In their recent book Decolonizing Evangelicalism, Rev. Dr. Randy Woodley and Bo Sanders consider postcolonial theology in light of the disturbing White American evangelical support of former president Donald Trump.1 Despite that harrowing topic, the book manages to emphasize reconstruction as much as the deconstruction of long-held ideologies. There’s a sense of shalomto the writing, a hopefulness that can be traced back to Woodley’s 2012 book Shalom and the Community of Creation: An Indigenous Vision.2 And Woodley, a missiologist, historian, poet, and activist who has been recognized as a Cherokee descendent by the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians, embodies that shalom. He is unafraid to share provocative opinions about the United States, evangelicalism, and colonialism, yet he does so with calm confidence and pastoral care.
Woodley is the founder of the Eloheh Indigenous Center for Earth Justice, where he and his wife, Edith, host individuals and groups who want to learn more about Indigenous practices. He is also a distinguished professor of faith and culture at Portland Seminary of George Fox University, and he has two forthcoming books: Becoming Rooted, a 100-day series of reflections on the sacredness of the earth, and Indigenous Theology and the Western Worldview, a “controversial” book Woodley says will probably get him “expelled” from evangelicalism. In this wide-ranging interview, Woodley reflects on the tumultuous events of 2020, the recent January 6 uprising at the US Capitol, the impact of short-term missions, and how the arts reveal story-as-truth.
The Other Journal (TOJ): What are some of the aspects of traditional American church theology and practice that need reimagining from a Native American perspective? And relatedly, what are some ways of reimagining following Jesus in our current cultural moment?
Randy Woodley (RW): I can only speak from my own perspective, of course, but the problem with Christianity, especially evangelical Christianity, is that evangelical Christians believe that their faith begins with them. They have no long history, no perspective, no anthropological discernment. Many Christians, particularly evangelical Christians, think that their reading of Scripture forms their theology and worldview. But it is actually their worldview and experience that determines how they read Scripture. None of us begins from where we are, right? There have been thousands of streams flowing into the place where we begin.
So the first thing to reimagine is how we look at ourselves in history and how we look at our worldview. Our worldview determines nearly everything. Most American Christians have inherited a Western worldview that, through thousands of years of Roman Catholicism and, less directly, Eastern Orthodoxy, has led them to interpret Scripture with a post-Enlightenment intense individualism. The people who wrote Scripture never wrote from that perspective—they wrote from a communal, even tribal perspective. They weren’t necessarily urbanites; they were often agrarian-type people. Even in the New Testament, when the story has transitioned to a more urban setting, it’s not set in areas that are fully settled.
Many Christians are bound by this post-Enlightenment binary idea that one thing’s right and one thing’s wrong, that there can’t be any tension, that we have to resolve any difference. This leads us to a Platonic dualism that says, for example, humans are above nature, men are above women, White people are above Black people, and on and on. But Jesus taught against hierarchy, not for hierarchy. This shows us that if we don’t get a hold of where we’re at, what has formed our thinking in America as a people, and how we look at Scripture, we’re always going to end up in the wrong place. That has to be reimagined.
Once you go down the Platonic dualist road, you begin to invest more in the ethereal than the material. Walter Brueggemann says that land is the central theme of Scripture, but what Americans have done as part of the West’s colonial project is taken land and created it as an ethereal place, an abstract.3 When Americans look at the land, they universalize it, as if to say, “God has given us all land” rather than considering specific land. And in this way, they have justified the actions against Indigenous people in particular, because land has become abstract rather than particular. But from Indigenous viewpoints, specific land is what’s important.
TOJ: Like Land with a capital L.
RW: Yes, exactly. Indigenous people’s experience is much like that of the people of ancient Israel. There are things that happen, covenants that are made, and miracles that happen in particular places. There are stories and songs about particular lands. To put a blank slate over the land is just ridiculous. We don’t see anything like that in Scripture. In fact, Scripture says things like “cursed be anyone who moves a neighbor’s boundary marker” (Deut. 27:17 NRSV).
Our covenant with our Creator takes place in a particular land. And who is that Creator? Well, Scripture says over and over again that it’s Jesus. But that’s another thing that’s ripe for reimagining—Western people have a hard time with that, especially Western people who hold a theology that is crucicentric or built only upon what Jesus did on the cross. That’s a warped theology that doesn’t understand what Scripture is actually saying. Scripture is talking about Jesus as Creator; about the incarnation; about Jesus’s life, ministry, teachings, and interactions with people; about the cross and the resurrection. But many Christians today speak of their relationship with Jesus now, their relationship with Spirit now. We’ve got that wacked. We’ve got a wack theology because we start from a really bad place. So we have to restart in order to reimagine, and how we restart is by taking on a worldview that is closer to the people who wrote the Scriptures and passed the stories down.
Story is another thing that needs reimagining from an Indigenous perspective. We read the Scriptures as story. Our first thought is not “what’s true” and “what’s not true.” That doesn’t really matter. What matters is the truth of the story, not whether the story is true. If you’re a conservative in the Western world, you may feel that you have to defend the truth of Scripture, that the events depicted actually happened. And if you’re a liberal in the Western world, you have to prove that those events did not happen. But both the conservatives and liberals are asking the wrong questions. The right question is, What’s true in the story? When the writer wrote the story, what were the truths they were trying to get across?
TOJ: What I hear you saying is that all of those things are connected, that land and Christology and our lack of understanding of history and even the very definitions of those things—they all need to be, like you said, restarted, not just reimagined. If we view it like a worldview—I have my glasses, and you have your glasses—then what we need is to change our lenses. But how do we even know that we are seeing with blurred vision? What kick-starts people to start the reimagination process?
RW: A different experience. To begin reimagining, we have to have a different experience than what we’ve been having. I wrote a book a long time ago called Living in Color, and in that book, I argued that we have to hear from different voices, from people who have different experiences than our own, people who come at it from a different place, people who have different-colored glasses.4
This should shape us and how we look at history. There’s this one-sided American myth that has played out, but now we’re beginning to hear from all the other voices, and people are becoming more aware. They are hearing other people’s stories, and it shakes them. Some of us have this reaction, like “No, I have to defend the American myth and my theology and this civil religion,” and all the rest. But some of us find ourselves asking, “While I’m melted down to my core, where do I restart?” That’s where we have to get.
TOJ: That sounds almost like a death of our old worldview and a resurrection.
RW: Absolutely. I like to go back to the Bible, because people like the Bible, right? And there’s this word repentance, which is one that the church has created an abstract reality about. But repent simply means to turn in the opposite direction. So if I’m entangled in a racist Western individualistic worldview that has propagated all these racist individualistic systems, I need to disentangle myself from those things, to turn in the opposite direction. And now, I need to entangle myself in everything that goes in that opposite direction.
That is tough for most White Americans because taking such a turn means releasing control, and control is part of that Western worldview—Westerners don’t know how to act if they can’t be in control. Well, when I pastored a Native church for seven years in Nevada, one of our mantras was that if we’re in control, God’s not. We have to allow what I call creative chaos to take place in our lives. That means living a life of humility and not surety. It means that we’re always learning.
TOJ: There’s some sense of turning in the opposite direction with the global pandemic we’re experiencing right now. There are various other movements among people of color, LGBTQ individuals, and women in which people are basically saying that this framework, this mindset, these systems of oppression that have systemically and historically led to people becoming marginalized—we’re done with that. We’re not going to take that anymore. And there’s the sense with these movements, and with the global pandemic as well, that the system of understanding in which a White person is in control of everything is starting to get dismantled without White people necessarily wanting it to be.
RW: Right, and we have a great example of what that looks like with apartheid in South Africa. When the very small minority of White folks have control, and the majority of Black folks have no voice, we know where it will lead. We already have a system built on that apartheid. Now, the question is, Are White folks going to wrestle to hold on to power, let go of power, or empower those who have been kept out of those systems of power?
TOJ: To get really concrete with that, how should we think about a post-2020, post-Trump United States, particularly after the events of January 6? That seemed like a moment in which a small-but-significant collective of people who, I think, represent a larger worldview, expressed their dislike for losing control through violence and conspiracy and falsehood. Where do we go from that, when people are so entrenched within mindsets that they’re willing to overthrow governments or attempt to do so? They’ve gone so far down that rabbit hole, it almost seems like they can’t get unstuck. What resources do we turn to?
RW: There are a couple of aspects to this. Some of the people who participated in the events at the Capitol were there for reasons of power and hatred, and I believe we need to strictly prosecute those individuals for treason. But many of the people who were at the Capitol were there because they were lied to, right? They’ve been deliberately lied to by Fox News and Newsmax and all sorts of right-wing media. I’m not saying that the other side is unbiased, but there’s a difference between biased news and outright lies and propaganda. Fox News has been used for all these years—especially during the Trump era—as a propaganda machine. Thus, it behooves all pastors and leaders to ask their followers to stop watching stuff like that and to offer more neutral and reliable news sources.
But more drastically, I think we need something like deprogramming. I have relatives who are under a sort of spell with this stuff, and when a person is under that kind of influence, you don’t battle a lie with the truth. You have to tell a better story. You have to tell a better narrative. You have to tell them a truer narrative that makes sense to them. I think that that is the obligation of the church and leaders: to begin to tell a better story. That story is not the abstract, nonpolitical, milquetoast White version that evangelicalism has embraced; it’s a story that must be actively involved in every area of our lives.
Part of the dualism that we discussed earlier is that people believe that thinking the right thing is actually doing the right thing, as if what happens in the mind is more important than what someone actually does. But history has never proven that to be true. Some of the worst atrocities committed in the name of religion and Christianity were committed by people who thought that they thought correctly, by people who believed a sort of national myth. And so we’re back to learning from a diversity of other people so that we can hear a different story—and then people can say, “Oh! I didn’t know that happened. I didn’t know this was going on.”
TOJ: What are the things that can move us from orthodoxy to orthopraxy? What are the things that the church can or should be doing in terms of sociopolitical engagement?
RW: Those systems of oppression, if they’re not working for the good of everybody, they need to be changed. And it’s the people who have been underrepresented who need to have the biggest voice in this. That means that the church, especially the White church, has to become what I call a “junior partner.” That’s difficult. It requires a lot of humility because Americans in general are used to being large and in charge. It means changing things like short-term missions; it means getting the right people elected to their city councils or as mayors and senators and representatives.
But instead of focusing on people who actually represent their communities and who are giving a different perspective, the church and Christian educational institutions have often done this through tokenism. Administrators hire a bunch of people of color as adjuncts rather than as full-time or tenure-track professors. Employers hire folks and then say, “Well, your voice is good in this area but not in general areas.” Or perhaps they intentionally hire a person of color who believes just like they do, so that they’re comfortable and not forced to change. These are the tricks of Whiteness that keep White folks in power while making it look like they’re embracing difference and diversity.
TOJ: I’m curious about how to actually go about listening to marginalized voices, elevating people into higher roles, and reversing some of those systems that have been so oppressive. As an example, I can recall a short-term mission trip to a Native reservation in Arizona with my predominantly White church in which we had our actions questioned. We spent a week or two there, and at the end or our trip, the pastor of the local Native congregation said something like this: “You guys did some good stuff here and helped us clean up some things, but really, another group of White people is going to come in next week. Is anything really going to change? You can leave and pat yourselves on the back. But is this really what the gospel is supposed to be? Is this really what the body of Christ is supposed to look like?”
I didn’t have an answer at the time. I was pretty taken aback because I had thought we were doing the right thing. It made me realize that we had not first built trust between our church and the Native American community. We had not acknowledged the long history of unequal relationships. How can that long history be acknowledged and the long road of repentance followed?
RW: In terms of short-term missions, there’s this long history of the church and the government trying to make Indigenous people dependent upon them so that they have no agency and White folks have all the agency. How do you approach something like that?
My wife and I work in poor places, among people who have been disenfranchised and communities of color. We’ve worked with White communities but predominantly Native communities. Years ago, I ran something called the Anadarko Christian Center in a very poor neighborhood, and we had mission groups visit us all the time. Later, I was the pastor of a Native church, and we also had mission groups all the time. And the truth is that many of these communities do need a lot of help, and White people have the means to bring that help. Many people argue that we should stop all short-term missions, but in my experience that means that a lot of people aren’t going to be helped who need help.
So how do we do it? We began to experiment, and it took us a few years to get this down, but I think we eventually sort of got it right in my last year there. We would usually have a dozen or so groups that would say they wanted to come over the summer to help us, and before they arrived that year, I took charge and made them our junior partner. I told them exactly what projects we needed help with, and I told them that we would work on those projects together so that they could explore our humanness and understand that we were human beings, not just people or objects who needed help. Then I told them that we would lead their devotionals and Bible studies and that we would continue the relationship after their short-term mission. I said that they might, for instance, invite some of us to speak at their church later that year.
We ended up going from ten or twelve groups that summer down to two who were willing to partake in that. That tells you a lot right there. One of the groups that came was made up largely of young artists. We also had a lot of artists in our congregation, so we worked together to make a large mural. It depicted two Lake Tahoe Native groups who usually had trouble with each other, the Washoe Tribe and the Paiute Tribe, meeting together under a pine nut tree, which is a symbol for abundance. They worked on that thing together, and it was beautiful when it was completed.
We also had the mission group go into our neighborhoods, our communities, and help our elders. We decided that that would be their main job while they were there: they would be an outreach from our congregation to our neighborhood. They cut wood for elders for the coming winter. They moved boxes. They straightened up yards and mowed. And we suggested that because we knew what would happen with the elders: we knew they would say to the visiting groups, “Well come on in, let me feed you, and let me tell you a story.” And we knew that as they listened, they would start hearing the elders’ perspectives. I think that was always the best gift to the people who visited. That felt really good. And it felt really empowering both to them and to us. It felt like mutual empowerment.
And so I think there’s a way to do short-term missions, but for such trips, you really need cultural guides to guide the visiting community through that process, to get those things established. The White person going in to the situation can’t understand and receive it because the differences are so glaring, so there has to be some people who can serve as a bridge, people who are able to communicate in both languages, so to speak. The White folks then walk away humbled at what they’ve received and feeling good about themselves, but in a different way. I think that can be done; we just have to change the paradigm.
TOJ: What you’re describing is so beautiful and tangible. It’s moving. You’ve talked and written about shalom, this sense of harmony and peace that is not inactivity but that instead has a kind of generativity. The image you’re describing there with that story seems like a little pocket of shalom.
RW: During the nineteenth- and mid-twentieth centuries, our church was actually the church that White people sent Native students to for a residential Indian boarding school. It was like a chamber of horrors. I encourage anyone who doesn’t know that story to go online and read about it.5 A lot of our Native elders and others who went through the boarding school would tell me things like, “Pastor, you know, I read my Bible, and I pray, but I will never set foot inside that church because it just brings back too much trauma.” And so we built ourselves an arbor with a tent around it, and we ended up holding most of our services outside. We had a real nice church that the missionaries built, but most of our time was spent outside. And some of those people did come around the fire. I understood that trauma, and we wanted to let those people know that they could still be with us and together. As a church, we turned outside toward the community.
To again reference the Old Testament scholar Brueggemann, he develops what I think is probably the best model of shalom in his book Peace. I call it the Shalom/Sabbath/Jubilee construct. It’s a construct that’s present throughout most of Scripture, and Brueggemann says that what most churches need to do is simply take their budget, walk around their own neighborhoods, see where shalom has been broken, and then put all their money and their effort and their time into restoring shalom in the community.6 That’s kind of what we did there.
TOJ: Finally, what is giving you hope today? Where do you see signs of health and growth and shalom happening in our present?
RW: Yeah, 2020 has been so discouraging, right? Nobody’s really been able to do a whole lot, and yet there’s been a whole lot done to us. It can feel disempowering. But the way we communicate now is so different. I’m basically an outsider to the culture of social media. It’s not my world, whereas for my children, especially the younger ones, that’s all they know and all they do. That’s how their theology comes about. That’s how their political views come about. That’s how their social understandings come about. And they even speak a bit of a different language than I do online.
We have a major cultural shift occurring right now. And what I hear from millennials, and Gen Xers to a lesser degree, is that they don’t want the paradigm that was handed down to them. Now, the last people who said that were the baby boomers—that’s my generation; I’m at the end of the baby-boomer generation—and our generation was the advent of the Jesus movement, Earth Day, natural food, hippies and everything else. I’m hoping for a total revolution. It’s going to look a lot different. We have to have the politics and the social movements to match this.
I’m really excited. I have a five-month cohort of fifteen colearners right now, and most of them are millennials. They don’t want that old paradigm anymore. But they’re also looking for a way to stay true to spirituality and Jesus, and they’re wondering whether that can even be done. They give me hope. My students surprise me. It used to be, thirteen years ago, when I started teaching here at Portland Seminary, I would get a whole lot of pushback, especially from White males. Sometimes it got me in trouble. Nowadays, I kind of have to make some room for that pushback. They are ready to do something different rather than staying in the same traditions and doing the same things and keeping the same theological positions. That’s the thing that’s given me hope—millennials are really giving me a lot of hope.
TOJ: Speaking as a millennial, thanks for thinking positively of us.
RW: Yeah, I’m excited to see what’s going to happen. I didn’t think I would ever live to see this day. I’m giddy.7
- TOJ generally follows AP style in capitalizing Black and lowercasing white, but in this interview, we follow the guidance of RW who prefers to capitalize Black, White, Indigenous, and Native.
- See Woodley and Sanders, Decolonizing Evangelicalism: An 11:59 p.m. Conversation (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2020); and Woodley, Shalom and the Community of Creation: An Indigenous Vision (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2012).
- See Brueggemann, The Land: Place as Gift, Promise, and Challenge in Biblical Faith (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2002).
- See Woodley, Living in Color: Embracing God’s Passion for Ethnic Diversity (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2010).
- See, for example, “Education,” National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition, https://boardingschoolhealing.org/education/.
- See Brueggemann, Peace (St. Louis, MO: Chalice, 2001).
- At the end of the interview, Woodley offered the following four books for helping people reimagine the common White American paradigm:
- Nell Irvin Painter, The History of White People (New York, NY: W. W. Norton, 2010).
- Robert A. Williams Jr., Savage Anxieties: The Invention of Western Civilization (New York, NY: St. Martin’s, 2012).
- Kelly Brown Douglas, Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2015).
- John C. Mohawk, Utopian Legacies: A History of Conquest and Oppression in the Western World (Santa Fe, NM: Clear Light, 1999).