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?

Muslims and Christians About God and Jesus

Most Christians where I live don’t know very much about Islam. In fact, they are often surprised when they learn how many things we agree upon.

Here are things both Muslims and Christians agree about, concerning God:

God created the world, and the entire universe.

God is merciful and forgives those who come to Him in repentance.

God revealed Himself to Abraham, the Patriarchs, Moses, David, the Prophets and Jesus.

God wants widows and orphans and the poor looked after.

God is all-powerful, holy, and good.

God is our Maker, and deserves our complete fidelity, love, awe and obedience.

God does not love aggressive violence.

God wants humans to exhibit integrity, truthfulness, a just society, and mercy.

God will hold humans accountable for how they have lived.

 Here are things both  Muslims and Christians agree about, concerning  Jesus:

Jesus was sent from God.

Jesus performed miracles, and was sinless.

Jesus was miraculously born of the Virgin Mary.

Jesus was “sign for all nations.”

Jesus is the Messiah, the Word of God, the Truth of God, the Spirit from God.

Jesus was taken to heaven and is alive now.

Jesus is returning to judge and rule the world as its king, doing away with all evil.

I think the agreements within these two lists provide a strong foundation for Christians and Muslims to be friends and dialogue partners. There have been many close friendships between Muslims and Christians down through the centuries, including in Muhammad’s generation.

Jesus once said: “Blessed be the peacemakers”

5 Things About Islam

There are five really common mis-understandings Americans have about Islam.

  1. Muslims have always been at war with Jews. Not true. The Qur’an makes clear Jews are People of the Book, following the same God as Muslims (Sura 2: 62,3: 84, 5: 47, 42:13, 29:46 and many more). Muhammad was allied with Jewish tribes in Arabia. In Spain, Muslims, Jews and Christians flourished together for 700 years in a Muslim empire, a brilliant, scientific civilization where Jewish people rose to the highest ranks of society. When El Cid re-took Spain in 1492 and pushed the Muslim kingdoms out, the Jews fled with the Muslims. Jews in Spain called Islam “a merciful act of God” and were far safer in most Muslim countries than in most Christian countries. The “tax” Christians and Jews were expected to pay in some countries was a small amount compared to what Muslims were expected to voluntarily give to the poor. We have many records of close friendships between Jews, Christians and Muslims of that era.
  1. The Qur’an says to kill Christians and Jews. In fact, it says nothing of the kind. Jews and Christians are described throughout the Qur’an as people of the Book, people God revealed Himself to, people who should follow the Torah and the Gospel. The oft-quoted verse about “fight them everywhere” refers to idol-worshipping pagan tribes who were attacking the Muslims. Context, people. (Sura 2: 190-193).
  1. All Islam is the same. Don’t be absurd. There are as many groups and denominations in Islam as there are in Christianity, with huge diversity. Looking at the actions of one group and saying it represents all Muslims is completely ludicrous. My sons have Muslim friends who have no interest in violence at all.
  1. Islam is a religion of the sword. If we look at history, we could conclude the exact same thing about Christianity. Here’s the fact: governments do what governments do. Rulers attack other nations. They use their nation’s religion to baptize and justify their wars. World War One was fought exclusively by Christian nations. How about the Rwandan genocide? It was the most Christian evangelized nation in Africa. Vigorous empires within the Muslim world expanded, as empires do. It isn’t an issue with Islam. The Qur’an forbids forcing Islam onto someone (Sura 2: 256).
  1. Islam is inherently violent. Then why have hundreds of millions of Muslims led peaceful lives? In fact, Muhammad forbade fighting except in self-defense (Sura 2: 191). Islam, in many parts of the world, is struggling within itself. It may even be undergoing its Reformation – Christianity’s Reformation was full of bloodshed and war over theology as well. Among the things we should pray is that peaceful Muslims will prevail. They want to raise their children in peace, just like us. But many of them do not feel that Western foreign policy is on their side.

Speaking Up for Muslims

Most Americans don’t seem to know much about Islam. The pithy T shirt “I learned everything I need  to know about Islam on 9/11” is the same as saying “I learned everything I need to know about Christianity from the Crusades”.

Large numbers of Muslims are ordinary, peace-loving people who simply want their families to have a decent future. Many of these people understand the Qur’an’s declaration that Christians are Peoples of the Book, and spiritual cousins to Muslims. When a Muslim family enrolled their child into our church’s preschool and my wife said “now, we are an explicitly Christian preschool with Christian prayers, bible stories and songs” (which she says to every person enrolling their child),  the Muslim family replied “Of course! That is why we chose you!”  When another Muslim family came to our church’s children’s Easter program, they said to us “We are very excited, this is our child’s first Easter.” An African (Liberian, if I recall) Christian who grew up with a Muslim father  once said to me “My father’s people would never have dreamed of this kind of violence. He married my Christian mother and nobody ever thought twice about it. He sent me to Catholic school because it was the best school around.”

Islam has as many splinter groups as Christianity, and many practices we assume are Islamic are simply cultural practices in a particular area, which have been woven into Islam locally. The fact that there is a tragically violent version of Islam raging in the world right now does not mean that this is how Islam has always been, nor is intrinsically. Many of the most radical versions of Islam today were virtually unheard of forty years ago. In fact, it is the vast amounts of money from the West purchasing oil from the Middle East which has funded the spread of some of the most violent Islam we see today.

Many Muslims have been inspired by their faith to accomplish great good in our world for humanity (say, for example, Nobel Peace Prize Winner Muhammad Yunus and Grameen Bank for the destitute poor).

Defending what history actually shows us about Islam down through the centuries is not to say there have never been evils committed by leaders or nations or troops who were Muslim. Of course there have been – all of the world’s religions have done that, including Christian nations. But ignorant, inaccurate portrayals of the past, present, or beliefs, of Muslims is to do what Martin Luther is credited with saying: “to mis-characterize my opponents’ theology is to fail to obey the commandment to love my neighbor.” There are about 5 really common lies about Islam that American Christians ignorantly and absurdly keep repeating publicly. It’s counter to our faith to repeat lies as if they are true. And Christian publishers and broadcasters have a responsibility to check their facts. These distortions have grown to ridiculous proportions. When we repeat these 5, we are simply propagating the violent version of Islam – doing the work of the radical mullahs for them. I discuss those 5 things here:  https://toddrisser.com/2015/03/17/5-things-about-islam/

Christianity and the other religions

As Christians, we believe Jesus is the One through whom all things were made and who holds all things together (Colossians  1:17). We believe He is the Savior of all humanity and even the cosmos (1 Timothy  4: 10 and Colossians  1: 15,20). We believe that people come to understand who God truly is through Jesus (Hebrews 1:3).

So that brings the question of the other religions of the world. Does God use them in any way? Are they evil? Are they somewhat good? Do they have some truth in them, and what does that mean for their value?

That’s a large can of worms to open, and way too much for a short treatment in a blog post. But we can say a few things to get started on the subject.

1)      C.S. Lewis once remarked that to say the Christian religion is right does not mean we must say everything in the other world religions is wrong. That is, there are things that other religions say that we agree with. It is not a bad thing, nor betrayal to Jesus, to say “We believe that too. Here’s why….”

2)      God can act in a prevenient way through other religions, as seen in the Apostle Paul’s remark in Athens (Acts chapter 17).  Paul affirms some truths about God that the Athenians have grasped, and then shares with them a fuller understanding that Christ brings. In many cases the world religions have led to better outcomes for people than what they replaced. We can appreciate   values like justice, compassion and respect that are present in other religions. Even as we disagree with some significant aspects of another religion, we can recognize the presence of things that are important to God which are present in other religions. Wesleyans call this prevenient grace – ways God is acting  in our lives even before we know Jesus. In the Old Testament God has also indicated His involvement in other peoples’ lives who do not yet know Him. One example would be Amos 9:7.

3)      Obviously, we can point to times in history when the world religions have done some really terrible things – or really terrible things have been done in their name. This is true of all the religions, including Christianity. Perhaps we should exercise a bit of humility when talking about this issue, because down through the centuries Christians have perpetrated some pretty horrible human rights abuses in the name of Jesus, and of all people, Christians should have known better.

4)      Most Christian theology does not consider the other religions to be “salvific.” By this we mean we would not consider the other religions “a road to heaven.” However, much Christian theology does keep the door open to the idea that God will nevertheless act salvificly in the lives of people who never heard of Christ. This would not mean their religion saved them, but that God applied the atonement of Jesus, and judged them “according to the light they had.”

5)      We can also recognize that other religions have great diversity within them, and a great range of health and un-health  in the ways they are practiced. For example, there are Muslims who practice Islam in ways that prioritize goodness, compassion, kindness to humanity, and a close relationship with God. There are other Muslims who practice a version of Islam that prioritizes violence, revenge, domination and conquest. Since I doubt that a billion Muslims will convert to Christianity next week, I prefer a world where a healthy Islam is practiced, rather than a violent one. Christianity also experiences this range, right? Many people practice a kind of Christianity that you or I might say “That’s not even Christian. It’s astray of the very tenets of our faith.”

6)      Many missiologists believe that the most effective, Christlike approach to the other religions is to build bridges of commonality and friendship as we attempt to share what we know of Jesus with them.  Pauls’ approach in Athens is often pointed to in this regard. Missionary Don Richardson has compiled an entire book featuring indigenous religions throughout the world that had beliefs – even prophecies about the Creator’s Son! – that prepared them for the Christian message. The book is called Eternity in Their Hearts. Sadly, we are also aware that this is not always an option, in places of great aggression, persecution or violence.

If you are interested in this, two other posts I’ve written related to this are:   “Then Why Send Missionaries?”  (in the section “Theology, Scripture, Theologians” ), and “John Wesley re: the Muslims” (in the section “Other Religions”).