Steven Charleston and Elaine A. Robinson, eds. Coming Full Circle: Constructing Native Christian Theology.

Melanie Kampen

The Conrad Grebel Review 35, no. 1 (Winter 2017)

Steven Charleston and Elaine A. Robinson, eds. Coming Full Circle: Constructing Native Christian Theology. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2015.

In 1973 Vine Deloria published a book at the intersection of the experiences of Indigenous Peoples in the United States and Christian religion/theology with the provocative title God is Red. Now considered a classic, this work influenced many Native American theologians and helped draw attention to their scholarship in broader academic and ministerial circles. Steven Charleston and Elaine Robinson’s collection of essays on Native Christian Theology seeks to spark the same kind of energy among Native and non-Native Christians both in academic and ministerial contexts, primarily in the United States.

The editors explicitly state that this volume is not to be considered a summation of Native Christian theology but a starting point for a plethora of Native Christian theologies, from a variety of contexts and experiences of Indigenous peoples across the US. This objective is achieved in their selection of contributions from a spectrum of theological contexts, including scholars, professors, ministers in different denominations, social workers, government workers, and community activists. The contributors come from diverse contexts, which in turn allows for appealing to a wider readership and for a deeper level of relatability.

This notion of relatability—and indeed relationality—runs throughout the pages of this collection. It is difficult to choose one or two authors to focus on, when their function as a whole is arguably most insightful. Individually, they take up theological topics such as sin, salvation, creation, revelation, reconciliation, epistemology, ecclesiology, theological anthropology, mission, and liturgy. Each author draws on their experience as a Native Christian in their context(s), biblical scripture, reason, and traditions (both western-Christian and traditions of their Indigenous nations). Some authors put forward a pan-Indigenous Christian theology, while others emphasize the specificity of their context, language, and nation. At times, the former approach leads to an oversimplification of concepts and contexts, one of the book’s weaknesses, while the latter provides a rich, challenging engagement across Indigenous and European Christian terrain.

The primary strength of this collection is its aim to foster relationships, conversation, theologizing, worshiping, and liberative work across Christian communities. Many authors note the complexity of navigating traditional Indigenous spiritualities and European Christian norms, and they seek to carve out space for their multifaceted identities as Native and Christian, walking an often precarious road of faith between communal and identity norms. This would be especially difficult in the Canadian context, in a society that heralds multiculturalism while supporting the ongoing colonization and oppression of Indigenous Peoples and lands.

The church is caught in the midst of these complexities and finds itself in a unique position to respond, if it takes the opportunity. I recommend this collection of essays to churches wanting to interrogate the histories of their theological, ecclesial, and socio-cultural norms, as well as wanting to engage the constructive and liberative theologies that Native Christians are imagining and drawing life from in order to restore health and well-being in their communities and relationships with all peoples.

Mennonite theology in Canada and the US has emphasized a commitment to nonviolence and peacemaking, valuing community and relationships. Indeed, European Mennonites living in North America have often considered themselves exceptional to western Christianity, distinguishing themselves from their Catholic and Protestant neighbors. However, it would be astute for Mennonite churches and academic institutions to consider their own theological norms and how these norms have contributed to a history of colonization in North America. As one of my best teachers always said: Theologies are not neutral to questions of power. This is evident in the Mennonite operation of Indian Residential Schools in Canada and missionary boarding schools in the US. Even after the activity of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Canada, many Mennonites still do not know about their church’s involvement in the harm and intergenerational trauma, violent assimilation, and genocide inflicted upon Indigenous Peoples. An honest and vulnerable engagement with the essays in this collection, and with the challenges they pose to Mennonite theological and ethical norms, would be a small step in the direction of truth and reconciliation for Mennonite churches and academic institutions.

Melanie Kampen, Ph.D. Student, Emmanuel College, Toronto School of Theology, Toronto, Ontario