I took a class in the winter term called Introduction to World Christianity. I loved the class so much – we spent one week looking at the history of Christianity on each major continent, learning about their introductions to Christianity, their indigenous influences and spirituality and what Christianity looks like there today – including hearing from people living and working within each continent too. For the class we had to complete a 2,500 word research paper on any topic of our choosing, within the subject. I decided to write about North America and Indigenous spirituality as I had already started learning so much about it in my own time, and felt bolstered by new information from this course, along with noticing similarities in the introductions to Christianity that N America and Africa shared.
I learnt so much in the process of writing the paper – from looking at the topics that most caught my attention, to the background reading, and talking to people who had been impacted by my chosen subject – that I wanted to share my essay here! I could have written an entire thesis on the subject, so this is a fairly trimmed and streamlined answer to my very wordy title, with a heck of a lot more that could have been added and researched. But here it is:
Investigating the history of Christianity in Africa and North America, how Indigenous communities interact with the Gospel today, and what we can learn from them.
Looking at the history of Africa and North America there are many similarities in their introduction to the Christian faith. As a result of European invasion in the 15th century, both continents’ Indigenous people suffered displacement, genocide, and maltreatment. Recently, African churches and theology have flourished, but Native Christian faith in North America has not. By investigating what led the African church to find stability — ultimately becoming one of the world’s largest practicing Christian continents, with 25% of the world’s Christians — I hope to identify what we can learn from African Christianity to apply to the Native church in North America today.
African History of Christianity and Theology
In the late 1400s, Europeans started to explore the African coast for trade, allies to help fight against the growing religion of Islam, and to find people to convert to Catholicism. Europeans had soon taken hold of different areas, and found the best ‘commodity’ to export was people, and the African slave trade began. The role of early Catholic missionary’s quickly became to convert and baptise Africans before they were shipped overseas, so became a symbol of death and captivity to the African people. The arrival of Protestant missionaries coincided with the abolition of the slave trade, finding a warmer welcome and better reputation amongst Africans. However, this positive relationship wasn’t to endure, as European missionaries controlled all further missionary endeavours within Africa in an effort to maintain Western traditions. An African man named Ntsikana had a key role in the spread of African Christianity after having a spiritual encounter with what he later identified as Christ. He never joined or started a church, but wrote songs and shared his vision of God with others. “Ntsikana’s experience convinced many Africans they could approach God directly without adopting the European understanding of Christianity that missionaries had brought to the region.”
As the Colonial era began (late 1800s), White European rule spread across the continent and many Indigenous Africans were displaced as European power took over the desirable land and fought over rule of each country – Jacobsen identifies this as the “scramble for Africa” with Great Britain and France as the most aggressive colonisers. Assuming the development of European culture was the “pinnacle of human history”, many White Europeans believed it to be “their responsibility to help Africa join the modern world.” With the large presence of missionaries, Christianity was on the rise, and many Christians (some European, some born in Africa) were opposed to traditional African religion and demanded the burning of any items or symbols of African faith or culture that were seen as “idols” or distracting from Christian worship. Opposed to the anti-African mission, African Initiated Churches (AICs) began to appear. The anti-African sentiments were that “ancestors were irrelevant”, “miracles rarely happened”, and “dreams and visions did not matter.” When reading the Gospel for themselves, many Africans found their culture (which included the sentiments above) fit into the narrative of Scripture and recognised their traditions in Scripture. 6,000 of these AICs existed by the 1960s.
The concept of ubuntu is the “interconnectedness of all people” and crucial throughout African culture – the idea of being rooted in community and connected to nature. Western Christianity is often viewed as a very individualistic religion which doesn’t bond well with the African value of ubuntu. For this reason, it becomes important for African Theology to be developed and taught, so to integrate culture with Christianity and not rely on Western church models.
Within the last 70 years, African Theology became its own. John Mbiti, a pioneer of African theology, stated there was a “lack of critical and systematic reflection on the gospel by Africans in light of their own cultural inheritance and contemporary realities.” It was important for African Christians to “understand and appropriate the gospel in ways that are meaningful and relevant to their own thought forms and life experience.”
North American History of Christianity and Theology
An overview of North America’s history of Christianity must begin with the Doctrine of Discovery, and how, as Mark Charles points out, “you cannot discover lands already inhabited.” The Doctrine of Discovery (founded in the fifteenth century and still referenced today) governed how European colonisers were to approach the administration of any ‘newly discovered’ land. Similar to the ethic seen in Africa, it essentially allowed colonisers to take control of land and any of its inhabitants, and give authority to European settlers over any Indigenous people. The European missionary mindset was to bring their benevolent, well-educated society and Gospel to be received by the so called ‘heathens’ they encountered. Many atrocities committed against Indigenous people were justified by missionary’s allegiance to God. When the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776, it stated that “all men are created equal”, but also referred to “merciless Indian savages” – it was clear who was considered human and who wasn’t. Indigenous people were subjected to many legal restrictions after the arrival of settlers, particularly in agricultural markets, leading their White neighbours to buy them out of their land. “First Nations people were moved, and sometimes forcibly relocated, to land that was of poor quality for farming, some of which was prone to annual flooding.” This treatment overflowed into many areas of life, and saw most Nations moved to Reserves, and denied access to the same commodities that settlers procured easily – such as jobs, healthcare, nutrition.
The United Church of Canada (founded in 1925) made no attempt to find value in Indigenous spirituality or culture, understanding it to be pagan and a primitive religion, in need of eradication. A church leader described an experience: “I was inducted … with a big bass drum on each side of the pulpit and two stalwart braves with coats off and beating for all they were worth. We eliminated the drums shortly after, but retained the drummers, and better still, the drummers retained their religion and a less strenuous method of expressing it.” Any First Nations people who continued with their traditional customs but also participated in Christian practices were labelled “double-hearted” and urged to become “single-hearted Christians,” renouncing any of their cultural practices such at potlatches.
Although the USA had its own history with Indian Boarding Schools, I will focus on Canada’s Residential Schools as the example for the next item of Christian history in North America. Residential Schools date back to the 1830s – the perspective of those running the schools (Christians and the founded Canadian government) was that Indigenous people posed a threat to the progression of construction ongoing across the country, the establishment of these schools would take the next generation and assimilate them to the Euro-Canadian culture. Parents were told their children would be given opportunities within the new world as a result. “Social isolation was seen as a ghettoization that would handicap [Native people’s] ability to function, find meaningful work and contribute to Canada.” However, the reality of these schools was that children were torn from their families to have their culture, language and traditions erased from their lives, often in brutal ways where punishments were given for speaking Native languages or practicing non-Christian religion. Over 160 years, approximately 160,000 children entered these schools, it is recorded that an estimated 6,000 died as a result of poor conditions in the schools, or in attempts to run away – but the actual number is unknown.*
Residential Schools led to generations of First Nations people suffering with mental health problems and addictions. In 2007, the Canadian government initiated the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). Over six years the TRC travelled across Canada, hearing from 6,500 witnesses. They then engaged with the public to educate them about the history of Residential Schools, “sharing and honouring the experiences of former students and their families.” It is unclear as to what difference the TRC made in the everyday life of First Nations people from the reports given. One reality is that “Residential Schools are the reason many Indigenous people refuse to embrace the Gospel of Jesus today. How can we believe in the White Man’s God? That remains the question today. Many Native people believe that if one becomes a Christian they are turning away from being an Indian and turning white.”
Similarly to recognising that in African culture, there was a need for African Theology to be developed in order for Christianity to really thrive, there are many Native-led ministries seeking to make the Gospel relevant to their own people in North America. “Because Indigenous people are different from the dominant cultures of Canada and the United States based on culture, traditions, religious beliefs, ontology, and political structure, it is very logical to allow Indigenous leaders to develop and adopt Indigenous ways of ministry.”
Importance of Integration of Indigenous Culture in Christianity
Having explored the Christian histories of Africa and North America, I now want to move on to what stabilised African Christianity and how that might apply within North American Native spirituality. From my research, there are three integral aspects of integration of Indigenous culture in Christianity, these are: Biblical truth; cultural identity (language and customs); and the connectedness throughout all parts of life.
The European conquest of the North American and African continents led to a desire for more land, wealth and power. We still see the effects of that dominance alive – living in North America, it is evident that injustice is rife amongst non-whites, and governmental control still takes place within Native communities attaining to land ownership, access to clean water and other civil rights. Scripture shows that “God’s intention for creation was not the wielding of destructive power by one group over another. Instead, God had intended for the church to be an expression of his ongoing desire for a relationship with his creation.”
Indigenous spirituality often carries the value of connectedness. In Africa, ubuntu played a key role in the stabilising of the African church – when AICs encouraged integration of African tradition and culture, ubuntu was able to exist within Christian faith. This meant the integration of family life, spirituality, cultural heritage and tradition – African people were no longer confined to practicing their Christian faith in the way that European missionaries had suggested. North American Native culture is similarly shaped by a lack of compartmentalism – “Native religion, societal rules, and community are bound together . . . if one is out of order, the rest are out of order.” Allowing Native people to practice their faith in a connected way leads to a more genuine faith and a unique interpretation of Scripture as Terry LeBlanc explains:
“Each part of creation in its respective way through its form and function . . . is nested in a set of relationships. Animals, plant life, birds and fish are linked to their Creator spiritually and intuitively—an intuition that I would suggest is retained in the rest of creation but in humans has been supplanted by ego and ethnocentrism. Unlike humanity, the rest of creation lives in constant expression of the Spirit and the intent of the Creator . . . The intrinsic, spiritual understanding of the relationship we possess with the other beings of creation—and the fact that it is of a reciprocal nature—is something that First Nations people have traditionally appreciated more than Western society.”
With Western theology so tied to the foundations of Philosophy, Gnosticism and science, contemporary Christians have lost something in their view on the Gospel and intentions of God. Not only can we learn something about how to share the Gospel with Indigenous people better through this understanding, we can also improve our own relationships with God and understanding of who He is.
Scripture is an integral place to find guidance in stabilising the church and integrating Indigenous culture. In Peter’s epistle he calls the church to stay strong in Christ’s example, resisting pagan culture, but he goes on to tell the church that they must “when appropriate, bring faith into expression within existing cultural forms.” In the early church, we see the importance of this integration of culture and Gospel. We see Paul using objects of foreign worship to describe God, integrating culture and Christianity, and also examples of Jesus speaking in Aramaic, rather than the more common Greek or Latin, because of His intentionality to relate to Jewish people. Africans used Jesus’ model of assimilating into the Jewish culture and participating in Jewish tradition, but also calling out “cultural practices that were enslaving instead of liberating.” These examples encourage the integration of culture, objects and language within everyday life and religion.
Mark Charles shared a story of how a comment from a Navajo preacher led him to a better relationship with God through connecting with an ancient Native tradition. The comment was: “before the missionaries came, our people were able to wake up every morning to greet the sunrise with our prayers, and now we can hardly get to church by 10am.” Charles took this as an invitation to try greeting the sunrise with prayer. He noted that over time he saw the daily changes in the seasons and ultimately appreciated the sky as God’s canvas, complete with accompanying melodies, drawing him into better relationship with Creator.
In summation, not only can we learn about stabilising the Indigenous North American church from African examples, but we can fortify Western Christianity by learning from Indigenous tradition and practice and the integration that strengthens their relationships with God. It is clear that evangelism is not as simple as sharing the Gospel, but understanding the background of the people you are talking to, and integrating culture, tradition and language plays a significant role. Paying attention to Biblical truth, we recognise how examples of the early church should influence our ministry too.
“Missionary service remains of critical importance, but not because missionaries are intended to exercise a God-like authority in shaping responses to gospel proclamation. Rather, they remain critical to the world Christian picture because they are the ones called to begin a process that succeeds fully—that succeeds in accord with properly Christian understandings of the God-given diversity of cultures only when the missionaries get out of the way.”
*I wrote this assignment prior to the numerous unmarked graves being discovered across Canada. These newly found graves go to show just how many children were killed during this time, not just the 6,000 “accounted” for.
Bibliography for those who might like to do further reading on some of what I touched on here (I didn’t include the footnotes from the essay in this post, but these are all the books used in quotes etc – if you’d like to know about any specific quotes, let me know):
Bear-Barnetson, Cheryl. Introduction to First Nations Ministry : Everything One Wants to Know About Indigenous Ministry in Canada and the United States but Is Afraid They Are Too White to Ask. Dissertation, King’s Seminary, 2009.
Charles, Mark, and Soong-Chan Rah. Unsettling Truths: The Ongoing, Dehumanizing Legacy of the Doctrine of Discovery. Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Books, 2019.
Gichure, Peter I., and Diane B. Stinton, ed. Religion and Politics in Africa : Theological Reflections for the 21st Century. The Ecumenical Symposium of Eastern Africa Theologians (ESEAT): No. 3. Nairobi: Paulines Publications Africa, 2008.
Indigenous People Atlas of Canada. “History of Residential Schools.” Accessed April 9th, 2020. https://Indigenouspeoplesatlasofcanada.ca/article/history-of-residential-schools/
Jacobsen, Douglas G.. Global Gospel : An Introduction to Christianity on Five Continents. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2015.
LeBlanc, Terry, “New Old Perspectives: Theological Observations Reflecting Indigenous Worldviews,” in Global Theology in Evangelical Perspective : Exploring the Contextual Nature of Theology and Mission, edited by Jeffrey P. Greenman, and Gene L. Green, 165-178. IVP Academic, 2012.
Noll, Mark. “Reflections.” In The New Shape of World Christianity : How American Experience Reflects Global Faith, 189-200. IVP Academic, 2009.
Shepherd, Loraine MacKenzie. “From Colonization to Right Relations : The Evolution of United Church of Canada Missions within Aboriginal Communities.” In International Review of Mission 103 (1), 153–71. 2014.
Stinton, Diane, “Africa, East and West” in An Introduction to Third World Theologies, ed. John Parratt, 105-136. Cambridge University Press, 2004.
Wright, N. T., and Michael F. Bird. The New Testament in Its World : An Introduction to the History, Literature, and Theology of the First Christians. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Academic, 2019.