by George Jennings
Even a cursory investigation of the Peyote Cult reveals that much of its attraction stems from identification with the Navajo’s worldview and cultural values, rather than those of the West’s theoretical, theological abstractions.
In recent years missionaries pastors in Navajoland (Southwestern U.S.) have expressed growing concern about some Navajo Christians who have abandoned their churches to join the Peyote Cult, or the Native American Church. Other Indians, of course, have been joining, too, seeking to return to what they see as authentic Indian religion.
Probably one of the most widely known defections was that of the Sioux Indian author, Vine Deloria, Jr., whose books include Custer Died For Your Sins and God is Red. The latter of these is an articulate disclaimer of his earlier Christianity. Deloria argues that authentic American Indian religion offers a superior understanding of God over that of Western, institutionalized Christianity.
In the case of the Navajos turning to the Peyote Cult, many no doubt do so for the same reason: non-Westerners rejecting institutionalized Christianity. They see churches trying to force Indian converts to conform to Western cultural forms in such things as buildings, vestments, and liturgies. The religious meanings and functions of these things often are incomprehensible to the Indians with their own cultural worldview.
Unfortunately, however, rarely do we trace Navajo defections to cultural reasons. We prefer to say that the apostle Paul talked about defectors, too (1 Tim. 1:19-20), so we should not be surprised by satanic ploys to confuse the Indians and cause them to deny the faith by desertion.
Obviously, Satan has many schemes by which he tries to defeat the church, but that does not excuse our fatalism, or our failure to look for the way Satan works through cultural features. Rather, these defections should force us to probe the cultural elements and events and then to provide the edification our converts need.
Decades ago Eugene Nida advised us that a "good missionary is a good anthropologist." By this he meant that unless the missionary conies to grips with the basic understanding of the people’s cosmology and values, his work will be severely limited. As far as the Navajo defectors are concerned, there is no doubt in my mind that they lacked a proper biblical understanding and appropriate application of Christianity within their culture.
Even a cursory investigation of the Peyote Cult reveals that much of its attraction stems from identification with the Navajo’s worldview and cultural values, rather than those of the West’s theoretical, theological abstractions. For example, what would the apostle Paul’s discussion of the fruit of the Holy Spirit mean in Navajo culture, especially when the Navajo is confronted by social and economic injustice, Western church rituals, abstract theologizing, and thoughtless models of Christian behavior that neutralize the apostle’s teaching?
Paul himself cast his teachings within the worldview and mentality of, first, the mind and ethos of Greek culture of the Eastern Mediterranean and then, later, in that of the Roman mind that prevailed in the Western Mediterranean. We’ve all heard about how logical his epistle to the Romans is. Why? Because it is much closer culturally to our Western mentality.
If we accept the premise that our ministries must be culturally sensitive and relevant, that still leaves us with the question of the attraction of the Peyote Cultâ€”its beliefs and ritualsâ€”for the Navajos. First, a bit of background.
For centuries, Indians in Mexico knew about and used the indigenous peyote cactus bud first for pain relief, not for religious experiences. But primitive medicine usually is linked with religious beliefs. In the 19th century, peyotism, the Peyote Way, entered the United States. It spread rapidly as it developed into a syncretism of Indian animism Christian teachings.
To understand the cult’s appeal, we must note the drug’s effects upon users. Its use is basic to religious ritual and it is now legally recognized by the courts. The peyote bud, when ingested, causes hallucinations with halos around objects, peripheral after-images, intensified color spectrums, sharp contrasts in object outlines, distortion of object and symmetry, and constant change of vision content.
At the same time, with their culture shattered, or at least weakened, Indians responded to Indian visionaries who prophesied a restoration of the destroyed "Golden Age" as they had known it before the white man came. The visionary Ghost Dance looked to the day when the whites would disappear, the buffalo would return, and Indian culture would be restored. However, the massacre at Wounded Knee, S.D., in 1890 destroyed that prophetic fantasy.
Unlike other reactionary movements, peyotism did not seek to rid the Indians of the invading whites. Rather, the Peyote Way developed from Indian beliefs and rituals combined with certain Christian beliefs. The new peyote ritual contained five basic elements that appeals to Indians. Although it varied in practice across the country, it: (1) includes traditional Indian religious symbols; (2) is partly magical and includes visions; (3) encourages the pan-Indian feeling of unity; (4) incorporates belief in salvation and ethical behavior; (5) incorporates elements of Christianity.
The Indian finds in peyote a means of religious expression by which he can identify himself and obtain a degree of security when faced with the bewildering manifestations of the white man’s culture. Peyotism helps him to resolve the conflict between cultures through a blending of the Indians’ belief in magical power by "good medicine," curing, and visionary ideas with moral behavior.
Indians weave into this new religion some biblical ideas of right and wrong. Their amalgam of beliefs includes religious ceremonies that accompany hospitality, consolation, welfare, security, and healingâ€”all basic needs for mental health much weakened or lost in their disrupted social system and cultural values.
Perhaps the most influential prophet of peyotism was John Wilson, a mixed blood Indian of Delaware, Caddo, and French ancestry. He secluded himself and consumed peyote until â€œPeyote took pity in him" and gave him "revelations."
"Wilson returned from seclusion and began to conduct ceremonies as he had learned" them during his revelation. He insisted that he was not a prophet and that he was not sent by God to fulfill a mission, but that he was shown by Peyote how to conduct religious worship in the Peyote meetings in order to cure disease, heal injury, purge the body from effects of sin, and to the Indians to reach the regions "above"… heaven, where they would see Peyote and the Creator. (Edward F. Anderson, Peyote: The Divine Cactus. U. of Arizona Press, 1985, pp. 36-37.)
He insisted that "the Bible was intended for the white man who had been guilty of the crucifixion of Christ, and that the Indian who had not been a party to the deed was exempt from guilt on this score and that, therefore, the Indian was to receive his religious influences directly and in person from God through the Peyote Spirit, whereas Christ was sent for this mission to the white man."
His moral instructions included abstinence from liquor, restrain in sexual matters, matrimonial fidelity, and prohibitions against angry retorts, falsehoods, vindictiveness, vengeance, and fighting. He also condemned witchcraft and malevolent conjuring.
These teachings in the Native American Church are the ethics of the Peyote Road. To purge oneself of sins is the function of peyote. The logic is that the greater the amount of sin or impurity to be cleansed, the greater the amount of peyote that has to be consumed.
Because syncretism threatens orthodox Christianity, missionaries reject peyotism. Doctrinally, the major fault is that Indians must accept the peyote way for true morality and thus it is their sole road to heaven. Syncretism also appears when the Indian deity is equated with the Christian God; Peyote, or the Peyote Spirit, with Jesus; and the messenger spirits (usually in the form of birds) with the dove that appeared at Jesus’ baptism.
Facing these objections from missionaries and pastorsâ€”and also from the government because of drug use lawsâ€”the Navajos argue that peyotism is simply another variant of Christianity. Peyote, they say, is the sacrament, rather than the bread and the wine.
Most peyotists strongly affirm that the Christian elements are an important part of their religion. They claim that God sent Jesus to the white people but they killed him. Now all that is left for the whites is the cross. Then God sent Peyote to the Indians but they have not killed him. He is still with them in the form of a plant.
To them the Holy Spirit, like Peyote, is a spiritual force, so the white man and the Indian worship the same God, but with different spirit-forces. It is significant for the Navajos is that their spirit-force is represented by a plant. "Peyote is the Indians’ Christ," they say. "You white people needed a man to show you the way, but we Indians have always been friends with the plants and have understood them. So to us Peyote came, and not to the whites."
Some peyotists strongly affirm that worship the "true living God, who is Jesus Christ." They firmly believe that they are in direct communication with Jesus and/or God through Peyote: ""The white man goes into a church and talks about Jesus, but the Indian goes into a tepee and talks to Jesus."
Our objective must be, first, to understand peyotism and then, second, to clarify our evangelical Christianity to the Navajos. We must grasp both the causes of the appeal of peyotism and the confusion that drives many Indians to it. They have been overwhelmed by the white man’s conduct as they see the contradictions between professed Christianity and unbiblical ethical behavior toward the Indians.
Beyond teaching biblical doctrine, it is imperative that we live the truth as well, especially in trying to meet the physical needs of the Navajos. They have been far more receptive to cultural change than some of the other Indians. But their openness poses a serious problem, because the Anglo models they see fall into two general categories, either secularism and materialism, or institutionalized Christianity.
Within Christianity they see a bewildering spectrum of denominational and "faith," or parachurch, groups. They often are overwhelmed when they observe our competition and our diverse doctrines, especially when we claim to represent the true universal Christ among them.
We must take our theological abstractions and demonstrate what we believe in their cultural context. If missionaries fail to appreciate their context, or think it’s not necessary to understand it to be an effective witness, then we are doomed to misunderstanding for years to come.
Some people point to changes in the Navajo community. It’s true that they have adopted different dress and housing. They may live in towns like Window Rock or Kayenta. Their children take buses to public schools. Navajo men have traded their horses and wagons for pickup trucks. However, the Navajo’s basic personality and value system have not changed. Changes in worldview and values come over many years and when they do come they almost always take on meanings and functions quite different from the origin of such changes.
My conclusion is based on Paul’s example of becoming "all things to all men." As Navajos turn to peyotism, missionaries and pastors should ponder how Paul’s experience relates to their situation. As we learn how to do this among the Navajos, we will not only win more of them to Christ, but we will also keep them in the churches.
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