I want to tell you about friends of mine, Harouna and Marie Issaka. He is from the Hausa people, and she is both Hausa and Mori, ethnicities of their native Niger. They have followed Jesus through situations that I can only imagine, and I learn more about what it means to follow Jesus through them.
When their son Caleb was fighting eye cancer at the tender age of 2, they worked to improve the ophthalmology services in their city — they were concerned not just with the survival of their toddler, but with the services available to people in West Africa who couldn’t fly to Kenya, like they did, for treatment. Recently, when I shared with them about a burden I was carrying, Marie fasted and prayed for me for a full day. They have a greater awareness of the spiritual forces at work in the world than I do, and Bible passages that had been hard for my Western, scientific mind to understand have been opened to me in a new way because I know them.
We don’t agree about everything. In fact, we strongly disagree about some things, whether theological, cultural, or political. We’ve had hard conversations about some of those things. However, despite these disagreements or maybe even because of them, my relationship with these Christians from a culture other than my own has widened and enriched my understanding of God and the people of God. Our differences are an invitation to discernment, dialogue, and community.
I also want to tell you about my friend Cheryl. She is Nadleh Whut’en, from an Indigenous nation in northern B.C. She and her husband spent years travelling to hundreds of First Nations and Native American reserves across North America to offer free concerts. Cheryl has a beautiful voice and a beautiful heart for her people that has blessed thousands.
Recently, I heard Cheryl speak at a conference about the scars she carries because she knows so many Indigenous women who have gone missing or been murdered. Like many Indigenous people and communities, Cheryl carries deep trauma from these murders and disappearances and is unbelievably resilient. She said that the name of Jesus that resounds the most for her is “Man of Sorrows”.
I was moved to tears by her expression of faith and by the song of lament and trust in God that she sang for us. Everyone in the room listened with rapt attention as she prayed through song. Cheryl’s faith in Jesus, expressed and experienced in her own Indigenous way with her drum and button blanket, was a gift and a challenge to me. (You can hear some of Cheryl’s story for yourself in this short video.)
We’ve been talking a lot about diversity and discernment recently. Synod 2017, the annual general meeting of the Christian Reformed Church, spent a lot of time talking about our Do Justice blog. They specifically wondered about articles written about Indigenous names for God and Indigenous ceremonies. Were these articles helpful to deepen and enrich our understanding of God, as my relationships with Marie, Harouna, and Cheryl have been for me, or are they hurtful? Do they dangerously blend two religions together to the point of syncretism and weaken what we stand for as Christians?
How do we each listen well to voices from cultures different from our own and voices within our cultures, while discerning whether those voices are leading us closer to Christ or away from him? What does inter- and intra-cultural discernment look like?
Here is our take on it. Regardless of the culture from which he or she comes, every Christian bears the responsibility to “be transformed by the renewal of [your] mind, that by testing [you] may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2) As Reformed Christians, we believe that each culture is affected by both common grace and total depravity. There is, therefore, both common grace and total depravity in each Indigenous culture and each African culture, for example, just as there is good and bad in Euro-American or Euro-Canadian cultures. Each of us must renounce the parts of our culture which lead us away from God.
However, we can embrace other components of our cultures that pull us toward Christ, like celebrating the Easter season in spring (festivals of the spring equinox were a practice in pre-Christian Europe) or marking Christ’s birth with a Christmas tree (a practice that drew on pre-Christian symbolism, in which evergreens symbolized eternal life), without fear of syncretism.
Indigenous Christians have the same responsibility and right. The Indigenous Christians who have written on this blog are devout Christians who have discerned which of the cultural practices from their cultures can be used to glorify the one true God. It is critical for Euro-Americans and Euro-Canadians to practice this discernment too, in order to avoid being seduced by the gods of money, power, and sex that can so easily be melded with our faith in ways that are not pleasing to God.
As staff of the Christian Reformed Centre for Public Dialogue and the Office of Social Justice, we rely heavily on Scripture, Reformed confessions, past decisions of Synod, and relationships with wise leaders from various communities and cultures in our discernment. When we are discerning questions around syncretism and Indigenous theological contributions, we speak often with the directors of the CRC’s Urban Aboriginal Ministries in Winnipeg, Edmonton, and Regina and our friends at the Canadian Aboriginal Ministry Committee (CAMC), a CRC lay committee in Canada that educates and mobilizes members and congregations to live in reconciled relationships as Indigenous people and non-Indigenous people in Canada. This group is made up of both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people and they have navigated questions of syncretism wisely, in community with Indigenous leaders and communities, for decades. We are grateful for their experienced leadership and wisdom. We also draw deeply on relationships with Christian leaders and theologians who are Indigenous (such as leaders at the North American Institute of Indigenous Theological Studies). We particularly refer to Hearts Exchanged, a document recording the conversations at the Synod-mandated CRC Cross-cultural Ministry Forum in 2000, as well as the papers on syncretism prepared for that gathering. (You can find a link to Hearts Exchanged, as well as to a paper by Bert Adema which was prepared for that forum, at the end of this article.)
Ultimately, Synod 2017 decided that our articles on Do Justice must encourage a Reformed understanding of Scripture, a decision to which we are happy to submit. They also decided that staff of our two offices should visit with the classis that brought forward concerns about certain articles on the blog. Again, our differences are an invitation to discernment, dialogue, and community. From what we know of the Hearts Exchanged dialogues in 2000, such prayer and discernment is hard and beautifully transformative — we look forward to it!
We are living in the season of Pentecost, when the Gospel was proclaimed in many languages. The Spirit rests on people of all cultures when they seek to follow Jesus.
God is big. His ways and his thoughts are so far beyond our own. Each culture has its own blind spots and idols that must be discerned — when we take part in diverse theological conversations, the blind spots of one culture can be challenged or brought to light by the strengths of another culture, by the work of the Holy Spirit. As we read in Ephesians 4:15-16, "speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work." When we discern well and stay attentive to the Spirit, our understanding of this beyond-all-human-comprehension God can be enriched by the insights of Jesus-followers from various cultures. Diversity is a gift!
Interested in reading more? Here are some CRC resources that we have found helpful:
- Hearts Exchanged: A Report to the Churches Reflecting on the Cross-Cultural Ministry Forum
- God's Diverse and Unified Family
- A guide to discernment from Bert Adema, director of the CRC's Indian Metis Christian Fellowship in Regina, Saskatchewan