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Interview: Randy Woodley, Indigenous theologian and farmer

26 August 2022

‘While many Indigenous people don’t relate to Western Christianity, most do relate to Jesus’

My wife Edith and I co-sustain Eloheh Indigenous Center for Earth Justice and Eloheh Farm & Seeds. It is is a regenerative teaching farm, community, ceremonial place, and learning centre. We have schools and cohorts and mentor some young people, and I still teach for one more semester as Distinguished Professor of Faith and Culture at Portland Seminary. Then I retire and devote my time teaching at Eloheh.

We grow plants,
especially those heirlooms from Indigenous peoples and especially those who produce well in our climate. All our seeds are OP (Open Pollinated), so they can be saved by others and reproduced. Without seeds, we all die. The seeds we develop are mostly those who do well here in the North Willamette Valley, and that score well on taste, nutrition, and, if applicable, how well they would store in the root cellar.

We have a number of regular, everyday heirloom vegetables,
like beans and squash and tomatoes and cucumbers and lettuce; but we also carry many Indigenous heirloom strains like Giti Okosimin squash and Arikara Yellow-eye Beans, and various Cherokee strains of corn. We also provide many wild-growns such as sorrel, oxeye daisy, and self-heal. Oftentimes these various wild-growns are multi-purpose, in that they are food and medicinal and pollinators — and at the same time aesthetically pleasing.

We were already saving our seeds,
and then a Portland couple we knew wanted to sell their seed company. They decided they would only sell to us because of the way we treated the seeds and plants. They decided to sell us their stock of seeds for whatever we could afford.

The people who purchase seeds from us are mostly individuals from all over the United States.
We also get seed orders from other small seed companies, who we know will develop that strain and sell them because our purpose is to keep the seeds free and expand their use. That’s why 99 per cent of what we sell are Open Pollenated. Without them, we not only lose great heirloom varieties, who have unique taste, disease resistance, and other advantages but we also starve to death. We actually tell people to save their own seeds and put us out of business — but, sadly, we don’t see that happening any time soon.

I’ve always been interested in the ultimate and the intimate aspects of life.
Good theology is merely learning to ask better questions as we get older. I was exposed to people early on who asked daring questions.

I never saw being a pastor and missionary coming,
but somehow time and space put them together for me for a while. I found myself oppressing others with the Western world-view and doctrines. At one point, in Alaska, where I served a missionary for two years, I realised I was oppressing Indigenous people in the same way my own ancestors were oppressed. I needed to go on a deep dive into history, philosophy, intercultural studies, and my own Cherokee traditions in order to really understand the problem.

Neo-Platonism, which is now ubiquitous in every system of the West, created harmful spin-offs,
such as hierarchies like racism, patriarchy, and anthropocentrism. Also, it created extrinsic categorisation, Utopianism, binary thinking, individualism, and other ideas fraught with harmful results. I’ve learned the Western world-view is dangerous and damaging and won’t sustain our future. It’s a failed system. An Indigenous world-view will allow us to come back into harmony and sustain us.

Jesus, and the writers of scripture most likely, were not Enlightenment-bound people.
They never meant for their words to be interpreted in the way Christianity has served them up. These people in scripture were storytellers, much like our Indigenous peoples. My wife and I divorced ourselves from that Western model of faith well over a decade ago, and we aren’t going back.

It was the controlling and oppressive nature of Christianity that initially caused me to realise that path was unnatural.
Distain for creation and the demonisation of our Indigenous cultures taught me to begin to deconstruct my faith and find a better reality.

The qualities in Indigenous cultures are generosity, hospitality, extending relationships, respect for difference . . .
not simply teachings: they are life values. Almost all Indigenous values align with the teaching of Jesus. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if Christianity aligned itself with the teachings of Jesus?

Of course, we Indigenous peoples have our own baggage,
but I’ve consistently heard elders talk about life before the White man, and most agree people were much happier then. We had our problems, but our values were intact and we understood the complexity of community and resolving those problems with actions that reflected our values.

While many Indigenous people don’t relate to Western Christianity, most do relate to Jesus.
I’ve often heard people say: “He’s got our same values,” or: “He’s a lot like one of our holy people or like our medicine men.” My adopted Kiowa mom used to say: “We understood a lot about the Creator before we heard about Jesus, but he shows just how much the Creator loves us.” Jesus seems to have a lot of meaning to our Native American listeners. Too bad the non-natives, by and large, can’t listen in the same way.

The idea of Christian “salvation” that Indigenous people share could be summed up in the word “harmony”.
Theologically, and more accurately, I like to substitute the word “healing” for “salvation”. Then we have a shared experience.

We’re all Indigenous from some given time and place.
We have many roads to reclaiming our own indigeneity: through our own DNA; through learning from Indigenous peoples, especially those who are the host peoples to the land on which we live; and through our own personal connections with the whole community of creation around us. It requires understanding ourselves as a relative to everything else.

Human beings tend to take ourselves too seriously.
We’re all limited. We need humour, especially self-deprecating humour, to remind of our own limitations.

I grew up on the mean streets of Ypsilanti Michigan,
near Detroit, in a section called Willow Run, and often called “Little Detroit”. I had a juvenile record early, lots of fights, expulsions from school — a real mini-criminal. My parents, who were blue-collar, working poor, moved us to a small farm town to try to save me. That gave me a broader perspective on life, and I led this trouble-maker existence at the same time as falling in love with the countryside and nature. I had cognitive dissonance, to say the least.

I was playing in a rock band, dealing drugs and addicted to Meth when I found Jesus.
I was 19. I asked him to deliver me from the addiction — and, like a mule-kick to the head, in a miraculous moment, I was. Forty-six years later, I’m clean and sober, not a criminal, dealing vegetable seeds instead of drugs — but, unfortunately, not playing in a rock band.

My first experience of God was when I was ten, at church camp.
I prayed to God for the courage to ask a camp counsellor, a full-blooded Ojibway man, to help me ask Jesus in my heart.

Hafiz, the 14th-century Sufi poet, probably sums up best the way my faith has developed:

God and I have become
Like two giant fat people
Living in a tiny boat.
We keep
Bumping into each other
And laughing.

Unbridled capitalism makes me angry.
Big Ag, Big Pharma, Big Oil, militarism, human trafficking, poverty, stupidity, the Republican Party, corporatocracy. . . Shall I go on?

Time alone with my wife makes me happy,
and watching my grandchildren, horses, dogs, flowers, the beach, mountains, running streams, fishing from a row boat, the sound of an elk, the sound of a loon, the song of a Redbird.

Millennials and Gen Z give me hope for the future.
While I’m still trying to understand them, what I do know is that they’re not going to settle for a worn-out social paradigm. That gives me hope.

My place of worship is nature;
so it’s difficult to imagine being locked up in it. But let’s go with your reasoning: I’d like to be locked up in that African American church featured in the movie The Blues Brothers with the same John Belushi who does all the jumping and somersaults. That would be fulfilling to my soul.

Dr Randy Woodley was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

Indigenous Theology and the Western Worldview: A decolonized approach to Christian doctrine is published by Baker Books at £15.99 (Church Times Bookshop £14.39); 978-1-5409-6471-7.

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