We live in a 21st century world inundated with images. Billboards, magazines, television, the Internet, and the large screens in large churches blast out image-laden messages that call us to change, to think, to buy their products. We are used to these images, so much so that we take them for granted. And who hasn’t “read” a magazine or newspaper without first scanning through the pictures to find articles that would interest them based on the accompanying images? If I were honest, I would have to admit that this is what I did with this week’s text – and I am sure that some of my fellow cohort members did the same.
In this week’s reading, author David Morgan argues, “…seeing is an operation that relies on an apparatus of assumptions and inclinations, habits and routines, historical associations and cultural practices.” Morgan refers to this type of seeing as “The Sacred Gaze.” This type of seeing is bent on finding “spiritual significance” in images. Morgan explains, “The study of religious visual culture is therefore the study of images, but also the practices and habits that rely on images as well as the attitudes and preconceptions that inform vision as a cultural act [italics mine].” Although this text does cover several non-Christian religions, the primary emphasis of the book focuses on the study of an image’s meaning from a Western Christian perspective. As a note of explanation, Morgan also says that religious images and visual practice accomplish several aims for those who are inclined to cherish and use them. Those aims are as follows:
- Order space and time
- Imagine community
- Communicate with the divine and transcendent
- Embody forms of communion with the divine
- Collaborate with other forms of representation
- Influence thought and behavior by persuasion or magic
- Displace rival images and ideologies
I would like to focus on the last of Morgan’s aims.
As we look at Christian church history, what do we see? We certainly see a lot of positive influences. But we also have a history fraught with well-intentioned actions and decisions that are embarrassing at best, downright evil at worst. And our present in many ways echoes our past. No, we do not always learn from our mistakes. I would argue that in spite of our good intentions, in our zealous quest to “convert the heathen,” we have often done more harm than good, particularly in our dealings with indigenous peoples.
I had the wonderful opportunity of meeting with an African friend yesterday who will be coming to speak in my Introduction to Cross-Cultural Ministry class next week. I have asked him to speak on the subject of what an African Christian’s perspective is on Western Christian missions and missionaries coming to his country, both short-term and long-term endeavors. In our discussion, his passion was evident as he thought about my question; I could see the hurt in his eyes – and in his soul.
Many missionaries have done more harm than good in their efforts to “convert the heathen.” And the damage has had long-term effects. So often, Westerners have no idea what the needs of the new culture are. They assume that they are “bringing God into the culture.” They also make the assumption that they know best what is good for the new culture’s people. And, because the missionaries are usually from the West, they bring with them money and power, which speaks loudly and acts decisively. They also often bring an attitude of superiority and judgment toward the non-Western culture, destroying customs, traditional images, and people. All of this is done in Jesus’ name.
I saw tears and pain in the eyes of my friend, and on the way home, I too had tears and pain for him, and for his culture.
Closer to home, one has only to study the history of the Christianity’s involvement with Native-American cultures to realize that these same practices have occurred in our own backyard. My dissertation studies have taken me into the history of Native-Americans and that domain, like that of the African example above, should bring tears to our eyes and repentance to our hearts. The colonialism of Western-minded American explorers, homesteaders, and missionaries has been hidden from most of our minds due to inadequate (and inaccurate) historical texts and through legends and myths propagated by those who have benefitted from the oppression of others. John Mohawk, a notable spokesperson for accurate Native-American theory, history, and practice, paints a poignant picture for us to consider:
The ideals that are pursued by those in power rarely concern such matters as harmonious relations among peoples or the regeneration of the ecology of a distressed region. They are almost always ideals that, if pursued, involve some level of dispassion, removal of populations, exploitation, pollution, economic devastation, or other evil.
These tendencies have not existed in every culture of the world or at every moment in history, but it is important to acknowledge that they are major themes – perhaps characterizing themes in Western culture. Revitalization movements have energized people and have given them permission to commit horrible crimes against humanity in the pursuit of utopia. The pursuit of the ideal has provided a stream of rationalizations that justified plunder, racism, and oppression in the name of a better future. The fact that conquests and their reward were acceptable and continue to be celebrated in Western history is a key to the story of how the world came to be the way it is.
Mohawk’s words paint precisely the picture of how Western thinking was thrust upon indigenous peoples. Many Christian missionaries, though well intentioned, joined the cause of Manifest Destiny. Cultures, customs, traditions, images, artifacts, and thousands of human beings were destroyed forever, all in Jesus’ name. Certainly, not all missionaries or Christians joined in with the indigenous iconoclastic movement. But many did. Rather than creatively and wisely redeem Native objects of worship, these objects were judged and destroyed. Earlier in the LGP program, we read articles on “contextualization” of the Gospel. How do we bring the Christian faith to those who are “the other”? Could we not have done better to contextualize Native practices rather than do violence to artifacts and human beings whom we label as evil? Perhaps the Jesus of the East would have been more attractive than the Jesus of the West. In my mind, there is no question that this would have been a better strategy.
This summer I had the privilege of spending some time on the Navajo reservation in northwestern Arizona on the New Mexico border. I was there to work with Native-American leaders whom I would interview for my dissertation. I was invited to join a denominational “conference” on Indian ministry. Although I was expecting to be with Native leaders, to my surprise, the group I ended up spending time with was primarily made up of White folks who were “doing ministry” among Native peoples in South Dakota and Nebraska. I was disheartened but decided to make the best of the situation.
On the second day of the conference, the keynote speaker, a man in his late sixties, spoke on the topic of cross-cultural ministry with indigenous tribal peoples. This man was a well-known missionary in his denomination, and he and his wife had worked in Africa with tribal people for 30 years. This man was now the lead trainer and teacher for Native-American work in the denomination. He would be the one to train all new and existing folks who worked with indigenous peoples. My expectations for these sessions were high – until he opened his mouth. The following are some of the highlights (or lowlights) from the session:
- God speaks through His word, the Bible.
- Our primary job is to lead people to the word of God.
- All traditional customs and rituals are not from God; they are “of the devil.”
- All artifacts and works of art must be abandoned; they are “of the devil.”
- Whatever views of God these people have are “of the devil.”
I sat in disbelief. All I had ever been taught and experienced about cross-cultural ministry was completely opposite of this teaching – with the exception of the importance of the word of God. What about respecting these people? Loving these people? What about realizing that they have so much to teach us? So much wisdom. So much humility and spirituality. So much tradition. So much history. And had not God already been involved with these cultures? Was not “The Great Mystery” or “The Creator God” not the same God that Christians worshipped? Why have them turn away from everything dear to them, even in the spiritual realm? These were my questions for the next three days. Needless to say, I was the outlier in the group; however, I did learn from the teachings (although I didn’t attend all the meetings). But what I learned was how NOT to do indigenous ministry. And these were important lessons. By the way, the last three days were spent with Native people and were some of the richest times I have had since beginning my research. On the final day, I didn’t want to leave.
My new favorite author is Kent Nerburn. Nerburn is a White man who writes about Native-American issues. He also writes about spirituality. In his book, Neither Wolf nor Dog, Kent Nerburn meets a Lakota elder named Dan and ends up on a road trip with the old man. Dan was old enough to have been one of the young Indian children who ended up in Christian missionary boarding schools. He relates many stories to Nerburn that are heartbreaking. While driving on the Midwestern Plains, Dan and Nerburn end up in a discussion about Christianity. Nerburn asks Dan a question, “Don’t like Christianity much, do you?” Dan’s response is surprising and eye opening:
“That’s not true,” he retorted. “I like Jesus. Ever since I was a little boy and learned about him I liked him. He was wankan. He should have been an Indian.”
“He didn’t own anything,” Dan continued. “He slept outside on the earth. He moved around all the time. He shared everything he got. He even talked to the Great Spirit as his Father. He was just like an Indian.”
“I loved him, Nerburn. I still love him. I still talk to him. Those were things I learned from the priests and the sisters. They were good.”
“But I don’t like what the churches did to my people. When I see Indians standing in front of crosses, it makes me sad. It is like they are such good people and their belief is so strong. Why can’t it still be our old belief? Why was that taken away from us? The old ones shouldn’t have to be begging Jesus to listen to them.”
I wonder how many Native people feel the same way as Dan? But then we come and turn Jesus into something he isn’t. We strip away culture. We take away holy artifacts. We take away dignity. We have all the answers. And what happens then? The answer is obvious. We turn people off to the Gospel. We do harm, not good. We build walls, not bridges. We grieve the Holy Spirit. God, help us – in Jesus’ name.
 David Morgan, The Sacred Gaze: Religious Visual Culture in Theory and Practice (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2005) 1.
 Ibid, 1.
 Ibid, 55.
 John C. Mohawk, Utopian Legacies: A History of Conquest and Oppression in the Western World (Santa Fe, NM: Clear Light Publishers, 2000), 13.
 Kent Nerburn, Neither Wolf nor Dog: On Forgotten Roads with an Indian Elder (Novato, CA: New World Library, 1994) 181.