Reclaiming the Word

Cherokee retracement of Trail of Tears at Pea Ridge National Military Park, Garlfield, Arkansas.  Photo courtesy National Park Service

For Generations, Native North Americans and other Indigenous peoples have lived the false belief that a fulfilled relationship with their Creator through Jesus required rejecting their own culture and adopting another, European in origin. In consequence, conventional approaches to mission with Indigenous peoples in North America and around the world have produced relatively dismal outcomes.

The result has subjected Indigenous people to deep-rooted self-doubt at best, self-hatred at worst.

One of the more egregious examples of the “conventional” approach in Canada involved the church-run residential schools. Indigenous children were taken from their families, prevented from speaking their native languages, and subjected to various other forms of abuse.

Isabelle Knockwood, a survivor of church-run residential schools, observed, “I thought about how many of my former schoolmates, like Leona, Hilda, and Maimie, had died premature deaths. I wondered how many were still alive and how they were doing, how well they were coping, and if they were still carrying the burden of the past on their shoulders like I was.”

Given the countless mission efforts over the past four centuries (which in practice were targeted not so much to spiritual transformation as to social and cultural annihilation), we might conclude that Indigenous people must possess a unique spiritual intransigence to the gospel.

But that would not tell the whole story.

The real tale is best told through a more careful examination of the many Indigenous people who, despite the tragic history of Christian mission in their lives and communities, still claim affinity to one tradition or another of the Christian church. Here we discover people from the Arctic to Mexico stumbling heavenward within the kingdom of God despite the bleakness of their current social realities—devastation clearly connected to the wrong-headedness of mission to their people. (Native North Americans “lead” in all the negative social statistics: Poor health, addictions, family violence, unemployment, homelessness, lack of education, etc. are all extremely high in First Nations, Inuit, Métis, and Native American communities.)

The North American Institute for Indigenous Theological Studies (now simply known as NAIITS: An Indigenous Learning Community) emerged in response to a growing need to transform otherwise depressing, death-dealing statistics into life-giving reconciliation—of people with their Creator, of individuals with themselves, and of humanity with the rest of creation. A small cadre of mature Native Christian practitioners directs NAIITS. Most have been personally invested in exploring and living out the theology they have espoused for more than 25 years. Theological and biblical understanding that resonates from within the cultures and traditions of Indigenous people has emerged from this interaction.

Christianity, as presented to us over the centuries, offered soul salvation, a ticket home to eternity, but was essentially unconcerned with the rest of our lives—lives that, history makes clear, were nonetheless fully exploited by those bringing the offer. It was with this in mind that, in 1999, the emerging controversy over Indigenous cultural and theological contextualization of the gospel provoked our small group of Indigenous Jesus-followers to respond.

Click here to read the complete commentary courtesy of Sojourners Magazine  The opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position or policy of the Florida Conference.

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