Super chill book review: Native: Identity, Belonging, and Rediscovering God (Kaitlin B. Curtice)

After most recently writing about a couple of old-school(-ish) books, it feels like a good time to come back to the present. Kaitlin B. Curtice is my age, and her very-much-worth-reading book Native: Identity, Belonging, and Rediscovering God was published in 2020. 

I found Curtice’s reflections on grappling with Christian faith as a young woman of both Indigenous (Potawatomi) and European descent fascinating. I think this is the kind of thing we really need—we, meaning all sorts of people who identify in some way with Christianity or have it as a part of our histories―in order to deconstruct the things that need to be deconstructed and figure out how to move forward together.

Below are a few things that stood out to me. They’re mostly critiques of (white) American evangelical Christianity―which is not at all the only thing the book is about, but I guess these parts stood out to me because they’re things I think about a lot. I’m grateful for leaders like Curtice who can help guide us in a better direction. Some thoughts:

1. As someone who was once pretty excited about Christian evangelism, I appreciate Curtice’s critiques of some of the ways evangelism is often done―or, maybe more precisely, of the mindsets that are often behind it.

Curtice asks, “What happens when white supremacy taints our Christianity so much that we would rather scream the love of God over someone than honor and respect their rights to live peacefully within the communities they have created and maintained for generations? If Christianity is able to de-center itself enough to see that the imprint of Sacred Mystery already belongs all over the earth, to all peoples, it would change the way we treat our human and nonhuman kin” (p. 50).

The screaming part reminds me of a middle school youth group service trip I went on, to Spokane, WA, the summer before eighth grade. It was kind of a life-changing trip, in the sense that I experienced a powerful sense of community, belonging, and unconditional love there, with all those weirdo kids and youth leaders, and that stuck with me. 

I also remember, though, being with a bunch of other middle schoolers in the church van on the way there, and―I would never have initiated this, but I may have followed along with the crowd―rolling down the windows and yelling “Jesus loves you” at random unsuspecting passersby. A+ for boldness, but…maybe yelling at people out of a car window wasn’t the best way to actually express love.

That’s kind of a funny story, and probably mostly harmless. But don’t Christians often do this in bigger and less harmless ways, too―that is, in Curtice’s words, “scream the love of God over someone” rather than “honor and respect their rights to live peacefully” in their communities? Saying “God loves you” but then expecting someone to come to your kind of church to experience that love, or to conform to your culture and ways of being―or thinking of them as a sinner or heathen if they don’t respond to this declaration of Christian love in the way you want them to―isn’t exactly love. 

I like Curtice’s idea of Christianity de-centering itself. I think this is challenging, when many of us have been taught that there is One Right Way to get to God, and it involves something like the Four Spiritual Laws, or the Roman Road, or the ABCs of salvation, or the sinner’s prayer. (All things, by the way, that were developed quite recently in the grand scheme of things. No one before that must have known God―including all the historical Christian theologians who shaped our faith as we know it, not to mention all the people in the Bible.)

I think it’s entirely possible for Jesus to be the way, the truth, and the life, the one through whom we come to God (John 14:6), and for this path to look very different for different people and different groups of people. It definitely doesn’t need to―and, for people who don’t share these cultural and ethnic backgrounds, it shouldn’t―look like historical European-ness, or current white American-ness. White Christians over the years have done so much harm by acting like it should.

2. At various points throughout the book, Curtice comes back to the idea of a God and a faith that is primarily personal and individualistic―and all the different things that are wrong with this, or that could be so much bigger and more beautiful.

She connects an individualistic notion of God to the church’s tendency to ignore the oppression of various marginalized groups of people (p. 49), and she connects an obsession with personal sin and salvation with being “ill equipped to go into the world to face systems of injustice, many of which we helped create” (p. 83). “If we stand on Sunday and sing songs about personal sins,” Curtice asks, “how are we to go out and challenge institutional systems of hate?” (p. 84).

On the flip side, she also connects individual healing with communal healing. She writes, “I thought about how our individual healing is tied to our universal healing and how breaking the bonds of colonization is an essential part of that…I belong to my ancestors, I belong to those who came before, to a vision of all of us that keeps us tethered. The work that we must do together…is to help each other see that vision of wholeness beyond colonization and hate. We must carry one another’s stories with grace and honor, and lead each other toward a kind of healing that heals whole systems, not just people. If we have learned anything from the church, and if we have learned anything from injustice, we know that it is individuals who act as part of systems that continue oppressive cycles, yet those same individuals can band together to create change” (p. 153). 

I like this idea of a communal vision of wholeness and healing. If my healing is tied to my neighbor’s healing, and some of my neighbors have borne the weight of generational trauma that comes from a history of colonization, then all of our healing is tied to our ability to, as Curtice writes, “[break] the bonds of colonization” and “help each other see that vision of wholeness beyond colonization and hate.” 

There’s so much history, and so much present-day reality of injustice, that we have to work on confronting and breaking down in order to actually have real relationships across ethnic, racial, and other boundaries―the kind of relationships that are marked by equality and mutuality rather than further injustice, indignity, unequal-ness, and colonization.

3. A while back, I read a book called Believers: A Journey into Evangelical America by Jeffrey L. Sheler. I think I picked it up cheap at a used book store. Back in 2006, long before the era of Trump as president, Sheler was going around interviewing prominent evangelical leaders about faith and (conservative) politics and that sort of thing.

If I understood Sheler correctly, it seemed like his main point (or one of them) was that evangelical Christians, as a group, have taken a sharp veer toward the right in just the last few decades (since the 1970s), and now there are all sorts of very conservative, very Christian people trying to push the country right-ward in a variety of (sometimes sneaky) ways. If I remember right, Sheler contrasted this with the faith of his childhood, which tended to stick to the Bible and stay out of politics.

I remember thinking, I’m with Sheler that it’s bad that evangelical churches have gotten so right-wing political; I’m not with him, though, that it’s bad that they’ve gotten so political at all. I do think Christians should be involved in politics, and that (some) political things―or things that get labeled as political, which is really all sorts of things that matter in our communities, and especially to the most vulnerable among us―are totally fair game for sermons and other church-y conversations. 

All this to say, I appreciate Curtice’s take: “No matter what kind of work we do in the world, whether we are community organizers and activists or stay-at-home parents, we have work to do, and we can take part in caring for the earth and engaging in difficult and honest conversations. Often, our religious spaces are kept clean from these conversations, simply because the conversations don’t seem important enough, or they seem too political. So we must remind ourselves that even the inner work we do to learn about ourselves and to reorient our souls toward caring for the earth is inherently political work, work that stretches into our families, our social circles, our communities, and our governments. We must ask ourselves what we value and hold sacred, and work from there” (pp. 97-8).

“Even the inner work is inherently political work.” Our individual faith is tied to our family lives, the lives of our broader communities, and of our world as a whole. None of these things can be, or should be, separated from the other. Faith speaks into social issues, and social issues speak into faith. 

To me, the solution to becoming aware that the Religious Right is not exactly the religion of Jesus is not to withdraw from the political sphere, but to learn how to engage in that sphere differently―with less of a lens of imposing “biblical views” on society, and more of a lens of seeking justice, building communities where everyone can flourish.

4. Another related theme that came through strongly in this book is truth-telling. I’m super into it, even though it’s also hard. I think Curtice models truth-telling really well―she’s been courageous in digging into her own past and story, and digging into history, and unearthing the colonizing mindsets so present in the evangelical churches, even churches she is still a part of and loves. 

Curtice encourages the (white American) church to remember: to remember truthfully our own history, a history full of violence and colonization and oppression and white supremacy. And she encourages us to ask questions, to “take an honest look at our own intentions” (p. 45). 

She asks so many great questions of the church throughout the book. I could see church leaders, if they were willing, using the book as a guide for a several week long study, opening up conversations about some of the questions Curtice asks. 

5. Sometimes when churches start talking about justice and multiethnicity and that sort of thing, we start talking about the racial make-up of our communities and how we might diversify. I do think racial diversity, as well as diversity along all other sorts of lines, makes a community a richer, more complex, and more beautiful place. At the same time, though, I think it’s complicated.

Along these lines, I think, Curtice writes, “Approaching Indigenous culture with the goal of getting Native peoples in the pews isn’t an answer—it is merely an extension of colonization.” (Oof.) “Perhaps the church should consider that Indigenous peoples have more to teach the church than the church has to teach Indigenous peoples. Perhaps that would change how the relationship works. The important aspect of this relationship is that it is a partnership, a space in which listening really happens…Indigenous people shouldn’t have to spend our days educating non-Native people, but when we are willing to partner with institutions like the church for a better future, we should be heard” (123).

I appreciate that, oof-ness and all. The point isn’t to get more people from particular ethnic or racial groups into predominantly white churches. The point is to learn how to have healthy relationships, where the church is willing to take a humble―that is, Christlike―posture and learn. This is something I’ll keep thinking about in my own journey of figuring out what healthy multiethnic churches and justice-centered churches can look like.

There was a lot to this book, but these are just a few things I liked and am thinking about. Give it a read, if you get a chance, and let me know what you think!

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