Sunday, January 3, 2010

Evangelizing to Native Peoples: Contrasting Orthodoxy with American Protestantism

OB: Circling back a little bit to America’s Trail of Tears, given the fact that the Cherokees were Christian, I remember from my history classes that the Evangelicals especially were highly scandalized by the treatment of the Cherokee. Did you find something similar when you were doing your research?

Dean: The Cherokee had had this newspaper called the Cherokee Phoenix and on one side it was printed in Cherokee and on the other side it was printed in English. One of the reasons it became such a PR nightmare and such a sensation like you are saying was that that newspaper got mailed all around the country. And so for the first time, it was sort of like the Civil Rights movement of the 1800’s. There was this missionary, Sam Worcester, who got thrown in jail basically for just being someone who was trying to help the Cherokee.
The State of Georgia, which wanted the Cherokee’s land, passed a law saying a white man couldn’t be in the area without taking an oath of allegiance to the State of Georgia. Reverend Worcester refused to do so because he said that he was called by God to be a missionary to the Cherokees, and the Cherokees were a sovereign nation according to the treaty that was made with President Washington.
So he refused to take it and got thrown in jail. I believe he was in jail for four years. The case went to the Supreme Court, and of course, all this was being written in newspapers but it was also being detailed in the Cherokee Phoenix which was being mailed all around the country.
And yes, not just Evangelicals but the country at large was up in arms and outraged by what was happening to the Cherokees and the country was pretty much evenly divided. You had great stalwarts like John Quincey Adams who were really going to bat for the Cherokee.
What happened was up to that point the Native Americans were always viewed as sort of noble savages. It was sad that their land was getting taken away but people thought, “Well, they’re not really doing anything with the land. They just kind of let it sit there. They go hunting on it once and awhile, but they don’t really farm the land, they don’t really till the soil.”
We are called by Genesis to till the soil, so it’s good to have some people take over the land who will do the right thing with it. And they didn’t feel bad about it. But the Cherokees were out there farming the land and they were as cutting edge in their technology as the Whites were around them. When this Native American tribe was getting kicked off the land, it became much more of an outrage.
If you want to talk about it from an Orthodox perspective, one of the books I’d write if I live to be five hundred years old is, I think I’ve got the title as, Two Missionaries, but it would be comparing and contrasting the Sam Worcester mission to the Cherokees and how he was locked up and everything to St. Herman and St. Innocent in Alaska. The missionary concept that was brought from the Orthodox Russian Church into Alaska was more sensitive to the indigenous culture of the Native Americans.
You go to Alaska now and 80% of the Native Americans are Orthodox. Worcester was really the exception on the East Coast with Protestant missionaries to Native Americans. Mostly they were very culturally imperialistic and really trying to strip the Native Americans of their cultural identity and trying to cram European culture down their throats. There’s a real interesting comparing and contrasting of the two methods.
OB: I was going to ask you about that. Given your Orthodox background looking and contrasting those two methods of Evangelism, do you have a feeling for the root cause of the difference between those two styles?
Dean: For one, the liturgy and the scriptures were brought into the native language. And, except for the Cherokee, that didn’t happen in the rest of America. This Reverend Worcester translated the scriptures into the Cherokee language, but other than that there really wasn’t a very good effort at translation on the East Coast. That would be a primary difference. I think Orthodoxy just has a better embrace of the material world and is not as fearful of certain traditional things being pagan or occultic. Sometimes they are, but a lot of times they’re not. Whereas in the Western Evangelism there was always a rush to judgment.
OB: Does it seem then that Orthodoxy is more comfortable with pre-existing traditions?
Dean: Oh, there’s no question.
OB: It seems then with Orthodoxy there is more of an emphasis on taking what was there and perfecting it rather than always wholesale remove it.
Dean: I don’t want to pretend I’m some kind of Theological expert. But one of the ways to make the simple difference between the East and the West in Christianity is that in the West the ultimate object of devotion is a proposition, but in the East it’s a person. So in the Eastern Church there are persons everywhere – icons that we look at, a lot of talk about Angels, and there is a lot of mention of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We have prayers for the people who are departed. It’s very people-centered and quite peopled everywhere.
Whereas in the West it’s all about propositions and rational statements and building your Theological and philosophical arguments off this, that and the other. In the West, when they come to a people group what they are really trying to get them to do is to assent to some propositions.
So you have a lot of focus on the book, and the propositions that are written in the book, and making sure that you get these people to assent to these propositions.
And in the East, they go into a people group and the focus is on the people. “How can we make your life better?” “How can we allow you as people to be in better relationship to the key person which is God and who is also the three persons the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit?” So it’s all a relational emphasis on the surrounding persons. In the West its more rational.


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