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Fall 2014 · Vol. 43 No. 2 · pp. 180–191 

Christian Mission and First Nations Peoples

Cornelius Buller

1 My purpose in this paper is to help clear the path for a robust mutual engagement of Christian faith across differences that have often divided peoples—specifically First Nations and those of European descent. A troubling reality sets the context for the reflections that follow. The now deceased First Nations theologian, leader, teacher, and writer, Richard Twiss, may serve as an example. Twiss experienced at times vicious attacks from various evangelical and Pentecostal individuals and institutions. 2 How could it be that a solidly evangelical and charismatic evangelist with an international reputation becomes black-listed in his own country by people who apparently share deeply held faith convictions? What mad fear or jealousy or whatever it is would drive Christians to attempt to destroy the integrity of Richard Twiss’s character and work?

Christians within the “normative” churches and theological traditions have been particularly critical and unwelcoming of First Nations perspectives and expressions of faith.

I believe part of the answer may be found in a form of Christian cultural captivity. On the one hand, the dominant culture thoroughly shapes minds and imaginations, including the spiritual-religious elements. This is true in {181} spite of conflict between people of faith and the dominant culture. Though believers may at times be at odds with their surrounding culture, they are nevertheless fundamentally shaped by it. Furthermore, it may be that this conflict hardens the resolve of Christian people to fight for their beliefs and traditions. On the other hand, many people have deep reservations toward anything that differs from their own convictions and commitments. They also may have difficulty detecting shared convictions and practices when expressed in unique or different ways. People may be incapable of translating across the variety of culturally shaped expressions. Determined to hold onto truth in the face of cultural pressures, they recoil even more strongly from embracing strange ways of expressing tightly held Truth. 3 My goal, specifically, is to help erode the barriers and suspicions through the following argument, presented in a series of stories, that hopefully drives us to embrace and support each other across traditional divisions in regard to Aboriginal expressions of mission and faith.


My initial introduction to Christian mission and Indigenous peoples came when I was a young university student and spent a summer with Mennonite Central Committee Canada’s Native Ministries programs. Then director, Menno Wiebe, provided me with a short bibliography, some language learning tools, and some of his personal insights through the orientation he provided. But my real introduction came later, in a remote fly-in community, when I lived with an Indigenous family on a reserve. The first stanza from one of Menno’s poems is a fitting opening to the following reflections:

rapidly/with bold european strides/I waded through the quiet stream where Indian boys dip water/for their grandmothers

stirred/by my own intrusion/I sat above the water/for a decade/barely long enough/for the ripples to settle

then/looking deep/I saw my image/with fruitful surprise 4

These lines portray a stark contrast between cultures in their relationship to the earth and to each other. The second and third stanzas respectively focus on coming to rest, engaging in careful observation, and coming at last to insight. The first lines depict a boldness bordering on cynical arrogance. The turn in demeanor (second stanza) is followed by inner growth and transformation. Noteworthy are the references to the stream, the boys, and the grandmothers. For Western culture, these are atypical sources of wisdom and life-altering inspiration. The author invites us to join him in slowing down, in allowing nature and traditional ways to inform and {182} correct us. The poem encourages a humbler attitude, a reflective and listening approach to the cross-cultural encounter. In another poem Wiebe takes us further when he celebrates the grace that comes to him in and through his Aboriginal interlocutor: “thank god/you’re here/to show me/how to face a bewildered world.” 5

My life has been marked by the conflict between the material positivism of modernist sensibilities and supernatural encounters. I was raised in a believing and praying family and extended family, in the context of a Low German and German Mennonite community, kindergarten, and Mennonite Brethren and Mennonite churches. In contrast, the curriculum set by Manitoba’s Department of Education was reductively materialist and English. Excepting Cold War fears, the culture itself, in the 1950s through the mid-1960s, was strongly shaped by a naïve and cheerfully progressivist materialism. The Mennonite community certainly did not escape these dominating influences. Its leaders, preachers, and theologians inured me to supernaturalist tendencies. There was no place in my little world for a God who spoke and a God who acted. Worship and obedience were understood and enacted as human activities, responses to the Scriptures conceived as God’s ancient law, proclaimed many ages past through human instruments. The nature of God’s past engagement in the world and with individual persons was left buried beyond the historical gulf that lay between moderns and ancients. The word “love” became infused with harsh disciplines—“Crawl up the stairs on your knees, ye sinners!” 6 Worship and sacrament were adrift, dislodged from their embeddedness in the impractical ecstasy of communion with the Living and Holy One. 7 And so Nietzsche would require Zarathustra to declare that such believers knew how to love God only in crucifying humans. 8 For without the actual presence of God taking worshippers ecstatically into his love and filling them with love for each other and the entire creation, only law remained to the theologians and preachers. We might ask, How much of twentieth-century theology transcended dead dogma and ethics? And, how did it come so far that Christians in the West virtually elbowed the Holy Spirit out of the Trinity? 9

There was no room, furthermore, for difference. Expressions of worship, friendship, creativity, beauty, and so forth, were judged from established, well-blinkered perspectives. When change came in the latter decades of that century, worship wars were inevitable. Overcoming conformity even in the most trivial matters has not been easy. The longing for renewal and change struggled against prejudices and pre-determined reactions as the horizon shifted. 10 Astute theologians who otherwise seemed to display insight and wisdom, also proved to be mired in the church’s modernist predilections for the ordered and sometimes melancholy rhythms of an era being eclipsed. Exuberant worshippers coupled with unmanageable and {183} unpredictable manifestations of Divine presence and activity threatened old ordered patterns. Fortunately, the narrow-minded material positivism of modernity had also begun to unravel. It became possible for theology to consider again the missing Third Person of the Trinity. The Holy Spirit had been ignored in modern theology, teaching, and preaching, as well as in the life of the church and its institutions. This was as true for Mennonites as it had become even for Pentecostals and Catholics.

What has been true (generally) within the majority of churches of the United States and Canada also has been true of their responses to First Nations beliefs and practices: differences are signs of demons or, minimally, of syncretism, heresy, or apostasy. Christian policy, at times formally but at least informally, has been in line with such slogans as “Kill the Indian and save the man” or “Don’t worry about being Indian, just be like us.” 11

It is vitally important that Christians in America identify the impact of modern culture on Christian theology and practice. We must consider how deeply our responses are shaped by the traditions within which we have been raised and within which we live. Western culture is powerfully shaped by Judaism and Christianity. But it is also profoundly marked by secularization and rebellion against these traditions. 12 Nietzsche says:

What did we do when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither are we going now? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there any up or down left? Are we not straying as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is not night and more night coming on all the while? 13

Nietzsche is pointing out that modern west-European culture, no longer connected to faith in God, has become uprooted. Essentially atheistic and hence without moral compass, this culture has even nurtured unbelief, skepticism, cynicism, and apathy in Christians. Theologians now re-interpret Scripture to suit the skeptical West. Miracles either didn’t happen or they happened only in the Apostolic era. Many Christians consider it most appropriate to express their faith in a subdued fashion, and in rational and moral terms. And as culture drives us to conform to its prejudices so does the church drive us toward conformity within its ranks.

These characteristics of modern Western culture and church lead to specific types of hostility toward First Nations peoples, particularly toward their spiritual sensibilities and faith expressions. Modernity erodes Christian love and unity generally. Christians within the “normative” churches and theological traditions have been particularly critical and unwelcoming of First Nations’ expressions of faith. In the following section I will draw {184} on several biblical stories with the goal of contributing toward an embrace of the wider variety of faith expressions that are culturally indigenous to First Nations followers of Jesus.


In Matthew 17, we read that Jesus took Peter, James, and John up a high mountain. The disciples are dumbfounded when Jesus’s face suddenly begins to shine and his clothes turn dazzling white. They are even more astonished when Moses and Elijah appear beside Jesus and start talking with him. Peter offers to build three dwellings or booths in this place, one each for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. Suddenly a voice from a bright cloud says, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” (v. 5) The disciples fall to the ground in dread. Jesus reaches down and touches them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.”

Peter’s impulse to build shrines is understandable. He has seen a profound truth. He has seen a stunning vision of the glory of Jesus. Moses and Elijah have stood in front of him. He has heard the Father speak. And what is more, John and James have seen and heard these things too. They all felt the divine power as they fell to the ground. But even more amazing, Jesus was still with them! The possibilities would have seemed staggering to the disciples. They could rule over the entire Jewish religion. They could subdue and reform the Scribes, Sadducees, Pharisees, Zealots, and every other group.

The brothers James and John are not reported to have said anything at this point. But notions of power were likely already simmering in their imaginations, where they would boil over within days. Soon their mother would press Jesus: “Declare that these two sons of mine will sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom” (Matt 20:21 NRSV, passim).

In the midst of this experience of transcendent glory Peter jumps at the opportunity to build on and around the Truth which had been dramatically manifested. He was ready to establish something lasting, something rooted in his ancient Judaic tradition, something that so powerfully harkened back to Moses and Elijah as to bring them back from the grave. This new revelation of the Truth—Jesus the Son of Man—would be set up as the arbiter of true religion, of the Jewish state as it ought to be. We might ask, What would have become of such a concept if enacted? At worst, Peter might have established a new tradition within Judaism—alongside the Scribes, Sadducees, and Pharisees. It certainly would have been an effective diversion from Jesus’s own agenda.

Peter wants to memorialize and capture the theophanic event, perhaps make it the root event of a renewed and reformed Judaism. Maybe the {185} booths he proposed to build would serve to strengthen the spiritual link to ancient Judaism, to the Mosaic law, and specifically to the Feast of Booths (Lev 23). The presence of Moses may have suggested such a conception. Peter’s response was in tune with certain ancient Jewish traditions. But given Jesus’s response to Peter, this response and direction was unacceptable. On another occasion Jesus used the metaphor of new wineskins for new wine (Matt 9:17). The old forms and traditions could not contain the powerful new message he brought. Jesus was warding off the danger of simply identifying him with the already known. He is more than and other than anything and everything within the tradition. To tie him too closely to that tradition, no matter how true and revered it was, would be to miss Jesus, to miss God in Jesus.

Why would Jesus quench Peter’s train of thought and ready action? Clearly, according to Jesus, Peter’s spontaneous outburst of worship required redirecting. The vision was too human, perhaps tainted with too much desire to gain power. The thinking certainly did not escape the cultural-religious limitations of the Judaism of the disciples. The disciples’ truth was not the Truth.

In our own time, what do we do with the truth we have come to believe and hold onto and give witness to? Have we had a vision of Jesus, of who he truly is? Have we heard the Father? Do we know the reality of the saints before us who live glorified in the presence of God the Father and of Jesus the Christ? Has the Truth taken hold of us as it took hold of these three disciples of Jesus? Does our faith amount to that of Peter, James and John, and their mother? If this truth has become the defining reality of our lives, the why of our lives, here are some follow-up questions: How do we or how ought we to express this reality? What are we doing in response to and with the truth? These are broad questions. At the moment I want to narrow the focus of the question very sharply: Are there ways in which we are tempted to take hold of our moments of revelation or insight the way misdirected Peter thought to take hold of that moment? And, in the context of the question of the relationship of the majority churches and Christians with First Nations peoples, are we misappropriating the revelation we have received and using it badly in these relationships? 15 The question is not only about the impact on others, but about the appropriateness of our own responses to God in Jesus Christ.

I imagine that the more powerful our experience of God’s presence—of Jesus already present in the glory of his connection with the Father—the stronger our temptation to take hold of and run like Peter with our insights. And the more likely it will be that we’ll run over others in the process. Peter’s response is illegitimate because it would limit the glory of God displayed through Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. Perhaps Peter’s suggestion {186} was even a move toward controlling God’s presence and the revelation of God’s glory. Its impact would elevate one type of Judaism and denigrate all its other forms, as well as all other cultures. In the end it would ossify and elevate a very particular revelatory moment while denying or at least belittling the legitimacy and significance of any future or other revelation and its impact on those to whom it was directed. We must ask ourselves how our responses to the glory of God stand alongside Peter’s response. Do some of our expressions of faith illegitimately harm or inhibit the responses of others—specifically, First Nations peoples—to Jesus Christ?

Instructively, the New Testament records other powerful encounters with Jesus. I believe the Samaritan woman’s meeting with Jesus (John 4) offers us further insight into Jesus’s reasons for denying the legitimacy of Peter’s plans. Hers too is a powerful and transformative encounter with the love and mercy of God in Jesus. Early in their conversation, her response to Jesus reflects her commitment to her own religious traditions. However, as she listens, her heart is opened and she becomes a worshipper in Spirit and in Truth. She “gets it” and steps beyond the limitations of her tradition to become the kind of worshipper God seeks. We ought also to take note of her immediate response to getting a glimpse of who Jesus is. Like the disciples who drop their nets and abandon their fishing boats, she—perhaps impulsively and at least spontaneously—leaves her water jug and, like the disciples, goes fishing for people. The impact of her response is that the entire village comes to encounter Jesus. In rather shocking counterpoint to Jesus’s reaction to his closest disciples at his transfiguration, he approves of how the Samaritan woman responds. She shows an utter lack of interest in religious trappings and simply focuses on Jesus as Messiah.

The shocking story of the sinful woman who washed Jesus’s feet with tears, kisses, and perfume relates another powerful encounter (Luke 7; John’s Gospel identifies her as Mary). This woman had experienced the transformative grace, power, and love of God in Jesus the Messiah. She had been freed from a life caught in sin—likely, prostitution. Her response was a radical act of worship completely out of keeping with traditional Judaism. It was in fact a radical break with tradition. The intimacy of the moment is arresting. Observers are shocked while Jesus silently receives her worshipful attention. In her spontaneous act of wholehearted worship she throws herself wholly into the moment. It seems that she employs all the elements of her former life, redirecting them in this humble act of worshipful submission. Her kisses, hair, and perfume would have been elements of the seductions she once practiced. Now they are offered to God. She offers herself completely to Jesus and expresses the offer fully apropos her former existence. She is herself transformed in this act. But is this not all too closely linked to sexual immorality? So sensual, so intimate, so physical, {187} so potentially seductive. She worships him using the instruments of sin. How can this be worship, worship fully accepted by Jesus? Why this act and not Peter’s plans?

Certainly Judas Iscariot does not think such an extravagant and non-traditional form of worship ought to be accepted (John 12). Judas uses a highly approved form of obedience—giving to the poor—to denigrate Mary’s act. But perhaps Judas sees with blinders and interprets from within his own perversions. In his mind caring for the poor is good, but this extravagant, unorthodox, dangerous, and spontaneous expression is not. Anything outside his field of vision cannot be a legitimate response to Jesus. We also know that Judas was in the habit of pilfering from the poor fund. He could have benefitted financially from the sale of the perfume. His focus is not so much on Jesus as on himself. Jesus quotes from Deuteronomy: “You will always have the poor with you.” 16 It seems that Jesus at least partially affirms Judas in his concern for the poor. However, Jesus also points beyond mere obedience to the tradition when he affirms Mary’s response. Not long after this event Judas reached a profound decision. He no longer saw Jesus as worth following or learning from. Perhaps Jesus had fallen outside the range of Judas’s perception of God’s nature and what are appropriate forms of worship.

Mary, like the Samaritan woman, focused all her attention on Jesus and responded fully, positively, and spontaneously to Jesus. These two women understood. Peter did not yet understand. His imagination remained lodged in ancient forms and practices. His approach warranted quite a different response from Jesus than did the actions of the women. I believe that Peter wished to embrace Jesus wholeheartedly, but he was not able yet to find his way beyond the bounds of his religious traditions. Of course, Peter, James, and John also eventually come to worship Jesus in Spirit and Truth. Referring back to this mountaintop experience, John wrote: “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). And Peter wrote in his second letter:

For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty. For he received honor and glory from God the Father when that voice was conveyed to him by the Majestic Glory, saying, “This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven, while we were with him on the holy mountain. (2 Pet 1:16–18) {188}

These few encounters with the Living God point us in the direction of freely given and wholehearted responses to Jesus, responses that spring forth from the integrity of the individual. They point not to a specific tradition, but to the importance of truly encountering Jesus and the transformational grace and glory of God in Jesus. They warn us against setting up and using a religious tradition to rule over and judge people in their various, genuine responses to Jesus the Christ. 17 They invite us to examine our own practices and to give up the use of forms and laws in ways that would hinder us and others from worshipping in Spirit and in Truth.


The Canadian and American Christian reflex vis-à-vis First Nations peoples has been to force them to conform to cultural expressions of faith that are essentially foreign to them. This approach to mission and discipleship ignores its own cultural captivity. It fails to understand how much it is influenced by a particularly atheistic and materialistic culture. It fails to recognize how insidious the impact of our culture’s arrogant positivism has been. It is not self-critical enough, presuming that Jesus’s rebukes of varying forms of religious traditionalism do not apply to itself. It also fails to account for the warm welcome Jesus affords to persons and responses quite outside the constraints of religious traditions. It seems to me that these biblical situations are relevant to this specific contemporary situation. A biblically informed humility must replace a culturally inspired arrogance.

The first necessary step toward any positive cross-cultural encounter is to believe there is something of value in that other culture, and to desire to see, learn, and understand it. 18 An even deeper anticipation would be to believe that God has not abandoned any culture. The Apostle Paul’s sermon, as recounted in Acts 17, is revealing:

“The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us. For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we too are his offspring.’ ” (Acts 17:24–28)

God desires that people everywhere, in every culture, find their way to him and, in order to facilitate this, God is not far from anyone—within {189} their culture. The implication is clearly that God can be found from within every culture. This point is underscored by the declaration that God does not desire anyone to perish (2 Pet 3:9).

Cross-cultural Christian mission entails encountering others and anticipating new relationships marked by the life-inspiring love and power of God. In the Other I will find a sister, a brother, a mother, a father, a friend. And I will be these toward them. Mission needs a robust confidence in the power of God, which comes in gentle grace so rich and wide and full that when welcomed it overwhelms every obstacle as it unfailingly achieves its purpose of birthing new and eternal life. Simultaneously, God creates a community unified in God and rich in the diversity of cultures, languages, and experiences given by God. 19 However, “when the heart is flooded with racial, cultural, ideological or denominational strife, there is little room in the heart to hold love, honor, respect and admiration for those who are different from us; we certainly find it difficult to recognize and admit our need for them.” 20 It is imperative that Christians lay aside everything that wars against the love and unifying power of the Holy Spirit. 21

Therefore, when someone is called to work with First Nations people, it is in part because of their need for the grace they will receive through the people to whom they are called. Or, to say it more clearly and directly, God is calling those specific people with whom an individual ends up in relationship. God’s call on them, on the Other, is in part God inviting them to minister to the minister, to the missionary. They meet at the Sermon on the Mount, they meet at the cross, they meet in the risen Jesus Christ, they meet at Pentecost, and on and on they meet in all the places of grace where God in Christ and through the power of the Spirit invades their lives with grace upon grace—assuming of course they are indeed open to God. And specifically, to be open to God is to continue in humility to offer one’s very self to God, to the Word and the Spirit for transformation, to receive love and, as needed, to be corrected and redirected, to again be baptized into—to conform to—his death and to be raised up with Christ, to again and again be renewed and filled with his life, ever more profoundly, deeply, and pervasively. This is a task too large for any one culture, too large even for an era. Thus Menno Wiebe is rightly grateful for the strangers, the ones whose history and culture, sight and insight—whose expression of truth—are different from his own. It is wise to approach such encounters with gratitude, because all are so desperately in need of grace. And though God reaches out to all, all are mired in the limitations of their culture and their denomination. Mission is to come to the Other anticipating a new meeting with God, one that would be impossible within the strictures of one’s own culture. {190}


  1. This article benefits from the privilege of many conversations and experiences working with my First Nations colleagues who are part of the learning and teaching community of the North American Institute for Indigenous Theological Studies (NAIITS). Having said that, the views are my own and I do not claim to represent that community.
  2. See Richard Twiss, One Church Many Tribes: Following Jesus the Way God Made You (Ventura, CA: Regal, 2000) as well as his numerous contributions to the Journal of the NAIITS. Twiss continued to be hopeful and constructive despite these attacks.
  3. Other explanations also are possible. It can be difficult to hold onto deeply held truth and yet be open to learn from others. Our culture suffers from rationalistic and scientific imperialism. Hence it is difficult to be free of “dogmatic intolerance.” G. B. Madison, Understanding: A Phenomenological-Pragmatic Analysis, Contributions in Philosophy 19 (Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1982), 21f.
  4. Menno Wiebe, “Rapidly,” Algonquian Pulse: Selected Poems (self-published, no date given).
  5. Wiebe, “Magnificent indian.”
  6. Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, II.4: The Priests, in The Portable Nietzsche, trans. Walter Kaufman (New York: Penguin, 1977), 203.
  7. Josef Pieper, Leisure: The Basis of Culture, trans. Alexander Dru (New York: Random House, 1963) 59–64.
  8. Nietzsche, 204.
  9. I believe the significance of this marginalization of the Holy Spirit in modern Christianity is deeply and directly related to the hostility between varieties of Christians. See, for example, Ephesians 4:4–6 which indicates the connection of the Holy Spirit with unity. Also see Wolfhart Pannenberg, “The Church and the Eschatological Kingdom,” in Spirit, Faith, and Church (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1970), 110ff.
  10. I have in mind Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, 2nd ed., trans. Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall (New York: Crossroad, 1992).
  11. See the works of Twiss and also Randy Woodley, Living in Color: Embracing God`s Passion for Diversity (Grand Rapids, MI: Chosen Books, 2001), as well as the contributions of these theologians to the Journal of the NAIITS.
  12. Hans Blumenberg has argued that the modern age is characterized by rejection of Christianity. See Blumenberg, The Legitimacy of the Modern Age, trans. Robert M. Wallace (Cambridge: MIT, 1985), 27–32, 72. Blumenberg specifically argues against Karl Löwith, Meaning in History (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1949).
  13. Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, in The Portable Nietzsche, 125.
  14. This section is based significantly on a sermon I delivered at the Winnipeg Centre Vineyard Christian Fellowship (WCV), May 5, 2014. That community and that of Floodgates Worship Centre are both stimulating multi-cultural faith environments. Nathan Rieger, one of the pastors of WCV, {191} helped inspire this section with some thoughts about the Matthew 17 transfiguration pericope. My thinking directed our conversation to Nietzsche’s critiques of the church and of modernity. As I continued to reflect on Matthew 17 the other encounters with Jesus came to mind.
  15. See Wolfhart Pannenberg, Grundfragen Systematischer Theologie, Band 1 (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1967), 158.
  16. The full verse is: “Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land’ ” (Deut 15:11).
  17. See for example John 5:39f. and Matthew 23:13–15.
  18. Woodley, 95.
  19. Woodley, 17ff, 146ff.
  20. Twiss, One Church Many Tribes, 30.
  21. See for example Galatians 5:17; 1 Peter 2:11; James 4:1.
Cornelius Buller is a graduate of Mennonite Brethren Bible College in Winnipeg and has a PhD from McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. He is one of the founders of the North American Institute for Indigenous Theological Studies (NAIITS). In addition to serving with Mennonite Central Committee Native Ministries during two summer breaks from university studies, he has worked with youth in Winnipeg’s North End, a community dominated by Aboriginal peoples. He also served on The Salvation Army’s Native Ministries Committee.

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