Today's news headlines continually blare forth the stark reality of a culture clash between the Western world and the world of Islam. Men and women of goodwill on both sides are being stretched and drawn to maintain their core values in an ever-changing road map to peace in the Middle East.
War very rarely leaves a country or region as it found it. The very nature or cause for war changes with the course of time. It can leave a lot of little people decimated and disillusioned along the way. People who are today's partners for peace can be transformed into tomorrow's adversaries if careful forethought is not given. No one necessarily plans it that way, but it happens. It's the nature of war as it twists and turns in the grip of geopolitical planners and mapmakers far from the smell of the battlefield.
Such a scenario was played out over 100 years ago in the Northwest region of the United States. Cultures clashed on a shrinking continent. The land between the Mississippi River and the Pacific Ocean was no longer big enough to maintain two equal but separate cultures. Longtime friends became enemies. As a result, people died. It was not a pretty picture. And for the moment, let's view it through the lens of one of America's wisest men, In-mut-too-yah-lat-lat, better known to a wider audience by his English name, Chief Joseph of the Nez Percé tribe.
Hearts that were friendly
Chief Joseph recounted late in his life how "the first white men of your people who came to our country were named Lewis and Clark. They brought many things which our people had never seen. They talked straight and our people gave them a great feast as proof that their hearts were friendly. They made presents to our chiefs and our people made presents to them. We had great many horses of which we gave them what they needed, and they gave us guns and tobacco in return. All the Nez Percé made friends with Lewis and Clark and agreed to let them pass through their country and never to make war on white men. This promise, the Nez Percé has never broken" (New Perspectives of the West, "Chief Joseph Speaks," Public Broadcasting System).
His own father, Joseph the Elder, was one of the first Nez Percé to convert to Christianity and was an active supporter of the tribe's long-standing peace with the white man. He even assisted the Washington territorial governor to set up the Nez Percé Indian reservation that encompassed an area stretching from Oregon to Idaho. But in 1863, following a gold rush into Nez Percé territory, the federal government took nearly 6 million acres of land, and forced the Nez Percé tribe onto a reservation in Idaho only one tenth its original size.
Joseph the Elder denounced the United States, destroyed his American flag and his Bible. He refused to move his people to that location and would not sign any treaty regarding the newly proposed boundaries (ibid.).
The die is cast!
It is in this setting that Chief Joseph (the younger) had leadership thrust upon him in 1871. Tensions continued to mount with the ever-growing numerical onslaught of new settlers from the east. The federal government for a brief while seemed to reverse itself, discouraging settler development and allowing the Wallowa band of Nez Percé to remain in their ancestral home. But the government again reversed itself two years later and threatened a cavalry attack if Chief Joseph's people did not move to the reservation.
At first, recognizing that fighting would be futile, he begrudgingly began to move his people to Idaho. But matters were taken out of his hand when 20 of his young braves took their revenge by killing several of the settlers.
What followed was one of the most brilliant military episodes on the North American continent. In a course of maneuvers stretching in circles extending 1,400 miles, this band of 700 Native American men, women and children, with only 200 male warriors, would successfully confront 2,000 U.S. cavalry and Indian auxiliaries in four major battles and countless skirmishes.
The American headlines of the time described Chief Joseph as the "Red Napoleon." General Sherman of Civil War fame chronicled: "The Indians throughout displayed a courage and skill that elicited universal praise... [they] fought with almost scientific skill, using advance and rear guards, skirmish lines and field fortifications" (ibid.).
"Hear me, my chiefs"
After a long list of skirmishes, Chief Joseph and his people were stopped just 30 miles short of their goal of reaching Canada and allying themselves with friendly tribes there. Chief Joseph came to the clear reality that you can win many battles, but lose the war. It is his surrender speech of Oct. 5, 1877, that immortalized his wisdom.
"I am tired of fighting. Our chiefs are killed. Looking Glass is dead. Toohoolhoolzote is dead. The old men are all dead. It is the young men who say, 'Yes' or 'No.' He who led the young men [Olikut} is dead. It is cold, and we have no blankets. The little children are freezing to death. My people, some of them, have run away to the hills, and have no blankets, no food. No one knows where they are—perhaps freezing to death. I want to have time to look for my children, and see how many of them I can find. Maybe I shall find them among the dead. Hear me, my chiefs; I am tired. My heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands I will fight no more forever."
Chief Joseph's famous declaration served him little in his lifetime. He spent many years being transferred from reservation to reservation in Kansas, Indian Territory (Oklahoma) and ultimately to a reservation back in the Northwest, but not to his tribal homeland.
Too much talk
Chief Joseph's wisdom and shrewd observations in later life moved beyond the confines of grassy battlefields to the warring factions within human nature. After visiting Washington D.C. in 1879, he came back with these reflections.
"I cannot understand why so many chiefs are allowed to talk so many different ways, and promise so many different things. I have seen the Great Father Chief [President Rutherford B. Hayes]... and many other law chiefs [congressmen] and they all say they are my friends, and that I shall have justice, but while all their mouths talk right, I do not understand why nothing is done for my people.
"I have heard talk and talk but nothing is done. Good words do not last long unless they amount to something. Words do not pay for my dead people. They do not pay for my country now overrun by white men. They do not protect my father's grave. They do not pay for my horses and cattle. Good words do not give me back my children... I am tired of talk that comes to nothing. It makes my heart sick when I remember all the good words and all the broken promises. There has been too much talking by men who had no right to talk" (ibid.).
It's amazing to read his words nearly 130 years later and recognize that the more things seem to change, the less they actually do. Talk is cheap, and promises come and go.
Do not put your trust in princes
Long ago in the words found in Isaiah 59:4, Isaiah 59:7-8, God offered this startling verdict regarding the inner workings of man left to himself: "No one calls for justice, nor does any plead for truth. They trust in empty words and speak lies; they conceive evil and bring forth iniquity... Their feet run to evil, and they make haste to shed innocent blood; their thoughts are thoughts of iniquity; wasting and destruction are in their paths. The way of peace they have not known, and there is no justice in their ways; they have made themselves crooked paths; whoever takes that way shall know not peace."
It is no wonder that King David, a man thoroughly versed in the intrigues of politics, counseled others in Psalm 146:3, "Do not put your trust in princes, nor in a son of man, in whom there is no help."
In 1904, Chief Joseph died. He was still in exile from his homeland. His doctor said he died of a broken heart. Even so, Chief Joseph hoped for a new society in which there would no longer be broken hearts, but rather hearts with new ways of thinking and being.
"Whenever the white man treats the Indian as they treat each other then we shall have no more wars. We shall be all alike—brothers of one father and mother, with one sky above us and one country around us and one government for all. Then the Great Spirit Chief who rules above will smile upon this land and send rain to wash out the bloody spots made by brothers' hands upon the face of the earth. For this time the Indian race is waiting and praying. I hope no more groans of wounded men and women will ever go to the ear of the Great Spirit Chief above, and that all people may be one people" (ibid.).
No more groans
When I read Chief Joseph's words, "I hope no more groans of wounded men and women go to the ears of the Great Spirit Chief above," I could not help but think of Paul's words in Romans 8:21-22: "Because the creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groans and labors with birth pangs together until now."
Whether it is the historical sadness of yesterday's abuses or the challenges facing all of us in our current world beset by terrorism, there is hope. Yes, there is a new world coming. A great spiritual "chief" that the Bible reveals as the "captain of [our] salvation" (Hebrews 2:10) is coming to this earth and establishing world peace for all humanity. Yes, every race, tribe, kindred and folk is going to be taught peace.
Men and women of good will are going to come to terms with their God and themselves. They're going to recognize that the history of humanity is a cycle of circles. Yes, a lot of motion, some battles won along the way—but they will come to realize that by themselves they cannot win the struggle against human nature.
And like Chief Joseph, they will come to realize the futility of going any further on their own, and come to terms of surrender, not before the generals and politicians of this world with their shifting agendas, but before none other than Jesus Christ, who is "the way, the truth, and the life" (John 14:6). When Christ gives His word that He will perform, He keeps it, even at the cost of His life.
God has a plan and strategy in place. It is going to entail a massive realignment of human energy and productive output. Isaiah 2:4 gives us a taste of such a world. It tells us, "He shall judge between the nations, and rebuke many people; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more."
We are offered further illustration of this new world in the words of John as found in Revelation 21:4: "And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow or crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away."
Just imagine Chief Joseph someday walking through such a world. He will no longer have to look over his shoulder wondering when the cavalry will be coming over the rise. He will no longer have to watch the young children freeze and the old men die. He will not ask if God's promises are worth any more than the paper on which they are written. He will never again die of a broken heart, but he will live with a new heart.
Imagine the smile that will come upon his face. And in that ageless kingdom to come, you and I will remember that this wise chief of the Nez Percé nation long ago echoed a phrase from the millennial refrain, "This is the way, walk in it" (Isaiah 30:21).
It is a phrase that one day all humanity will utter as they grasp the futility of going any further on their own, apart from God. It is a moment that comes to each person as he recognizes that his fight with a loving and caring God is over. It is the moment of Christian surrender when we utter, "From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever."