One of the most common questions I receive when speaking to non-indigenous audiences is this: Why would an indigenous person want to be a Christian? Most often, it is said or implied that it should be near impossible for people to look beyond the suffering related to the misdeeds of Christians. At times, the question is offered by people who recognize the great depth and wisdom of indigenous traditions.
At these times, I think of a dear Lakota friend who, when asked that question, answered, “That’s simple: Jesus.” I have learned since then that he spoke for many people. Jesus is the compelling and most complete answer to the question of why indigenous people would want to be Christian.
For many in Western societies, Jesus can’t be separated from their experience of church. Both Jesus and the church are thought to be a product of Western culture. Jesus either appears to be the ultimate cheerleader for personal and societal good or, perhaps, as the founder of an institution with an ambiguous record and an increasing irrelevance. For a majority of people in society, his word and deeds have come to lack the power to disturb and, increasingly, even the power to ruffle.
For most of the indigenous people I meet, even those who do not claim to be Christian, Jesus is seen quite differently. His words and actions are seen as a powerful and prophetic confrontation with any status quo that does not put God and the weak ones first. He is portrayed in scripture, quite clearly, as both a deep part of creation and also its wise ruler. He is very interested in every person, even those who seem faraway from him. He gives his life for the people, in sacrificial love, which is said to be the highest value of indigenous community. He is raised from the dead and is immediately present as the blessing of life, something that is experienced in a mysterious but tangible way.
So there is a surprising vitality to the faith that indigenous people have in Jesus. Many Westerners might be tempted to receive this emphasis on Jesus as yet another example of primitive indigenous faith. I don’t think so. I think it is a vision of the future.
The gospel of Jesus is infinitely translatable. Its horizon is not limited to the culture and religion of any one group. Its capacity is not bound to the mistakes of its would-be proclaimers and practitioners. Today, in many peoples, indigenous and not, it is reaching for a new horizon.
Mark MacDonald is national indigenous bishop of the Anglican Church of Canada.