The Last Stand

I have found that one learns a great deal about people, their strengths, fears, prejudices and virtues by reading military history that focuses on the people more than the strategies and tactics of a battle. To that end I have been reading The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull and the Battle of the Little Bighorn by Nathaniel Philbrick.
A common practice among plains Indians was to in some way desecrate the bodies of their dead enemies by mutilating them. The Little Bighorn was no different. Everyone of the nearly 200 U.S troopers to die with Custer near Last Stand Hill was desecrated in some way. Usually this was through making large slicing knife wounds to the legs and arms.
There was one notable exception. Captain Myles Keogh’s body was left untouched in the midst of dozens of other mutilated troopers. The obvious question is why? Keogh was noted for bravery during the fight by the very Indians he fought against and that might seem like an answer since bravery was highly regarded in that warrior culture. But others were also noted for bravery and that did not spare them being desecrated.
There was something that stood out to the relief column that arrived a few days after the battle. Conspicuous around Keogh’s neck was a medallion know as The Agnus Dei or Lamb of God. When his body was found the Agnus Dei caught the attention of those who saw him.
Christian symbols were know among the Cheyenne, Sioux and other plains Indians. Sitting Bull, for example, wore a crucifix for many years after it was given to him by a missionary when Sitting Bull was a young man. Even though they would not have been followers of Jesus they respected what they saw as spiritual power. Because of that respect, it is speculated that they left Keogh’s body intact. This becomes even more fascinating once you realize that the desecration had a spiritual purpose. It was believed that when the body of an enemy was desecrated, that enemy was denied an existence in the afterlife. It was considered the final triumph over your enemy. By not desecrating Keogh’s body, they were in effect allowing him to enter the afterlife. That was an extremely unusual and significant act.
All of that got me to wondering about respect. The warriors under Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse would not have agreed that Keogh’s Christian faith was correct. In fact there is enough evidence to show that major parts of Christianity did not sit well with Native American religious beliefs. Yet at the same time it seems that, at least in this case, they could respect that Keogh believed in an afterlife and they were not going to do anything to interfere with that once he died.
That leads me to ask, if these Native Americans could show that kind of respect to an enemy, an enemy that had come intent on killing their women and children, an enemy whose faith they did not hold, how should Christians, who are called by Christ to love our enemies, show respect to others who we are certain have incorrect beliefs?
I will just leave you with the question to think about as I do.

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