Avoiding Indigenous Backlash

When I was a much younger man, I taught primary and secondary school at what was then called Twin Wells Indian School, a resident-campus-program in northern Arizona, a handful of miles off the Navajo Indian Reservation. Much of how TWIS went about their business could have been ripped from a Catholic Jesuit School playbook 500 years before. Children were not allowed to speak their native language (since the staff, with its high turn-over rate, never learned Navajo), history curriculuae were from the viewpoint of the White settlers, not one building had elements of Navajo architecture, even the food was mostly non-Navajo, etc., etc.

Fourteen years later I was visiting there with a work team to do some repairs on the campus. I was asked to address the staff on whatever subject I desired, during the weekly devotional time. What I chose to do was deliver a missiological paper on what happens when you position yourself to be viewed as the enemy of a culture. (Which is how the school was viewed on the Reservation, and attendance had plummeted to almost non-existence.) As Christians, with a doctrine of Creation and Creator, we ought to be the protectors of everything good, noble and praiseworthy in Navajo culture, I said. (Lots of Pauline material for this). When we aren’t, we not only become viewed as an outsider attack on the peoples’ own culture, but we sow the seeds for a second or third generation re-fascination with the original, indigenous religion, and a backlash against Christianity.

Have you noticed this? Christianization, currently, often comes simultaneously with a degradation of the natural environment and a tearing of the social fabric due to the overnight incursion of international civilization and connection to world markets. (Christianity doesn’t cause this, but it’s all happening at the same time these days). When Christians do not become the protectors of everything good, noble and true in a culture, you can bet that in a couple generations there will be a movement calling people back to their ancestors’ ways. Part of this is reaction to the decimation of traditional culture brought on by hooking up to the world money machine, and part of it is noticing the ills of civilization and their affects on the population. When this happens, all sorts of traditional – and important – knowledge starts getting lost, (‘What plant did grandma use for headaches? How did they make bows? How did they track and hunt boar? How did boys know they had become young men…?’), and people start talking nostalgically about their great-grandparents’ ways. That nostalgia becomes a powerful force, and creates backlash against the modern world AND Christian faith, as an outsider invasive species. This happens a lot in pre-modern societies these days, ones that were thrown into contact with the modern world quickly.

Have you observed some of this happening? What would this mean for your work? How could you and your organization be the protector of everything good, noble and praiseworthy in the local culture and religion? How would that change some things you do and say?

Water Buffalo Theology

One of the singular, greatest pieces of theology I have read in the last 20 years, hands down, is Kosuke Koyama’s Water Buffalo Theology. Koyama (1929-2009), a Japanese Protestant theologian, was a prolific writer of 20th century contextual Asian theology – and gave us some of the best designs for how to do such work – during his years as professor of theology in Singapore, New Zealand and America. Koyama was several decades ahead of the rest of us, thinking about culture-and-gospel in ways it has taken most of us in the U.S. right up to about now to even start thinking about. In the 1960s Koyama was a missionary to rice-paddy villagers in Northern Thailand outside of Chiang Mai.

During those Thailand years, Koyama came up against a reality that flustered and unraveled his Western-learned Princeton theology. Here he was explaining the gospel to Buddhist rice farmers who spent their days with water buffaloes, and there was an utter and total disconnect in understanding. First of all, none of the categories matched! He was talking atonement, wrath of God, sin, and salvation  while they were talking arhat, detachment, nirvana, unsatisfactoriness, and tranquility. Christian categories sounded so strange to their ears. They wanted to know if God was hot or cold!

The lack of severe storms, earthquakes and volcanos, the utter dependability and trustworthiness of the annual monsoon rains bringing the rice harvest made the idea of “wrath of God” totally mystifying to them. They said, “There’s fish in the river and rice in the paddy.” Life is circular, harmonious, tranquil. What in the world would ever give you the idea that God was mad about something?! They couldn’t understand why he thought so.

One of the things Koyama came to conclude was that the Gospel needed to be word-incarnated in Buddhist thought forms. Paul stole and re-defined words from Greek philosophy religions, so now we ought to in Buddhism as well, Koyama argued. His thoughts on where and how we needed to proceed across Asia in a host of contexts and cultural-religious backgrounds, stand as a seminal collection of works in a field critical to the 21st century.  Everyone knows we don’t need to export Americanism with the Gospel. Many people also realize we don’t need to export Western Greco-Roman theology developed in the West when we are inviting people to Jesus in the East.

The Mexican Prayer

“Give us, Señor
Give us, Señor, a little sun, a little happiness, and some work.
Give us a heart to comfort those in pain.
Give us the ability to be good, strong, wise and free,
So that we may be as generous with others as we are with ourselves.
Finally, Señor, let us all live as your own one family. Amen.”
— A prayer painted on a church wall in Mexico,

(United Methodist Book of Worship #465)

Look at this prayer closely. The context speaks out of the prayer clearly.  Some of us believe theology would always be contextual. It’s an issue of incarnation. Additionally, all historical theological was written due to context, a fact we should remember when we utilize it in our different context. Pauls’ theology was written at and into a particular context. This is old news to Asians, Africans and Latin Americans doing theology, but seems lost on the USA crowd.

One Nepali Christian writes “…we need NCT (Nepal Christian Theology) because the western theology is inadequate to address the existential concerns of the Nepali context. The reason for this inadequacy is because western theology comprises of thought patterns, and the existential concerns of its own context. Thirdly, we need NCT because it’s interaction with other religions. It is imperative for Nepali church, to present the Christian faith in a comprehensible manner to other religions. This requires Nepali theologians to articulate Christian faith in its multi-religious context.”  (Towards Nepal Christian Theology: A Proposal  by Yeshwanth B. V  at  http://yeshwanthbv.wordpress.com/2014/05/23/towards-nepal-christian-theology-a-proposal/)

One of my old missiology professors from seminary, Donald Leroy Stults, wrote “ “Young Asian theologians often turn to the West for mentors, only to discover that the questions that occupy Western theologians do not always relate to the problems facing the church in Asia” (Developing an Asian Evangelical Theology (OMF: 1990).

Another worthy resource is Eastern University theologian Eric Flett’s “Dingolayin’: Theological Notes for a Contextual Caribbean Theology.” Book chapter in A Kairos Moment for Caribbean Theology: Ecumenical Voices in Dialogue, edited by J. Richard Middleton and Garnett Roper. Pickwick Publications, 2013.

When we use Paul’s theology we need to keep in mind that it was written in a context wildly different than ours, and work it accordingly. This might save us a lot of triumphant verse-quoting trying to prove something with Paul which Paul wasn’t even talking about at the time.