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FISSURE: A Life Between Cultures




In the early part of the 20th century, progressive Christians promoted the Social Gospel Movement, which they saw as living into what Jesus preached in his Sermon on the Mount––not just taking his words as nice ideas. To them it meant actually feeding the poor, bringing clean water to countries where people were dying for lack of it. It meant sharing the love they believed was the essence of Christianity in concrete ways. If that drew people to becoming Christians, well and good, but proselytizing was not their goal.

Evangelical Christians like my parents disparaged the Social Gospel; they believed the people they called liberals (progressive Christians) were taking an easy path, substituting the Social Gospel for preaching. The battle against liberals was almost as strong as the battle against Satan. They went so far as to say that liberals were not really Christians. My father talked about the Social Gospel pretty often, always with a sneer. And yet, in many ways he practiced it alongside his preaching by doing things like burning a dead horse so an old woman could eat.

My father was not a saint in the conventional meaning of the word. He could've put his wife first on the day of the dead horse and sat at the table for another fifteen minutes before heading out to stack tires on the corpse. It would've been a loving thing to do and wouldn't have asked much of him.

On the other hand, he helped the people around him because he loved doing it, not because it was his duty. He'd grown up poor on a farm in Southwest Michigan with an abusive father, and early on he vowed never to be like the man he'd seen hitting the farm horse on the forehead with a two-by-four. Instead, he took his mother, whom he did consider a saint for her kindness, her patience, and her prayers for her children, as his life model.

When we moved to Gallup, on the edge of the Navajo Nation, some of the members of my father's new congregation at Tohlakai suffered from alcohol addiction. My dad was deeply moved by how it affected not only the alcoholic but entire families, and he got a member of AA from Gallup to start evening meetings there. He saw fatherless children and took them fishing with my brothers, included them in hot dog roasts, and piled them into the pickup to go sledding. At my father's funeral, a grown man who had gone on these boyhood jaunts with our dad, talked about how much that had meant to him. Whereas I had left the church, this man was still an active member, maybe in part because of my father's kindness.

My father definitely preached to convert, however. At funerals he preached that "the wages of sin is death," always hoping to save those standing around the grave from an eternity in hell. He picked up every hitchhiker he could. Countless times, I sat in the back seat and heard him launch into the same talk with his captive audience.

"Do you have sheep at home?" he would ask. This was invariably a gratuitous question, as Diné life centered on raising sheep.

"Yeah. Sure."

"I'm sure you take good care of your sheep—taking them out to graze and get water. You watch out for coyotes that might attack them. You put them in the corral at night. You would know if one of your sheep was missing, right?"

The hitchhiker would nod, probably already regretting having accepted the ride.

"And if a sheep was missing, you would leave the others in the corral and go out to look for the lost one?"

The hitchhiker nodded again.

"Jesus told a story about the Good Shepherd who goes after one lost sheep. He doesn't want even one sheep to die. The Bible calls Jesus the Good Shepherd because he doesn't want you and me to be lost, either. Anyone who believes in Jesus will go to heaven when they die. If we don't believe in him, the Bible says we will go to hell, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth."

While he felt and showed concern for the lives of people in the here and now, his greatest concern was for their lives in the hereafter, and any way he could reach them for Christ was beneficial. He believed that traditional Diné ceremonies must be eradicated because they were of the Evil One. Some practices, like summer squaw dances (also called that by Diné, despite the otherwise pejorative term squaw) were mainly social but still wrong, in his mind. Other ceremonies were for healing. One in particular represented a form of what I see as restorative justice: the Enemy Way Ceremony, performed for returning soldiers to help relieve them of pre- and post-combat stress and return them to connections with family, community, and Native culture. To my dad and missionaries like him, they all had to go.

He saw rules that traditional Diné lived by as superstitious restrictions that fostered fear if they were broken. In his mind, Christianity could relieve people of those fears and offered the pathway to an afterlife in heaven. Diné friends have told me that many people have tremendous fear about breaking the taboos of traditional Diné ways. But fear of breaking cultural and religious rules is part of living socially; rules have, at least initially, existed to prevent behavior that can damage the group. Many restrictions in traditional Diné culture have to do with living in harmony with the natural world or have their origins in common sense, such as rules about water use in an arid land. As in many cultures, the origin of these rules has often been forgotten, so the proscriptions can seem irrational, not connected to real life any longer. The replacement religion and culture my father felt duty-bound to offer meant tearing apart a culture that had functioned well, but not perfectly––like any culture, my dad's included.

On one hand, Dad believed it was his mission to destroy the aspects of Diné culture that he saw as a false religion, and on the other, paradoxically, he was passionately curious about the culture, even the parts of it that he believed must be wiped out. He was able to live within this contradiction because he saw Diné religion and culture as two separate things, which is not how traditional Diné experience them. To them, all of life and how we live it is one great, interconnected whole. I learned this from Diné elders and healers, not from Bilagáana missionaries.

I've never been more aware than I am at this point in the 21st century of the necessity for vetting information sources. And I have to say that my father's sources were often suspect—White missionaries with their soul-saving agenda, White traders with their commercial agenda, the federal government with its assimilation policies, and Diné who had embraced Christianity within the post-colonial ethos and would thus have a bias against their own traditions.




© Anna Redsand, 2024. All Rights Reserved. 


To be continued on Monday, 3/4/24

If you are just joining the serialization of Fissure, you can read earlier installments in order by using the Table of Contents


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