I ended the most recent post in this series by suggesting that understanding Christianity through the guiding principle of shalom, peace or wholeness, could provide a helpful way of framing the concept of faith. Today I’d like to unpack this more, and propose that ‘faith’ is living out shalom, or following the pathway of peace. This is to say that being in a ‘faith relationship’ means doing what is necessary to establish, build up, and maintain the healthy and whole relationships that our Scriptures call shalom. I hope to show that this idea both accounts well for what our Scriptures have to say about faith and resonates strongly with Indigenous sensibilities about knowledge and right living, and could therefore be another piece of common ground as we try to move forward with reconciliation.
Faith in Biblical Witness
Faith is one of the core ideas within Christianity. Words belonging to the pist- (’faith, trust’) family in Greek occur about five hundred times in the New Testament alone! And yet, there’s wide disagreement among Christians about what it means. I’ve addressed this question before, but by way of summary: “the [Hebrew, Greek, and even Latin] words we translate as ‘faith’ in English are about personal integrity, responsibility, and accountability. It’s about doing what you say you’ll do, being who you say you are, and living up to mutually understood and agreed-upon responsibilities in relationships.” Note that one idea missing from this definition is ‘belief’, or ‘intellectual assent’. ‘Belief in’ is a given but it is not a major part of what faith means. Christian faith is not about our theological opinions (no matter how strongly we may hold them), but our reciprocal trust relationship with God in Jesus and with the world around us.
We can see this understanding of faith at work in every part of the Biblical story: In the creation story, Adam and Eve were called to demonstrate faith by tending the garden and getting to know (’naming’) its inhabitants. For his part, Abram was to demonstrate faith by trusting God’s promises and keeping the ritual of circumcision. Under the Law, faith involved such things as harmonious community relations, fulfilling ceremonial responsibilities, welcoming foreigners, allowing land to lie fallow, and allowing everyone, including slaves and working animals, proper rest. The prophets criticized the powerful for breaking faith through their injustice while going through the motions of keeping faith through ceremony, and looked forward to a time when true shalom would be re-established for the whole creation. And Jesus proclaimed the ways God’s peaceable kingdom: he restored the sick and injured to wholeness, he welcomed outcasts and those labeled ‘sinners’, he criticized the religious establishment for their hypocrisy — for their breaking of faith with the people. As Randy Woodley (2012) concludes, Christian faith is “about the consistency of living out the fulfillment” of this vision of shalom that dates back to the Garden of Eden.* And:
[O]ur faith is the protest that Christians are called to live into, and against, the illegitimate powers of this world—that which destroys harmony. So that’s how I understand my role as a Jesus-follower too. It is to continue to bring balance or bring harmony to a broken and fragmented society. (2022)
A great example of what Christian faith looks like can be found at the very end of 1 Peter:
Above all, keep showing sustained love for one another, for love covers a multitude of sins. Be hospitable to others without complaint. As God has given each of you a spiritual gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s diverse grace. If anyone speaks, do so with the words of God; if anyone serves, do so as from the strength that God provides. (4.8-10)
It should be clear from even this quick trip through the Bible that this active and lifestyle-oriented understanding of faith is profoundly Scriptural. This is important because all too often Christians seem to separate belief and action. Many Christians in the West have an intuition that what we believe should impact how we live, yet there is still a fundamental disconnect, and within that disconnect we tend to privilege belief over action. Our culture at some point chose to value orthodoxy, defined as ‘right belief,’ over orthopraxy, ‘right living’. And when Christians, especially here in North America, have concerned ourselves with ‘right living’, we have tended to understand that not in terms of the way of Jesus, but of the ways and values (and especially sexual mores) of white, middle class Western society. But, orthopraxy properly understood as following the way of Jesus is at the heart of Biblical faith.
As we will see next, understanding faith as the living out of right relationships resonates strongly with Indigenous ways of knowing and living. As such, it is a helpful focus in our desire to find common ground upon which we as settler Christians might build a new, shalom-based, relationships in our world, and especially with the Indigenous peoples of the lands we inhabit.
Indigenous Perspectives on the Good Life
Orthopraxy seems to be universally at the heart of Indigenous spirituality and ways of life. Here is a small sampling of the Indigenous perspectives on this that I have encountered in my readings (emphases added):
- Anishinaabe way of life “is nationhood based on a series of radiating responsibilities.” (Simpson 2017)
- “Indigenous traditions [are based on] regenerating healthy and sustainable, gift-reciprocity relationships.” (Borrows and Tully)
- “To Native Americans, practices are beliefs. In other words, one comes to believe something because one does it.” (Woodley 2012)
- “[O]rthopraxy, or ‘doing knowledge,’ sits at the core of Indigenous knowledge philosophy.” (Gehl, citing the work of Thurman Lee Hester)
This commitment to right living as the key to knowledge and truth is grounded in Indigenous understandings of human vocation; it is nothing less than “our original instructions” (Simpson 2017, 23; Kimmerer 2003; Woodley 2022; Wagamese 2019). At the core of these instructions is the understanding that life is inherently relational. It is impossible to be human — or even alive — without being in relationship: with ourselves, with God, with other people, and the whole living world. Following our original instructions involves ensuring these relationships are reciprocal, generative, balanced, and harmonious.
Such healthy relationships are not a given of the world. There are principles of harmony and disharmony (Woodley 2012), or creativity and destruction (Atleo/Umeek 2012) at work. And most, if not all, Indigenous cultures have stories of times when harmony was broken and local ecologies collapsed as a result (Borrows). Harmony has been carefully negotiated and enacted over the course of generations, and every generation and every community member must be reminded of its ways, through teachings expressed in story, ceremony, and example, and re-appropriate these ways for themselves.
This harmony-keeping role is embodied in such teachings as “The Seven Grandfather Teachings” of the Anishinaabe and Potawatomi peoples, duyukta (Cherokee), and wo’dakokta (Dakota), among myriad others, and it involves a set of interconnected postures towards the world, including: humility, gratitude, respect, reciprocity, responsibility, integrity, truth, wisdom, courage, and generativity. (To put this in the language of planning, we might say these are the specific strategies we employ to accomplish the goal of harmony-keeping.) Anton Treuer’s definition of truth from within his Ojibwe culture seems particularly relevant to this discussion: Debwewin (truth) “is sincerity and honesty, alignment of action with values and beliefs. It denotes real integrity.”
If Indigenous peoples can be said to have a concept of ‘sin,’ it is understood in the ways we might predict from this discussion: as a breaking of harmony (as per Kidwell, Noley and Tinker), or as ‘forgetting the teachings’ (Treuer). Sin is a lack of integrity, not doing what you’ve committed to doing, not showing up in your relationships. In other words, sin is a lack of faith.
There is clearly a lot of common ground between these ideas of right living from Indigenous cultures and the active understanding of faith and faithfulness that is taught in the Jewish and Christian Scriptures. Both put relationships, whether with God, with one another, or with the rest of creation, at the centre of human life. They likewise share a recognition that healthy relationships are easily distorted, and so we must be intentional about the way we live so that we promote wholeness and the welfare of all.
Thus, conceiving of faith as living up to mutually understood and agreed-upon responsibilities in relationships — essentially showing up in our relationships — both restores a more traditional, biblical sensibility and opens up a possible pathway for reconciliation. It is powerful because this goes beyond the settler-Indigenous dichotomy, but extends to reconciliation among races, within our fractured body politic, and with our environment. Such a conception of faith demands that we ask of ourselves what it means to ‘show up’ in all of these relationships.
Reconciliation, in any aspect of life, is never easy. It is hard work. In Kiera Ladner’s words, “reconciliation is a process, an action, something that must be continuously created and maintained.” Or, as James Tully put it:
[M]eans and ends are the same, as acorn to oak tree …. Reconciliation is really a radical regeneration and reconciliation of the partners by acting and interacting in non-violent, conciliatory, and sustainable ways in everyday relationship with each other and the living earth — by ‘being the change’.
This is demanding, and yet, for those of us who call ourselves Christians, we believe that such genuine change is not only possible, but also an essential part of ‘salvation’, something not only deeply desired by God, but to which God also calls us and for which God also empowers us. It is, in other words, a matter of faith.
After one important aside, the rest of this series will explore this in greater detail.
* Please refer to the Bibliography for the series for details.