Randy Woodley, a Cherokee himself, in his book Shalom and the Community of Creation, observed that a large majority of native Americans understand that there is “some sort of primal power in the words of oral tradition.” The transmission of ontological truth was trusted to be passed orally. They heard the words spoken “from the heart” and accepted them as truth. Yet, we in the West find it necessary to dispense with that and teach these people to read. We teach them to read the scripture, that’s good…right? In our arrogance we fail to discern that many of these people view our sacred text with suspicion. The reason? Woodley answers in a response of some native Americans: “We know that the white man translated the Bible and he could have removed things he didn’t want us to hear or he could have added things that are not true.” Hmmm….
What if we had, rather, taken the time to listen to those who lived in the land? In a previous blog I wrote that maybe the Europeans were lead by God to visit other lands. But, not to conquer. And, certainly not to force their particular brand of Christianity upon the native population. Rather, what if they were lead to these lands to learn from others, to humbly listen to the stories that the indigenous people had to tell. But, Euro-Americans have a tendency to talk first and listen, well, never. (This, too, is arrogance. To think that what we have to say is more important than what anyone else on the planet has to say.) Had we listened we could have learned about the land and the people, about their special relationship to the cosmos. In dialog we could have then, maybe, shared our story. We could have had an opportunity to see where our different cultures merged and, just maybe, we could have found connecting points that would have allowed the open sharing of the Good News of Jesus Christ. Not to make others change to be like us.
But, to let our story and theirs join as equally viable realities. We could have let go of the need to control the story and let the people of the land take and assimilate it as they felt best.
Now, of course this raises the question of syncretism. And, as I’ve read about missions, this seems to be at the crux of much errant thinking. Let me digress a bit…The two major ancient churches both consider themselves the one true Church. Both the Roman and Orthodox confessions claim to be able to trace their origins back to the Apostles. Both claim to have the only accurate traditions. And, both hold tenaciously to what they perceive to be that one, true, apostolic tradition. All other claims to faith are, at best, considered heterodox. At worst, they are considered heretical. Now, I’m not a math major, but I can see pretty quickly that both cannot be right. And, to add to the confusion, along came the reformers in 16th century who also claimed to have the only true faith. What I want to point out by this is that we in the West have a long history of trying to prove that we are correct and everyone else is wrong. We have developed an unsustainable dualism that has allowed abuses that would make Hannibal Lecter blush. Now, how would things have looked had we actually built our faith on the teaching of Jesus? We would have been compelled to accept others as created equal to us. We would have had to learn to listen. Yeah, there’s a lot of red text in the gospels, but Jesus really listened to people. How many times did he ask someone, “What would you like me to do for you?” How often did he “look at,” really “look at,” others with respect and compassion? He did not, like we have in the West, simply assume that he knew what the other needed. Even today we assume that we in America know what is best for people in Africa, Asia and Latin America. We do not take the time to listen to what they might think that they really need.
So, back to the problem of syncretism. Who said that we need to control the Gospel? Who said that ours is the only true expression of Christian faith? No one has. We seem to think that the Church and the Gospel belong to us. Therefore, we have some right to control how the story is told and how it should properly be understood. I think that there is Someone far more qualified to do that than we. Jesus told his disciples that he was going to send a Teacher. This Teacher would be Someone who would walk beside them and show them how to live in God’s new realm. Paul wrote about the work of the Holy Spirit. He wrote that it was the Spirit who provided gifts and direction for the Church. Now, it is true that these gifts are realized as people cooperate with the Spirit. But, it is God the Holy Spirit who is the director. I think that trusting in God trumps our fear of syncretism.
We Euro-Americans would do well to hear what we have actually done to indigenous people with our White, male, hegemonic, arrogant approach. What we have thought of as Good News about redemption in Christ has not had the effect that we may have thought it would. Again, I turn to Randy Woodley:
The gospel, as it has most often been preached to Native Americans, does not promise us restored balance or harmony. Actually, too often, the gospel preached to Native Americans and other indigenous peoples around the world was quite the contrary to good news. We have mostly heard the gospel as “bad news.”
The “bad news” of Jesus Christ requires people to forsake their own ethnic identity for the identity of the dominant culture. The “bad news” of Jesus Christ means trading in shared communal values for economic systems based on greed and the success of the individual over the group. The “bad news” of Jesus Christ requires indigenous peoples to accept their status as those meant to be colonized and to cooperate with their own demise. The “bad news” of Jesus Christ askes us to draw our theology, values, and meaning as people from a culture that wishes to make us self-haters.
What to do? I don’t want to come across as having the answer. I don’t. No one person, or group of people does. However, a good place to begin searching for one would be to humble ourselves before Yahweh and pray for forgiveness. Forgiveness for our arrogant disregard for the wonderful diversity that Yahweh has built into humanity and the Good Creation. Forgiveness for twisting Yahweh’s Word to fit our own perceptions. Forgiveness for trampling on our sisters and brothers in God’s name. Forgiveness for not listening to the people of the land, thereby trampling on the Good Natural resources that these Others were called by Creator to be stewards of. Richard Twiss said that the Native American community does not need missionaries. It does not need us to just send money. It needs us to join in real relationship as full partners. I think that maybe it’s not too late to repent and embody the love that Jesus Christ, the God who walked among us, revealed is at the heart of God.