I was honored to hear Lenore Three Stars, Oglala Lakota leader and advocate for Indigenous causes.

She was one of the featured speakers at the 2022 Nevertheless She Preached conference in Austin, Texas, this week.

Three Stars was born on Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. She earned her bachelor’s degree at Fort Lewis in Colorado and a master’s degree from Portland Seminary at George Fox University in Oregon.

During the conference, Three Stars offered a presentation entitled, “Rooted in Creation, Dreaming for the Next Seven Generations.” She addressed the Indigenous understanding of creation as various narratives giving rise to a wholeness of humanity.

She observed that the gospel seems to have undergone an evolution from a “tribal Jewish rabbi” to a “white colonial authoritarian.” She went further, comparing the difference between a “theology of wholeness” and a “theology of assimilation.”

Three Stars’ comparison of the two different theological constructs provided context for something I’ve struggled with for some time now.

When did the emphasis of Jesus’ gospel move from transformation to conversion?

Transformation seems to emphasize personal and social reform without abandoning the cultural nuances of the human experience.

Conversion seems to require an abandonment of human experience so that a personal and social speciation can be achieved. Speciation is the process of an ancestral species dividing into two different species.

As a citizen of the Muscogee nation, whose ancestors experienced cultural speciation through colonial assimilation, I question the historical understanding of “conversion” leading to the Christian faith.

From a careful reading of the Gospels, Jesus challenged people to change their attitudes and ethics. He never asked them to negate their cultural identity.

I know it might be hard to hear, but Jesus was not a follower of the religion that bears his name. To put it another way, Jesus was not a Christian. He was a Jew questioning the status quo of power and authority.

This understanding of following Jesus continued in the theology of Paul, as he would not ask Gentiles to undergo the Jewish practice of circumcision. For Paul, what mattered most was what was in a person’s heart.

Even when he was “evangelizing” Greece, he spoke of the “unknown” god they worshiped. He did not ask the Greeks to abandon the cultural identities that made them Greek. He just challenged them to follow Jesus’ teachings.

When he did flirt with denying cultural identities, he did so not as a requirement but as something to consider. He chose not to eat food offered to idols and advised others to follow him, while acknowledging that his request was not a requirement but a personal choice.

Herein lies the challenge to “conversion” theology. To advocate for “conversion” theology, one must ask: From what is one being converted? To what is one being converted? Who gets to decide what conversion means? What is the “proper” process?

These questions have actually divided Christians for two millennia. “Conversion” theology separates people because power and control is at its center. People fight to gain control of faith to exert power over others.

In the end, “conversion” theology concentrates more on conformity than transformation. Conversion is a controlling measure exerted by those in power upon those they believe to be beneath their social status.

What if Jesus’ followers emphasized a theology of “wholeness” instead of conversion? What if we concentrated on helping people discover their true humanity as God created them? What if we emphasized the ethic of the common good for all people rather than an ethic of exceptionalism and exclusivity?

A theology of wholeness seeks to bring healing to individuals and communities, engaging sin and injustices in an attempt to offer grace, mercy, love, justice and hope.

Jesus taught and practiced a theology of wholeness. He spoke to people honestly and earnestly about their situations, offering a new way that led to wholeness. He did not use condemning rhetoric but compassionate words.

How often have people felt the sting of preachers and other Christians as they attempt to convert souls? Wholeness theology meets and affirms people where they are and invites them to journey towards a better life.

Jesus did not ask people to abandon their personhood or culture in order to follow him. He invited them to follow him as they were stepping towards a better way to be themselves. In other words, they are stepping towards a journey leading them to become more human.

Indigenous people do not have to abandon their culture and identity to follow Jesus.

LGBTQ+ people do not have to repent from their personhood in order to call themselves followers of Jesus.

African Americans and Hispanics should never give in to the demand to acquiesce to white supremacy and systemic racism to practice their faith.

Women should never surrender to the patriarchy in order to voice their conscience and fight for equality.

No person should ever be coerced into faith but should arrive through their own initiative or by accepting an invitation for dialogue.

Coercive religion is based upon a “theology of assimilation.” One must accept a new cultural identity separate from – and often placed above – following Jesus.

An example of this can be demonstrated through the history of Indigenous boarding schools across North America. Following the “Pratt Doctrine” (“We must kill the Indian to save the man”), Christians used federal funds to force Indigenous children to assimilate to their Christian and cultural identity.

That assimilation combined Christian conversion and white culture. To put it another way, to become Christian meant to become American and to be American meant being Christian. This, in my opinion, is heresy – one that we now refer to as Christian nationalism.

Merging Christian and American identity perverts both our spiritual and civil citizenship. Christians need to advocate for a better way to reflect upon, process and practice faith.

We need to remember the words of Jesus, “Do not conform to the pattern of this world [or human interpretations of faith] but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is — God’s good, pleasing and perfect will” (Romans 12:2).

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