Contextual Indigenous Cultural Christology

 

 

by Robert Francis

© October 2009

 

 

The Great Spirit is in all things….

            – Bedagi [Big Thunder]

               Wabanaki (Late 19th Century)

 

…. the voice of the Great Spirit is heard in the twittering of birds, the rippling of mighty waters, and the sweet breathing of flowers.  If this is paganism, then at present, at least, I am a pagan.

            – Zitkala-Sa [Gertrude Simmons Bonnin]

               Dakota Sioux (1876-1938)

 

 

Introduction

 

            The short phrase or statement “following Jesus in the context of our Native cultures” is closely associated with the Mid American Indian Fellowships, a network of American Indian spiritual groups in Missouri, Kansas and Arkansas for which I have served as consultant/helper since January 1999.  Through the years, I have come to understand that this brief statement of purpose may be confusing to some.  Occasionally, having read or heard the statement for the first time, a person will ask, “What does that mean?” 

            Sometimes I offer an explanation.  Sometimes I just shrug my shoulders and say, “I don’t know; it means different things to different people.  What does it mean to you?”

 

            That I would write a paper entitled “Contextual Indigenous Cultural Christology” might come as a surprise to some who know me.  After all, I seldom even use the word “Christ,” much less “Christology.” My aversion is due mainly to the culturally foreign nature and monarchical connotations of the word “Christ”.  However, from my own reading and study of the Gospels I also get the feeling that Jesus himself was ambiguous, at best, about this title.

            My reason for writing this paper is the same as for just about every other paper I have ever written – communication or, at least, attempted communication.  No, that sounds good, but it’s not the real reason I write.  To be honest, I never write anything I don’t have to write; I never write anything that doesn’t wake me up or keep me up at night or keep me from other tasks until it’s written.  I’d much rather be picking corn or cutting wood right now, but I want to sleep tonight.  So, I’m writing. During the course of this year, a few people, looking from outside Mid American Indian Fellowships circles, have either said outright or intimated to me that they do not understand or see “a place for Christ within Mid American Indian Fellowships.”  One went so far as to say, in essence, “I do not understand why you can’t just center on Christ instead of expending so much effort on cultural restoration.”  Maybe this paper is for those who would make such statements.  On the other hand, maybe this paper is for our own people and for indigenous people everywhere, all who are working with Creator to bring some healing and wholeness within their own circles.  Speaking only for myself, I will attempt to explain, in this paper, what Contextual Indigenous Cultural Christology means to me and only to me.  Others are entitled to their own views.  I am, likewise, entitled to mine.

 

            I will begin by offering definitions of some frequently misunderstood terms or terms that may hold divergent meanings.  I’ll go on to list a few understandings that serve to promote the continuation and development of Contextual Indigenous Cultural Christology.  I will do my best to explain what, from my own perspective, Contextual Indigenous Cultural Christology is not, because sometimes seeing what something is not helps define what something is.  I will expose a few of the pitfalls or barriers to avoid when seeking to return to what I understand as truly Contextual Indigenous Cultural Christology and will wind up with an informative warning concerning the disease of paternalism.

            One thing I will not do in this paper is to go into any depth concerning my own Christology.  I have already done that in other papers.  It is not the purpose of this one.

 

            This paper will resonate with the spirits of some.  It will help to open or build some level of understanding in others. Some will say, “What in the world is this guy talking about?”  As a wise man said long ago, “If anyone has ears to hear, let him [or her] hear” (Mark 4:23).

 

 

Definitions

 

Context (Webster) 1:  the parts of a discourse that surround a word or passage and can throw light on its meaning  2:  the interrelated conditions in which something exists or occurs:  ENVIRONMENT  

 

Contextual (My Working Definition):  in keeping with or in harmony with the interrelated conditions in which something exists, occurs or develops

 

Indigenous (Webster) 1:  having originated in and being produced, growing or living naturally in a particular environment  2: INNATE, INBORN

 

Indigenous (My Working Definition):  connected in healthy or whole relationship or unity with Creator and Creation in the now or present place and time

 

Culture (Webster) 1:  CULTIVATION, TILLAGE  5 a:  the integrated pattern of human behavior that includes thought, speech, action, and artifacts and depends upon man’s capacity for learning and transmitting knowledge to succeeding generations  b:  the customary beliefs, social forms, and material traits of a racial, religious, or social group

 

Indigenous Culture (My Working Definition):  that which makes a people who they are, giving them their own unique identity, setting them apart and connecting them within the circle of life, as a people, in the land and with Creator.

 

Indigenous People (My Working Definition):  a people group connected with the Land where they are, with Creator and together as a People through the essential cultural aspects of Language, Oral Tradition, Ceremonies and Agriculture.

 

Christology (Webster):  theological interpretation of the person and work of Christ

 

            For the purposes of this paper, Webster’s definition of Christology is entirely inadequate, as it fails to account for the rich meanings of the root words behind the term.

            The concept of “Christ” derives from ancient Mediterranean practices of smearing or rubbing the heads of kings and priests with oil to signify the blessing of deity. The ancient Mediterranean kings and priests were understood as being the image of Creator and representatives of Creator in creation.  It was considered that through the agency of the king and/or priest, Creator was present in or connected with creation.  Jesus of Nazareth is also understood in this way by Christian people.  The suffix “ology” simply means “that which is said about something.”  Rendered down, this is my definition of Christology:

 

Christology (My Working Definition):  that which is said about how Creator blesses, is imaged in, connected with and/or united with creation

 

 

Understandings that Promote

Contextual Indigenous Cultural Christology

 

  1. Contextual Indigenous Cultural Christology develops within and springs forth from an indigenous people in response to what Creator has done and is doing in and through that people. 

 

  1. While non-contextual Christologies create divisions which tend to split or fragment indigenous peoples, Contextual Indigenous Cultural Christology brings healing and wholeness to the people as a group.

 

  1. Continuation of Contextual Indigenous Cultural Christology in the face of or wake of colonization efforts aimed at eliminating Indigenous Culture is indicative of obedient partnering or partnership with Creator in resistance to colonizing or imperial oppression.

 

  1. Contextual Indigenous Cultural Christology is not new.  All indigenous cultures already have and have always had Christologies, which is to say, all indigenous cultures speak of how Creator blesses, is imaged in, connected with and/or united with creation.  Most indigenous peoples would by no means call this “Christology” and might be offended at hearing this called “Christology,” as most would understood the term only within the narrow definition of Webster’s dictionary. Furthermore, there is no need for any indigenous people to use the word “Christology,” apart from possible attempts to communicate with those outside their culture, to describe what their people have to say about how Creator blesses, is imaged in, connected with and/or united with creation.  Within their own circles, each indigenous people has its own terminology which is more appropriate.  Even so, Contextual Indigenous Cultural Christology is not new; it is simply a new name for something always there.

 

  1. Each indigenous culture has its own collective revelation: either oral, written or both.  Any and all revelation introduced from outside – not directly from Creator to the people, should appropriately be examined in light of the culture’s own collective revelation.  Introduced revelation must never take precedence over a culture’s own collective revelation or original instructions from Creator.

 

  1. An assumption of universal and equal access, in both time and space, to the blessing of and connection or unity with Creator is appropriate to the promotion of Contextual Indigenous Cultural Christology.  As Jesus said,

 

“The kingdom of God [kinship with Creator] does not come with your careful observation, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is within you…. Men will tell you, ‘There he is!’ or ‘Here he is!’  Do not go running off after them.  For the Son of Man in his day will be like the lightning, which flashes and lights up the sky from one end to the other” (Luke 17:20b-21, 23-24).

 

  1. No one cultural context may accurately be seen as normative.  Likewise, no Christology may accurately be seen as normative or superior to any other.  No one culture can possibly say all there is to say about how Creator blesses, is imaged in, connected with and/or united with creation.  Also, from simple observation of creation, one may deduce that Creator loves variety or diversity.

 

  1. Even such outside influences as the diverse stories of Jesus of Nazareth found in the Bible, if accepted, should be taken in light of the collective revelation given directly to the people by Creator and in keeping with the deep understandings already present.  Outside stories such as these should be carefully considered, chewed, ingested and digested by the people with minimum outside interference for Contextual Indigenous Cultural Christology to continue developing in healthy ways.  The already chewed, digested and excreted Christologies of others must not be uncritically ingested.  When making sense of introduced scripture, it is appropriate to strip away all previous contextualization:  Greco-Roman, Western European, European-American.  It is especially appropriate to strip away the influences of Constantinian Christianity – from the time of Emperor Constantine to the present day.  With this in mind, it may be helpful if or when considering the Bible to consider what is said about antichrist as well as what is said about Christ.  These two are held as opposites in the Bible, so understanding antichrist may increase understanding of Christ, by revealing what Christ is not, as considered by the Biblical authors.

 

 

What Contextual Indigenous Cultural Christology is Not

 

  1. A Christology superimposed from outside, by some other people group, is not a Contextual Indigenous Cultural Christology.

 

  1. For American Indian peoples, a Middle Eastern, European or European-American Christology dressed up in beads and feathers and accompanied by a drum is not a Contextual Indigenous Cultural Christology.

 

  1. For American Indian peoples, a parroting or mimicking of Middle Eastern, European or European-American Christology by a well-trained Native face is not a Contextual Indigenous Cultural Christology.

 

 

Pitfalls to Avoid and Barriers to Surmount

 

  1. A Christology that elevates or singles out one people or one religious group as “chosen” or “blessed” to the exclusion of all others outside the group will promote itself as a replacement for Contextual Indigenous Cultural Christology.  Any such Christology should be recognized as ethnocentric, religiocentric and racist.

 

  1. A Christology that assumes a need for one person or one people to “introduce Christ” to others creates and perpetuates controlling, paternalistic/co-dependent, colonizing or imperialistic interactions.

 

  1. Dependencies established by churches, denominations or religious organizations or others from outside the culture and used as a means to enforce Christological constraints or parameters on those within an indigenous culture constitute a particularly dangerous trap preventing the continuation or development of Contextual Indigenous Cultural Christology (See “The Disease of Paternalism” below). 

 

  1. Those exercising Christological constraints may describe differences or diversity in Christology as “rebellion against God,” when in fact; as articulated above, such diversity associated with the continuation or development of Contextual Indigenous Cultural Christology may be one of the best indicators in a people of an obedient partnership with Creator in resistance to colonizing or imperial oppression, which is, in a turn, an indicator of a healthy relationship with Creator.

 

 

The Disease of Paternalism

 

One More Definition

 

Paternalism (Webster):  a system under which an authority undertakes to supply needs or regulate conduct of those under its control in matters affecting them as individuals as well as in the relations to authority and to each other

 

            Some human interactions, particularly family interactions between adults and young children may include healthy levels of paternalism. 

            Paternalism affecting inter-cultural, inter-ethnic or inter-“racial” interaction is entirely inappropriate.  Allowed to continue, this type of paternalism takes on the nature of a disease.  Paternalism is a disease that has infected most interaction between European and European-American dominated governments, religious denominations and churches and non-white communities during the past 517+ years.  Paternalism is very destructive, rendering harmonious interaction quite impossible, even as it works to the detriment of Contextual Indigenous Cultural Christology.  As a disease, paternalism is more like an addiction than a cancer, in that….

 

 

 

Conclusion

 

            Some who are used to my writings will be asking, “Where’s the story?”  Well, each people has their own story or stories.  No one people’s stories are superior to the stories of any other people.  Even some Biblical authors were careful to point out that their writings should never be understood as a complete or exhaustive account of Creator’s blessing of creation.

 

Jesus [Creator’s Healing and Wholeness] did many other things as well.  If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written (John 21:25).

 

            And besides, which of our stories would I include in a paper such as this?  Which would I exclude?  All our teaching stories have something to say about how Creator blesses, is imaged in, connected with and/or united with creation.  Likewise, every ceremony we keep, the way we do agriculture, even the way our language is structured – all speak of the blessing and connection of Creator with creation.  Even so, I am sure there are those who will continue to make statements such as, “I don’t see a place for Christ within Mid American Indian Fellowships,” or “I don’t understand why you can’t just center on Christ instead of expending so much effort on cultural restoration.”

 

            I have attempted here to formulate a definition of Christology and, by extension, to work toward an understanding of Contextual Indigenous Cultural Christology, that is large enough, broad enough, to be as inclusive as are my own understandings of Creator.  My understandings being limited, I feel it is always safer to be inclusive rather than exclusive.  To the best of my knowledge, if I exclude others, in reality, I may be excluding myself.  Of course, there are those who disagree.  The only thing I want to exclude is room for superior attitudes and colonizing behaviors.

            The list of understandings that promote Contextual Indigenous Cultural Christology is, of course, incomplete.  Many readers will easily be able to add to this list.  The explanations of what Contextual Indigenous Cultural Christology is not are taken from my own observations.  The pitfalls and barriers to be avoided or surmounted and related information about the disease of paternalism are from my own experience.

 

            So, now I have done what I needed to do.  I have written this paper, and I hope I am never again called upon to type out “Contextual Indigenous Cultural Christology.”  It is a long, drawn-out something to type, and it’s more than a mouthful to say. Yet, who knows?  Maybe this will help someone along the way.  Now, I think I will go out and pick some corn, before it gets dark.

 

 

Afterward

 

            I have come to understand that we cannot expect what is stolen to be returned by those who stole it, nor by their heirs. As indigenous peoples, we must reclaim for ourselves that which is ours.  I am not talking about the land.  The land is its own and Creator’s.  It is up to Creator and to the land itself to rectify wrongs done to the land or to make any redistribution.  Our sovereignty, our self-determination in partnership with Creator, this is what we must reclaim.  Reclamation of sovereignty begins with reclamation of cultural sovereignty. Reclamation of cultural sovereignty begins with asserting our right to express our own theological and Christological understandings.

 

 
Robert Francis
RR 3 Box 194A
Butler, MO 64730
(660) 679-4014
maif77@earthlink.net