Opting Out of Interfaith Dialogue as Resistance for the Right to Exist

When it comes to interfaith dialogue and cooperation, it seems that not all faiths are created equal. My community includes a Umatilla/Nez Perce/Sauk & Fox indigenous storyteller and an Ifa priestess. When I talk about interfaith work with them, they resist my use of the word faith.

Faith is a dominant word, they tell me. They point out that, for example, in our country, one can be licensed as a Jewish or Christian or Buddhist chaplain, but not an Ifa chaplain. From their perspective, “people of faith” are people who follow religions with a history of oppression and domination of indigenous people, culture and spirituality. They remind me that until the Religious Freedom Act of 1978, there were no legal protections for indigenous religious traditions in the United States. I remember what I learned in graduate school about African-American Christianity, about the ways that African cultural-spiritual traditions went underground in the embrace of narrative liberations within the Bible during slavery.

When I ask my friends to name their spiritual practices, the words they use include:

ritual, ceremony, meditation, dance, journaling, movement, smudge, prayer, spell casting, journeying, listening/talking to ancestors, circlework, dreams, pow-wow, feast, blessing

The words I associate with “faith”: worship, liturgy, litany, communion, fellowship, confession are not words that they use. In fact, there is active resistance to using words that “seem Christian.”

From 2009 to 2012, I co-facilitated an interfaith women’s spirituality gathering in Vancouver, Washington called “Wisdom’s Feast.” Many of the women who attended described themselves as “seekers” who grew up in a Jewish or Christian household, experienced suffering or struggle with the religion of their family, and intentionally set it aside as adults to seek something more meaningful and authentic.

Although we called our gathering “interfaith,” I was the only person holding energy for a Christian path in that gathering, and I actively refrained from using the name God or Jesus in my workshop and prayers. Instead, I brought stories and images of Sophia/Hokmah, the Divine Feminine face of Wisdom, to our gathering. As a participant, and especially as one of the leaders, I wanted the women present to feel safe, to be welcomed into a space where they could explore spirituality without fear.

But my need to hold back Jesus troubled me, and I’ve continued to reflect on this experience as I think about how to pursue interfaith gatherings within my community. When the words we use are intentionally different, how do we find a common language?

It isn’t that we have different words for the same thing, so that our task is one of simple translation. (I’ve observed other scholars attempt to place their labels onto indigenous practices, comparing passing the peace pipe to communion, for example, and have seen the violence inherent in renaming something against its intention.)

For example, “ritual” is used instead of “worship” because the central task of a ritual is connection to elements of energy and/or ancestors, rather than praise of a deity. So while it might in superficial ways look similar (i.e. we sit in a circle, gather for about an hour, sing, hear a lesson), our gatherings are in many ways deeply, intentionally different.

For my friends in indigenous African and Native American traditions, spiritual practice in their own terms is a form of resistance to the European colonization, slavery and genocide that attacked and destroyed their culture and language. Many old words have been lost, and the new ones that are being reclaimed do not/will not fit into a framework of “faith,” not even for the sake of “interfaith dialogue,” for fear of once again becoming invisible and being erased.

I understand (I think) the depth of this resistance, and why the Parliament of World Religions has a separate Indigenous Peoples’ Program to appeal to indigenous attendees. It is not only the fact of historical oppression between colonizing Christianity and indigenous people but the ongoing reality, as the struggle at Oak Flat demonstrates.

For people seeking liberation from ever-present systems of oppression and domination, something like dialogue — an exchange of words and ideas between peers — is not the goal (or perhaps, not the first one). Sovereignty is the goal, liberation is the goal, and so the tasks of coming together in interfaith community are not the ones I studied under “interfaith dialogue” in my graduate program.

Indigenous peoples are struggling in this country for the right to practice their religion (for without the sacred sites, the rituals cannot take place). African-American peoples are struggling for liberation from racism that burns their churches, places of worship and community identity. Thus the task is not co-existence or tolerance but justice, liberty, the same freedoms that we Christians claim and celebrate in our political narratives about our country’s history.

Until you ensure our right to exist, my friends tell me, we have nothing to add to the conversation. I see their point.


*Image created by the author

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2 thoughts on “Opting Out of Interfaith Dialogue as Resistance for the Right to Exist

  1. This is fascinating. I think it speaks to the relative privilege of “established” faiths, even those like Judaism that are quite small, that I hadn’t thought much about how language of faith might seem oppressive to people who practice indigenous religions. One question I’m left with is whether it is appropriate to attempt to bring leaders of these many religions into traditional interfaith dialogue, considering that to do so might take energy away from more pressing matters. I would love to hear their voices but would love far more for these religions to have the support necessary to practice fully and safely and with respect. Like you, I see their point. Thank you for educating me.

    1. Excellent post Liz!

      Emily, thank you for raising your concern. Inviting practitioners and leaders of Indigenous spiritual traditions to participate in Interfaith dialogue & movements will add strength to discussions and problem solving. The fear of “taking away energy from more pressing matters” is part of the problem. What and whose “matters” deserve more attention? When certain people are the only ones present at the table for discussion, we miss learning how the issue affects different communities. We benefit more when a variety of people participate in coming up with solutions.

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