Central to the proposal to develop a truly indigenous American Christianity – the Gospel of and for Turtle Island – is the re-conception of the communion of God and humanity as essentially a communion between God and Creation. This communion is conceived as a dynamic ecological relationship between all that is and the Creator. Humanity plays an important but entirely dependent role – dependent upon the integrity of the web of life itself, with Spirit at the center. It is critical to note that this point of view contradicts many of the central premises of the missionary efforts of the Western churches, especially among the Indigenous peoples of North America and around the world.
The West’s view of creation was and is shaped by materialistic scientism and economically conceived individualism. These forces eclipsed the West’s own Biblical and theological roots long ago. The cosmology of the West, still prevalent in many contemporary “mission” efforts, was an unchallenged partner of the colonizing churches. It is significant that after 500 years of systematic proselytism, the rejection of this aspect of the West is one of the defining characteristics of Indigenous spiritual identity and renewal. This is true even among Aboriginal Christians.
The communal articulation of faith by Indigenous peoples is an inspiration and challenge, especially for communities of faith and spirituality that are concerned about the environment. We are witnessing the emergence of a spiritual community that conceives of itself theologically and ecologically. This points to a communal spiritual consciousness different from the churches that operate in a Western cultural framework. We may look for a spirituality inspired, not only by the past and its traditions, but also by the future, a hope-filled imagining of what a renewed family of Creation might be.
The living relationship between humanity and Creation is a defining element of Aboriginal identity and the source of its on-going conflict with the West. The Gwich’in, for example, have had a hard time making the larger society, even environmentalists, understand their living relationship to the ecological community they live in. They are saying, quite clearly, that they do not exist in any meaningful way apart from the ecological community that gave their nation its birth and sustains it to t
As seen in this example, Western development can often pose human rights issues for the Aboriginal nations. Development can involve the destruction of an ecological community, not just a restructuring of economic resources. To Aboriginal communities, God or Spirit created this ecological community as an irreducible moral absolute for humanity. Without this community, we don’t exist in any way that can be construed as human. Oxygen may be processed in our lungs, blood may be pumped in our hearts, but we will be something quite a bit less than human.
Over time, it has become clear that many people in the West cannot understand the living relationship that is involved in the ecological community of life. In Aboriginal societies, this relationship is often spoken of in family terms, underlining its importance and intimacy. In contrast, though the environment may have a high value to the West, it appears that humanity can exist apart from it or that science can create a substitute for it. The destruction of the environment, however tragic, is not the end of human life, in this view. The relationship between humanity and eco-system is a mechanical or chemical exchange, and not a reciprocal one.
There is also a sharp difference between Western notions of ownership, now impacting every areaof life around the globe, and those of Indigenous value systems. For the West, everything can be bought and sold – everything. In traditional Indigenous thought, such conceptions are often treated as blasphemous, absurd, and destructive. That which is possessed by the individual is held in trust for the larger community of life. If all share, there will be enough for all and more; if we hoard, there will never be enough for anyone. There are things that it is simply not conceivable to buy or sell: land, water, air, and life itself.
In the Western cultural framework, the consequences of environmental demise have been measured in human-centered terms, mostly economic. This is a sharp contrast to the theological, moral, and eschatological terms that are the basis of Aboriginal cosmology. This disagreement grows in significance as the environmental crisis reaches greater levels of danger and urgency.
Aboriginal Christians have discovered an unexpected pre-Western artery of Theo-ecological understanding in the primal elements of Christian faith. The developments in the Anglican Church of Canada are part of a larger pattern that can be seen in Indigenous groups around the world. We are witnessing an unprecedented cultural renewal and renaissance despite, or perhaps, speaking in a prophetic mode, because of its context in a threatened universal ecology. This
pattern has both moral and ecological significance to all, but especially to people of faith. Aboriginal peoples provide a unique and essential prophetic challenge in our world today. Attention to their situation and struggle, at all levels, should be one of our highest priorities.
A longer version of this article originally appeared in the September 2007 newsletter for the Forum on Religion and Ecology. It is reprinted with permission.