Editorial: Emancipation of Indigenous theologies

Anvil journal of theology and mission

Editorial: The emancipation of Indigenous theologies in light of the rise of World Christianity | ANVIL volume 39 issue 1

by Jay Mātenga

Anyone who has been joined together with the Chosen One is now part of the new creation. For in the Chosen One the old creation has faded away and the new creation has come into being. It is the Great Spirit himself who has done all of this! Through the Chosen One, Creator has removed the hostility between human beings and himself, bringing all creation into harmony once again. The Great Spirit has chosen us to represent him in the sacred task of helping others find and walk this path of peacemaking and healing—turning enemies into friends.

First Nations Version (FNV), 2 Cor. 5:17–18

When the Māori of Aotearoa New Zealand ask the question “He aha te mea nui o te ao?” (What is the most important thing in the world?), the immediate response is “He tāngata, he tāngata, he tāngata!” (It is the people, the people, the people!). When answered in triplicate we look for the meaning behind the literal translation, and the answer can legitimately be interpreted: healthy relationships or community. This edition of ANVIL reveals this as a universally indigenous priority.

When my long-time friend and compatriot Cathy Ross invited me to collaborate on this edition with her and Colin Smith, I was deeply honoured. After many years without contact, Cathy and I reunited during COVID-19 lockdowns. She had seen some presentations I had made concerning the intersection of indigenous thinking and the environment and invited me to share on the subject matter across time and distance (my night, her day) online with the Pioneer Mission Training MA students at Church Mission Society. In 2022 I had the privilege of a reprise, in person in Oxford, with a new intake of students, who made a positive impact on me. Between the time Cathy left Aotearoa New Zealand to minister in the UK and our reconnection, I had grown from a young man struggling to meet the expectations of a Pākehā (white/European/Industrial) world to identifying with my indigenous heritage and stepping into the fulness of who God made me to be.

In my article, I briefly highlight the importance of being true to who we are created to be, while also remaining open to being transformed through interactions with those not like us. I identify two major ways of seeing, knowing and interacting with the world by the categories of Indigenous and Industrial, explaining them a little in footnote 7 of my essay. During more than 30 years of serving transcultural ministers, I have come to see that we desperately need a new framework for understanding how people from different worlds can better dwell interculturally; furthermore, why people from different worlds should better dwell together interculturally. For it is in the dwelling together, in all the tensions of difference, that we witness to the fact that “Through the Chosen One, Creator has removed the hostility between human beings, and himself, bringing all creation into harmony again” (punctuation mine), and we all mature in the process.

Terry Wildman has given the English-speaking world a gift by translating large portions of Scripture into the thought patterns of North American indigenous people. In this edition of ANVIL we read how that came about. In the final product, a broad collaborative effort, we see beautiful evidence of harmony emerging from diversity. Once you have read Terry’s backstory, I encourage you to go and purchase his translation and step into the world of Scripture read with indigenous eyes. The First Nations Version (FNV) is something of a traditional translation, in that it accepts long-held Eurocentric assumptions about what the biblical authors meant, but Terry did not set out to write an Indigenous theological commentary on the New Testament. He has proven himself a skilful Bible translator and the FNV is a fine gateway into Indigenous ways of encountering the world of the Bible with direct relevance to the world in which we now live.

Further along the Indigenous spectrum we have an insightful reflection from Aunty Denise, a highly respected elder among the Aboriginal followers of the Jesus way in the land now known as Australia. It will be quickly obvious to the reader that her perspective carries the pain of her people, whose culture was straitjacketed by the settler church and those sent out from them. You might find it challenging, but sit with that pain as you read the entire essay. She speaks for a people who were invaded, occupied and continue to be oppressed by colonial settlement, a situation common to a large proportion of the Indigenous world including my own. In her contribution, Aunty Denise contrasts for us some of the differences between Western ways of viewing reality and that of the traditional inhabitants of Adnyamathanha country in what is now South Australia.

While it is inappropriate to assume that all Indigenous people think the same (it is far from the case!), there are many themes common to the Indigenous way of walking in this world. Aunty Denise speaks of the harmony between the light and dark; Māori have a similar view, East Asians also (represented by the ying/yang symbol). She confesses to struggling to read Scripture, as presented through the Western lens, but Uncle Terry’s FNV translation shows that that needn’t be the case. Furthermore, in my article I cast an Indigenous lens over theological themes in the New Testament that draw out principles that are too easily overlooked in the Eurocentric theological consensus. As I caution in my contribution, there are limits to faithfully interpreting Scripture; Indigenous theologians must beware of eisegesis as much as anyone. But who is to be the arbiter of orthodoxy beyond the foundational axioms that we all hold to? I contend it is neither the Indigenous interpreter nor the Industrial status quo, but instead the Spirit of God who teaches us as we each bring our perspectives into the global theological conversation. The gospel, once seeded in the heart of another culture, takes unique forms and Aunty Denise shows us how this can happen when Indigenous believers are freed to become guardians of the gospel for themselves, in dialogue with others’ experience of God in-Christ. If the Western Church does not acknowledge this and continues to buffer itself from Indigenous perspectives, they are, as Aunty Denise says, “missing out”.

Thankfully, the discipline of World Christianity that has emerged over recent decades is opening the West to Indigenous perspectives. Thanks to the pioneering work of scholars like Andrew Walls and Lamin Sanneh, among many others, the Western story of the global church is being decentred in favour of a polycentric mosaic of narratives. Each cultural expression of the faith is being encouraged to tell their own story, as Aunty Denise has, with theological reflection on Scripture highlighted by values important to them, as Paul Ayokunle does.

Paul also chose to emphasise the importance of relationships. Relationships was not the intentional theme for this edition of ANVIL. We wanted to focus on the emergence of Indigenous theologies aided by the development of World Christian studies, but relationship harmony is so common a priority in Indigenous worlds that it is not surprising that it emerged. In Sarah Cawdell’s article about Paul Tester’s interviews with indigenous South American Christian leaders, a focus of strong relationships emerged too. The leaders’ responses seem rather benign in contrast to Aunty Denise’s critique of Western influence, and not as theologically crafted as Paul Ayokunle’s or mine, but they are nonetheless Indigenously informed and Indigenous concerns and values stand out. They speak of freedom from fear of the spirit realm, which is very tangible to Indigenous people. Care for the environment is a deep concern we have in common. They note the importance of retaining as much of their culture as possible as they live out their faith, even as they incorporate the best of the knowledge of the West and Christianity, and as Christian faith challenges the assumptions of their traditional beliefs at critical points. The health and harmony of the community is a priority for all the South American indigenous leaders and they describe what this looks like in various ways — with the pursuit of peace a constant objective.

Paul Ayokunle dives deep into this value common to Indigenous people. Peace, harmony, reconciliation, consensus, honour, submission to the collective are all part of the same core motivator in Indigenous worlds. Each people have their own words for it. For Māori it is kotahitanga (integrated unity), which is attained via a whole range of value commitments like aroha (loving kindness), manaakitanga (honouring others through generosity, hospitality, nurture etc.) and awhi (to embrace, include, support, cherish), among many others. In my essay, I focus on the broader epistemological concepts of whakapapa (the creation of new generations) and whakawhanaungatanga (the art of weaving relationships) that result in harmony. In Zulu and what is described as the Bantu cluster of cultures, the broad concept of relational harmony is captured under the category of ubuntu. Paul launches from this better-known concept into his native Yorùbá expression of something very similar: omolúàbí, leveraging it as a principle for healthy church growth.

For Paul, World Christian studies have freed him to develop his indigenous concept into a strategy to multiply churches throughout the world. He shares a concern common to most Majority World missiologists – that Western missions paradigms are limited in their ability to enable the gospel to flourish in non-Western contexts. Rather, if we were to adopt Indigenous perspectives like omolúàbí (or ubuntu, kotahitanga, etc.), our efforts to establish the kingdom of God will be far more effective among Indigenous peoples (which, in my nomenclature, is roughly equivalent to people with a collectivist orientation). As Paul develops the concept, I recognise every aspect of omolúàbí by other names within te ao Māori (the Māori reality). I do not go into my cultural perspective as deeply as Paul does, but a similarity between the value sets explained should be apparent. Aunty Denise and I delve more into the Source of the values, but Paul identifies their contribution to healthy community superbly well for a short essay. The outcome of these values applied, empowered by the Spirit, can fulfil the hope expressed by Aunty Denise and the South American Indigenous leaders: a hope for strong community relationships, where knowledge is passed on in indigenous forms and the best of a culture is retained, celebrated and passed on. Where ancestors and ancient wisdom are honoured, where Jesus is seen with indigenous eyes, but also understood in conversation with the global church for the maturity of us all. May you be inspired with hope for the future of the global church, World Christianity, and your own church, as you take time to digest this edition of ANVIL.

Jay Matenga

About the author

Jay Mātenga is the director of World Evangelical Alliance’s Global Witness department and executive director of the WEA’s Mission Commission, which sits within the Global Witness department. He also leads Missions Interlink in Aotearoa New Zealand, a missions association, equivalent to UK’s Global Connections. Jay is a graduate of All Nations Christian College’s MA programme and has a doctorate of Intercultural Studies from Fuller Theological Seminary. You can read more from Jay at his website: jaymatenga.com

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