It's been awhile since I thought about this so correct me if I'm wrong, but it seems to me that in redemptive history there are two covenants--the covenant of law (the Old Testament world), and the covenant of grace (the NT world). They're distinct, but they're not distinct--which is to say that the incarnation didn't simply delete what came before in the vast history of Jehovah and his people. The OT hasn't been tossed from the canon.
Maybe this is relevant, maybe it isn't. But being in the place that calls itself "the Indian capital of the world" prompts all kinds of questions in me, questions not so much about the gospel, but about its application in our lives and the manner by which its adherents--me among them--offer its great good news.
For a time at least, the U. S. government actively sought religious denominations to play a role in the assimilation of the Indian. There must have been some collusion, but basically religious denominations were "given" various reservations for evangelism--Roman Catholics were alloted Pine Ridge in South Dakota, Episcopalians were given the Rosebud. Somehow--I don't know how exactly--the Christian Reformed Church, my own denomination, was alloted goodly chunks of the Navajo Reservation.
I really believe that the result was likely far more important than denominational authorities out east ever realized, for that "allotment" included the opportunity to catechize boarding school students who were required to attend religious instruction. Many believe that if Native people were to assimilate, they'd need to be Christianized to the point where they'd give up their own "pagan" religions.
Today, all of that sounds harsh, but that's basically the way it worked. So for a time, my own denomination "owned" the term "protestant" throughout this vast reservation. If kids weren't Catholic, they were routed to catechism and Sunday School run by CRC pastors and lay people. That's simply the way it was.
So a few days ago, an aging gentleman, himself one of those lay leaders a half century ago, told me that every last bit of Christian activity in the neighborhood where we were visiting was a result of the teaching of men and women who were from the CRC. The reservation is hardly godless, of course--it never was. But today it's not Godless either; tons of little churches abound, some of them struggling, some of them not, many of the Pentecostal, some of them very clannish, even familial, typical of Navajo culture.
So here's a story. A CRC pastor's "interpreter" accompanied the clergyman faithfully for several years, explaining the good news in thousands of "camp visits." Sadly, the interpreter didn't stop drinking, however, and his drunkenness became a problem, not simply because he drank, but because the drinking got in the way of his duties--a classic definition of alcoholism.
It went on too long, and finally the pastor had to release him from his responsibilities--or so the story goes.
The interpreter loved the bottle, but he also loved the Lord--or at least loved bringing the good news, because while he no longer worked for the CRC pastor, he didn't stop preaching. He started his own church, accumulated his own little flock of believers, and kept hammering away at the love of God.
And thus, little churches, like the ones that still exist throughout the reservation were begun.
My friend's generalization makes great sense. In a way, because the initial and solitary source for a Protestant interpretation of the gospel truth was the Christian Reformed Church, most of the Protestant religious enterprise where we visited was actually there because of the CRC.
If he's right--and I'm betting he is--it's important to understand that the phenomenon he's explaining doesn't show up on a denominational ledger sheet, where the only souls counted are the ones who fill pews in the denomination's own churches.
But there's more. I'm beginning to think that the good news of salvation wasn't all that difficult to bring to a people who knew long before the first missionary ever came how to forgive each other. This is pure speculation on my part, but it seems clear to me that one of the measures of Navajo cultural strength is loyalty and commitment, a loyalty that is thickly layered with the propensity to forgive. What I'm thinking is that teaching the covenant of grace couldn't have been too much of a problem when the students were Navajo. Their culture forgave very well before the missionaries ever arrived.
The sticking point, of course, was the other covenant, the law. The difficulty was rectitude. The problem for a Christian mission, especially a Protestant mission, was establishing definitions of "righteousness." Two wives was one too many. Alcohol wasn't part of the Christian life. Attending church was an indication of a soul's acceptance of covenant promises. Fornication was unacceptable.
It may not have been all that difficult to teach forgiveness, but it was very difficult to teach sin. Can you have one without the other?
Shall we sin then, that grace may abound? Paul asks somewhere. And the answer is no, of course not. We become slaves of righteousness, he insists elsewhere--willing slaves, a concept I always understood but still considered an oxymoron.
I won't begin to suggest I have any answers for the primary questions that arise from all this, except to say that I wonder whether somehow the efficacy of both of the covenants isn't essential. What I mean is that our understanding of God's love requires both a deep and profound sense of the reality of sin, as well as a complete assurance that those sins can be forgiven.
When I think back on where I've come from, religiously, I wonder whether I haven't become more Navajo. There's some irony there, obviously, but I'm guessing I'm not the only one. The church of my youth was far, far more legalistic than the church to which I now belong. Forgiveness today comes far more easily for me and for many of us--and that's a good thing, isn't it?
I guess we're all on a pilgrimage--red and yellow, black and white.
What an interesting world He's given us.