2006


Wow. Let's compare gun laws, murder rates, military budgets, military exploits, histories of slavery, civil wars, nuclear bombs dropped, violent crime rates, content of movies and songs produced, Jim Crow laws, school shootings, numbers of apocalypse-obsessed televangelists and best-selling novels, incarceration rates, armed militias . . . am I making sense?

Well, to honest, you're sort of rambling. You paint a broad, slapdash and very shallow portrait of the American psyche. Obsessing over America's vices, loathe to acknowledge its virtues. Disheartening.
posted by Scoo at 9:26 PM on January 9, 2006


Any sociologists out there know of research ranking violence in various countries? I'm betting the US is way up there, but that is purely uninformed speculation.
posted by dopeypanda at 10:39 PM on January 9, 2006


Sirmissalot, you tend to mix a lot of complicated problems in with nonexistent ones, and statistics/effects (incarceration rates, budgets) with historical events (Hiroshima, the Civil War), social problems (Jim Crow laws, high crime rates, school shootings), and general depictions of violence (movies/songs). Of course, whether these myriad effects or events have any relation whatsoever is up for debate, and it's obviously stupid to link some of them together. If you are arguing that violence begets violence, well, can't I still ask "where did the violence come from?" My point was that America and Canada share virtually all of their mass media, and thus that cultural depictions of violence are not a likely cause of violence in America today.
posted by mek at 11:21 PM on January 9, 2006


Man, I'm glad I posted this. I thought it was an OK post, but the ensuing discussion is five-star. And freebird, I too am looking forward to investigating that book.

Yes, mankind seems to be inherently violent and I doubt there are any totally peaceful cultures, but it amazes me that anyone can doubt America's special obsession with it. Asian cinema is violent, but the cultures are not, not to anywhere near the same degree. This is not about denying America's virtues or obsessing over its vices, just noting a salient point. I love America (in my own way, which has nothing to do with standard-issue "patriotism") and am glad I'm American, but I wish we could get over the love of bang-bang.
posted by languagehat at 4:48 AM on January 10, 2006


languagehat writes "[I] am glad I'm American, but I wish we could get over the love of bang-bang."

The American relationship to violence is, I think, arguably different, and, apropos of this discussion, I think that difference has to do with a belief in the redemptive power of violence, the almost cleansing aspect of it. I think a lot about the "Kill 'em all and let God sort 'em out" motto that was part of the fighting in Vietnam. It seems as if it exemplifies not only the confidence that the people being killed are safely other (in not only a racial, but actually in a deeply moral sense), but also a belief that there's no need to second guess killing people because the action is authorized and overseen. But I also think that there's an undercurrent of cleanliness to the image, yes, there may be the danger of throwing out the good with the bad, but at least you're taking out the trash.
posted by OmieWise at 5:34 AM on January 10, 2006


My sources say what happened was the Puritans were shit faced drunk on the fine beer they made when someone told them the Pequot celebrated Christmas. That's all it took. :-)

Thanks for the great post, discussion and reading material!
posted by nofundy at 7:01 AM on January 10, 2006


(nofundy is right. Puritans did like to tie a few on once in a while, especially at funerals).
posted by bardic at 9:31 AM on January 10, 2006


Puritans did like to tie a few on once in a while

From the book 'Straight Up or On the Rocks' (which I'm currently in the middle of reading):
"The Puritans arrived on the shores of New England with a passion for freedom and a raging thirst. When the Pilgrims dropped anchor at Plymouth Rock, it was no coincidence that the liquor supply was getting low. William Bradford, anxiously scanning the rocky shoreline of Massachusetts, decided not to 'take time for further search or consideration, our victuals being much spent, especially our Beere.'

...The colonists, to put it mildly, were no teetotalers....In their war on sensory pleasure, the Puritans never considered attacking beer and wine as inherently harmful."
posted by ericb at 1:29 PM on January 10, 2006


When the Pilgrims dropped anchor at Plymouth Rock

Actually, they first dropped anchor in Provincetown on November 11, 1620. It wasn't until December 23 that they relocated to 'Plimouth.'
posted by ericb at 1:38 PM on January 10, 2006


Thanks for this post! Common-Place is always good value (from previous issues, I particularly remember Philip Gura's article on Emily Dickinson and eBay, and Karen Sherry's article on how to find pornography in American museums), and this is a very interesting piece, even if it does read like a trailer for a forthcoming book. It reminded me of Ann Kibbey's book The Interpretation of Material Shapes in Puritanism, which also discusses the Pequot War and argues that the massacre of the Indians was a projection onto the 'other' of religious tensions within the Protestant community.

freebird, I sympathise with your view that religion is often a cover for self-interest. (This is one reason why I have never been particularly persuaded by the 'religion is the cause of all the evil in the world' / 'without religion, the world would be a better place' arguments so often heard on Metafilter.) However, I think it would be a mistake to push this too far, for several reasons: 1. It leads to a superficial view of religion and culture as merely the top-dressing for politics and economics. 2. It implies that we understand the motivations of our ancestors better than they themselves did. 3. It makes history very boring.

As for the specifics of Juster's argument .. well, I'm not totally convinced that the discourse of martyrdom can carry the weight of significance she wants to place on it. I'd be inclined to put less emphasis on martyrdom and more emphasis on iconoclasm as the motivating force behind religious violence in America. The Protestant iconoclastic tradition makes it easier, I think, for the Puritans to regard the Indians not as people being massacred but merely as objects being destroyed. And despite Juster's very powerful concluding paragraphs, I still feel -- naively, perhaps -- that the Pequot War is an exceptional event that can't simply be explained as part of a culture of violence at the heart of the American psyche.
posted by verstegan at 5:08 PM on January 10, 2006


« Older New York transit history, slides and commentary...  |  Osama bin Laden... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments