Monday, January 6, 2014

Disentangling the Gospel from Culture

When I teach my American Religious Histories class at United Theological Seminary this year, I plan to introduce a new monograph by George E. Tinker entitled Missionary Conquest: The Gospel and Native American Cultural Genocide (Fortress Press, 1993).

Tinker examines the ministries of four of the most celebrated Christian missionaries to work among Native American peoples: John Eliot (1604-1690), a Puritan missionary in New England; Junípero Serra (1713-1783), a Catholic missionary in California; Pierre-Jean De Smet (1801-1873), a Catholic missionary in the American Midwest; and Henry Benjamin Whipple (1822-1901), the Episcopal bishop of Minnesota. What is most interesting about the book is how forcefully Tinker documents the moral uprightness and the good intentions of these missionaries. Each of these missionaries -- as best historians can discern -- worked tirelessly and selflessly, and genuinely loved the Native peoples among whom they served, desiring to help them. And yet Tinker also demonstrates how the programs and policies these men were instrumental in developing resulted in economic, social and spiritual ruin that endures today.

Tinker poses the question, how could the best of intentions result in such horrific outcomes for Native peoples and their descendents? Tinker's purpose is not to lambast Christianity or Christian missionaries. For what it's worth, he is himself a Christian minister who is also Native American (Osage/Cherokee). To me, that makes his answer to this perplexing question about good intentions going awry that much more interesting. The culprits, according to Tinker, are two-fold: political and cultural.

First, each of the missionaries he studied was in various ways dependent on the sponsorship and support of governments that were committed to the (mis)appropriation of Native lands and the elimination of Native peoples -- if not through outright genocide, through cultural assimilation. These men have each been celebrated because they criticized and stood up to proponents of outright genocide; but they accepted the corollary that if Native peoples could not be physically eliminated, they had to be culturally and socially assimilated or amalgamated into the American (or in the case of Serra, the Spanish) body politic. In other words, these men were on a political mission as much as -- if not more than! -- they were on spiritual missions. That political mission was to serve serve state demands that Native lands by incorporated and Native populations be pacified. In other words, culprit number one was a corrupt relationship between church and state, in which state power was used to force Natives to convert, and in which churches allowed themselves to be used as apologists for state-sponsored theft, murder and exploitation.

Second, each of these men wholly identified Christianity with European or Euro-American culture. Tinker specifically shows how, especially among American missionaries, Christianity was identified with individualistic capitalism and with the nuclear family. It was also, for what it's worth, identified with European dress and personal grooming and the use of European languages (and abandonment or suppression of native languages). (As if God wears a suit and tie and speaks exclusively English.) This is particularly interesting to me, as a Latter-day Saint, since neither the New Testament nor the experience of the early Latter-day Saints seems to support the notion that God intended the Saints to be good capitalists. (Read Acts 2:44-45 if you don't believe me.) And of course nineteenth-century Mormons were in the process of reforming marriage and family in a way that would make Mormon families look more like the polygamous, extended kinship networks common in Native American societies, than like the nuclear families that were becoming the norm among Victorian Protestants and Catholics. Of course, Mormon polygamy was considered every bit as much an affront to "Christian" America as Native American family and sexual norms of the same period.

Tinker shows how disruptive imposing American agrarian capitalism, nuclear family values and English language was to Native American communities. And none of these things (not to mention European dress or other paraphernalia of American culture) is demonstrably Christian, at least not as far as I can tell.

But that's where Tinker's argument gets really interesting. Because American Christians (Protestant, Catholic and other), both in times past and in the present, have been absolutely convinced that you couldn't be a good Christian unless you were a capitalist. The New Testament notwithstanding. I'm sure there will be a fair number of people to read this post whose blood is kind of boiling right now at my suggestion that a good Christian is really something more like a communist than a capitalist. And I think it would be rather bad theology not to admit that the Gospel ought to be a disruptor of culture. Tinker says "culture consists of habitual responses to the world" (p. 113). And it seems to me that nothing is so clear as the fact that our collective "habitual responses" may or may not be constructive or life-giving. Culture can provide stability and a framework for growth. But it can also reinforce addictive, demeaning, destructive patterns of behavior. Revelation often comes in the form of divine reprimands, calls to repentance to abandon idolatrous, self-destructive "habitual responses." So it seems to me that good Christians ought to be cultural critics.

What was particularly appalling about European Christian treatment of Native Americans was that they were only too glad to be cultural critics of other peoples' cultures, but they were completely blind to the idolatry in their own culture. In fact, they generally behaved like fanatical adherents of their own cultural superiority in relation to all non-European culture (and even in relation to other European cultures than their own!). It seems to me the Gospel ought to make us critics mainly of the culture that defines our own "habitual responses." Morality is most meaningful to us within the framework of our own culture, because that is the culture we understand best; that is the culture that has formed us, when the Gospel ought to be reforming us. Europeans knew that stealing other people's land, murdering them and reducing them to slavery was wrong. They justified it by developing rationales of racial and cultural superiority, but they still knew it was wrong. I don't buy that "their-understanding-was-limited-by-their-time-and-place" bunkum. It was wrong and they knew it. When we do unto others what we most definitely would not have them do unto us, that would always be a good place for Christian cultural reformers to start. Not by telling other people how long their hair should be or what language they should speak or whom they should be allowed to marry.

One thing I found particularly ironic in Tinker's book was the numerous sections where he describes Native American reverence for the sacred and for God that was misinterpreted by European and European-American Christians because they didn't speak Native languages or understand Native culture. Far too often, Europeans were trying to destroy just those facets of Native culture that -- I think -- a true understanding of the Gospel might have moved them to appreciate.

Tinker ends his essay not by suggesting that Christianity is the wrong religion for Native Americans, but by insisting on Native American spiritual and social autonomy. Indian peoples, he says, need to believe in their own ability to determine what is right for them spiritually, economically and politically, and he asks for genuine non-Native-American "friends who will join us in the struggle against the continuing imperialism of Western, European-American culture." He continues:
Genuine friends do not invade one another, physically or spiritually. Genuine friends do not prescribe for one another. But genuine friends do stand beside one another, supporting one another in times of need and crisis. (p. 121)
As a gay Mormon, caught in the cross-hairs of an ugly culture war, I resonate with everything Tinker says here. I don't believe there are necessarily easy answers to the question: "What, in our culture is idolatrous, and what is the Gospel?" The rightness or wrongness of same-sex marriage continues to be debated, though there are growing numbers of Christians who insist that the Gospel demands that gay couples be encouraged and blessed in their desire to make loving commitments to each other. There's evidence that denying marriage to committed same-sex partners has disastrous effects, not only on gay individuals, but on larger familial and social structures. How does the Gospel speak to this?

Ultimately, as a Mormon I believe in the power and centrality of agency in God's yearnings for his children. And as a gay Mormon, that inclines me want to be the kind of friend to Native Americans that George Tinker invites to join the struggle.

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