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.

In the jungles of Costa Rica

cabecar jungle

 

So I’ve been AWOL for a month here, in a flurry of activity that has kept me largely away from my computer and for sure away from doing things like blogging. One of the best of these activities, in a month packed with fun, (Thanksgiving, deer hunting, etc), was a week long trip to Costa Rica, where I found myself climbing mountains in the jungle on a remote Indian Reservation doing a feasibility study for development work for an inter-agency cooperation.

From 2012-2014 I did an MA in International Development at Eastern University in St. Davids, PA at Eastern’s  (Tony) Campolo School of Leadership and Development. As a pastor, I’ve always believed in putting your money where your mouth is, and a degree in development would, I hoped, help me comprehend better how to do good work in the under-developed world, instead of blundering through with good intentions.  It was great fun and very stimulating and put me with an incredible group of people I am blessed to call friends. One of the organizations looking at development work among the Native Americans in Costa Rica knew me and asked me to come along on an assessment trip as their ‘development specialist.’ An all-expenses-paid chance to hike around in the jungle and maybe even do some good? Easy choice.  My folks paid for our 17 year old son to come along as a student observer and that made it even better.

So it was pretty sweet, interviewing folks all over, taking a look at their water and sanitation issues, and education, health services and infrastructure needs. We spent three days in the jungle and the next three days hammering out reports and sitting in long, long meetings. All in all, it was dream work. The dream job. I’m grateful to belong to a denomination with a vision for transformation of not only peoples’ spiritual lives, but all of their existence, in culturally appropriate, missiologically and anthropologically sound ways.

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.

Emerging Churches believe the modern church’s evangelistic success is declining

Over a decade ago, a new kind of church began appearing that was, in many respects, very different than other churches on the landscape. As a catch-all term, I will use the word ’emerging’ to describe them, since they often identified with that term for several years.

Emerging churches observe that the church in the modern era, while it accomplished many wonderful things, has gradually become less and less effective at drawing people in our changing culture to life-changing experiences with Jesus.

Postmodern Christians realize that the cultural matrix that modern churches developed in – has changed dramatically.They believe that, in order to communicate the gospel effectively to a culture that no longer knows it by heart, we need to apply the insights learned by missionaries in other cultures about contextualization. They also believe that failure to do so is one of the chief reasons behind why the modern church’s evangelistic success has been waning.

Dan Kimball says it like this in his excellent book The Emerging Church: Vintage Christianity for New Generations “While many of us have been preparing sermons and keeping busy with the internal affairs of our churches, something alarming has been happening on the outside. What was once a Christian nation with a Judeo-Christian worldview is quickly becoming a post-Christian, unchurched, unreached nation…. the fifth largest mission field in the world.” (The Emerging Church, 13-14).

A member of a super-modern church said to me “People who visit church already know what we’re about and what we believe.” I contend nothing could be further from accurate.  Emerging churches realize that the people in our culture do not already know the Bible’s characters nor themes. Doubt it? Remember The Tonight Show’s clips on the streets of New York asking basic bible questions like “Who was bigger, David or Goliath” or “Name one of the 12 disciples”. Or, consider the much-told story of the two young women at a jewelry counter. Do you know that story? They are looking at cross necklaces. One girl says to the other “Are you going to get a cross with the little man on it, or one without the little man?” The other girl responds “What’s with the little man? Why would someone want a little man on their cross?” Emerging churches understand that postmodern people may think ‘Trinity’ refers to Neo’s girlfriend in The Matrix. 

Kimball has said “We start in the middle of a story that they don’t know or that they know very little about mainly through negative experiences. We offer them escape from a peril they don’t know they face, and we use words that either aren’t part of their vocabulary or that they don’t correctly understand.” (Kimball, The Emerging Church, 172).

I start with this point, because it informs so much of what has created the raison d’etre    for emerging churches. Members of emerging churches want the message of Jesus effectively getting to our culture. I stand squarely in the middle of historic and evangelical Christianity in affirming them in this desire.

So, modern church, what’s all that mean? It means this: It’s time we apply missionary science 101 in postmodern culture.

What’s good about this? What’s wonderful about knowing the church is not doing so great in evangelism? Simply this: waking up and smelling the reality is essential to dealing with reality. The first step in addressing an issue, is knowing there is one. Remember the men of the tribe of Issachar:  “…who understood the times and knew what Israel should do.”   (1 Chronicles 12: 32).