Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Thanksgiving: A Time to Consider Indigenous Religions

At the recent inter-religious colloquium in Geneva, I made the observation that our very definition of religion keeps some religious people from the table. I was referring to indigenous religious traditions that are conspicuously absent from these deliberations, because they are not defined as “major religions.” I reminded them that at the Critical Moment in Interfaith Dialogue conference in June, Yoruba leader Dr. Wande Abimbola gave the conference an impassioned plea to take indigenous religions seriously.

Thanksgiving is a good day for us to pay attention to indigenous religions. In this vein, I want to seriously consider a suggestion made by Robert Jensen, professor of Journalism at University of Texas at Austin, to make this a National Day of Atonement. (You can read his article here: In fact, indigenous people have offered such a model, he says. Since 1970 they have marked the fourth Thursday of November as a Day of Mourning in a spiritual/political ceremony on Coles Hill overlooking Plymouth Rock, Massachusetts, one of the early sites of the European invasion of the Americas.

It is important that we recognize that our so-called major religions have become so because of political power, which for the most part has come through conquest and the violence of empire-building. Many so-called indigenous religions have been destroyed and others relegated to the margins.

However, it is time to redefine the margins, writes my former New Testament professor R.S. Sugirtharajah, in an excellent collection he edited entitled “Voices from the Margin: Interpreting the Bible in the Third World” (Orbis, 2002). Marginality is not a position of weakness and self-deprecation, he says. Instead, it is a place pulsating with critical activity, a place alive with argument and controversy and place of creative discourse.

The margin too, I recall, is where Jesus almost always walked, ministered and related to people. Thrown out of synagogue and temple, he found his place among the people in the margin, teaching and healing along the road, field and sea shore.

This Thanksgiving, as our nation begins a season of self-indulgent feasting, let us take a moment to pause to remember the so-called indigenous nations, tribes, cultures and religions which were destroyed or marginalized in the enterprise of building this nation, and commit to stand with them in the margins, and thereby against the continuing enterprise of empire-building.


At 4:54 PM, Blogger Stephen A. Fuqua said...

Thank you for calling our attention to the need for atonement. I am adding a section of news "Seen Elsewhere" to my Interfaith magazine/blog,, and I will be adding a link to this article in there. I'm not sure where to go next with your thoughts; at least for now they call us to remembrance, which is a first step toward action.

At 9:35 AM, Blogger Shanta Premawardhana said...

Thank you for your comment and adding a link to interfaith news. Remembrance is indeed the first step. But I have two further steps in mind.
1. I will be intentional about inviting members of indigenous religious tradtions to the dialogue tables I organize. For instance, I am currently putting together the April 2006 issue of Teaching Theology and Religion (journal of the Wabash Center in Indiana)on Clergy and Religious Leader formation in different religious traditions for the religiously plural environment in the United States. That panel includes an Afro-Carribean scholar/leader.
2. I am making a note to remember to organize a Day of Atonement emphasis, for Thanksgiving next year.
I hope others will join me in similar actions.


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