Dr. Randy Woodley "The Good News of Indigenous Theology" | Episode Transcript
Karen Pascal: Hello, I’m Karen Pascal. I’m the executive director of the Henri Nouwen Society. Welcome to a new episode of Henri Nouwen, Now and Then. Our goal at the Henri Nouwen Society is to extend the rich, spiritual legacy of Henri Nouwen to audiences around the world. Each week, we endeavor to bring you a new interview with someone who’s been deeply influenced by the writings of Henri Nouwen; and sometimes, we bring a recording of Henri himself. We invite you to share the daily meditations and these podcasts with your friends and family. Through them, we can continue to reach our spiritually hungry world with Henri’s writings, his encouragement, and of course, his reminder that each of us is a beloved child of God.
Now, let me take a moment to introduce today’s guest. I’m honored to have as my guest today, Randy Woodley. Randy is an activist, scholar, author, teacher, wisdom-keeper, and Cherokee descendant, recognized by the Keetoowah band, who speaks of justice, faith, the Earth and indigenous realities. Randy offers us an indigenous worldview.
Randy, I have read several of your books, and they’re so life-giving and life-changing. You wrote Becoming Rooted: 100 Days of Reconnecting with Sacred Earth. Let’s start there. You said that you wrote this to help us become better Earth relatives. What do you mean, better Earth relatives?
Randy Woodley: Well, thanks, first of all, for reading my books. I have to appreciate people for taking the time to do that. Becoming Rooted is a little bit different than the rest, you probably noticed, in that I was just trying to kind of walk alongside people as they did a journey.
So, the subtitle is 100 Days of Reconnecting with Sacred Earth. But, you know, I’m happy for people to pick and choose, and do whatever, but my feeling was that if I could write something from a more indigenous perspective to help convert people from a Western worldview in a sort of a soft way, to kind of walk alongside them on a daily basis, that it would be a way to introduce people – or really reintroduce people – back to the relationship that Creator gave us from the beginning. We are all Earth relatives. We’re all related. We’re all in reciprocity to everything around us. And so, we just don’t take time to realize that, especially in our modern, chaotic, busy worlds. And so, this is hopefully a prescription to kind of give people the permission to get back into what is natural.
Karen Pascal: I found it really, really valuable. Strangely enough, I took it with me on my vacation and it just began to bathe me in a kind of sense of awareness of the world I was in. And I realized you can so easily lose contact with creation. And really at the heart of all that you’re sharing, you’re really honoring God as the Creator of everything, and that connects us all.
I’d love to ask you a little bit about your family, because in the introduction to that book, the one thing that I was aware of, and I’ve felt this with my other indigenous friends, that they often say, “Let’s position me with the people that are in my life and the place that I am.” Could you tell me a little bit about eloheh? How do I say it? Eloheh. Is that it? It’s about harmony. What is this? It’s a place in Oregon and it’s an experience. Tell us about it.
Randy Woodley: Yeah, so eloheh is a Cherokee Indian word, and it basically . . . for Christian and Jewish folks, it would be akin to that word “shalom,” that’s used so often in the Bible. So, the big-picture shalom though, the fuller picture, which is a very holistic concept. And eloheh just basically means that everything is in harmony. Everything is in balance. It’s not perfect. It’s not utopia, but it is striving to find that balance and that harmony that we see in so many of our stories. For example, the early Genesis story, where everything is in harmony and balance and working together. And then, you know, as human beings, we have a tendency to kind of wreck that. And so, our job as human beings, then, is really to restore that balance in our lives and restore that balance in our environment, our ecology and our systems, whether they be economic or educational or ecological or whatever.
But God has really meant for us to live in harmony. And so, eloheh is all about that. And our place that we have in Oregon here is just 10 acres. Very diverse, in terms of the environment. But it is basically a place where we’re trying to restore harmony, both in our teachings and how we are dealing with the land here and aligning the land to deal with us. In other words, we are shaping the land a little, and the land is shaping us, and we’re trying to find compromises to work together to get what we both want. And so, for example, we don’t crowd out our non-human neighbors. We’re making room for them, right? And so, we’ve been rewarded a lot by the kinds of animals and birds and things that we see on this land as we walk around.
And yesterday we just saw a mother and her fawn, and they’re not really that afraid of us anymore. They kind of know this is a little refuge. And so, we hope that it’s the same for people when they come here. And we have schools, and we have cohorts and online teachings, and of course, my books and all of those kinds of things. But we also have a farm. In that farm, we use regenerative practices. And we have a seed company, so we’re saving seeds and continuing to have what we call open-pollinated seeds, so they’re never genetically engineered or patented or anything else, so that they’re basically free for anybody to grow their own after that. So yeah, all that kind of makes up who we are, and what we do here.
Karen Pascal: I love the fact that all your books take us back to this shalom and this community of creation. And I wonder if you’d just kind of open up for me, really, the sacredness of Earth and how it relates to the heart of God’s creation?
Randy Woodley: Yeah. Well, the story, if you want to look at it from a biblical perspective, the story begins in a place and it ends in a place. And as theologian and Old Testament scholar, Walter Brueggemann has said, that land is the central theme in the scriptures. So, place is very important, because place is where the Creator interacts with Creator’s people, and that makes those very sacred places, but also where Creator interacts with everything else, the whole community of creation. And we need to . . . the Western world used to see ourself as apart from and over the rest, you know, because of course we think we’re very important people; people are the most important things.
But we really are just a part of something bigger. The land, for example, will be here long after we’re here. So, I won’t outlive my property here; the land will outlive me. And so, I have to see it from that sort of big perspective, that long perspective, and understand that in the sum of all things, that God has placed us in a particular place, where God has been active. The Spirit, as we say, has been active in the lives of people and the rest of nature, for, what would we say? Since time immemorial, I guess. And that makes it sacred. And so, we share our experiences of what happens on that land, and understand that the God who cares for us is a very personal God. A God who doesn’t universalize his affection. His affection is personal to everyone and everything. And so, because of that, it makes lands where things are happening very sacred.
Karen Pascal: How does the harmony way overlap with Christianity? You wrote it so wonderfully in your book. Help us understand that.
Randy Woodley: First of all, I think we need to make a distinction sometimes between Christianity and Jesus.
Karen Pascal: Okay. Fair.
Randy Woodley: Yes. It’s often opposite sides of the same thing. But Christianity, as we know it in the West, has taken on some very un-Jesus-like characteristics and values. And so, Western Christianity, then, is often antithetical with the teachings of Jesus. It’s the competition and the greed and the materialism and the exclusion and all those kinds of things. But what we find in the teachings of Jesus is very much in line with what our Native American people have been taught. So, many of the same values. And so, I’ve never met a native person who had trouble with Jesus, but I’ve had almost all native people have trouble with Christianity. So, when we talk about our native ways being compatible with the teachings of Jesus, we are very closely aligned. But when we talk about Western Christianity, it maybe looks very different from a Western worldview.
Karen Pascal: Absolutely. Absolutely. You speak about how there is this fit of shalom, and shalom is communal and it’s holistic and it’s tangible, and those seem to be the things that just really connect so perfectly with a native, indigenous spirituality. But it’s not a utopia out there. I think one of the things I found, as I’m reading, it was really kind of a resonating with what is here and now, in the beauty of what God has given, and that all of creation is such a declaration of the character of God and the nature of God.
Randy Woodley: Yeah. Well, you know, the scriptures were not written from a Western perspective. That’s the first thing that you have to realize. Now, how they’ve been sort of interpreted and translated over the years, and theologized is extremely Western-oriented. And so, we don’t come with open eyes. We come with lenses already put on. And those Western lenses tend to help us to do things like separate the material from the ethereal, what we call Platonic dualism, and to separate . . . the mind or the spirit, et cetera, is more important than the physical, the body. And no one wrote the scriptures from that perspective. And so, indigenous people have a little bit of advantage as to probably other peoples in the world and other indigenous peoples in the world, in that we’ve not been as affected as much by the Western worldview, by that dualism.
And so, it’s kind of like we get what they’re trying to say a little more. We understand narrative and story in a lot different way. And so, what was maybe intended by the writers of scripture, none of which were post-Enlightenment-bound thinkers, is a little more, maybe, closer to being what they wanted read. I don’t think anyone who wrote the scriptures ever intended them to be cut up and parsed and verses taken apart, and words taken apart. All of those tools are helpful, but if we look at those and don’t have a picture of the whole, at the same time, we miss the point, because these are 90% of scripture’s story, by the way. It’s narrative. And so, if you don’t understand story or narrative, and that’s not really a tool that Western folks really like, you know, it’s more of propositional thinking, and linear, and let me get these points down and you’ll remember them. But the truth is, is we actually remember the truth of story way more effectively than we do propositional truth. So, we’ve just got some problems we’ve got to overcome, and I think indigenous peoples are one of the sorts of peoples that we have to help Western folks to understand what’s really happening there, in the scriptures.
Karen Pascal: That’s one of the things I felt came through so clearly in your books, was just this sense of, in a way, this dualistic thinking has obviously caused loads of problems for all of us. Take me back and just kind of help me understand where you don’t think this is the case, in a kind of indigenous-rooted understanding of creation and of God, and help me understand that.
Randy Woodley: Yeah. Okay. So yeah, it’s as simple as – let’s take one of my favorite stories, which is Luke 15. Luke 15, 1 and 2 begins, and it says, “And the Pharisees and the scribes began to grumble and complain because Jesus sat with sinners and even ate with them.” And that’s the context. And then, it goes on, and we look at that from the Western point of view, and we go, “Okay, now he tells a story about sheep, and then he tells a story about a widow. And then he tells a story about these two sons.”
I grew up most of my life in church, hearing one of those parables taught, and people usually tried to avoid the one where the woman lost the coin. Most of time they can’t figure that out. But if we understand, of course, the background and we understand what’s going on in the whole story, there’s not three parables there. There’s one parable. And the one parable is all about helping them to see that, because the first story is about, really, the sort of triune test of shalom in the Old Testament was: How are you taking care of the most disenfranchised? How are you taking care of the widows, the orphans, and the foreign immigrants, right? And so, Jesus tells a story there about a shepherd, who at that time, as we know from background, were mostly Gentiles, then he tells the story. And of course, the Pharisees can’t relate to that. And then he tells a story about a woman who is a widow, and then he finally tells a story about someone who made themself an orphan.
And you know, we call it the Parable of the Prodigal Son. But the story is really about that older son, because if you go back to Luke 15, 1 and 2, about the Pharisees grumbling and complaining, et cetera, they’re sort of the older inheritance of God’s laws, et cetera. And now, they’re complaining about Jesus extending his hospitality or his shalom on an equal basis, showing he’s equal to them by eating with them. And then at the very end of the story is the older brother, and he’s outside the party. And Jesus, you know, kind of shows his love for the Pharisees here, because the father is entreating the older son to come in and join. But the story ends with him outside the party.
And the Pharisees, those particular Pharisees understood. They didn’t see themselves as a Gentile, they didn’t see themselves as a woman, you know, or a widow. And they certainly couldn’t have compassion on the lost son. But maybe, when he talks about the father who comes running, who’s waiting for him – which is, to me, one of the most beautiful parts of all of scripture is that the father’s waiting – and he sees him far off, and he runs to him. And the son says, “I don’t have anything to offer,” and he’s got this speech. But it says something remarkable. It says, the father doesn’t even hear him because he doesn’t care about that. All he cares about is that his son has returned. And so, I think the Pharisees then began to see themselves in those three stories, which is one story. That they can maybe be that father, they couldn’t relate to anyone else, but they can maybe be that father who accepts the son. And then, all of a sudden, Jesus says, “No, you’re the older brother who won’t join the party.” So, if you understand that as three separate parables rather than one big story that’s being told, you miss the point. So, that’s just one example of how to understand story that’s different than the sort of extractive mentality and parsing of each sort of verse and each little story. So, there’s a bigger picture that’s missing.
Karen Pascal: Clearly, as you recount that story, I’m reminded of Henri Nouwen’s book, The Return of The Prodigal Son, and how much it spoke. It told his story of being all those characters, including the father, including the one who ultimately welcomes back everyone into the circle.
I’m so deeply aware that, as I’ve been reading what you’ve been sharing, of the harmony way, that you have so much to give us right now, and the indigenous understanding, indigenous vision is something we need badly, deeply right now, more than ever. It’s like, here we are in the midst of where we find ourselves with so many hurtful realities, so many rights denied, so much stolen and taken and assumed, and how do we find our way back to a conversation, a deep conversation where we hear, and we don’t just assume we know. What can you speak to us?
Randy Woodley: Yeah. Well, you know, hospitality and generosity are two of our predominant values in Native North America. So, as indigenous people, this is something that we were taught from the beginning, and even anthropologists, as part of what we call original instructions: Don’t be greedy. Share what you have. Welcome people who are without. Make sure everybody has a place. Extend your family, you know, call them relatives. And so, this is just one of the many, many values that we have that are similar to those that Jesus taught, right? So, with those values, what has happened is that the dominant society has said, “No, we’re going to take advantage of that. We’re going to not only take what you offer, but we’re going to take what you don’t offer. And then we’re going to use it for ourselves.”
And to be greedy is probably one of the cardinal sins of native values, because people can’t survive when everybody else is trying to just get for them. And so, sharing, then, becomes an extremely important value. And I think to get that, to let loose of the materialism, to let loose of the: “It’s all mine and you can’t have it. And we’re not going to talk about reparations because it’s a zero-sum game: If you gain, then I lose.”
All those kinds of thinkings have got us into binds where we’re in right now. So, you people need to really hang around with native people, and see those values and see how they actually work together in native communities. Now, true, a lot of our communities are very affected by dysfunction now and what we call post-colonial stress disorder, and as a result, post-traumatic stress and all the rest.
But, like Nouwen says in The Wounded Healer, we’re all healing, and so we’ve just got to help each other along the way. So, I think the other thing that this does, the other healing that this does for people in the dominant culture, is that to learn from native people, basically, comes against any ideas of superiority, of white supremacy or anything like that, that says we deserve more than you and you deserve less. And so, all of a sudden, the people who we’ve been taught through our myths, our historical myths, are less than, are the ones that actually have something to offer us. And that puts the West in the position of humility. And humility is a great learning tool.
Karen Pascal: Absolutely.
Randy Woodley: I know, I know about it personally.
So, I think that just more and more exposure – attending native events, those kinds of things and watching native people at our best, you know? We’re the best usually at our cultural events and at our camps and things like this. And then trying to find out, well, what are the indigenous people around me trying to fight for? What are they doing? And it’s usually about protecting land and protecting resources, protecting the things that God has given us as gifts.
Karen Pascal: And protecting children. The reality is, we are wanting the best for the weakest, and that we share. I read in your book a line, which I thought was kind of a good one: “The ‘bad news’ of Jesus Christ requires people to forsake their own ethnic identity for the identity of the dominant culture. The bad news of Jesus Christ means trading in shared communal values for economic systems based on greed and the success of the individual over the group.” You’re right. We somehow assumed that that was what was expected, instead of recognizing the ethnic identity of everyone around us and valuing it and treasuring it, really treasuring it. And in that, restitution does play a very important part. We can’t step aside from that. We’ve got to go forward, but we go forward with love and healing, I think, in ways that celebrate that this creation has been given to us all. Can I ask you: You mentioned Henri. Has Henri Nouwen’s writing had an impact on you?
Randy Woodley: Yeah. When I was in seminary doing my master of divinity, not my doctoral work, but back – that would’ve been, let’s see, ’86 to ’89 – the standard reading is Wounded Healer, right? And I think that is one of the streams of influence that helped me to understand, you know, hey, we’ve all got baggage, you know. I’ve got it; don’t try to pretend like I don’t. And vulnerability is to me, our most authentic self. Some, I, understand our Creator God as the most vulnerable being who exists. And to me, when we can be vulnerable is when we’re most human, which is what we’re made to be. And being vulnerable means admitting, you know, and humbling ourselves and admitting, “Yeah, I have this stuff, but that doesn’t preclude me from doing something good in the world and in other people’s lives, either.” And so, just to be aware. And so, I think that that was another sort of stream that helped me to come to the place where I understood how sacred it is to be vulnerable in life.
Karen Pascal: I love one of the lines – and you’ll have to give it to me back correctly – but it’s really, you know, “Forgive us, Creator, for we’re just human beings.” What is that? I hear that; some of your stories tell me that. But in it is a kind of accepting of our humanity, which is that vulnerability that connects us all.
Randy Woodley: Yeah. And we’re all on this existential quest to find out who we are, right? That’s sort of what happens in societies as they get past the subsistence stage and get into the luxury living. Then it becomes a thing of, “Who am I?” And we are, you know, Western society’s very individualistic, maybe the most individualistic in the history of the world. And so, we’re all sort of looking for this thing to explain who we are. But it’s very simple. We were created to be human beings. We were not created to be God. So, to try and be sort of godlike is never going to happen. So, the best we can be is to be what we were created to be, which is vulnerable, honest, truthful, shalom-loving human beings. And in that is where we find our identity, in accepting our humanity, because that’s all Creator has ever expected, is that we just be human beings. Human beings can be wonderful, wonderful creatures, at our best, but we can also be terrible, terrible creatures, at our worst.
Karen Pascal: You know, I found there was some wonderful questions in your book, Indigenous Theology and the Western Worldview, and you tackled some really excellent questions. I’d love to just look at a few of those, because I think they’re questions that the audience that’s listening might have. And by the way, I want the audience that is listening to know, we’re just touching the surface with this. Please, please, please, I want you to get Randy’s books. I have enjoyed them so much, and I’m going back to reread them. They’ve been eye-opening and awakening for me in a very special way.
But let me just ask a few of these questions, because I think they’re good. I’ve heard the saying, “Christianity is a white religion,” suggesting why some indigenous people have rejected Christianity. What are your thoughts on this?
Randy Woodley: Yeah. Well, I don’t know how I answered those things.
Karen Pascal: Well, how do you answer them today?
Randy Woodley: Because I answered them live. And then I had a chance to write my answers a little clearer. So, as I like to say, I write a whole lot gooder than I talk. So, you know, in terms of white man’s religion, I think what people are saying when they say that is that. . . one of the worst representations of God, according to the Book of Job, and we’re in the final chapters of Job, and God is having this serious conversation with one of Job’s so-called friends, right? And he says, “You know, hey, bad news, because of everything that you did, you misrepresented me. You misrepresented my character. And so, if Job forgives you, then I’ll forgive you.”
And so, to me, the original sin, if you will, of Western white Europeans, was they misrepresented who God was and who God is. And so, it has earned them “the white man’s religion,” right? That title. But the good news is, God is the Creator, who is the God of everyone, not just white people. And so, learning how to rethink that, socially and politically and personally and in our relationships, is part of restoration, is part of admitting and humbling: “As white people, we aren’t better than anyone else. We’re just human like everyone else. And you have as much to offer to everything as we do.”
Karen Pascal: I love the reality that it’s spoken that everything in creation speaks of God. You know, that even if you don’t have the word or the witness of Jesus, all of creation speaks of the nature of God – all of it. And that’s something that’s a baseline that we all can move from. We can all start with.
Randy, how do you put together the Great Commission and colonization?
Randy Woodley: Well, Karen, I have news for you; I don’t know if it’s good news or not, but I have another book coming in the summer, and it’s called Mission and the Cultural Other: A Closer Look. And what I talk about there is basically a critique of the Western missionary movement. So, I’m an anthropologist, missiologist by profession and by training, and I’ve been a commissioned missionary, and on and on. So, this is a world I’m very familiar with. But when we get to the roots of what’s behind the Western missionary movement, we find out that it’s actually jampacked with notions of white supremacy. And so, what I try to do is give a fair critique of that in this book, and then talk about ways that we might do things differently.
And mission is . . . Samuel Escobar, who was my mission professor, had a great little book, a very small book, but it was really good. And it was called – I forget the title, but it was like, Mission from Everywhere to Everywhere. And the idea is that we are all learning from one another. We all have something to do. And I have these 10 points, if you will, which I call, Dr. Woodley’s 10 Missional Imperatives. Probably the most formal thing I’ve ever done, maybe, besides my PhD dissertation. But, in this book, I go through them and I say: There’s at least 10 things we have to remember when we go about doing missions.
And the first thing is that there’s nowhere that we can go where Jesus isn’t already present. And so, people have a hard time with that, right? Because they’ve been taught different theologies, that will limit God. But, you know, my understanding of God is not real limiting. And so, then the second thing – and I’m not going to go through all 10 – but the second thing is then to find out where Jesus is at work, and then to join in. And then third, to convert to the truths that are being taught in the spirit of God and the spirit of Jesus, because it’s our job to convert first. So, they go on. And basically, we finally get to the point of . . . traditionally, we might talk about something called conversion, but I believe in not just one conversion, but that the word salvation is actually much better, in most cases translated as healing. And so, that we are going through many healings and that we are constantly being healed. And so, we can help to heal each other, so it’s not from one to the other, but that we all have something to teach one another. And I think when we enter mission with that kind of an attitude, it looks very differently.
Karen Pascal: I look forward to reading your next book. We’ll be talking about that soon, I hope. That sounds good. Let me just close with this. It’s literally permeated all that you’ve said, but I’m just going to ask you to speak to the now of where we are and say how you feel indigenous theology can help us today.
Randy Woodley: Well, peace-making is one of the actual – and you know this in Canada, maybe a little better than we do in the U.S. There’s a different sort of history and mythology in Canada, slightly different. Not that things were perfect or better in a lot of ways, but they weren’t as violent, the transition that happened between indigenous people and Canadian people, as they were in the United States. And so, we have violence built in our system. It’s horrible. And with that comes this oppositional thinking, like, hey, you’re right, and you’re wrong. And, you know, one of the great things that we have to offer – in reality, not in movies, but in reality – is a long-standing tradition, thousands of years of peacemaking. And so, that’s one of the things that we really need to be able to learn and talk from one another.
We have to be able to sit down and make peace. And so, in order to do that, it takes some effort. And so, I know the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that you all have had in Canada is a move towards that. It’s not the final solution, but it is a move towards that. And so, we need to see a lot more of that going on. I think, as native people, we did war, but war was different, often. And then we’d much rather have peace than war. And so, in the times that we’re living in, I think the first thing that I do is sort of break down that Western worldview, so that we can see and we can listen differently than folks have in the past, and then expose themselves to other kinds of thinking, indigenous people and other peoples who think differently, and begin to learn the values that have held these societies together for so long. So, yeah, it takes a lot of exposure. Fortunately, in Canada, you all have a lot better chance of that, because native people, I think, are maybe 9% of the population, whereas in the United States we’re 0.005% or something like that. So, native people seem to have a louder voice, and that’s good. So, you know, I guess I would just urge people to listen.
Karen Pascal: You know, what’s interesting for me, and I’ll be honest: Obviously, one of the great shocks that we have lived through in Canada was the recognition of the discovery of unmarked graves of children that had gone to residential schools. And it brought to the fore what the residential schools had been, the horror of that. And for myself, what became apparent to me was it happened on my watch. I didn’t want to believe it, but it happened on my watch and in my ignorance. And the place to begin was to go back and say, “Okay, what don’t I know? What haven’t I cared enough to understand?”
And I would urge all who are listening, get back to history in a very real way, and read and understand what’s been going on. What is the grief that’s there? And understand how you can be part of reconciliation. We can all be part of it, if we want to enter in.
I really want to encourage you to read Randy’s books. I have gotten so much out of them, and I have cherished this experience to talk with you, Randy, and I’d like to talk on the next book, too, when it comes out. Please, please, by all means, send me a copy, and let’s talk again. Because I really do want to be part of this process of reconciliation. I think everyone who calls himself a Christ-follower, a Jesus-follower wants to meet and make peace together, and find true, true respect for one another in that environment.
Thank you so much for being with me today, Randy. I’ve loved it. And we just touched the surface with all the good, good, good stuff that we could find if we were to go in depth into your books. But you’ve given us a taste of the importance of our centering our faith on the Creator, the Creator of all things.
Randy Woodley: Thank you for the invitation, Karen.
Karen Pascal: It’s been a joy to talk with you. Thank you, Randy.
Randy Woodley: All right. Thanks so much.
Karen Pascal: Thank you for listening to today’s podcast. What an honor for me to spend time with Randy Woodley. Randy has a deep and profound grasp of God’s shalom and the harmony way, and I’m glad he shared it with us. I want to encourage all our listeners to seek more and go deeper, be part of the reconciliation we need to see happen. And I highly recommend Randy Woodley’s books, and you can find links to them in our show notes. You’ll find links to anything mentioned today, as well as book suggestions.
If you enjoyed today’s podcast, we would be so grateful if you would take time to give us a review or a thumbs-up, or pass us on to your friends and companions on the faith journey. Thanks for listening. Until next time.
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