The Church and Indigenous Peoples in the Americas

In Between Reconciliation and Decolonization

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Michel Andraos
Studies in World Catholicism
  • Eugene, OR: 
    Cascade Books
    , September
     241 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The Church and Indigenous Peoples in the Americas is a thoughtfully curated and deeply challenging read. Its themes of deep listening, dialogue, and accompaniment are quite appropriate to the current era of the #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter movements. While groundwork for the book was laid by the Vatican II documents Nostra aetate, Dignita humanae, and Ad gentes in 1965, it shares a deep kinship with Pope Francis’ 2020 apostolic exhortation Querida Amazonia. Here, Francis exhorts the church not merely to take the side of the oppressed against the forces of ecological destruction and homogenizing globalization at work in the Amazon, but also to engage in the kind of intercultural encounter with indigenous peoples that has the potential to transform and enrich the church. Dialogue based upon the ideals of respect, mutuality and equality, Francis indicates, must lead to the development of a church with an Amazonian face.

It is just such dialogue that is described and modeled in this book, a volume of essays which grew out of a 2016 conference sponsored by the Center for World Catholicism and Intercultural Theology at DePaul University and Catholic Theological Union. The contributors are indigenous and non-indigenous theologians, pastoral leaders, and scholars (largely Roman Catholic) who have lived and worked in indigenous communities from southern Chile to northern Canada. The central question of both the conference and the book is whether and how Christian theology and pastoral ministries can contribute to the decolonization of the cultural, governmental, legal, and ecclesial institutions of the Americas as well as to the reconciliation of the first peoples of the Americas and the churches which themselves frequently functioned (and often still function) as arms of the colonial state.

The editor readily acknowledges that “there is not yet theoretical clarity in the churches about what a decolonial theology and pastoral ministry would look like” (5), hence the book’s subtitle “In Between Reconciliation and Decolonization.” It remains to be seen whether Christian churches  can reframe doctrine and adapt ecclesiastical structures to overcome their historical growth within the framework of western European values and ideals and become truly inculturated in indigenous worldviews. But the witness of many of the indigenous authors suggests that it may be possible.

According to the contributors, the work of reconciliation and decolonization begins with the willingness of beneficiaries of colonialism to listen deeply to indigenous voices. Such voices must be prioritized, at least initially, because we must not underestimate the psychological damage caused over the last five hundred years, during which entire communities were dispossessed of their homelands and experienced compulsory migrations, cognitive imperialism, persistent racism, and forced assimilation—both cultural and religious. These processes have led to unrecognized cultural impoverishment and a sense of false superiority within dominant society and to the psychological, personal, and communal disfunctions like poverty, alcoholism, prevalent suicide rates, and domestic violence within indigenous cultures, for which dominant culture mistakenly holds indigenous communities responsible.

It is no wonder that indigenous peoples approach opportunities for conversation with mistrust. Therefore, intercultural and religious dialogue must begin with the kind of interpersonal connections that build trust and, only over time, enable mutually transformative conversations. It was therefore important for the participants in the conference—and for readers of the book—to encounter the voices of the indigenous representatives of each geographical region prior to the reflections of the non-indigenous persons who had lived and ministered in those communities.

The contributions in this volume reflect, model, and teach the tools of respectful dialogue. They also acknowledge that this dialogue is difficult for all participants. Those who have inherited the benefits of colonialism must be willing to give up power and privilege, let go of assumptions about the superiority of our own culture, and approach the conversation with humility and a willingness to be transformed. We must recognize our complicity and forgive ourselves for participation in structures of oppression. Indigenous people must find ways to overcome internalized racism, and recover indigenous knowledge and lost traditions. They must give voice to grief and deep loss, and find ways to move forward in confidence and with hope.

That the church is theologically and ethically obligated to engage in this difficult work, accompany the indigenous on their paths, and advocate for the them and their renewal is a central conviction of the volume. But is a dialogue that is taking place within the context of the pastoral ministries of the church and that aims at the development of an autochthonous indigenous church truly decolonizing? Is it truly decolonizing to reframe Christian concepts within an indigenous language and spiritual framework? The effort to “take positive steps toward the full incorporation of Indigenous gifts in the body of Christ” (1) seems still to imply both the veracity and superiority of Christian religious frameworks.

On the other hand, colonialism happened. We cannot turn back the clock and do things differently to achieve an altered, better outcome. One might also ask whether a Christian theology that sheds its historical inculturation in western philosophical language and concept is still Christian. Some readers and ecclesial authorities might argue that it is not.

Another challenge derives from the realization that while the essays in this book touch upon issues of justice for the indigenous, proposals for concrete action are still unformed. There are hints that justice will require broader social transformation, redistribution of land, and reparations. Dialogue alone is insufficient. Real solidary with the indigenous, as with women, as with any minority community, effects change, and change is hard.

This book calls upon the culturally privileged to know the history, concede their privilege, and find the patience and humility to support indigenous and minority communities as they seek to forge authentic identities and futures in a truly deracialized multicultural society. The multilayered challenges posed by this book are both potentially contested and potentially transformative of individuals, communities, and societies.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Shawn Krahmer is Associate Dean, Curriculum and Assessment in the College of Arts and Sciences and Associate Professor at Saint Joseph's University.

Date of Review: 
August 31, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Michel Andraos is Associate Professor of Intercultural Theology and Ministry at Catholic Theological Union at Chicago.


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