Aboriginal Christianity/Ecological Christianity: A Church of and for Turtle Island

by Bishop Mark MacDonald

Something New in North America

The recent installation of a National Indigenous Anglican Bishop in Canada is significant in many ways; the most obvious being in the way it re-thinks the relationship of Christian faith and aboriginal identity and authority. What may not be so obvious is the way it re-imagines the relationship of a community of faith with the environment.

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 Cosmology of the West

The West’s view of creation was and is shaped both by materialistic scientism and economically conceived individualism. These forces eclipsed the West’s own Biblical and theological roots long ago. As a contemporary and startling example of this eclipse, consider the “Creation Science” of Euro-American fundamentalism – a phenomenon that reveals more about the pervasiveness of the Western cultural framework than the more science friendly reworking of theology by the old-line western churches.

The fundamentalists insist that their controversial view of both Science and Scripture should be normative for all institutions in the West; that everyone, including Science, should endorse their position. Though their old-line counterparts sharply disagree, there is significant agreement between the two groups. They are both in total harmony with the basic shape and values of the hidden Western Cosmology – materialistic scientism.

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, as the Canadian developments demonstrate.

As the need to articulate their own indigenous faith grew, aboriginal communities in the Anglican Church of Canada began to speak of a need for a National Indigenous Bishop. Such a Bishop would: 1) Speak for them in the councils of the Church; 2) Interpret and help navigate those councils for Indigenous Peoples; and 3) Speak for the living relationship that the Indigenous Peoples of the Americas have with the Land. This third item, which is our focus here, has two components that are intimately and necessarily related: first, to give voice to the Land itself and its ecological integrity and, second, to speak for the living relationship with the Land and aboriginal communities.

Aboriginal Christianity/Ecological Christianity

The appointment of a bishop is not significant in itself. It is the communal articulation of faith by indigenous peoples that, in ways that cannot be numbered or predicted, is an inspiration and challenge. This is especially true 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. As a frequent participant and observer in the back and forth between aboriginal communities and Western organizations, I can say that this is one of the most, if not the most, significant distinctions between them. 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 this day.

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.

Related to the concerns raised above, is the sharp difference between Western notions of ownership, now impacting every area of 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.

It is the Western restructuring of life, especially when phrased in economic terms, which is problematic to indigenous communities around the world. 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. This conflict is, for the aboriginal nations, more problematic now than at any time since the military battles of the 19th Century. It is seen not only in disagreement over development but also in regard to the privatization of resources like water and the patenting of life and Aboriginal pharmacology by Western commercial interests.

This may come as fresh news to many, even among environmentalists. Though the Fourth World of the Indigenous Nations experiences poverty and political disempowerment that is similar to the Two-Thirds World, their situation is often hidden. First, they are often found in the shadow of the wealth of nations like Canada, US, and Australia (a wealth their oppression helped to achieve). Second, the identification of the Fourth World with the Land also obscures their reality from cultures that cannot conceive of life in ecological terms.

A Prophetic Challenge

There is, as we have noted above, much more that can be said regarding these developments among aboriginal Christians in the Americas. This short piece is far from definitive and, at best, broadly suggestive. We could have noted, for example, the important that aboriginal Christians have, for instance, achieved this understanding within an orthodox and Theo-centric theological framework may be a surprise to many observers – a hopeful surprise given the theological orientation of many North Americans. They 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 a 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. There is much here for all to see and understand. 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 the highest priorities for us all.

This article originally appeared in the September 2007 newsletter for the Forum on Religion and Ecology, and is reprinted by permission of the author.