Indigenous Theology

Re-imagining the Tradition in the face of White Distortions

Transmission of the Tradition and incorporating new groups and peoples into the Body of Christ is a complex process. The second chapter of Ephesians uses a number of mixed metaphors in giving an account of this process, which is ultimately bringing together Jew and Gentile as the church, a living temple.  This process builds a temple of those who weren’t citizens of Israel with those who are citizens.  This building is founded upon the apostles and prophets, but the building is ongoing as the Temple/people of God grows (an organic living building), through the continual addition of peoples.  What Ephesians doesn’t have in view is how human participation might facilitate or muck up this process.  Raymond Aldred’s presentation for NPTS Symposium 2015, Race and Racism, on indigenous reimagining of repentance and conversion, in part demonstrates how the process described in Ephesians was distorted for indigenous peoples.  Aldred’s reimagining I suggest offers a way for the indigenous and any group oppressed by White distortions of the Tradition, embrace the reality of God building the church by incorporating new people into Israel, the Church the Body of Christ.

Aldred’s paper didn’t have in view the ecclesiology of Ephesians, but was attempting an account of repentance, which values indigenous spirituality and experience as able to provide a deepening of Christian theological concepts.  Through valuing of indigenous spirituality and experience and reimagining repentance Aldred liberates the concept from White distortions of repentance and conversion. However given the oppressive distortion of the concepts of conversion and repentance by white Europeans,  I suggest that Aldred’s project is made possible through the divine act of building the Church throughout time and with all peoples as describe in Ephesians.

Aldred offered a reinterpretation and reimagining of repentance for indigenous, specifically Cree, Canadians.  He reinterprets repentance as a decision to turn and embrace the life Creator has provided, have sorrow for a lost identify rejecting the shame put upon indigenous people, and taking responsibility to work towards healing all relationships.  He argues that this reinterpretation fits with traditional and Biblical definitions of repentance that can be summarized as a contrite turning from, sin essential for conversion, and for living out of the day to day Christian life.

A substantial portion of Aldred’s paper gives the historical (some very recent) reasons why this reinterpretation is necessary. When the Newcomers came, these Europeans presented to the indigenous populations an equation of Whiteness and Christianity.   The Newcomers teaching on repentance and conversion was to teach an absolute rejection of indigenous culture based upon the absolute identification of European and Christian.  To my ears Aldred’s indigenous reimagining seems more a retrieval of the true meaning of repentance and conversion and a rejection of the heretical idea that Europeans were the Church, the people of God.  His approach to retrieving repentance for both First Nations and Newcomers, suggests a method for a retrieval of the Tradition after White ideological distortion of the tradition.

Aldred’s “method” in the paper could be stated this way (though he doesn’t so summarize nor even acknowledge a method): Identify what is the Tradition of the Church that was received by the Europeans, Identify the distortion(s) of that Tradition by Whites in their encounter and oppression of those who aren’t white (in this instance the indigenous populations of North America) the reimagining of the traditional categories through retrieval of the Tradition which is also an enculturated expression,  and thus rescues the Tradition from White oppressive distortion.

Ray Aldred’s approach suggests a need to reexamine how we conceive and talk about transmission of the Tradition of the Church through the age of European conquest and colonialism. We often speak of European interpretations of the Tradition as legitimate enculturation that becomes oppressive or illegitimate upon transmitting to other cultures and peoples the Tradition as enculturated by Europeans.  However, what Aldred’s limited account shows is that the situation we find in European colonialism isn’t merely a failure to allow enculturation of the Tradition among those who aren’t European, but a distortion of the received Tradition by the ideology of White Supremacy.

What is this distortion?  In the attempt to assimilate indigenous into Newcomer culture and society, Christianity was used to condemn indigenous culture and lift up Whiteness.  Repentance and conversion is explicitly and at times intentionally distorted for both indigenous and Europeans, through the claim that repentance involves turning away from the entirety of indigenous culture and conversion then is seen as becoming European. As I’ve said being Christian and being White became synonymous.

How does this distortion happen?  This is more than enculturation.  This is an identification of the People of God with being European and White.  This is a subtle but drastic move from enculturation to actual heresy, a misapplication of the understanding of The Church as the people of God and continuation of the Work of God begun with the people of Israel.  To fully trace out this movement is, of course, beyond the scope of this post.  However, prior to this distortion as new peoples were incorporated into the church and received the Tradition it was acknowledged that any people had witness of God in their own culture.  While there were demonic elements in each culture (primarily identified with idols of the god’s of any particular people) as a people converted to Christ and were joined with the people of God the church, there was a process in which the witness of God to people was sought out in the culture.  This process often was fraught with conflict, a well-known example of this is the bringing in the insights of Greek philosophy into the Church and Tradition, opposed by Tertullian by his famous phrase “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem.”

For the Church and the Tradition this process has a twofold necessity.  First the Church and the Tradition it transmits is in continuity with the People of Israel. Paul speaks of this with the metaphor of cultivation in which a branches from one tree are grafted into another tree. Israel is the cultivated domestic olive tree, into which all other people are grafted into through faith in Christ.  Second, while the Church is the continuation of the people of Israel as the people of God, the people of God are no longer a racial, or ethnic or national identity, but a coming together of all peoples through incorporation in Christ.  In this view, no longer can any particular nation, people or race claim to have a special relationship to God based on such identity, only being in Christ makes us members of the Israel of God.  This process was interrupted and distorted by an identification of White and European with being the people of God, the new Israel.

By this misappropriation for themselves of the designation of the New Israel to a particular people, the White race, Europeans, no longer could transmit the Tradition, nor be agents of incorporation into the body of Christ. Thus, reinterpretation, reimagining and retrieval along the lines of Aldred’s reimagining of repentance for indigenous and newcomers in Canada is need across the board if we are to regain some semblance of church and Tradition as Whites.  In part this means accepting that God has been at work, in spite of heresy incorporating peoples into Christ, and aspects of the Tradition have been received even when there is such distortion and great heresy.