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Christian self-understanding in the context of indigenous religions

Between 6 -9 February 2012 a consultation exploring ‘Christian self understanding in the context of indigenous religions’ was convened at the Evangelical High School of Theological Studies (ISEDET), Buenos Aires, Argentina. The consultation was organised by the World Council of Churches’ Programme for Interreligious Dialogue and Cooperation, working in partnership with CLAI (the Latin American Council of Churches), and with valued assistance from FAIE (the Fellowship of Evangelical Churches in Argentina) and the Anglican Diocese of Argentina. The consultation was one of a series that the WCC has organised in recent years, exploring Christian self understanding in the context of a specific other religion or religious tradition.

09 February 2012

Between 6-9 February 2012 a consultation exploring ‘Christian self understanding in the context of indigenous religions’ was convened at the Evangelical High School of Theological Studies (ISEDET), Buenos Aires, Argentina.  The consultation was organised by the World Council of Churches’ Programme for Interreligious Dialogue and Cooperation, working in partnership with CLAI (the Latin American Council of Churches), and with valued assistance from FAIE (the Fellowship of Evangelical Churches in Argentina) and the Anglican Diocese of Argentina. The consultation was one of a series that the WCC has organised in recent years, exploring Christian self understanding in the context of a specific other religion or religious tradition.[1]

Participants at the meeting came from Aotearoa/New Zealand (Maori); Argentina; Brazil (Comin/ECLCB); Bolivia (Nacion Aymarade); Canada (Indigenous Anglicans) ; Colombia;  Ecuador (Pueblo Kichwa); Guatemala (Indigena Maya K’iche) ; Philippines (Igorots of northern Philippines). It had been hoped also to have participation from Greenland, India and Nigeria, but last minute visa problems or illness prevented those invited from these countries from joining the group.

As members of this consultation we express gratitude for the significant role that the World Council of Churches has played in recent years in giving space to indigenous peoples from different parts of the world to meet and share their experiences and to develop common strategies. We are particularly appreciative of the role played by the coordinator of the WCC’s Indigenous Peoples’ Programme.  

It was important for us that the meeting was framed  each day in the context of powerful expressions  of worship, drawing on symbols and rituals from indigenous spirituality. Our worship emphasised both the ‘four directional thinking’  (east, west, north, south) of many indigenous people, and also the close links between the spiritual and material dimensions of life.

During the consultation we explored a number of key Christian themes. These included the Christian understanding of God; Land/Creation; Christology; Scripture; Justice; Church; Mission; Prayer and Spirituality. Through a mixture of sharing of experiences, presentation of short papers and discussion  we offered a number of insights and challenges for Christian self understanding in relation to each of these themes.  In some cases our challenge to Christianity was to recover an important element of Christian or biblical heritage which had become obscured by later developments. A more complete reflection on the insights offered by this consultation will appear in the detailed report of the meeting: the following comments give some brief examples of contributions to Christian self understanding which were offered.

·         It was noted that the biblical name for God, YHWH, as presented in Exodus 3.14, emphasises both the presence and the mystery of God. The later understanding of God primarily as ‘Lord’ affected both human understanding of the nature of God, and justified particular political and social developments which down-played the vision of God as a God of freedom.

·         The intimate interrelationship between God and creation/land/nature[2] was emphasised throughout our meeting. The whole earth is God’s temple, and without the earth we are nothing. In many communities of indigenous people when people want to get close to God they sit on the ground.  Our overall moral and spiritual development cannot be separated from our attitude to land. It is essential for human beings to be in harmony with the land.  

·         In relation to scripture, the importance of the Christian Bible containing four gospels was noted, and this can be linked to the ‘four directional thinking’ (east, west. North and south) of many indigenous peoples. Jesus Christ is too great to be spoken of in only one direction.

·         The oral tradition of many of our indigenous communities  challenges us to reflect on how a fixed written scripture can or should be interpreted in the churches.  Sometimes writing in a book can lead to us forgetting God’s word is also written in creation.

·         The holistic world view and spiritual traditions of many indigenous peoples  offer an important contribution and corrective to tendencies in some strands of Christianity to present life and faith simply in terms of polarities e.g. Light/Darkness; Man/Woman.

·         We emphasised that the figure of Jesus Christ is extremely important for many indigenous peoples, even those who would not formally describe themselves as Christians. Many indigenous people had dreamed about Jesus and his coming even before the period of oppressive colonisation.   Jesus is a figure who suffered at the hands of oppressors, and is someone who can empathise with the plight of indigenous people.

·         The experience of indigenous peoples demonstrates that in our understanding of the role of Jesus Christ as Saviour we must not separate the physical, material and spiritual aspects of salvation.

·         The acute injustices perpetrated on many indigenous people over the centuries by political and religious authorities, and by economic overlords, challenge the Christian churches to re-examine understandings of justice. If human beings are not just, then, according to the understanding of indigenous traditions, we will discover that God has written justice into the fabric of creation.

·         The communitarian form of life and restorative practices of justice in many indigenous communities provide insights that others throughout the world are now beginning to learn from and we hope can become an important resource for the churches as they think about the relationship between justice and reconciliation.

·         The issue of language is a vital one which is also connected to concerns about justice. The loss of language leads to the loss of a culture. The refusal of colonial or religious authorities to take seriously the languages of indigenous peoples and to impose upon them the use of tongues such as Spanish or English raises questions and challenges for the churches about how they use language, and whether they are really willing to respect and honour diversity.

·          We acknowledged the variety of ways in which mission is understood  in our churches today.  For Christians from indigenous cultures a particularly important understanding of mission is its relationship to healing and reconciliation based on justice and to facilitating the wholeness of individuals within their communities.

We  conclude by expressing the hope and expectation that the insights gained at this meeting will be appropriately shared by the World Council of Churches with its wider constituency and will feed in to the major report of ‘Christian Self understanding in the Context of Religious Plurality’ to be drafted during the coming year.


[1] The other consultations have explored Christian self understanding in the context of Islam (2008), Buddhism (2009), Judaism (2009) and Hinduism (2011)

[2] Creation/land/nature is written thus because no single English or Spanish word can fully reflect the breadth and richness of what is a key concept for indigenous peoples.