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They stole like ravenous wolves into Canterbury Cathedral in the thickening dusk of December 29, 1170. Intent on bathing the sanctified space in blood, five English knights invaded this sanctuary that was dedicated to uniting God and humanity.

Their target, Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Becket, carried out his normal duties under the umbrella of an amnesty offered by his former friend and current rival, King Henry II. Henry had elevated his friend and trusted advisor to the position of Archbishop in 1162 with the understanding that Becket would help him to extend his reforms of the English legal system to the ecclesiastical courts that had been shielded from secular authority.

Becket surprised him by taking seriously his role as the leader of English Christianity. The archbishop’s insistence on protecting the church’s judicial privileges in England led to a break between the two former allies. Becket had returned from exile in France after meeting with Henry, assured by his king that Henry would not seek revenge against Becket. Instead, the five knights assaulted Becket in a place where he should have been safe in a medieval culture that venerated the sanctity of the altar.

Eyewitness Edward Grim recorded the brutality of the attack as four of the knights battered Becket with their swords while the fifth stood watch. The monk recorded the heated exchange of charges and counter-charges between Becket and the knights. He then described in grisly detail how the knights split Becket’s skull, drenching the altar in blood and brains. According to Grim, one of the murderers pronounced Becket’s epitaph with the words, “Let us away, knights; he will rise no more.”

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Their bodies lay in the snow, contorted into bizarre shapes by their death agonies and the frigid cold. Tragedy claimed their lives on December 29, 1890; exactly 720 years after Becket’s blood stained the altar at Canterbury.

Two cultures met at a place called Wounded Knee on the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota. Those cultures were embodied by flesh and blood human beings. One side saw their world disappearing. The other believed that their culture could only be preserved by the extermination of the other.

About five hundred soldiers of the 7th Cavalry had detained a band of Sioux that included a large number of women and children. The soldiers feared that Sioux rituals shaped by the apocalyptic cult of the Ghost Dance would reignite armed resistance among the Sioux. When the soldiers attempted to disarm the Sioux the next morning, a scuffle broke out due to a misunderstanding between the soldiers and an elderly Sioux Brave named Black Coyote.

Shots were exchanged and an uneven battle erupted between some armed braves and the soldiers. The soldiers succumbed to a vicious frenzy of random violence, killing women, children, and unarmed men with utter abandon. Horrified investigators recounted how soldiers chased women and children for miles across the plains to cut them down with sabers or bullets. Four Hotchkiss M1875 mountain guns swept the native ranks with devastating rapid fire. Conservative estimates counted the dead at 150. Historian Dee Brown placed the number as twice that, around 300, in his Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West (1970).

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Two tragedies frame the history of this day. They were separated by centuries but united by the use of violence to suppress voices of dissent. The idealist argues that the person or culture who has resorted to violence to protect their perspective has already lost the argument. Pessimists, those disappointed idealists who prefer to be called realists, agree with the eighteenth century wit Voltaire that God is on the side of the bigger battalions. Who needs to win the argument when you can carry the day through the barrel of a Hotchkiss? Fear of change sometimes leads to repression and tragedy.

The assumption that the dance of cultures is a zero-sum game drives too much of the human story. For our culture to live, we assume theirs must die. Unfortunately, cultures can die only by assimilation or extermination. People pursue horrific measures at times to force assimilation and far too often turn to extermination in desperation to preserve their own culture or cultural superiority. Fear compels people to do sick things.

As we recall these tragic events that occurred centuries apart only a few days after Christmas, we also remember that Simeon pronounced a word of praise and warning just eight days after the birth of Christ when his parents brought him to the temple to be circumcised. Luke 2:22-40 records the song of praise attributed to Simeon known at the Nunc Dimittis as well as his warning to Mary that a sword would pierce her heart as her son became a sign that would be spoken against.

The joy of initiation at Christmas gave way to the harsh realities of execution, figuratively and literally, as the powers of the age sought to exterminate the threat to their status quo represented by Jesus. When they killed him, the Jewish leaders, like those English knights at Canterbury, assumed that he would rise no more. Two thousand years later, Christians celebrate his birth and his resurrection still.

Dehumanization remains an abhorrent and ineffective way to silence dissent. The violent may win the battle, but they only delay the inevitable. Ask Henry II. By June of the following year, he was performing acts of penance at Canterbury Cathedral, soon to be a premier pilgrimage site, and Thomas Becket was on his way to sainthood.

Too little and too late, Congress passed resolutions in 1990 expressing the “deep regret” of Americans on the centennial anniversary of the massacre at Wounded Knee. This statement coalesced in response to a growing protest movement that grew in the late sixties and early seventies as Native Americans recovered the stories of their sufferings and shared them.

The violent assumed that their victims would rise no more. However true that may be in the literal and physical sense, persecution amplifies the symbolic and spiritual voices of the oppressed. Hatred rebounds on the hater until, bowing under the weight of their own venom, they either accept the other or destroy themselves.

External peoples and cultures seldom destroy us. We destroy ourselves when we decide that life is a zero sum game and take actions to win that game which insure the erosion of our own characters and cultures. Being dead, they still speak. Having fallen, they rise forevermore.

Scott Culpepper

Scott Culpepper teaches history at Dordt College in Sioux Center, Iowa.

3 Comments

  • James Schaap says:

    All of us–but maybe especially those of us who live out here–need always to remember what happened a day’s travel west. Thanks for the enriching context, Scott, and thanks for the reminder.

  • Ed Starkenburg says:

    Thanks to both of you for helping us to remember and think.

  • Matt Huisman says:

    “The violent assumed that their victims would rise no more…We destroy ourselves when we decide that life is a zero sum game and take actions to win that game which insure the erosion of our own characters and cultures. ”

    It feels like there’s supposed to be a connection to current events here…not sure I see it.

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