“I just know you’re going to save the world,” my friend said to me a few months before I left for Uganda with my husband to research the civil war there. It’s the kind of sentiment I’ve heard over and over again from Christians who are sincerely trying to make the world a better place. The problem is, it creates a deep divide between “us” and “them.”
It’s the sentiment that brought the first European missionaries to North America to colonize the land and convert the “heathen” native peoples who had been living here for centuries. And it is still a very clear message spoken from the church pulpit in Western church settings.
Since becoming more vocal about my Native American faith in the last year, I’ve had experiences that have confirmed that American Christianity is not only naïve to indigenous beliefs, but actually fully submersed in ideologies and attitudes that naturally lead to discrimination toward indigenous and other people of color — a continuation of the savior complex.
I often see people reacting to my faith with surprise and disbelief, wondering how I could adopt unfamiliar spiritual practices. The disbelief, the undertones of racist attitudes in our faith places, are hindering to people of color who want to practice Christianity in a healthy way that honors connection to their own cultures.
But alongside these moments of bias, I have had other experiences that give me great hope. In January I taught a class at our church on the Medicine Wheel and Native American spirituality, and at the end of the course, I could see that we’d all learned something together — not to walk on egg shells in the uncomfortable situation of knowing that we are different races — but that we could understand and care for each other in the long history of brokenness caused by the people of the church.
At Standing Rock last year, groups of clergy showed up to apologize for numerous laws that were enforced to hurt and often kill off native peoples throughout early American history. There are churches actively working to holistically partner with native people without attempting to convert them to a form of American Christianity. But it is difficult; because of the divide that has lasted for so many years, the language we use with one another often causes the worst wounds.
In a recent interview with indigenous peoples in Canada, a woman said that when her tribe’s young women and men were being murdered or going missing, they approached a church to hold a meeting and speak out against it. The church refused because the indigenous people’s message was “too political.” If churches in North America are telling native peoples that their voices are too political to speak in church settings, are those same people even aware of the constant bias that they carry in their everyday language?
So where can the church begin if it does not know it has a problem?
The church is called to be the voice that counters harmful words and concepts — even those used in American history books, even those attitudes that are taught in schools to young children who view the “Cowboys and Indians” narrative as total truth.
As a child, I saw native peoples — my own ancestors — as “savages,” because what I was taught in school did not match who I was. Indigenous peoples were historical artifacts to be talked about and studied, their old bones and tools kept in museums. They were not living, breathing people with families and stories, with faith and experience.
So how do we tell someone they are continuing a cycle of hate against an entire race of people when they’re unaware?
We do it gently and slowly.
The church must first become educated in why certain phrases, labels, and attitudes are hurtful. Widespread re-education, or decolonization, of American history must become a part of our church conversations if we are to begin the process of healing.
Next, as Navajo Christian leader Mark Charles suggests, the church enters into a time of lament, a long season of prayer and apology for compliance in historical events such as genocide, colonization, and racism.
Then the church adopts practices that are inclusive and lets go of other practices that have caused people of color to stay out of certain faith communities for so many years.
Maybe over time, through the work of active listening to people whose voices have been silenced for so long, the church can begin to check its language and ultimately rewire its belief that Christians are simply called to save a world that is deemed dark and dying because it looks and worships differently than they do.