Drumming, Dancing, Chanting and Other Christian Things
Getting beyond the fear of syncretism and facing the challenge of the sanctification of Native American culture
One of the greatest fears voiced by Christians when efforts are made to radically identify with people in order to reach them with the good news of Jesus Christ is the fear of syncretism. Syncretism is taking two things that are dissimilar and making them one. In evangelism syncretism means that efforts are made to relate to people who are not Christians in such a way that Biblical truth is compromised in the process.
When Christians accept Native American beliefs or practices, in their efforts to relate, the accusation of syncretism is made. People concerned with orthodoxy and historic practice raise the alarm and sometimes accuse their evangelistic brethren with corrupting the truth by their attempt to identify with Native Americans.
These concerns are as old as the Bible itself and are particularly addressed in the New Testament. Christians who have inspired sacred history recorded in the Bible are sometimes the last to learn (if ever) from the past. Many of the issues raised in Native American mission can be readily identified in the Biblical story.
Incarnation and Identification
The very heart of mission is the incarnation of Jesus Christ. God completely identified with humanity by becoming human. The incomprehensible God made Himself comprehendible in the babe of Bethlehem. The eternal, invisible God who fills the universe with himself experienced a physical birth in time and place.
Jesus, the revelation of the Creator of heaven and earth, said, "If you want to see God, look at me. If you want to hear His voice, listen to me. If you want to see Him at work, watch what I do."
The challenge of Christian mission is to be able to say, "If you want to see what Jesus is like, look at me. If you want to here Jesus' voice, listen to what I have to say from His Word. If you want to see what Jesus is doing in the earth, watch what I do in His name." Of course God uses weak, sin- prone human beings to act as his representatives. Though Jesus was a sinless example of God's man, we are to be repentant examples of God's people.
Jesus came to the Jewish people in a unique cultural-historical context. He spoke the language of the people and used terminology and illustrations that they understood. Incarnational mission today among Native American people can do no less than this in order to be effective.
What Is Effective Indentification?
The world can be divided into two kinds of people, us and them. "Us" are all those who are understandable, who act and think normally. "Them" are those we don't understand, who do and think strangely.
Part of the challenge in missions is relating to "them" in an understandable relevant way. Often, this takes such a long time that many become discouraged and give up or become fatalistic. One missionary said, "I have been working with Indians for 25 years and I still don't understand them." This vulnerable comment was followed by too much chagrin for my comfort.
The following are some indicators of effective identification with people you are trying to reach with the good news of Jesus Christ.
- They begin to ask you questions. Too often we are the ones asking all the probing questions that really do not open the heart of the people we are trying to reach. An indicator of the relevance and effectiveness of our communication is when they initiate questions that are meaningful to them. We may have been too self-assured in our grasp of Christian truthanswering the questions that are important to us but seem irrelevant to our audience.
- They think you are a good listener. We judge ourselves by our intentions but others judge us by our actions. We may consider ourselves very interested in the people we are trying to reach, but until others feel we will give them a heartfelt audience, they may not open up to us. The incarnational heart of Jesus draws people, making sinners feel accepted even though their sins are not.
- You laugh with them. Laughter is a communal event. When you understand why people think something is funny and find the humor in it yourself, it is a strong indication you have connected.
- You appreciate their music. Nothing is so indigenous as music. Music expresses the soul of a people. Their music may not be your personal favorite but you know it enough to know when it is done well.
- You would let your daughter marry one of their sons. There is nothing like the bedroom to reveal underlying prejudice. If they are not good enough for your daughter do you really believe they are good enough for the Creator? Of course I don't mean you should be in favor of marriage with an unbeliever.
Various Kinds of Syncretism
We must understand the many dimensions to syncretism. There are many social and cultural syncretisms in our lives and customs. Western Christians readily incorporate fertility symbols like bunny rabbits, colored eggs, and the pagan spring festival named "Easter" with the celebration of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Other examples of social syncretism include Western marriage customslike rings, white dresses, flowers, rice, veils, honeymoons, etc.
Missionaries among Native Americans have been particularly suspicious in dealing with Native American customs. Nearly all Native American cultural practices have been branded as pagan and therefore sinful and not fit for Christian use.
I am suggesting that we reject only those elements of Native American culture which are clearly against Biblical truth. I am also suggesting that elements of Native American religious belief that are in line with God's word also be affirmed and utilized as points of contact and bridges of communication for the good news of Jesus Christ to Native Americans.
The Melchizedek Factor
Abraham's experience, in rescuing his nephew Lot in Genesis 14, is a good example of three people in the mission process:
- The special covenant person of God.
- The person of God from the nations.
- The person of sin.
Abraham, the special covenant person of God, was returning after a successful battle to rescue his nephew Lot and the people of Sodom. The Canaanite king Melchizedek met him and gave him a priestly blessing that foreshadowed the communion of Christ. Melchizedek was the person of God from the nations.
Melchizedek's name meant King of Peace, or King of Righteousness. He was a type of Christ in the Canaanite culture. Melchizedek called God by the Canaanite term El Elyon, God Most High. Abraham adopted this name and identified it with his God, YHWH, the God of the special covenant. The special covenant person of God recognized and accepted the witness of the person of God from the nations. The missionary to Native Americans needs to recognize and accept the witness of God in the person of God among Native Americans.
We need to courageously look for what Don Richardson calls the "Melchizedek factor" in a culture.1 This is the mysterious evident witness of the Creator God in what could be viewed as a God-forsaken Canaanite culture. There are many aspects of Native American religious belief that are in agreement with Biblical truth. Too many missionaries have failed to see these golden opportunities to communicate a message that connects like Paul did on Mars Hill in Acts 17.
Not only did Melchizedek meet Abraham but also the King of Sodom, the person of sin. A few short years later, in Genesis 19, we read of the dramatic destruction of Sodom for its sinfulness. The King of Sodom also met Abraham and tried to give him a blessing. Abraham refused to accept the King of Sodom's generous gift. Abraham wanted nothing to do with the sin of Sodom.
We need to wisely reject what Don Richardson calls the "Sodom factor" in a culture. There are aspects of the Native American culture that are clearly against Biblical truth and must be rejected. This is true of every culture. The sin of materialism, for example, should be repented of in American culture. Yet America seems willing to tolerate the immorality of its leaders as long as its prosperity is not affected.
An Iroquoian Melchizedek
Deganiwidah, the Wendat (Huron) Peacemaker, came to warring cannibalistic Iroquoian people and brought repentance, dignity, and peace in pre-Columbian times.2 His system of government by consensus codified human dignity. Deganiwidah feared the Creator and did what was right. He fulfilled the qualifications that Peter laid out for people, of any nation, who are accepted by God:
"In truth God shows no partiality. But in every nation whoever fears Him and works righteousness is accepted by Him" (Acts 10:34b-35).
As Melchizedek was a type of Christ so Deganiwidah can be seen as an Iroquoian type of Christ. Deganiwidahas the one who brought civil peace, points the way to the One who brought eternal, spiritual peace, Jesus Christ.
Recognizing Biblical Truth in Native American Culture
Many opportunities to communicate the good news of Jesus Christ have been lost as a result of what could be seen as paranoia in dealing with Native American culture. Fear of compromising the truth has led many to reject anything that is does not come from "Christian" Europe.
As we carefully exegete Scripture to determine its meaning to us today, we must carefully evaluate the Native American cultures we are trying to reach. We need to find the witness of the Creator in the people, values, and oral traditions of Native American people. We must also be aware of the corruption of sin and what needs to be rejected as against Biblical truth.