Check your biases at the door

biasesRespect is a two-way street when sharing Christ with Native Canadians

by Dr. Larry Wilson

Native Canadians are deeply spiritual. Like all men and women, they are created to be in relationship with the Creator. The majority are nominal Christians; many are evangelical believers. Some still practice traditional Native spirituality.

There are some positive elements to traditional spiritual practices. It preserves Native language, family values, community dynamic and identity. However, traditional Native spirituality falls short of the gospel.

Those who practice traditional spirituality may enter the sweat lodge in search of power and wisdom. They may hang dead fish tails in their home to keep spirits away, or hunt and thank the spirit of the moose for providing food. They may hang medicine bags and sweet grass to appease spirits who have power over their lives; they might burn food for family members who have died.

But they do not recognize Christ’s redemptive work on the cross. These kinds of rituals lack power because Christ is not central to Native spirituality’s belief system.

For this very reason, Native spirituality is widely accepted in Canadian social and political circles. It poses very little or no threat to the world’s belief system. If Jesus Christ’s death, burial, resurrection and man’s need for forgiveness were Native spirituality’s main message, it would not be so readily accepted.

Some Native Christians choose to retain positive elements of their culture, such as learning through story, relating in community and honouring elders.

However, other elements like dancing and singing with the drum and wearing Native regalia has little or no support from more conservative Christian believers—both Native and non-Native—who see mixing the gospel and culture as syncretism. Many also struggle to accept “contextualization” (considering practices from within the context of their relevant cultural setting). Some take it a step further and criticize legitimate Native beliefs, practices and values. This happens out of ignorance and a lack of understanding of the worldview that shapes Native thinking.

Natives tend to view the spiritual and natural worlds as one. The dominant North American culture, by contrast, carves a sharp distinction between spiritual and natural. This makes it difficult for non-Natives to properly judge Native beliefs and practices. And it means that Native people are apt to be offended by negative judgments, seeing them as an assault on their very identity. Most Canadian men find it easy to compartmentalize; it never occurs to most Natives to even try.

It’s normal to be biased to one’s own cultural values and beliefs when relating to people of another culture. However, non-Native Christians need to intentionally give up their own biases and make every effort to understand Native beliefs, values and practices before pronouncing judgment on their way of life.

This does not mean participating in Native spirituality rituals. Most people who practice traditional Native spirituality do not embrace or practice the core values and beliefs of Christianity. But it does mean developing a deep level of sensitivity and respect for one another. Believers should not be afraid to engage Native people who practice traditional spirituality if mutual respect is practiced.

Christians would be wise to keep primary things primary and secondary things secondary. The main goal is to share the gospel, pursue healthy relationships and resist all efforts to simply change Native culture. Authentic Christianity is designed to permeate culture so Christ is exalted. Present the gospel clearly, respect Native people fully and live authentic Christianity freely.

“Much of today’s resurgence of Native identity and Native spirituality finds its root in a heart that longs to be connected to the Eternal,” says Elder Ed Wood. In fact, there has never been a more opportune time for Christians to get to know their Native neighbours and introduce them to the Creator God and His eternal son Jesus Christ.

Larry Wilson, director of First Nations Alliance Churches of Canada, served many years on the board of Promise Keepers Canada and continues to work closely with the national men’s ministry.

The article above was featured in the March 2010 issue of SEVEN magazine.