The Common Good
March 2014

Reclaiming the Word

by Terry LeBlanc | March 2014

In missionary hands, the gospel was too often a bludgeon used to divide and conquer Native communities. Today, Indigenous theologians are finding redemptive power in that very same gospel.

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.

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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.

Since that time, our unwavering commitment has been to facilitate transformation and growth through the power of the gospel versus the often controlling, Westernized, religious expression of that gospel frequently presented to us. This has been a daunting task at times, since the juggernaut of Western mission, theology, and theological method has tended to decry anything of a contrary nature as heterodox. (Particularly in the U.S., both conservative and liberal Christians, with their respective points of dogma, tend to expect their particular tracks to be followed.)

Challenging this deep-seated Western ethnocentrism in theology and mission—at least among our own people—will encourage Native followers of Jesus to more effectively contribute to the wider community of Christian faith. This is necessary not only for ourselves, but also for the wider church. The mono-cultural and mono-philosophical foundations of most Christian faith in North America has had a negative, limiting effect for many decades, not only on theology but on missiology as well, often relegating the practice of faith to unhealthy patterns of self-absorbed individualism. Questions that might offer opportunity for real change are not asked—or if asked, they are responded to out of the same unchanging interpretive and philosophical framework.

Shift One: Away from Dualism
Our theological response to all of this is visible in several shifts. First, we have shifted away from the dualistic philosophical frames within which European and Euro-North American theology has been classically undertaken to a more holistic philosophical frame of reference. To Indigenous people, life is not easily captured in the simple binaries and either/or realities common within Western thought. Our philosophy is much more akin to the Hebraic “both/and.” Making this shift has resulted in active engagement with traditional Indigenous thinking and a more biblically faithful position.

Consider, for example, the continuing Western struggle to understand that the whole of creation is the focus of God’s redemptive activity in Christ. Christian scripture is abundantly clear that redemption through Jesus’ work on the cross has implications far beyond the church’s usual emphasis on the restoration of human beings alienated from their Creator. The creation itself groans in travail awaiting its own redemption (Romans 8:18-25). Yet, even as we give tacit assent to this in Western Christian theologies, we fail miserably to account for the work of the Spirit—dare I say, the gifts of the Spirit—so abundantly evident in the rest of Creation through which that groaning is becoming increasingly unmistakable. We might learn something about the means and trajectory of our common salvation were we to listen more carefully.

Seldom in evangelical writing does the idea that Jesus came to give his life so that the rest of creation might also be redeemed find a voice. (Howard Snyder and Joel Scandrett’s Salvation Means Creation Healed is a recent exception.) Make no mistake: Our current environmental quandary is the outcome of Christian theology, framed in dualist thought over many centuries, gone awry.

Compounded dualisms in classical Christian theology have also, from an Indigenous vantage point, created senseless divisions of reality into the sacred and profane, sacred and secular, natural and supernatural. Not everyone assumes life happens on two separated planes of existence, isolated from the rest of a supernatural creation by human-dictated delimitations. For most of us in the Indigenous world, everything expresses the sacred, for it all proceeds from God—regardless of the means of its creation. Not only is it fully sacred, but clearly, despite scientific discovery, it is still a significant mystery.

Shift Two: The Biblical Starting Point
The second shift is in our biblical starting point. Western theology, in the firm grip of Augustine’s articulation of sin and sin’s nature, has inevitably begun its theological undertakings with Genesis chapter 3, the Fall. Scraping the bottom of the sin barrel, then turning it over to see what lies beneath, has occupied much of Western Christian thought through the centuries. This practice made it theologically possible for missionaries and monarchs, popes and priests, vicars and viceroys to proclaim our soullessness and lack of humanity—to pronounce, as did missionaries of the 17th century, “These heathen must first be civilized before they can then become fit receptacles of the gospel of Jesus Christ.” It is curious those who believed in the omnipresence of God would then announce God’s absence from a godless, heathen land and people!

Indigenous people were subjected to capricious death at the hands of European colonials, per Thomas Aquinas’ own thought, expressed in his Summa Theologica centuries before: “Unbelievers deserve not only to be separated from the Church, but also ... to be exterminated from the World by death.”

Recently I was confronted by a prominent evangelical who claimed that our efforts at contextualization of the gospel—of cultural appropriation in worship—were leading people astray, since according to him the pre-contact Indigenous world was an evil place filled with lust, murder, idolatry, and devil worship. He asserted that Western civilization came to our rescue, since in his view nothing of value existed within us. (If you reflect on the political landscape of Europe from 1492 through the 20th century—of the countless wars over land and the lust for more—you might think twice about where murder, idolatry, and greed were centered!)

To the NAIITS community, resolution of these conflicting images requires that we start at the beginning of the biblical narrative, Genesis 1, asking questions about the thought, plan, idea, and intent of God and interpreting all we see and experience in light of this plan—before we ask how it is that it became “subjected to futility.” This shift seems particularly important and relevant in this post-resurrection time where all of creation, not simply the human soul fit for heaven, has been and is being redeemed and restored through Jesus.

Shift Three: Notions of the Spiritual
The third shift runs along two tracks. The first concerns traditional Christian notions of what is “spiritual.” Reading the devotional and spiritual masters over the centuries (for example, the Ignatian exercises), one might conclude that spiritual matters are primarily cognitively embraced and experienced. Rationalist theologies and mission practices—many of which have been based in propositional truth and the positivistic, evidentiary approach to decisions about God—owe their existence to this understanding.

The second track emerges when we ask regular Christians about the spiritual. Responses will usually suggest that being spiritual is about behavior—whether I do devotions, read scripture, pray a particular way, fast, etc. What I do is my spirituality!

Several years ago I spent days on the streets, sleeping in the back of my vehicle, searching for a young crack addict. He was my relative, falling deeper and deeper into the grip of his addiction. Accompanying me one day was a Euro-Canadian pastor friend.

Having finally tracked the young man down, we sat together on the curb listening to his story. At a pause, my pastor friend contrasted the young man’s church upbringing with his current state, to which the young man replied, “You don’t think I’m spiritual, do you?”

That is precisely what most Christians, regardless of church tradition, have come to believe—spirituality is about behavior, not an inherent quality of creation imparted by the act of God’s creation, augmented in human beings through the gift of God’s image and likeness, irrespective of behavior!

For Indigenous people, the biblical text, our history, and our life experience suggest that all of creation, not just human beings, is of a spiritual nature and is the focus of God’s redemptive activity in Jesus. We see this clearly expressed in a non-metaphoric, non-anthropomorphic, non-epitomized reading of scripture (for example, Genesis 1:28-30; Job 12:7-10; Romans 8:22ff). This has implications for how we view the work of Jesus and the cross—not simply as providing for soul salvation, but rather ensuring the restoration of all things to the plan and intent of God (see shift two above).

Evangelical theology, particularly in the U.S., has struggled to comprehend this, assigning the label “pantheism” to any understanding of the nature of the spiritual that includes all of creation as a focus for Jesus’ work on the cross.

Shift Four: The Significance of Story
A fourth shift is in our understanding of story. To us, communal narrative serves a compelling and significant function. It can be objective and factual—containing clear teachings for life, which, if ignored, put one in dire peril—and simultaneously mythic and broadly flourished for narrative effect. Each form or genre of story, each teller of a story within the grander narrative of the community, is integral to the wider collection—a compendium the community has stewarded through the generations to teach the ways of life. Removing one voice, form, or story, subjecting it to dissection, or truncating its meaning by casting doubt on its authenticity when the ancestors have clearly included it, destroys the whole.

As one of our members has said, “Changing the story of the ‘Three Little Pigs’ to remove the house of sticks and go directly to the house of bricks is to lose the story. My grandchildren would respond and say, ‘Nookum, that’s not the way the story goes!’” This means, to most of us in the NAIITS community, that the Christian scriptures cannot be dissected by literary methods—or even contemporary narrative theological technique—so as to arrive at the “essence of the story” and its teachings or the central story-teller’s words; doing so truncates the story and renders it impotent.

NAIITS has created theological education programs that incorporate these four shifts and others, offering several undergraduate and graduate degree programs in partnership with credible evangelical educational institutions. Our hope in doing so is to bring change for our people and others who may come along on the journey, all rooted in the story of the person, work, life, teaching, death, and resurrection of Jesus. 

Terry LeBlanc is Mi’kmaq/Acadian, a founder and chair of the North American Institute for Indigenous Theological Studies (naiits.com), and adjunct faculty in Indigenous and intercultural studies for Tyndale Seminary in Toronto and Asbury Seminary in Kentucky.

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