Christianity & the Cult of Indigenous People
by Mark Tooley
Talk of “indigenous people” is all the rage in both academia and liberal church circles. The current fashion dates back at least to the radicalism of the 1960s, which saw Western civilization as an oppressive imposition upon the indigenous peoples of Africa, Asia, and the Americas. These, it was believed, were steadfast in resisting the alleged Western evils of capitalism, consumerism, rationalism, environmental degradation, social hierarchy, and Christianity.
Until the 1980s the emphasis on indigenous peoples was linked to the larger leftist agenda of socialism. Liberation theologians and their secular comrades assumed that a great revolution would liberate the indigenous while it destroyed capitalism. Communism’s fall rebutted these liberationist fantasies. But the cult of the Indigenous Person is as strong as ever. Rousseau’s concept of the “noble savage,” it seems, has outlived Marx’s notion of the proletariat.
A fascinating encapsulation of the cult of the Indigenous Person is found in a recent article in Church and Society, a journal of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). The author is Liberato Bautista, a United Methodist who heads his denomination’s office at the United Nations.
Bautista is originally Filipino. But he feels victimized by multiple layers of oppression. During the past century, there was the heavy economic and military hand of the United States. Earlier, there was the Spanish subjugation of Bautista’s tribal ancestors. Then there was a third overlay of oppression, the domination by more Westernized tribes over the other tribes more faithful to their indigenous traditions.
Bautista offers a stirring narrative of personal and communal salvation. He portrays himself as an emblematic indigenous person who is fighting to reclaim his lost heritage. While he writes as a Methodist official for a Presbyterian publication, his quest for identity has little apparent relation to Jesus Christ.
“For Indigenous Peoples who have been colonized, minoritized and marginalized, there is the necessary exercise of memory and imagination,” Bautista explains. The indigenous person who strives to reconstruct his broken identity is engaging in a “subversive exercise,” he proclaims.
Now, in the process of recovering the “submerged indigenous person in me,” Bautista admits that only recently has he dared to dream in indigenous ways. He recalls that his father was an Ilocano, a tribe easily assimilated into the “dominant Spanish religion.” His mother’s Ibanag identity and language were repressed. The Methodist high school he attended fined him for every local word he used, to force him to speak the “colonial language” of English, which “could land me to America.” (His education did exactly that for Bautista, who is now a US citizen residing in New York.)
His own personal quest is part of a larger drama of reclamation of indigenous culture, land, and “spiritualities,” according to Bautista. This recovery has long been stymied by racism, colonialism, and, more recently, globalization. But a new world is awakening, and indigenous peoples are on the march, reasserting themselves and claiming what is rightfully theirs, especially the land.
“Mother Earth” is a big theme of Bautista’s essay. Native peoples, who view the land as “sacred,” want it back, he insists. Nation-states, with their Western notions of “national sovereignty,” are a big obstacle to fulfilling this dream. Bautista sees the United Nations as a corrective agent that will compel the old nation-states to give up what they stole from native peoples.
“Our common affirmation of the land as sacred mediates our diversity, plurality, and multiplicity,” Bautista quotes from a declaration issued by a World Council of Churches jamboree for Indigenous Peoples. The conference, held in Chiang Mai, Thailand, in October 2000, was called “Indigenous Peoples’ Spiritualities in Interfaith Dialogue for a Peaceful World.” It appears to have been something of a Council of Nicaea for the cult of Indigenous Peoples.
The Chiang Mai creed declares: “We will not be alienated from and be strangers to our ancestral homelands. Our common and painful experience of colonialism has made us aware of the importance of our indigenous resources and ancestral domains.”
Indigenous peoples, unlike Western exploiters, see the “whole cosmos as one integrated whole” deserving of veneration, according to the Chiang Mai affirmation. Despite its origin in an ostensibly Christian body, the statement did not attempt to square this assertion with the worship of one transcendent God who is not to be confused with created objects.
Indeed, the Chiang Mai affirmation seemed to regret the undeniable fact that many indigenous peoples participate in the various “dominant religions.” Some see this bond as “positive and enriching,” it observed. Others see it as “ambiguous and oppressive for our life and identity as indigenous people.”
“Theological canons must be reexamined and challenged at their very core,” Bautista suggests. He recalls that the Chiang Mai declaration called for a halt to all “proselytism and coercive mission” among indigenous peoples, whose native religions and beliefs instead should be respected.
Veneration for indigenous spirituality was much present also at the April 2002 consecration of the Episcopal Church’s first Native American female bishop, Carol Joy Gallagher. She is described by the Episcopal News Service as the Anglican Communion’s first indigenous woman bishop.
At the consecration at a black college in Virginia, tribal drums were beaten on Gallagher’s behalf, while “smudging” smoke wafted up from burning sweet grass, used in tribal ceremonies for purification.
Former Episcopal Church Presiding Bishop Edmond Browning employed his sermon to hail Cherokee spirituality because it “does not suspect diversity.” He also injected some favorite political themes of the cult of the Indigenous Person.
“The settlement of European Jews was not conducted with the full participation of the Palestinian people,” Browning exclaimed, relying on the prism of the West versus Indigenous People, while ignoring that the Jews have their own claims to being indigenous to Israel. He also got in his digs against America’s founding, during which there was “little heroism in seizing land and breaking treaties” that exploited the indigenous peoples.
Browning’s sermon illustrated that the cult of the Indigenous Person fits neatly with most of the ideologies and biases of the Western left. It denigrates Christianity as oppressive, while condemning Western civilization for its concepts of science, private property, and national sovereignty. Its focus was on victimization and “structural” sin, as opposed to personal sin.
Actual indigenous persons, however, probably are not getting much help from all these pronouncements by the United Nations and the World Council of Churches. The emptiness of their words may not be a great concern to the average secular Western leftist, who has never had a conversation with an un-Westernized indigenous person. But it should be a big concern for the world’s Christian churches, which count millions of faithful members among the indigenous.
Indigenous Christians long have stood boldly for Christ in many difficult situations. Even today, in places like Indonesia and Sudan, indigenous Christians face martyrdom for their faith. Yet people like Bautista and bodies like the World Council of Churches imply that Christ was an imposition upon them and that they would have done better to remain animists.
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“Indigenous Chic” first appeared in the July/August 2002 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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