taking the words of Jesus seriously

“Certainly there were many needy widows in Israel in Elijah’s time, when the heavens were closed for three and a half years, and a severe famine devastated the land. Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them. He was sent instead to a foreigner—a widow of Zarephath in the land of Sidon. And there were many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, but the only one healed was Naaman, a Syrian.” – Luke 4:25-27

Why would Jesus conclude a perfectly good sermon by pointing out the racism of his own people? It is common knowledge that at minimum, duplicity and hypocrisy has accompanied the dominant White cultures’ past mission practices, especially as it has been applied to Indigenous peoples. We have experienced a kind of double-mindedness that says “Jesus loves you just as you are — as long as you are just like us.” Although there were individual missionaries who attempted to do mission in humane ways, they, being a part of the dominant society and its White Western cultural influence, primarily did mission from a place of power over and presumed superiority. Despite good intentions, without regarding the cultural other as equally human, there can be no mission — not Christ’s mission anyway.

Mission, by its nature, demands a sense of equality of all. Jesus came to all humanity, emptying himself of his superiority over us, while becoming the least among us. Influence, wielded from the dominant Euro-American society, prescribes mission from a place of presumed Western values. “Our assumption of superiority does not come to us by accident. We have been trained in it. It is soaked into the fabric of Western religion, economic systems and technology. They reek of their greater virtues and capabilities” (Mander 1991, 209).

Contemporary missionaries may be tempted to view themselves as immune from the sense of entitlement and superiority that their historical counterparts exhibited. People tend to look at the past as moving from less progressive to more progressive, especially if they are the people writing the “new progressive” history. This is simply a part of the Western myth of progressive civilization that houses a misguided Christian utopian vision. The fact remains that in the midst of continued centuries of harmful mission policy, Indigenous people are still fighting for our survival today. This is true physically, concerning health, welfare and our land-rights, but it is also true in the realm of public perception that continues to plague mission. Racism, stereotypes, mascots, and hate crimes are just a few of the attitudinal pressures today that Indigene and the cultural other continue to face. In other words, White supremacy, White normalcy, and White privilege.

Racists and foolish missional policies and practices among Indigenous peoples continue to show little regard for Indigenous values. But, despite the long history of mission among Indigenous Americans from the place of Western colonial values, our Indigenous cultures still reflect much of our core Native North American values that await empowerment.

No one can deny that our cultures have been eroded and our languages lost, that most of our communities exist in a state of abject economic dependency, that our governments are weak, and that white encroachment on our lands continues. We can, of course, choose to ignore these realities and simply accede to the dissolution of our cultures and nations. Or we can commit ourselves to a different path, one that honours the memory of those who have sacrificed, fought and died to preserve the integrity of our nations. This path, the opposite of the one we are on now, leads to a renewed political life and social life based on our traditional values. (Alfred 1999, xii)

Colonialism and colonial missions have introduced and reinforced systemic changes among colonized Indigenous peoples that have attempted to replace our traditional values. This supplanting has occurred at the most basic levels of society but we, as Indigenous people, cannot simply blame the White man. We must become the agents of our own change. But caution is warranted for any proposal of mission renewal. Even when the current paternalistic missional systems are replaced with Indigenous forms, they can remain laden with the values of the dominant society, merely prolonging colonial missionary oppression.

In spite of our bereaved history, ill health, poor education, inadequate housing and social marginalization, our Indigenous peoples retain a residual set of values that are a repository of true wealth. These values, if utilized properly, may have the potential to co-create untapped missional models resulting in true well-being for Indigene and the settler-colonial alike. Both our healing it seems, as much as we may not want to admit it, is entwined together. For such a model to find footing among Indigenous people, a major missional paradigm shift must occur.

READ: Missions: Is It Love or Colonization?

An old Indian joke describes the paradigm shift needed: One day Coyote (the Trickster) was asked to visit the president. The president and Coyote strolled along the Rose Garden together and finally the President asked Coyote if he could give him any advice on “the Indian problem.” “Sure,” Coyote said, “What’s the problem?”

The reality of the joke suggests that Indigenous people are primarily viewed as a problem to be solved by the government, and I add, by the Western church. We are rarely considered to be an asset by either agency. This prevailing attitude in America has a long history and is tied into the legacy of colonialism. According to Maori author Linda Tuhiwai Smith, “Problematizing the Indigenous is a Western obsession” (1999, 91). Says Smith,

Concern about “the indigenous problem” began as an explicitly militaristic or policing concern.…Once indigenous peoples had been rounded up and put on reserves the “indigenous problem” became a policy discourse which reached out across all aspects of a government’s attempt to control the Natives.… Both “friends of the Natives” and those hostile to indigenous peoples conceptualized the issues of colonization and European encroachment on indigenous territories in terms of a problem of the Natives. The Natives were, according to this view, to blame for not accepting the terms of their colonization.…The belief in the ‘indigenous problem’ is still present in the western psyche. (1999, 91-92)

In summary, while today’s mission models clearly are a more humane approach than in the past, they do not make enough room for the possibility that Indigenous North Americans are people who are gifted by God and have much to teach the dominant society. The church continues this discussion on both a spiritual and pragmatic level. After more than 400 years of active mission efforts, including untold millions of dollars invested and untold human hours sacrificed, very few Native Americans claim to be a part of the Christian church; and given the history and state of the church, why should they? Even more discouraging is the overall spiritual health of these few existing Indigenous churches. Many Native Americans continue to practice a faith nurtured in colonial patterns that resulted in self-hatred and misguided loyalty to their colonial handlers; truly becoming a poor imitation of a bad model.

One measure of a successful Indigenous church, credited to Anderson and Venn, is the idea of healthy churches as self-governing, self-supporting, and self-propagating. Later, renowned missiologist David Bosch suggested that self-theologizing be added to the three-self paradigm. Even when using the Western four-self model as a measurement of Native American church success, we find a gloomy incongruous reality most often characterized in their respective denominations as being small in numbers, poor in giving, divisive, mixed in denominational loyalty, non-ministering, non-reproducing and embarrassingly dependent upon the denomination’s funding, leadership, and approval. Self-theologizing is still almost completely unknown.

Perhaps the current ill state of Indigenous churches could correct itself if denominations and other mission sending agencies were to strategize mission efforts among Native American Indigene in mutual partnership with the Native communities and by using Native American core values. New attitudes, robust with true humility and an appreciation for Indigenous cultures, are desperately needed. New appreciations of the gifts and necessity of the marginalized other is mandated. And, the seemingly powerful White mission agencies must make themselves small, as junior partners, in a land they do not know, and only with the expressed permission of Indigenous communities.

Past sacrificial models of White missionaries speaking up for Indigene are deeply appreciated but they only went so far. Today, the dominant sending agencies are being called to give up their theological and missiological strangleholds on Indigenous people, along with the decision-making power they possess, and then they must turn over the “keys to the kingdom,” (along with the keys to the land and buildings) to the people they are trying to reach. The conversion of the denominations and the mission sending agencies is the first conversion that must take place in mission — and this is exactly what Jesus is addressing in Luke 4:25-27. Then came verse 28: “And the crowd became furious…”

The cultural hubris of the Western missionary enterprise is a symptom of a greater problem of the Western worldview. This presumed superiority is ever-present in North America, affecting everything from the way we do mission and how we structure our churches; to the wars we enter; to domestic and foreign policymaking concerns in areas such as economic trade, politics, civil rights, etc.

It leaves me begging the question: What is Jesus saying to us as people of faith exercising so much entitlement — entitlement that only God has a right to? And yet, God took the form of a servant, learning from and becoming one of the most marginalized in society. And here is Jesus, rebuking those in his own faith system that were so far-removed from its founder.

About The Author

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Rev. Dr. Randy Woodley is known as a public intellectual, theologian, activist-scholar, ecologist-farmer, and wisdom keeper. Dr. Woodley, (Keetoowah) currently serves as Distinguished Professor of Faith & Culture and Director of Intercultural & Indigenous Studies at George Fox University/Portland Seminary and Co-Sustainer of Eloheh Indigenous/Eagle’s Wings Ministry. PODCAST: Peacing It All Together (@PeacingPodcast) BOOKS: “The Harmony Tree: A Story of Healing and Community” (Friesen), “Shalom and the Community of Creation: An Indigenous Vision” (Eerdmans) and “Living in Color: Embracing God’s Passion for Ethnic Diversity” (Intervarsity).

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