Saturday, May 05, 2007

Syncretists, Mascots and Other Racial Slurs...

NOTE FROM RAY: My essay today is about three forms of racism that all look
pretty good on the outside, but once you take a deeper look, get real ugly real

-- Using Native American symbols, names, people and objects as good luck charms to win sporting events is racism. I think that has been made abundantly clear.

-- Accusing Native American Christian leaders of syncretism is another form of
racism, although this occurs mostly in seminaries and denominational
headquarters, and often, large, powerful churches.

-- Demanding unity under the banner of multi-culturalism is another form of
racism, but uses all the politically correct terms to make it sound like an
added benefit to being a minority. The truth, however, is that it is just
racism, "new and improved."

It appears that the recent episode in Tennessee demonstrates that racism is
deeply rooted in America and that often, the only reason that racism seems to be diminishing is solely due to "political correctness." "You shouldn't make the Indians mad over mascots", they say, even though we are accorded no greater respect.

But remember the definition of racism -- it is when people in power make discriminatory choices. Poor people who don't like another race are just "prejudiced", having "prejudged" another person based on skin color, tribe, or neighborhood.

BUT, when people have the power to do good or evil, these people can exercise true racism, and not just personal prejudice.

A few days ago I got a note from a native minister about him being blacklisted by a denomination who accused him of promoting syncretism. Here is an excerpt:
I have always been deeply committed to the idea of unity among
believers in the bigger picture of things. I think a cross-cultural,
multi-cultural biblical unity is a profound picture of what God the
Creator intended for creation from the very beginning. This commitment
has often, and at times, been severely tested as some of my views of
faith and culture have not been so warmly received by my brethren. I
talked with a friend a few weeks ago who told me that the Native
leaders of the Native district of a denomination had placed me on
their "black list" because I was promoting syncretism.

I have on several occasions been crushed by the decisions of Caucasian
denominational leaders who dealt so selfishly and unjustly with their
Native leadership (my dear friends) over issues of self-governance,
co-equality and management of financial assets and resources. I have
been deeply disappointed by local pastors and missionary workers who
were unwilling to consider that some of their attitudes were still
very paternalistic and controlling toward Native people. I have at
times been angered over the simplistic demonizing of our cultural
expressions of faith by people who were largely ignorant of our ways,
espousing authoritative views based on hearsay, misinformation and
just plain discriminatory prejudice.


In my opinion, racism is the real motivation behind those who so quickly accuse native Christians of syncretism.

You see, the denominational leaders and theologians are too busy to bother with watching the Redskins play the Cowboys... instead, they are busy protecting the Church from anyone not exactly like themselves, and declare cultural Indians (who have not yet submitted to assimilation) to be Syncretists and other racial
slurs. You see, a theologian would never use the "N"-word, but they revel in pleasure at their exclusive boundaries which keep Indians out and keeps churches "safe" (from self-examination most likely...).

But now that native Christians are starting to emerge as powerful leaders in their own right, it makes the Big Church nervous. As the minister notes above, they deny us equal participation, funding, partnerships, but most of all, "significant leadership."

They profess the unity of the church, especially the MECC (multi-ethnic cross-cultural) churches, who claim that all races need to come to their church to worship or else they are not following the biblical principle of unity. But, this is just assimilation dressed up in ethnic costume. The worship service is high-powered Urban Gospel music, some Mexican ranchera praise songs, and letting some Indian play a hand drum along with the worship leader singing "How Lovely Is Thy Dwelling Place" by British Christian Matt Redman.

The "call for unity" is still just another guilt mechanism for assimilation. And it is rarely "multicultural" in it's leadership, because the songs and artwork are of the "international Christian bookstore" genre.

Recently, a large American denomination announced to their Native American
leadership agency that they were being disbanded since they had "fulfilled their
original mission" and now there would be no "Native American denominational
leadership." Their needs would now be met by the African-American office and all the various ethnic groups would now come under a single "Ethnic Ministries"

This is just like all the other treaties made with Indians -- it was unilateral,
made without discussion or consultation, and it once again relegated Indians to
a reservation under someone else's control. These national leaders get to pat
themselves on the back for being "multi-cultural." As natives, we have already
experienced multiple times what it means to be rounded up and moved. Just
reflect for a few moments on the Trail of Tears, or the state of Oklahoma that
many tribes were moved to, or the Indian Residential Schools of the US and
Canada. We were all rounded up, told it was to "help us", and had no say --
being moved under military threat.

So this denomination has a definite precedent for such a strategy, taking a page
right out of the Indian Wars! And their strategy, even if called "multiculturalism" is just as racist today as it ever has been!

Reflecting on the syncretism accusation, we Indians are offered the antidote of "critical contextualization", another method of allowing the majority church to tell us "how much Indian" can be and still "be saved." The notion of self-reflection is not a bad idea in and of itself, but why has the Big Church never applied critical contextualization to itself? Again, this is about the power of the Big Church to exclude us until we reach the full measure of whiteness required. (Please remember that "white" does not mean skin color -- it refers to the ones holding power).

Now there is a verse that talks about unity and maturity.

Ephesians 4:13 This is to continue until all of us are united in our faith and in our knowledge about God's Son, until we become mature, until we measure up to Christ, who is the standard.

Lucky for us Indians that Jesus Christ is the Standard for who we are to be, although it won't be a good idea to tell the Big Church leaders about this verse. It might just get thrown back in our faces. But at least it is written. And when the American church falls, they will have this verse to return to so that they can begin rebuilding on a solid foundation.

So, after all is said and done, is it fair to reply to those who cry "Syncretists!" with our own retort "Racists!"?

It is a question that deserves to be asked.

Most who accuse of us syncretism preach a shallow, parroted faith, where the highest value is correct information and questioning is not safe. This type of religious fundamentalism is inherently dangerous. It creates an atmosphere in which racism is theologically justified, where justice is never given its due, and where discussions are framed as King James Jihad ("You don't agree with us? We declare you the Great Satan!").

Of the fine church-going people in Kentucky that closed down Randy Woodley's "Eloheh Village" Native American School of ministry with their guns and threats, weren't they just doing their duty to God? The KKK has always been a religious organization trying to keep America and the church pure. For all the
calls for unity and cross-cultural churches, the vast majority serve a single race.

The KKK and fundamentalist theologians share the same value of racial superiority. One group burns crosses on lawns, the other group just crucifies us theologically.

So why did I write this today? Partly because some people question why Christians should even be concerned about the mascot issue at all. And
the reason is that it is an issue of justice and prima facie evidence of racism.

And why bother bringing up syncretism again (since it is not an issue in native communities)? Because behind the accusations which native Christians constantly suffer there are issues of racism and justice, just like mascots.

So the next time someone asks me, "Ray, are you aware of the dangers of syncretism in native ministry?" -- I will have to respond by saying "Before we discuss syncretism, don't you think we need to discuss racism and theological profiling first?"

Thanks for listening...


PS Many of us in "native ministry" respectfully try to keep our distance from the "big church". We work with them when we can because we believe that there is really only one Church, and natives are part of it too. But since they are usually pretty bossy about how to do things, we are starting and leading new gatherings ourselves. We have little money, no TV networks, and we suffer a lot. But it seems that we have a lot in common with other Jesus-followers throughout many centuries. If you want to learn more about our "New Gatherings", just visit us at

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