So far this series, ‘Setting our Stories Straight‘, has dealt with major ways Europeans and their descendants have (mis)used Christian teaching to justify their/our imperial and colonizing actions around the world. These have been cases where Christianity has not really needed ‘outside’ correction, but rather to re-read itself from within its own resources, stories, and traditions. (Which is simply a fancy way of saying Christians just need to be better at being Christian.) Today’s post is going to be a bit different, because it addresses a concern I have seen raised by a number of Indigenous writers that does seem to represent a legitimate criticism of Christianity itself and not just a situation where Christianity has gone off its rails. This is the accusation that Christianity will always struggle to engage well with Indigenous cultures because it lacks a sense of place.
I’d like to take a few minutes to explore this issue, first describing the problem and the consequences it has had for Indigenous peoples, then exploring the issue from the perspective of Biblical history and Christian theology, and finally suggesting some possible ways forward that might serve to uphold the Christian understanding of God and creation while also addressing this Indigenous critique.
Indigenous religions around the world tend to be religions of place. As Chris Budden puts it, for Indigenous peoples ,”meaning [is] tied inexorably and unchangeably to particular land and particular places” (Following Jesus in Invaded Space).* The land — specifically a particular group’s particular land, and the particular plant and animal life that inhabits it — “is where religious knowledge is embedded and inscribed and where relationships are subscribed.” Vine Deloria, Jr., an important twentieth-century Indigenous theologian and activist, defined the ‘task’ of Indigenous religion as:
to determine the proper relationship that the people of the tribe must have with other living things and to develop the self-discipline within the tribal community so that man acts harmoniously with other creatures. (God is Red)
Randy Woodley similarly notes the importance of the land in the traditions of his own Keetowah people: A messenger from the Creator had shown them the boundaries of their land, taught them how to live there in harmony with it, and named them in relation to its Creator (Shalom and the Community of Creation). He further describes the relationship between the people and the land as a “marriage,” a lasting tie that even physical separation cannot undo. People and place belong together.
By contrast, the West, it is claimed, lacks this theology of place. And it is unquestionably true that Christianity operates from a universal rather than local focus. In fact, I will argue shortly that the breaking of such locational specificity was an important step in the theological history of the Judaism from which Christianity would arise. This marginalization of place in the Christian imagination had big consequences for Europe’s interaction with Indigenous peoples. For the Europeans — especially Modern Europeans seeking domination over the earth — land was understood in a practical, not spiritual, way. It could be bought and sold, quantified for economic productivity, and shaped according to their will. In removing Indigenous peoples from their lands and shaping those lands in ways that rendered them unrecognizable, they not only took away Indigenous wealth and ways of living, but also tore deep holes in their cultural foundations. As Woodley summarizes, “When the colonizers forget their relationship with the earth … it gives them a powerful weapon over those they intend to colonize.”
So what does our tradition have to say about this? It is clear that the writers and editors of what Christians call the Old Testament shared a strong sense of place with Indigenous cultures. The stories of the Patriarchs are full of references to them building altars and memorial monuments at specific places to commemorate important spiritual experiences. (See, for example, Genesis 12.7, where Abram builds an altar where God had appeared to him promising the gift of the Land, and Genesis 28.18, where Jacob sets up the stone he had used as a pillow as a monument after his dream of the ladder connecting that place with heaven.) After the conquest of the Promised Land, each tribe of Israel was given its own lands, and each family its own specific plots; if, for whatever reason, a family had to sell or rent out its land, under the Jubilee Laws, it was to be returned to them no later than fifty years after. Eventually, worship of the Israelite God was to be focused on the Temple of Solomon on Mount Zion, a Temple in which God was believed to dwell. The focus of Israelite religion on the land is perhaps best exemplified by the people’s reaction to their exile from it. In the famous words of Psalm 137:
By the rivers of Babylon—
there we sat down and there we wept
when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there
we hung up our harps.
For there our captors asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’
How could we sing the LORD’s song
in a foreign land?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
let my right hand wither!
How could they sing the LORD’s song in a foreign land? Would their God even be able to hear them so far away?
The answer to this plaintive question turned out to be yes. God could and did hear them in exile. This realization marked an important moment in the transition from Israelite religion, with its focus on YHWH as a local God, into Judaism, with its cosmic, universal God. When the Exile ended, many decided to stay in Babylon where they had established themselves; still others traveled as merchants or mercenaries, and often ended up settling where their business took them. By the time of Jesus, there were significant Jewish populations all over the Mediterranean and Near Eastern worlds. There were still important pilgrimages to Jerusalem for the major holidays, so the connection with place was not entirely lost, but Judaism was not tied to the land as pre-exile Israelite religion had been. One could be Jewish in Rome, in Alexandria, or in Babylon just as well as in Jerusalem itself.
It was this sense of universality of place, rather than particularity, that Christianity inherited. God was the God of the heavens and the earth, and the first Christians quickly spread their message of what this God had done throughout their known world.
Perhaps this movement from local to universal was a logical development in the context of Eurasia, with its constant churning of peoples — not only the rise and fall of great Empires like Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Macedonia, Rome, and Arabia, but also its long history of disruptive mass migrations of peoples (even written history notes the migrations or arrivals of: the Sea Peoples (an unspecified group that greatly disrupted the Eastern Mediterranean world in the bronze age), Celts, Germans (including Goths, Vandals, Ostrogoths, Visigoths, Franks, Angles, Saxons, and Norse), Huns, Bulgars, Arabs, Mongols, and Turks — to say nothing of the Hebrews themselves). In a sense, in this part of the world, the very idea of indigeneity is suspect, since it is clear even from peoples’ own stories that they came from somewhere else. (Interestingly, one place in the Americas that saw a similar pattern of migration was Mesoamerica, which also developed similar cultural artifacts — agriculture, monarchy, monumental architecture, and Empire — to the Eurasian situation.)
With all this in mind, how might a universal faith like Christianity develop a way forward that is not prone to erasing the specific, or the local?
One idea that comes to mind is recognizing that we can’t get to the universal except through the particular — that we hold on to the particular in order to preserve the universal. For example, traditionally most cultures have had sacred places, like temples or churches, or sacred groves or ‘high places‘ on mountains; sacred times, like major feasts and fasts, or the Sabbath; and sacred people, like priests, gurus, or medicine men. Especially after the Reformation, this specificity has often been attacked in the West on the ground of universality — that all space, all time, all people are sacred. But what we’ve seen is that if everything is sacred, then nothing is sacred. Without the particular, the universal ceases to have meaning. Secularity overwhelms the sacred when the sacred is not set apart. A great example of this for me is the idea of the “priesthood of all believers;” the communities I’ve been in that have lived into this ideal the most have also been the communities that also have actual priests. We seem to need the ideal represented by the particular in order for the universal to be real.
If we apply this to the question at hand, it suggests to me that if we truly want to restore humanity’s relationship to the earth writ large, we need to start by upholding the sacredness of the land on which we live, wherever that may be. This could involve getting to know its natural contours and watersheds, paying attention to the changes of seasons, and acknowledging the land’s history and the many generations of peoples who have inhabited it before us and, keeping it well for those who will come after us. I have tried to do this more and more over the past couple of years and I have been fascinated to learn the the hill on which I live is the old shoreline of the Lake (which is now several kilometres to the south), where the local waters run, the ways Spring unfolds here and how it’s different from the Springs I’ve experienced elsewhere. And I think often of how this territory, Tkarón:to, was (and is) home to the Dish with One Spoon Wampum Covenant, a treaty among the Anishinaabe, Mississaugas and Haudenosaunee that guided the sharing of the Great Lake region’s land and resources, and offers us a powerful image of life together that goes beyond peaceful coexistence to mutual thriving. (We might even call it a vision of shalom.)
All of this feels to me to be very scriptural, for, as Woodley notes, “According to Scripture land can be blessed, cursed, defiled, and redeemed.” Our covenant with God may not be a land covenant, but that doesn’t mean land is not important. “Everywhere” cannot be sacred for us if “nowhere” is sacred. And there is no better place to love that out than home, wherever it may be for each of us.