04 September 2023

Learning from Indigenous Creation Theology (2)

“The 12th Annual Hunting Moon Pow Wow, hosted by the Forest County Potawatomi, was held from October 14 to 16 at the UW-Milwaukee Panther Arena” (2016) “The 12th Annual Hunting Moon Pow Wow, hosted by the Forest County Potawatomi, was held from October 14 to 16 at the UW-Milwaukee Panther Arena” (2016) http://www.milwaukeeindependent.com/featured/annual-pow-wow-celebrates-ancient-native-american-traditions/

In the first half of this post, I introduced Native American theologian George E. “Tink” Tinker and used some of the material in his book, American Indian Liberation, to offer us a double reality check: first, the horrors committed by the colonial masters in the Americas, starting with Columbus and stretching the United States’ genocide of the Native populations in the name of Manifest Destiny. The History channel offers a helpful page on this shameful past: “Broken Treaties with Native American Tribes: A Timeline.” From the Revolutionary War and the aftermath of the Civil War (1778-1871), the U.S. government and Indian nations signed 368 treaties. All were broken.

The second reality check is that the 3-4 million who identify as members of indigenous nations are the poorest and most vulnerable demographic in the USA. Tinker wrote that “we are damaged goods,” still reeling psychologically, socially, economically and spiritually from their colonizer’s abuse in all these areas. Add to that the church’s complicity in the oppression of the Indian peoples and the destruction of their way of life. Christian leaders have (consciously or unconsciously) subscribed to a heretical doctrine of White supremacy and colonialism. Christians in the pews, knowingly or not, have imbibed the settler worldview of their White culture. When President Andrew Jackson pushed through Congress the Indian Removal Act of 1828 which set in motion the horrific suffering of hundreds of thousands of tribal peoples during the Trail of Tears, where there any churches that spoke out against it? Very few did. But too, when Christian engaged in missionizing Indian reservations, with all the best intentions in the world, they often contributed to the breakdown of these Native’s cultural safeguards and their psychosocial equilibrium by preaching a Jesus that looked too much like themseves. Here is how Tinker puts it:


“We live with the ongoing stigma of defeated peoples who have endured genocide, the intentional dismantling of cultural values, forced confinement on less desirable lands called ‘reservations, intentionally nurtured dependency on the federal government, and conversion by missionaries who imposed a new culture on us as readily as they preached the gospel” (42).


The Clash of Worldviews

Tinker elucidates the contrast between “euro-western” culture (which informed much of Christian theology over the centuries, and especially since the Protestant Reformation) and the indigenous cultures. For him, there are “four fundamental, deep structure cultural differences between Indian people and the cultures that derive from european traditions” (7):


1. Indigenous traditions are spatially rooted, as opposed to Western ones which are temporarily rooted; “history and temporality reign supreme in the euro-west, where time is money and ‘development,’ or progress, is the goal” (7). The worldview of indigenous peoples revolves around their land and all its components, whether living or inanimate (not a word in the Indian vocabulary).

2. Whereas euro-westerners prioritize the individual and his or her rights, Native peoples are “communitarian by nature.” He explains, “Thus, for instance, [for Indians] spiritual involvement in the ceremonial life of a community is typically engaged in ‘for the sake of the people’ and not for the sake of individual salvation or personal spiritual benefit. This continues to create deep anxiety and rifts in the minds and hearts of Native Americans who have embraced Christianity, for example, and if you add the heavy burden of the church’s past complicity in the suffering of their people, you begin to understand why many Native Christians are leaving behind their Christian faith and devoting their spiritual energies to the ceremonial life and rituals of their Native tradition (though many practice both simultaneously).

3. For indigenous peoples, everything in the natural or created world is organically related. Whereas euro-western people see themselves as distinct and above the natural world – and therefore free to exploit it as they choose, in Indian cultures people “live and experience themselves as part of creation” (8). Think of Disney’s film, The Lion King, and the theme song, “Circle of life.” Their wider community includes “animals (four-legged), birds, and all the living, moving things (including rocks, hills, trees, rivers, and so on), along with all the other sorts of two-leggeds (e.g., bears, humans of different colors) in the world” (9).

4. Native peoples have “a firm sense of group filial attachment to particular places that comes with a responsibility to relate to the land in those places with responsibility” (9). That is why the eviction of Native Americans from their tribal lands remains so traumatic to them. Another consequence of that tribal attachment is that land ownership itself, whether individual or even group ownership, is completely foreign to their worldview.


What Native Americans can teach us

Tinker is right: “Perhaps the most precious gift that American Indians have to share with amer-europeans is our perspective on the interrelatedness of all creation and our deep sense of relationship to the land in particular. . . . Just as there is no category of the inanimate, there can be no conception of anything in the created world that does not share in the sacredness infused in the act of creation” (10). Creation is the theological bedrock of indigenous communities and the circle is the commanding metaphor: “Our prayers are most often said with the community assembled in the form of a circle” (48). It is as if the circle represents the tribe’s connection to other tribes and to all humans, and then to all the universe in creation. Hierarchy is absent from this worldview. Chiefs are chosen by consensus and they are called to embody the collective will of the tribe. Kings and kingdoms are puzzling concepts to them. Put otherwise, the indigenous worldview is egalitarian – their relatives are animals and all elements of the physical world created by God, or the Great Spirit, or some similar conception, depending on the tribe. They also believe in many spirits associated with all manifestations of creation; hence, the overarching concern in this theology of creation is the call to harmony and balance.

This idea is so important that all tribes believe that in order to respect “the established boundaries,” specific ceremonies must be performed if any act of violence is necessary (like killing an animal for food or cutting down a tree for building a sweat lodge). Tinker explains, “Acts of violence against any relative disrupt the balance and are inexcusable.” The same applies to war:


“Likewise, most tribes engaged in elaborate ceremonies before going to war with another tribe. Even one’s enemies must be respected. No killing was to be random. A tribe’s survival or territorial integrity might be at risk. Nevertheless, maintaining balance, respect for all one’s relatives, meant that four to twelve days of ceremony might be necessary before battle could be engaged” (55).


Along with respect, the American Indian would add “reciprocity” to the central dynamic of our human interaction with the land and all its creature. Just as “prayers and the offering of tobacco are reciprocal acts of giving something back to the earth and to all of creation in order to maintain balance,” the Osages and other plains Indian peoples performed specific ceremonies before engaging in a hunt and the killing of buffaloes. Indeed, they “lived a close sibling relationship with the buffalo.” These ceremonies, then, were seen as “necessary to restore life to the buffalo nation” (40). Tragically, he asks, “what do we return to the earth when we clear-cut a forest or gouge out a strip mine leaving miles upon miles of earth totally bare?”

Yet if our Christian theology truly started with God creating the heavens and the earth as in the early church’s ecumenical creeds (e.g., the Nicene Creed), then we would also realize that all human beings are equally sacred by virtue of creation. So the question comes, “Where is the reciprocity, the maintaining of cosmic balance, with respect to those who are suffering varieties of oppression in our modern world? Blacks in southern Africa, non-Jews in Palestine, Tamils in Sri Lanka, or tribal people in Latin America?” (41).


Liberation theology is a Third-World thing

Even though the Vatican has condemned the Marxist-inspired “liberation theology” distilled in the writings and activism of Latin American theologians like Gustavo Gutiérrez and others, official Catholic social doctrine teaches that God’s “preferential option for the poor” is central to the gospel. Reading the words of Jesus and following him through the four written gospels makes that abundantly clear. But is this what Tinker is referring to in his title: American Indian Liberation? In fact, he is not. That phrasing, he insists, “is nearly meaningless language for Indians” (136). To identify “the poor” in that way is to refer to a modern socioeconomic structure in which different classes compete for power in a capitalist economic system. It also presumes an individualistic view of personhood. By contrast, affirms Tinker, “Indian people want affirmation . . . as national communities with discrete cultures, discrete languages, discrete value systems, and our own governments and territories” (136). Human rights are still relevant, but in a different way. Indigenous peoples have been recognized as the “Fourth World,” and the landmark United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples was adopted by the General Assembly in 2007.

Just a quick footnote here. Article 26:1 of that Declaration states, “Indigenous peoples have the right to the lands, territories and resources which they have traditionally owned, occupied or otherwise used or acquired.” Let me inject a small note of hope here. The U.S. government’s Advisory Council on Historic Preservation just posted a lengthy article, “Announcement of US Support for the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Rights.” When the said UN Declaration was presented to the General Assembly in September 2007, the United States was not one of the 143 nations to sign it. President Obama changed that in 2010. The article explains,


“U.S. support for the Declaration goes hand in hand with the U.S. commitment to address the consequences of a history in which, as President Obama recognized, ‘few have been marginalized and ignored by Washington for as long as Native Americans – our First Americans. That commitment is reflected in the many policies and programs that are being implemented by U.S. agencies in response to concerns raised by Native Americans, including poverty, unemployment, environmental degradation, health care gaps, violent crime and discrimination.”


The article documents a number of discussions, decisions and the earmarking of several billion dollars in land acquisition and other measures to improve the lives of Native Americans. Our current Secretary of the Interior is a Native woman, Deb Haaland, and more work is being done in this area. [Read also about how the State of Minnesota just decided to return a state park to a small tribe adjacent to it – a first in the U.S., partly because of its Indian burial site and mostly because of a massacre perpetrated there in 1862].


Tinker’s creation theology

If liberation theology is a “Third World thing,” in Tinker’s writing it becomes a “Fourth World thing.” The key difference resides in the way one interprets the central theme of Jesus’ teaching – the kingdom of God and how one relates it to social justice and peacebuilding. Western theology (and liberation theology too, to a large extent) understands the concept in terms of temporality: Jesus announces that in his person the kingdom of God has “drawn near,” that his death and resurrection will open up a new age in which his disciples will spread the Good News (or, the gospel) to all nations, tribes and cultures of the world. At the end of that era of the church, Jesus will return to earth and all humans of all ages will be resurrected; then God will pronounce his final judgment, which will then lead to the renewal of all things – the appearance of a completely renewed creation.

Right after the judgment, the Apostle John writes,


“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the old heaven and the old earth had disappeared. And the sea was also gone. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven like a bride beautifully dressed for her husband …

I saw no temple in the city, for the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb [the crucified and risen Jesus] are its temple. And the city has no need of sun or moon, for the glory of God illuminates the city, and the Lamb is its light. The nations will walk in its light, and the kings of the world will enter the city in all their glory. Its gates will never be closed at the end of day, because there is no night there. And all the nations will bring their glory and honor into the city. Nothing evil will be allowed to enter, nor anyone who practices shameful idolatry and dishonesty—but only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s Book of Life” (Revelation 21:1-4; 22-27).


But notice that it isn’t just about people. Other elements of creation are present:


“Then the angel showed me a river with the water of life, clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and the Lamb. On each side of the river grew a tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, with a fresh crop each month. The leaves were used for medicine to heal the nations” (Revelation 22:1-2, from the New Living Translation).


This eschatological (i.e., relative to the end time) narrative is full of symbolism. Tinker, using only broad strokes emphasizes the following. First, the perfectly harmonious and balanced creation was there from the start in Genesis 1 and 2, but only as potential. Adam and Eve disobeyed God and evil, chaos, and death entered God’s good creation. As Paul writes to the Roman believers,


“Against its will, all creation was subjected to God’s curse. But with eager hope, the creation looks forward to the day when it will join God’s children in glorious freedom from death and decay. For we know that all creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time” (Romans 8:20-22).


You can see how this fits nicely into his Indigenous worldview. Yes, there is a time arc that stretches from creation to the cross and resurrection of Jesus and finally to the New Heavens and the New Earth where all creation is made new. Tinker doesn’t deny the time dimension; he just chooses to emphasize the spatial dimension over it. In that “New Jerusalem,” God’s rule is supreme and unhindered. Even the nations of the earth come together in harmony and they put their wealth and honor at the service of the common good.

Finally, if the settler communities of our world repent, turn around and see themselves as truly and organically part of God’s good creation, then “we will begin to participate actively not in the exploitation of the earth but in the establishment of balance and harmony. Our participation in the balance and harmony of all creation will then most naturally include other individuals and communities of human beings. And justice and then genuine peace will flow out of our concern for one another and all creation” (56).

But what is missing here? God’s Spirit is missing – God presence in the world and his power in the human heart and soul and in human communities everywhere to move forward this healing, reconciling process. Perhaps this is because in the Native American worldview “God” is more often seen as the Great Spirit, an impersonal life-force pulsating through everything. Every facet of creation – animals, trees, rocks, rivers and plants – is imbued with spirits. They are alive in that sense. And Paul talks about all creation “groaning” and writhing in pain, looking forward to the full redemption which is still to come. There is a lot in contemporary Christian theology, particularly from the Majority World (of what we used to call the Third World), that addresses this theme of creation, justice and peace through the agency of God’s Spirit.

Addressing that glaring gap in Tinker’s creation theology, then, will be the theme of my next blog post. Pneumatology (that part of theology that focuses on the Holy Spirit) is a central theme in my book project.