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Walls of Bitterness: Why Indigenous Christian Worship is Essential

Though Christian worship has been controversial in Indian Country for decades due to colonization and forced assimilation, more indigenous people than ever before are in agreement with its teachings due to the Bible’s universality.

Broken Walls frontman Jonathan Maracle, Mohawk, has participated in and led indigenous spiritual worship since the mid-1980s. “I met Jesus when I was 30 years old,” he said. “I have had to learn how to honor Christ through my cultural heritage. In 1995, I had a beautiful spiritual experience that drew me to worship from my cultural perspective.”

Maracle shared his perspective with American Indian Republic on the role that religion played in colonization. “Well, in our first encounters with Europeans, they wanted to completely eradicate our spiritual ways before they even understood them,” he said. “They judged our ways as wrong and therefore, for a Native person to have Jesus, they had to give up being who they were created to be and embrace someone else’s cultural ways, judging Native ways as evil.  For instance, ‘they’ said that ‘the drum was evil.’”

Critics in Native and non-Native communities believe that Native drums and singing have no place in Christian worship and that syncretism is inherently wrong. “The drum is not evil!” Maracle said in response to such criticism. “Evil and good lives in the hearts of men.  The drum is simply a cultural instrument of worship when used by those who are honoring the Creator.”

“Evil and good lives in the hearts of men.  The drum is simply a cultural instrument of worship when used by those who are honoring the Creator.”

Though Christian worship has been controversial in Indian Country for decades due to colonization and forced assimilation, more indigenous people than ever before are in agreement with its teachings due to the Bible’s universality. Maracle posits that Christian beliefs align with indigenous ways, and vice versa; in this sense, he has established a contextual perspective toward combining traditions of religious worship. “Revelations 5:9 says, ‘Jesus died for every tribe, tongue, people and nation,’” he said. “I have learned that following Jesus doesn’t make me want to give up being Mohawk but it helps me to be a better Mohawk. I embrace the cultural ways that line up with the Bible. People are very surprised when they find out the similarities and how the basic principles of Native people are in line with the Bible.”

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Maracle learned to play guitar and sing when he was a teenager. At first, the piano and guitar were perceived to be “Christian instruments,” while the drum was used exclusively for traditional Native music. “Bringing these instruments together has been a beautiful thing!” Maracle said. “I believe music is a spiritual language. It has always moved my spirit, Good or Bad. I love telling life’s stories in song.” Maracle credits his late father, a missionary, as the driving force behind his spiritual and religious values. “Dad spoke the language and was very proud of his Mohawk heritage,” he said. “He brought us up to love our people and respect their ways.”

Broken Walls was conceived in 1995 at a Sacred Assembly in Ottawa, Canada. “As I was getting prepared to sing, the man who was speaking said, ‘Walls of bitterness have been built in the hearts of Indigenous people around the world because of colonialism and those walls must be broken,’” Maracle said. In response, Maracle wrote and performed an impromptu song called “Broken Walls.” Since then, the band has actively toured worldwide for indigenous outreach and worship, in addition to entertainment.

“Walls of bitterness have been built in the hearts of Indigenous people around the world because of colonialism and those walls must be broken”

Maracle also conducts workshops. He recently led panels at a conference called ‘Walking the Good Way Together,’ in response to Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. He frequently connects to numerous communities through schools, programs, and indigenous prayer circles across Canada and the U.S. In 2019, Broken Walls will join an Iditarod team to carry the band’s message to nine Alaskan villages. Their goal is to reach every village by 2020.

In a world mired by religious controversies, Maracle remains reverent and optimistic. “I encourage people to embrace who they were created to be and to worship from that perspective. I believe our Creator is worthy to be honored from all cultural perspectives and His beauty is more evident in our differences,” he said. His message to faithful indigenous people encourages mindfulness and caring. “Embracing who you are is the beginning of fulfilling your destiny. Discover your gifts and abilities, and give them with love to others, thus changing the world around you. Jesus died for all men and he wasn’t Caucasian.”

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