Have you ever watched children playing outside? I watched a small group of children playing in a yard recently. They were free to laugh, run and play and fully enjoyed the experience which brought joy to their Spirits and mine. Soon after this I had quite a different experience at Midway airport. Hundreds of people stood in lines delineated by barriers depicting a set course we must travel if we wanted to get through the security checkpoint to board the aircraft. Looking around I was reminded of the cows on my grandmother’s farm who were often easily guided in certain directions. As long as they remain calm, most cows will follow along the path rather easily. Every now and then one might break ranks to run off in another direction, but for the most part they are herd animals, drawn to follow each other instinctually without thought or challenge.
It seems these two images defined the inaugural conference of the Society of Race, Ethnicity and Religion, and much of the way Spirituality is taught or learned. Many renowned scholars were there, including Shawn Copeland, James Cone, Kwok Pui-Lan and Fernando Segovia, along with Barbara Alice Mann, Andrea Smith and George “Tink” Tinker. You might wonder how such icons of spirituality could possibly connect with images of cows and children. Let me explain.
My heritage is somewhat mixed, and includes Maternal Native Ancestors from the Lenape (Delaware) and Dine (Navajo) Nations. I offer this as another perspective, possibly a new way of looking at how Christianity has been perceived for many years. It seems the goal of much of European Christianity, which has infiltrated and influenced Christianity throughout the world, seems to work through similar goals as airport security. That is, moving as many people through a system designed to get them from point A to B, C or D as quickly as possible. If A symbolizes a person at the initial point of becoming intrigued by Christianity, much of the discourse available on how faith is lived or expressed is designed to get them to the next point, which is often “getting saved,” (whatever that means). If one says the proper words or participates in the proper rituals, such as baptism and recitation of the infamous “sinner’s prayer,” one can proceed to the next point, guided by well-meaning people intent on “bringing more to Christ.” The final “goal” in such a system, as in the airport, is the gate, which in the case of Christianity leads to “heaven,” that hard sought reward for a life lived according to the rules established by humanity.
It is not about building relationships in the surrounding community or working for the benefit of all in the here and now, because this system does not care about the dynamics of community. The focus is pointed at moving as many people as possible through a system to spend eternal life in a place imaged as materialism at its finest, with streets paved with gold and an over-abundance of gemstones. Although, since the results remain unknown, because there is no way to confirm anyone is actually walking streets of gold or playing hopscotch on the clouds, success is quantitative. In such a system it is determined by the number of people confirmed, baptized, joining in membership or “professing the faith,” (whatever that means.) This enables those setting up the system to feel good about reaching established standards of “bringing someone to Christ.” Though exactly what that cliché means and entails, or how one person might believe they have the power and control to judge or determine another’s Spiritual path and lead them to their final destiny is never fully explained.
There are benefits to such a system. It is well established, safe and comfortable. Little danger exists because the route is well guarded. There is little fear and can be very comfortable as long as everyone follows the same path. The arrogance of such a system is appalling. While it allows those establishing the boundaries to feel good about meeting the unspoken quota, it seems to do little to deepen the Spiritual life of those herded through a system. Fairly often when hard questions arise it is as if one of the cattle bolted, and it wreaks havoc in the system, for there is no critical thinking, and deep answers or creating depth and understanding in relationship is not the goal here. However, there is also damage inflicted on people in many ways, spiritually, relationally and emotionally, just as colonization continues to do harm in those realms as well as economically.
Contrasting with this is the image of children playing. What difference might it make to our spiritual journeys if we were given the freedom to encounter the Divine with the freedom to fully explore , play and experience each moment of life to its fullest as we interact with the world around us? What could happen if we were encouraged to explore new concepts and ideas and run fully with them, unrestricted by the boundaries established for us by others intending to force everyone to follow the same path. Let me clarify that I am not suggesting there be no boundaries. The children playing were watched by parents out of deep love which offered the freedom to play and explore, yet ensured they would not be seriously harmed by running into the street. We do need guidance and some boundaries, but they do not have to be so restrictive that all creativity or critical thinking is inhibited completely as we follow a long set path. What if spirituality were allowed to be fully expressed in whatever manner the Divine chose to speak or be revealed through community?
It would seem that might open up pathways of creativity, experimentation and exploration, which just may lead to deeper levels and new understandings of who the Divine is. Sadly this is not often encouraged. There are few critical thinkers who will question society’s accepted standards of behavior, choose to investigate rather than merely accept what “they say” (whoever the infamous “they” is we do not know) or seek break free from the boundaries to seek freedom in the experience of faith. When one does arise to challenge the status quo, they are often labeled with terms such as “pagan,” or “heretic,” or some other word meant to demean and force them back to join the herd and keep everyone calm. The main message is we must never challenge the Christian faith, must never question the long accepted interpretations of scripture or the traditions of the church, and those who do are shunned. Native American spirituality is often lived differently. It is a spirituality that is based on experience lived in ways that place the benefit of the community first, rather than placing the focus on the individual relationships with the Great Mystery.
There are choices to be made on our Spiritual journey and how it is lived. We can go along with the herd, blindly adhering to the guidelines established by people we have never met, which in itself is a type of freedom of choice. This system has worked throughout history and many people find comfort in knowing that the path is well established and secure. There is little chance of danger because it is a very comfortable, well established system and it works.
On the other hand, there is another choice that leads to greater freedom, and it is reflected in many of the perspectives presented at the Society of Race, Ethnicity and Religion conference. There are free thinkers who choose to break out of the norm to investigate and experience faith as children, running and playing freely together as they explore the relationship with the Divine, sometimes energetically chasing butterflies or each other and sometimes flopping on the ground exhausted, fully relying on the Mother to cradle them as they rest and catch their breath.
The experience is not safe, comfortable nor free form danger, but neither is life. Storms will come, rains will fall hard, and cold may seep deep into bones, paralyzing the mind and chilling the Spirit, or the sun may scorch with an unquenchable thirst. There will be times of argument, and some may abandon the game, pick up their toys and go home, leaving others alone to figure out how to continue. Yet even with all the possible conflicts and danger, I would rather live faith in the full freedom to try, fall and fail, than follow blindly down a path established long ago by those who do not know or care about the community of people who share the journey.
Sue Shields, Lenape (Delaware) Wolf Clan and Dine (Navajo). She earned a B.S. in Human Development from Binghamton University, Summa cum Laude. Presently, she is working towards a dual Masters Degree: MDiv and MAPC from Moravian Theological Seminary. Sue is a United Methodist Licensed Local Pastor serving two congregations in upstate NY at Harpursville & Ouaquaga. Serves on the United Methodist Church (UMC), Upper New York Conference Committee on Native American Ministry (CONAM) and UMC Northeast Jurisdiction CONAM. These committees work to educate, bring awareness to and advocate for Native people and issues that affect them. Sue also serves on Moravian Theological Seminary Student Council and as Moravian Seminary Student Trustee.