American Indian Theology

A Native Perspective on Faith

The economically more powerful culture may not be the more powerful culture spiritually and morally.
— George Tinker

Like the theology of the black church, Liberation Theology offers insight into the beliefs and practices of American Indian Christians. Like the history of slavery, the American Indian people were, and are oppressed by dominant culture. George Tinker, in his chapter, “Liberation and Sustainability” insists that a Native American theology must speak to people's’ present context of oppression and alienation. The indigenous tribes, influenced by Christian practices of the first European colonies, have blended these Christian teachings with their native beliefs. Their theology, as a result, is very different from my white, German Lutheran theology.

In reading Tinker’s thoughts, a few aspects of his theology spoke to me. First is his observations of what he refers to as America's “fatal flaws”: individualism and temporality.  I would have to strongly agree. In America, most people are primarily focused on their own concerns; am I happy, how will I find success, why do bad things happen to me, and how am I affected by others. We define ourselves with our material possessions, with little thought about our place in a global community. Tinker emphasizes the focus of the American Indians on communal living and understanding how our actions affect others and our environment.

A second aspect which Tinker addresses is the American desire for “sustainable development.” He goes as far as to describe this desire as an oxymoron, claiming that development, by its very nature, is not sustainable. In the development of humankind, we have sacrificed our planet. We have a destructive attitude of greed, claiming “if it can be done, it should be done.” However, we never stop to ask why, never stop to consider the cost.

This theology of American Indians presented by Tinker is interesting to me. While no part of it directly opposes the theology by which I was raised, when put into practice, it contradicts the accepted actions of my Christian context. As one who seeks to constantly be improving myself, my choices often are individualistic. There is something almost radical about Tinker’s suggestion to be content with what we have, with where we are, and with who we are. What if this is exactly where I am called to be, doing what I am doing, being who I was created to be? It reminds me of Millard Fuller’s “Theology of Enough.” Perhaps, instead of striving for individual improvement and success, we should seek the common good for the community, having faith that the community will support us as we support the community.

Tinker, George E. “Tink.” “Liberation and Sustainability: Prolegomenon to an American Indian Theology.” Chapter 1 of Spirit and Resistance: Political Theology and American Indian Liberation, 1-27. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2004.