Saturday, September 01, 2012

Shalom and the Community of Creation -- A Review

SHALOM AND THE COMMUNITY OF CREATION: An Indigenous Vision (Prophetic Christianity).  By Randy S. Woodley.  Grand Rapids:  Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2012.  Xx + 177 pages.



            For much of Christianity’s two millennia of existence it has had a European flavor. Its roots may have been Semitic, its founders Semitic, but it was its encounter with Greek and Latin, and then German and Anglo contexts, that truly formed its identity, its theology, and its practice.   This Euro-centric vision of Christianity found its way across the globe as the faith expanded into ever wider spaces.  There are, of course, eastern traditions, but for most of us, especially those of us living in the United States, it’s the European brand that has won the day – whether Protestant or Catholic.  And one of the collateral affects of the great missionary expansion from the 15th through early 20th centuries is that Christianity was seen as the key to civilizing non-Western cultures.  Thus, to be civilized was to be Christian, and to be Christians was to take on a European world view and identity.  In a post-colonial era, that linkage between Christianity and Western European civilization is beginning to fray.  The colonized have begun to rethink this inherited faith in ways that make sense to their own cultural identity.  That is, even as a Semitic faith became enculturated in Europe, that same faith is now experiencing a new round of enculturation.

            One of those participants in this post-colonial revision of the Christian faith is Randy Woodley, an evangelical theologian teaching at George Fox Seminary, who is also a Cherokee Indian.  Woodley is a committed follower of Jesus, takes the biblical story very seriously, but he believes that something is missing from the way the story has been passed on to Native Americans, and other indigenous peoples.  He believes strongly that an engagement between the biblical story and Native American stories can be beneficial not only to Native Americans but to other Christians who might see their faith in a new light.

Woodley’s reflections on these two forces appear in this rather intriguing book, Shalom and the Community of Creation.  The book is part of a new series of books from Eerdmans that takes the name Prophetic Christianity.  This series offers books written from a post-colonial/postmodern perspective.  They will explore the relationship between theology and contemporary life, with the expectation that these reflections will lead to practical changes in the way Christianity is lived and practiced. 

            Woodley seeks to explore the Christian faith from the perspective of Native Americans, seeking to bring into conversation the biblical story with the stories of Native American peoples. He believes that these traditions can provide not only a corrective to a Euro-centric faith tradition, but open new vistas to understand the purpose of God.  The book draws on his Asbury Theological Seminary Ph.D. dissertation entitled The Harmony Way:  Integrating Indigenous Values within Native North American Theology and Mission.

            The words “harmony way” are key.  This is, according to the author, the Native American version of the Jewish shalom.  Now, he notes up front that there isn’t just one Native American tradition, but this “harmony way” does represent a vision that is present in most of these traditions.  In order to make this connection, Woodley must tell the Native American stories, which most non-Indian Christians would be unaware of. Throughout the book Woodley brings these two concepts – shalom and harmony way into conversation with each other.  He notes in the preface that the two visions of peace have a variety of nuances and expressions, but they are focused on taking practical steps that lead to “justice, restoration, and continuous right living as their goal.  And, perhaps most importantly, they both originate as the right path for living, being viewed as a gift from the creator” (p. xv).

            As one would expect from a book that draws on oral tradition, Woodley makes use of story to communicate his vision.  It’s not propositional kind of faith.  It’s more orthopraxis than orthodoxy.  In fact, he admits at points that his embrace of indigenous traditions challenges long held doctrinal formulations, including how one understand sin and salvation.  There are points also where the reader, should that reader be Western European in orientation will fell not only challenged but a bit uncomfortable.  That’s okay and if you continue reading you will find yourself seeing God’s place in the world differently. 

The theology presented here is truly a creation theology, and because it’s not anthropocentric, with Jesus dying for human beings with no real desire to reconcile the rest of creation, it will upset some apple carts.  But in light of the current disdain that so many Americans have for climate science, the spirituality present here that recognizes that world exists beyond our human understandings, may be refreshing and also provide a corrective to the “me first” spirituality that is so prevalent today.

The chapters define shalom, reenvision the kingdom as ‘community of creation,” explores the role of God in creation, and then lays out an argument for our being related to each other and to creation – thus governed by harmony.  He has a chapter on the Western emphasis on thinking as opposed to the Native American focus on doing.  This chapter will give even post-moderns some pause, but it’s worth wrestling with.  He also deals with the time (western)/place (Native American) collision.  There’s a chapter on the importance of story, and then finally a chapter on community. 

These are all helpful correctives to American religion which has a tendency to be anthropocentric, head-centric, linear, proposition, and hyper-individualistic.  None of these Western Euro-American realities represent the Native American understanding of reality.  For Native Americans community stands above individualism, and so you can understand why there has been such a disconnect between cultures.  Even as community is central, so is one’s connection with creation. Woodley critiques American religious architecture for shutting out creation.  He writes:  “Church sanctuaries are enclosed, often without windows; or if they have windows, people color them with stained glass as if our human works of art could be greater than God’s natural artistry” (p. 52)  

There is a word here for the broader Christian community that needs to be taken seriously.  It’s a word that will take us back into the biblical traditions that understand peace, shalom, or harmony, as being more than the absence of strife.  It is instead a vision of wholeness.  It’s a vision that recognizes that disparity of wealth is not a sign of health and that shalom calls for concern for the welfare of those on the margins.  For Native Americans the calling is to restore harmony in practical ways.  This vision is present in Native American ritual and in life practice in ways often not present in Euro-centric Christianity. 

In our quest as Westerners for material gain (is that greed), our striving for more, perhaps we can learn something of great value here, something that quite likely draws closer to the origins of the Christian faith.  Most likely Jesus would be more comfortable in this vision than what exists in most American religious communities.  Indeed, the Native American away that focuses on redistribution of wealth stands at odds with the current political climate in America, where everyone is out for their own welfare.  He notes that in 1887, Senator Henry Dawes held up the ideal of progress that was in his view rooted in individualism, materialism and selfishness, values that were foreign to the Cherokee whom he was meeting in the Indian Territory (Oklahoma). 

Such a vision will be challenging and perhaps even upsetting to one’s theology, but a close read will be of great benefit.  It is a corrective that we need to hear in our churches.  And we can thank Randy Woodley for his most helpful and prophetic call to shalom/harmony.  We can also look forward to future contributions to this developing series.          

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