22 Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. 23 For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. 24 The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, 25 nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. 26 From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, 27 so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us. 28 For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we too are his offspring.’ 29 Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals. 30 While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, 31 because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”Acts 17:22–31 (NRSV)
Encountering difference has never been an easy task. Not unlike Paul in Acts 17:22-31, many Christians in the modern era, following the perceived scriptural mandate to go to the ends of the world to preach the gospel, encountered people with ancient traditions that were different from their own in more ways than one. Such encounters often occurred in the context of imperialistic desires. Colonialism’s murderous impulses unsurprisingly conditioned Christian missionary thinking. Such murderous impulses in Christian history for the most part meant that difference was perceived as threatening; threatening because the encountered difference did not fit within the logics of Christian thinking that sought to subsume, assimilate, and homogenize difference. As tempting as it might be to assign such impulses to so-called former colonial times, Christians would do well to pay attention to how such logic continues to operate today in theological and political thinking. In order to make these connections, this essay reads this text by centering the reality and religious worldviews of indigenous people in the Americas.
Christian supersessionist thinking in the past has mistakenly and violently believed that Christians have replaced Jews as God’s people. The same supersessionist impulse sought to replace the religious traditions of indigenous people with Christian logic and practice. In theological jargon, the theology that undergirded such violent thinking is called “replacement theology.” Paul Knitter offers some helpful distinctions in his book, Introducing Theologies of Religion. In Acts 17, Paul does not seek to simply replace the “unknown god.” In making connections between the “unknown god” he encountered in the “frontier” of his missionary activity and the “Christian God,” Paul is following a “fulfillment model”—an understanding that Christ has now fulfilled local rudimentary religious notions. This is captured in Acts 17:23, “What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.”
This eventually leads Paul to patronize and infantilize the religious tradition he encountered. We see this in the text in Acts 17:29 where he says, “Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals.” Such theological acts of marginalization continue to happen today with political consequences. In our present, the sacred symbols and traditions of indigenous people are treated as if they are not on equal footing with the logics of those in positions of power (including judicial power) in the U.S. today.
The Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) that came into effect in 1993 in the U.S. was meant to protect, among other things, indigenous communities’ religious beliefs and practices that necessarily include land. Some of these intricacies—made famous by the hashtag #NODAPL—are perhaps still fresh in readers’ imaginations. The RFRA was meant to protect religion (and associated indigenous land) from intrusion by ever-expanding public and private industry. Despite this, the religions of indigenous communities are often treated as if they belong to primitive conceptions that don’t pass filters of objectivity.
In 2008, for example, four Native nations joined the Hopi and Navajo peoples to protest a sewage-to-snowmaking proposal that was sought to be installed on “Shining on Top” mountain, Arizona’s highest mountain. The mountain is considered living, sacred, and resourceful for life, ritual, and medicine. Despite challenging the proposal under the RFRA, these indigenous communities were basically told “no.” The spiritual experience of indigenous communities was termed “subjective” by the court. As Michael D. McNally puts it perceptively, “the court found that the ‘sole effect of the artificial snow’ is on the Native Americans’ ‘subjective spiritual experience,’ amounting merely to diminished spiritual fulfillment” (Defend the Sacred, p. 12). In terming the religious worldview of indigenous peoples “subjective,” the judiciary—in the same way as does Paul in Acts 17—seems to take on the role of “objective” deciders.
Native Americans lived in and stewarded the land that is now called the United States. Their notions of God and what is sacred protected and cared for creation for hundreds of years before they were “discovered” (read “conquered”) by persons who, like Paul, deemed that their “unknown god” was to be replaced and or fulfilled by Christian notions of God, land, and control. These indigenous communities were marginalized in their own land through theological justifications for their conquest.
When one centers Native American religion, Paul’s estimation of the local religion as being in need of repentance and transformation (Acts 17:30) becomes unacceptably difficult. As George E. “Tink” Tinker soberingly puts it, “It is curious that Christians are led logically to believe that ‘God,’ until the birth of Jesus, cared only for one small group of people on the face of the earth, leaving all others to ignorance, ‘sin,’ idolatry, self-destruction, and eternal damnation” (American Indian Liberation, p. 132).
Christian supersessionist thinking—whether reflected in replacement or fulfillment models—occurs when colonial logics in Christian thinking are uncritically accepted by privileging scriptural texts such as Acts 17:22-31. Many might admit today that no group of people are entitled—with or without theological justification—to replace another group of people. While this is well and good, the idea that Christ, somehow, by default, fulfills—as is the case in Paul’s argument in Acts 17—the deepest theological aspirations of different others is problematically enmeshed in the same supersessionist logic.
A deeper question remains as we consider Paul’s encounter of different others in Acts 17. Robert Allen Warrior’s essay, “Canaanites, Cowboys, and Indians,” written three decades ago, observes that perhaps the deeper issue is the self-centered nature of Christian theology that assumes that the religious worldview of different others is a “snare.” That is the language used in Exodus 23 in reference to the gods of the Canaanites. The consequence of such self-centeredness leads one to believe that other gods and religious worldview are either to be replaced or fulfilled rather than presenting as an opportunity for dialogue and mutual growth. The privileging of dialogue is part of the reason the essay makes reference to Knitter’s book. Perhaps, then, dialogue with others rather than patronizing others with supersessionist logic is the way to go.
Encountering these scriptural texts is thus an opportunity to resist colonial logics by decentering supersessionist thinking. Instead, Christians ought to center the reality and religious worldviews of indigenous people. One might argue that Paul’s contextual realities were different and that Christianity during Paul’s time was a marginal faith not unlike marginalized religions and peoples today. If this were true in Paul’s time, it is certainly not in ours. Today, Christianity is often associated with colonialism and, historically speaking, rightly so. If there is any hope for Christianity’s role in the pursuit of justice, acts of reading scripture are to be seen for what they are—theologically loaded and politically potent. Much is at stake.