The atrocities committed against Native Americans are well documented. What makes the story even more tragic is the way Christian mission was wrapped up in the story of western colonialism. The missionaries told the Indigenous peoples about Jesus; yet they also demeaned and destroyed native cultures. The city I live in Florida (Safety Harbor) is the site of early mission efforts and where the first missionary was martyred (Luis Cancer de Barbrasto). He died trying to reach a people group that no longer exists (the Tocobaga people). Many Native peoples were forced to live on reservations, had their land and livelihood taken from them. Others were treated cruelly or killed by an allegedly Christian dominant culture.
In Rescuing the Gospel From the Cowboys: A Native Expression of the Jesus Way, Richard Twiss (1954-2013) unfolds a vision of Christian Mission among Native Peoples which honors their culture, traditions and sacred symbols. Twiss was a cofounder of Evangelicals for Justice and NAIITS (North American Institute for Indigenous Theological Studies) and the founder of Wiconi International (a Christian ministry among First Nations). Twiss was a Sicangu Lakota. When he came to faith in Jesus, he left his tribal practices, only recapturing it later. For the last twenty years of his life, his project was the contextualization and decolonization of the Christian gospel for indigenous peoples.
Twiss begins with an affirmation. ” There is only one Creator of heaven and earth. There are not “many” creators. Just one! All of human and non-human creation comes from this One creator” (17). As a Christian, Twiss upholds a biblical understanding of God but sought to follow Jesus in a manner that honored his native culture. This is not without challenges, as many conservative evangelicals see Native cultural practices as vestiges of pre-Christian paganism. Twiss writes, “For us First Nations people. following Creator-Jesus within our indigenous cultural ways without submitting to the hegemonic cultural assumptions of today’s conservative evangelicals is tough” (17).
In his first chapter, Twiss explores the nature of his gospel contextualization, distinguishing it from mere syncretism (and pointing how the American missionary endeavor, and American culutre in general is also a counteractive syncretism). Twiss participates in pow-wows, sweat lodge ceremonies, and prays while burning sage and sweet grass. As a Christian, Twiss’s understanding of the meaning of these rituals is somewhat modified from their traditional place, but he still sees it as a big part of his cultural identity as a Christian.
In chapter two, Twiss tells the sorid history of the effects of colonization on the Christian mission to the First Nations. Unfortunately the missionaries came to save souls but didn’t see any redemptive aspects to Native culture. Their cultural superiority caused them to enact a strategy of training ‘the Indian’ out of converts. The movement of decolonization that Twiss and others are apart of, is a recovery of the Native identity they were taught to leave behind. In chapter three, Twiss tells his own story, and the stories of Christian, native friends who have recovered native practices and rituals. This is not a repudiation of their Christian faith, but something each of them has sought prayerfully, carefully, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Chapter four tells of the various movements and expressions of Christian-Native contextualization. Chapter s five and six describe the growing movement towards contexualization among Native Christians and some ongoing challenges.
A dozen years ago I had a conversation with Craig Smith, conservative native pastor and author who does not endorse Twiss’s project (Twiss discusses his work in the book). One of Smith’s concerns was that in practicing Native rites, Native Christians were falling back into animistic religion and Idolatry. He drew a parallel with the idolatry in the temple described in Ezekiel 8. As an outsider (non-native, anglo-Christian) I respect Smith’s concern and I think there is a need for discernment. However I think Twiss is right to observe that many of the ‘Christian’ rituals were an appropriation of European culture and it is appropriate to look for redemptive metaphors in each culture that points to Christ’s coming. I also filtered Smith’s words through my context. I lived half of my life in Hawaii where every church I knew had hulu–a practice integral to Hawaiian religion, interpreting their sacred stories, used by Christians to worship Christ in Spirit and in truth. I am not Hawaiian but have many Indigenous Hawaiian friends and have been blessed by their rediscovery of their culture and how it has informed their Christian faith. Other First Nations cultures have gifts too and the whole church will be enriched by their rediscovery of who they are in Christ.
I recommend this book especially, though not exclusively, for Indigenous Christians. I think Twiss’s cultural affirming and decolonizing message is good news for Indigenous people. I read this book as a ‘cowboy’–white Christian and I have no desire to have my dominant culture impede my Native brothers and sisters from coming to Christ. Twiss’s vision paves the way for the rich expression of the kingdom of God where every tribe, tongue and nation are represented. I give this five stars.
Notice of material connection: I received this book from IVP in exchange for my honest review.