– Soichi Watanabe, Indigenous Hospitality House
Lately, I had some time to pull together some of my studies on cross cultural identities and what being true to the text requires of us – from any cultural background, as we engage both culture and the call we have as Jesus followers.
For those of you who don’t know me, I am a pastor, and have spent 14 years in ministry in a urban Indigenous community on Treaty-Six Territory here in Canada. Most of that time has been spent serving at an inner-city church in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada.
My neighbourhood is a low-income urban community. It is home to many Indigenous people, mostly the Cree and Ojibway. I live and minister in the heart of Treaty 6 territory, and the homeland of the Metis Nation. Lately, gentrification has had an increasingly negative effect on the families in my neighbourhood. Long-time residents are beginning to be priced out of my neighbourhood due to development and so-called urban renewal.
Most of the theological work I have done has been working on building a theological framework for reconciliation and decolonization. Through over a decade of living in an urban First Nation community, I have begun to learn how to personally integrate the processes of decolonization.
My personal journey of deconstruction has been more along the lines of learning how to detach and decolonize from the dominant narratives of dominion theology, nationalism and detox from what pastor/theologian Brian Zahnd calls “easy cotton candy christianity.”
Indigenous engagement with the christian faith and spirituality have long looked to Jesus as Creator’s Son. This faith is living and vibrant. It was taken from the colonizers and settlers and made their own. For many it has formed the basis of a resilience that survived the cultural genocide of church-run residential schools and government enforced apartheid through the reservation and pass system.
Living in a large Indigenous urban neighbourhood, I have learned to listen to the voices of my community. Conversation, gatherings, feasts, and life-lived with Indigenous youth and elders, first challenged my theological assumptions, and then led me down this path of deconstruction/decolonization.
Settler Theological Constructs::
Where some speak of deconstruction, I speak of decolonization. For me the path to the true Christ is the narrow way away from nationalism and the euro-centric settler theological constructs I grew up with. Missionary work has been overwhelming harmful in the communities where I live and minister.
I came here 14 years ago as a missionary. I had to walk the long path of decolonization to learn not to be that. To learn to embrace the challenge of the real work of true reconciliation. To first re-concile my own heart to the heart of God: love of neighbour; not love of mission.
Through this process of reconciliation and decolonization I learned to see Jesus with fresh eyes. I was born-again, again. I saw Jesus in the Kokum who challenged my assumptions about my neighbours. I saw Jesus in the youth who challenged my white-settler theology of dominion.
Through dominion theology I was the inheritor of the doctrine of discovery and I had to learn to repudiate that doctrine.
Getting back to the topic at hand… Culture & Spirituality: What does reconciliation look like in a cross cultural context?
Most of my study comes out of Acts 17, because it is the clearest place in Scripture where Paul addresses the Gospel from a cross-cultural perspective.
In Acts 17, beginning in vs 26, Paul speaks of God creating every culture and ethnic group in hope that people would grope after Him and find Him.
I believe a study of this passage reveals two things:
- Culture and ethnicity were created by God and are a gift to us. Each of us is born into a specific culture. That cultural background is a gift from God. I personally am thankful for my Jewish and Irish backgrounds. Both backgrounds help me understand myself better, and help me understand who God created me to be. Although elsewhere Paul speaks of how in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, that reference does not infer culture is not important. I think a study of the whole of Scripture would show that culture is a gift.
- When Paul speaks of nations (ethnicity) and the boundaries of our dwellings (people group) he implicitly says that these two things parts of culture actually are used by the Creator-God,“so that they should seek the Lord, in the hope that they might grope for Him and find Him,…” Acts 17:27
As followers of Christ, cultural identity is not the entirety of our identity, Christ is. So we relate to believers from other cultural backgrounds as brothers and sisters in Christ. And our identity, as believers, should be more tied to those in the family of God then it is to those of the same cultural or ethnic background we have. This is a radical corrective to the toxic nationalism sweeping the church in Canada and the US.
At the same time, because culture is a gift the Creator gave us, and placed us in at birth, we can take a measure of pride in our culture. It is a significant part of our created identify. To devalue ones culture would be to devalue a significant part of who the Creator-God made us to be.
So culture plays a unique role in pointing humanity to its need to know the Creator. This isn’t just Indigenous culture; it is actually true of all cultures across the world.
This is why culture and spirituality are tied so close together. Often we talk about culture and spirituality in a First Nation context; however, the tie between culture and spirituality is found in every human culture. It is only our modern materialistic culture that has gotten so secular in North America and Western Europe, where we seem to have a culture very divided from spirituality. Materialism and hedonism have produced the opposite of spirituality– agnosticism and atheism. As Jonathan Martin says, nationalism is nothing but another rival religion. Although it has made deep inroads in evangelical churches, at its centre it is rooted in colonialism and a secular/political agenda. It is antithetical to the way of Jesus.
It is ironic that the so called Christian Right has a deeply secularist agenda of power and greed, while railing against what it falsely labels secularist: progressive, reconciliation-aware theologies.
(k, I am done my rant…)
I think it is key to see culture is a gift, that points individuals within that culture for their need to know their Creator. I believe most cultures, and definitely all spiritualties, evolved out of our attempts to know the Divine.
Now this can obviously go horribly wrong, as Paul addresses in Romans 1 when he talks about worshiping creation rather than the Creator.
So, because culture is one: a gift from God. And two: a unique tool God uses to draw people to Himself. I believe within every human culture is a path that would eventually lead to Jesus. As Creator, God’s Spirit had a hand in the development of every culture – to seed within it a drive, or path, that would lead past human depravity to knowledge of their Creator.
Jesus taught that he was the path to knowing Creator as father. C.S. Lewis wrote that there are many paths to knowing Christ.
People come to Jesus through a whole host of ways. And not to sound like a broken record, but culture can be, and is one of the main drives in our lives that points us to our need to know our Creator. The Jewish culture (law, torah and the prophets) was supposed to prepare and point to Jesus when He came as Messiah. That is an obvious example of culture speaking to and leading people to “seek the Lord and grope after Him”
So the question is, is that only true of the Jewish culture, or is there an element in every culture that points to Christ as the path to knowing Creator as Father? I think just a cursory survey of human cultures shows that most, if not all, actually have as a main thrust, our need to know our Creator.
However, there is another example from Scripture that I find compelling. In Matthew 2 we hear the story of the Magi. These were royal men from a pagan culture. Most Bible scholars believe they were definitely gentiles, and a lot of scholars think that they were most likely from Persia. The phrase, from the east apparently has a connotation in the original greek that would lead to this conclusion.
As Gentiles from Persia, they would have followed the pagan religion of Zoroastrianism. This is interesting in the whole discussion around culture. Writings that have survived from the early church discuss what believers only a generation or two after Christ and the Apostles thought about the Magi.
“Although Matthew’s account does not explicitly cite the motivation for their journey (other than seeing the star in the east, which they somehow took to be the star of the King of the Jews), the Syriac provides some clarity by stating explicitly in the third chapter that they were pursuing a prophecy from their prophet, Zoradascht (Zoroaster)”.
Now whether or not the Magi were following a pagan prophesy that led them to follow a star that would point to Christ’s birth, I do think it is clear that the wise men didn’t know the God of the Hebrews and still felt compelled by their culture and spirituality to follow a star that led to their direct knowledge of Christ. Matthew states that when the found the babe and his mother they fell down and worshiped Him.
I think we can conclude that the Creator led pagan kings through, and not in-spite of, their pagan culture to a place of revelation and salvation.
I firmly believe that spiritually hungry people in any culture will eventually find a path (in this case, the star) that leads to a divine knowledge of truth.
Ok, now what? I think I have made a good argument for how the Creator uses culture to reach humanity. However, as Christ-followers, do we shed our cultural backgrounds as sinful at the foot of the cross?
For the last couple hundred years many Christians have thought so. Christian missionaries around the world have preached that culture is idolatrous and should be abandoned when one accepts Christ.
The problem with this is, that by and large, Christians have lived from a white supremest cultural construct, and our requirements for other peoples as they came to Christ was that they needed to abandon their culture. We never constructively asked ourselves if we were also willing to criticize or step away from the euro-centric christian settler assumptions we often held.
I think that is how colonialism was born; so often the church in generations past confused Christian discipleship with “you should become European, just like us.”
So residential schools were developed. Speaking English or French was considered “Christian” speaking a First Nation language was considered “pagan.”
What we did with culture was to throw the baby out with the bath water.
Now, as a follower of Christ, I believe that my discipleship requires two things from me on the cultural front. First, I believe that my culture or anyone else’s should be honoured as the gift from God that it actually is. Second, I believe that when I come to Christ, I don’t throw away my culture, rather, part of the process of discipleship is learning how to allow the Holy Spirit to lead me in redeeming my culture.
All culture can and should be redeemed. So what do we do with spirituality?
This is a long discussion, but there are a couple quick conclusions that I think are apparent from the above study of culture from a biblical worldview.
First, spirituality is the part of culture that attempts to know God. Think of Paul’s mention of the alter to the unknown God. (also in Acts 17)
All cultures do attempt to know God. And it is the spirituality that arises from that culture that is our striving to know God.
This is interesting, because I think that in attempting to know God, through spirituality – one can make the mistakes of Romans chapter one, but, one can also, like the Magi, actually find a path that will take one to the truth found in Christ.
There is a lot more I could write. However, my final thought is this. CS Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity that monotheistic cultures were a lot closer to the revelation of God then polytheistic cultures.
Scripture is clear that salvation comes through Christ alone. In culture and spirituality, there is something – that would drive one who is truly hungry for the truth, to a place of being open to the revelation of Christ and who He is.
The central focus of all Indigenous culture and spirituality is prayers made to the Creator. It is a monotheistic culture and spirituality.
As a pastor of an urban Indigenous community, I have been participated in many traditional rituals and practices. They all revolve around praying to God the Creator. In my experience, it is not the case that they are praying to other spirits.
I believe just like practicing Jews, and those of other monotheistic religions, First Nations people know of God, and the focus of their spirituality is actually prayers made to Him.
So if someone smudges to the Creator, I don’t see that as any different then Jewish prayers made to God Himself. Just as those Jewish people pray to God, First Nation prayers (including smudging) are in-fact prayers made to God the Creator. Further, Scripture clearly states that does does listen to anyone who makes prayers to God the Creator, follower of Christ or not.
Finally, I have included a short write-up on the practice of smudging when it has been redeemed by followers of Christ.
Smudging is simply a “form” attached to prayer. It is a ritual. As a cultural ritual it is spiritually neutral. Its spiritual content would depend on the spiritual state of the one praying. I know First Nation believers that smudge. They have centred their lives on the Word of God, and are faithful believers just like you or I. They are attempting to hold a cultural practice- and redeem it to use for the glory of God.
Now, I am not arguing that all First Nation believers should smudge. But I do think in following the principles outlined in the Bible, especially around the arguments Paul made against circumcision – my conclusion is cultural practices should be free – left to the discernment of an individual.
Some Indigenous Jesus followers are comfortable redeeming things like hand drums for use in worship, others dress in regalia and dance powwow to glorify God.
Others go as far down the road of redeeming cultural practices as possible. There is a church I know in Vancouver that is Spirit filled. They speak in tongues and prophesy. They also have a First Nation pastor who opens every service with smudging. I have spoken to him and he believes that smudging does two things. It honours the culture that He believes God gave his people. Also, because they are an outreach church in a neighbourhood with a lot of First Nation people, it states clearly that the Gospel is not in opposition to culture. He believes this breaks down walls that would make it hard for people to hear and accept Christ.
Below is a Scriptural Interpretation of Smudging that I got from a Pastor in Winnipeg.
Christ as Creator::
In the past the Creator spoke to our ancestors many times and in many ways through the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us through His Son, Jesus Christ. He is the one through whom the Creator made the whole universe, the one whom the Creator has chosen to possess all things at the end. He reflects the brightness of the Creator’s glory and is the exact likeness of the Creator’s own being, sustaining the universe with his powerful word. After achieving forgiveness for the sins of all human beings, He sat down in heaven at the right side of the Creator, the Supreme Power.
(Adapted from Hebrews 1:1-3)
Smudging as a Christian Aboriginal Ritual::
In Christian Aboriginal faith, smudging is a call to worship the Triune Creator: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Like church bells, smudging informs people that an act of worship is about to begin. The smudging ritual invites people to join the sacred space and activity for praying to the Creator in the name of Jesus Christ. The ritual of smudging communicates the initiation of a spiritual activity through sight and smell, our visual and olfactory senses. People see the smudge elements; they smell the fragrant aroma of the smoldering elements. Additionally, people participate in the smudging ritual by wafting the rising smoke over their hands, face, and other parts of their body. Participation in a smudging ritual is always optional; people’s desire to participate or note participate is always respected.
The elements used for smudging may include one or more of the following: sweet grass, sage, cedar, and tobacco.
The sweet grass reminds us of our impurity before the Creator. Covering oneself in the fragrant aroma of the sweet grass is a confession of our need to be purified by the blood of Jesus Christ. We are reminded that “Christ loved us and gave his life for us as a sweet smelling sacrifice that pleased the Creator.” Ephesians 5:2
The sage reminds us of our need for healing by Christ the Creator. Covering oneself in the fragrant aroma of the sage is a prayer for healing by Christ. We are reminded that “It is by Christ’s wounds that we have been healed.” 1 Peter 2:24
The cedar reminds us that we must worship the Creator in truth. Covering oneself in the fragrant aroma of the cedar is a commitment to be honest and to worship the Creator in truth. We are reminded “ that the Creator is spirit and this worshippers must worship in spirit and truth.” John 4:24
The tobacco reminds us that the Creator made us in his image from the elements of creation. Covering oneself in the fragrant aroma of the tobacco is a commitment to honour the creation from which we were made and in which the creator placed us. Genesis 2:4-25
Participating in the smudging ritual may remind people of the incense ritual and elements that the Creator gave to the people of Israel. Exodus 30:34-38
Participating in the smudging ritual may remind people of the word of the Lord through the prophet Malachi that, “”My name will be great among the nations, from the rising to the setting of the sun. In every place incense and pure offerings will be brought to my name, because my name will be great among the nations.” Says the Lord Almighty.” Malachi 1:11
Participating in the smudging ritual may remind people that the book of Revelation reveals that in heaven, incense offerings will be offered to the Lord. Revelation 5:1-14; 8:1-5
A Smudging Prayer
Our Father in heaven,
We come to you as your children
We confess that we are weak and broken images of you.
We pray for the forgiveness and healing you give in Jesus Christ.
May his Spirit clean our spirits, minds, hearts, and bodies.
We pray that your Holy Spirit will help us to worship in spirit and truth.
We pray in the name of Jesus,
So that his Spirit will carry our prayers to you.
– Justice for Our Stolen Sisters Camp, Regina, Saskatchewan.