View from the Pew
Lecturer balks at missionary mentality
One thing that conservative and liberal Christian churches have in common is the sense that they are still missionaries, challenged by Jesus Christ to bring his word to all people.
Of course, anyone who has followed the history of past missionaries knows they didn't stop at spreading the good news. European missionaries and later American Christians imposed their culture on converts and joined conquering forces to help themselves to land. A student wouldn't have to leave the islands to find examples.
George Tinker wants modern missionaries to recognize that "God has lots of ways of being in relationship with people, and Jesus is just one of those ... instead of assuming that God held Indian or kanaka maoli in such low regard that we had to wait until God sent ... white people to save our souls and take our land."
There's a certain irony in the fact that Tinker spreads that message as a professor at Iliff School of Theology -- an advanced-degree theological institute of the United Methodist Church in Denver -- and on a lecture circuit of churches.
Tinker, a member of the Osage nation, will bring his message to Honolulu next week as the speaker in the annual Britt Lectures at First United Methodist Church. The titles of his talks show this isn't going to be a "hooray for the head count" kind of missionary pep talk.
» Friday, 7 p.m., "Christology and Colonialism: Jesus, Corn Mother and Conquest."
» Next Saturday, 7 p.m., "The Stones Shall Cry Out: Consciousness, Rocks & Indians."
» Sunday, Feb. 19, 7 p.m., "American Indian Liberation: Paddling Against the Current."
"The notion that God only blessed Europeans with spiritual answers, with a relationship with God's self, is certainly too Euro-egocentric," Tinker said in an interview.
The professor of American Indian cultures and religious traditions said, "I teach my students accountability, responsibility. My job is to broaden the understanding of Euro-Christian students. I hope to open avenues of understanding without encouraging the dominant culture to take over what they see as appealing."
Since he hasn't attended church in Hawaii yet, Tinker wasn't ready to comment on the local version of that cultural borrowing -- the praise and worship hula halau, the kahili in the sanctuary, the chanter leading a procession of clergy.
"I have given up on creating an Indian version of European Christianity. ... It is close to impossible," said the professor, who was ordained a Lutheran minister. "Some Indians try to do that."
He describes his spiritual path: "My mother is Lutheran, my dad is Indian. I pursued my mother's culture through the seminary."
Although he has the credentials, he no longer functions as a Christian clergyman. He has become a spiritual leader in the urban Indian community of Denver, he said.
"In my mind the cultural traditions are so distinctly different, it is impossible to restructure modern Christianity in a way that it meshes with Indian culture."
The trendy version of Christianity in which people talk of their own personal relationship with Jesus does not work in his culture, Tinker said, and neither does the old-time "Mighty Fortress Is Our God" version.
"Indian cultures find that kind of individualism anathema because we are so heavily communitarian. There is so much language baggage attached to that, Jesus as friend is almost not possible.
"Neither is Jesus as lord, a dominant kingly figure, so dominant in Euro-Christianity. American Indian peoples didn't have lords," he said, so the power reference only evoked the white people who took their land.
"Spiritual practice in any tradition ought to be liberating, empowering of a community. Christianity has not been liberating for Indians," Tinker said. "A lot of Indians are Christian nevertheless."
Pulling themselves out of the church "ought to be one possible choice Indian people are free to make when, by saying no to Christianity, they would be embracing their own tradition."
"I don't teach Native American spirituality. It is a dangerous thing to try to do. Native traditions are so complex that understanding a little at the surface level only makes white students have some illusion of doing something different. At the same time it ends up bastarding the native religion.
"American Indian people are 50 percent unemployed; they are the poorest ethnic community on the U.S. continent. Yet what the New-Agers take on is the beads and feathers."
About the poverty, "I don't want to blame Christianity; that's too abstract. We have to hold European cultures accountable for the invasion of Indian lands and the theft of Indian lands. Christian ministers and missionaries played a significant part in that process.
"To increase people's understanding so there can be genuine cross-cultural understanding, that is important to me."