Rev Margaret Mullin comes from a mixed First Natiions and Irish heritage. She is an ordained Presbyterian minister and a recognized First Nations elder who has had the traditions passed on to her from the elders who have gone before. There are eight eagle feathers on her staff to represent the eight years she has spent learning from the elders. The spirit name that she was given is Thundering Eagle Woman – a name that fits her very well indeed.
It is as if in her two different worlds have come together in one beautiful spirit.
Today she spoke to us about the long and difficult journey she has had to reconcile the different traditions that are her heritage. Today she participates in almost all forms of native spirituality and sees no contradiction to the teachings of the Christian tradition as she has received and absorbed it.
I tend to think that she is on the right track. There is no question that the Christian church has done a lot of damage and been a party to a lot of damage that has been done to native communities. This makes it very difficult indeed for many First Nations people to see the Christian gospel as a good thing. It would be wrong for us to insist that in order to accept it they must leave behind spiritual practices of their ancestors that might very well contribute to their healing and strong walk with God.
But, even more importantly, we need to let go of our arrogant notion that our way of dealing with and living out our relationship with Jesus and with the Creator is the only way. For thousands of years, people lived out their spirituality on the lands where we now live. And through centuries of practice, trial and error (and, yes, I’m sure there were errors but they learned from them), they found practices that worked in this land. Are we to ignore all the wisdom that they gained at great cost now that we live here too?
Yes, we have a revelation of God through Jesus Christ that is unique and that is precious to us. We must not abandon that. But an openness to other traditions can, if done wisely, deepen our understanding of the revelation that we received. This thought came to me as Margaret spoke of one native spirituality practice that she will not participate in: the Sun Dance. The Sun Dance is a ritual in which participants cut and pierce themselves for the healing or atonement of others. Margaret doesn’t participate (though she is respectful of the participation of others) because of something that lies at the heart of our faith: the belief that only one needs to suffer and bleed for the healing and atonement of others and that that work has already been accomplished. As Christians we simply have no need for a Sun Dance like ritual – just rituals that remind us of the sacrifice already made.
But even if we don’t need it, the ongoing practice of a ritual like the Sun Dance can provide us with an continuing illustration of the deep meaning of what Jesus has accomplished for us. How they do it can still teach us.
Rev. Mullin spoke about how she has been trying to persuade the Doctrine Committee of the Presbyterian Church in Canada to tackle the question of how Christian Faith and Native Spirituality can live peacefully and respectfully side by side in a mutually beneficial way. They have not accepted the challenge. I certainly think that it would be time well spent (better spent than some other projects Doctrine has taken on). And yet at the same time, I have no doubt that the discussion of such a report on the floor of General Assembly would include many a cringe-worthy moment. We still have a long way to go as a church, I am afraid.
I hope I can do my part in helping our church on that journey.