On February 9th, 2013, Dr. Richard Leo Twiss (Taoyato Obnajin "He Stands with His People") went to be with Creator, after suffering a major heart attack and spending several days in critical condition. He was only 58 years old. In his final days he was surrounded by his immediate family, his wife and his four sons, who all loved him dearly. Though Dr. Twiss is no longer with us in his first body, he remains with us in spirit.
A Prophetic Voice Calling Us to Repentance
Richard Twiss was a devoted husband and father. And he was of course a noted theologian, pastor, and evangelist. But Richard Twiss was also a prophet to North America (and the world), in the tradition of the Hebrew prophets of Israel—but even more so in the tradition of Jesus! Twiss called North Americans to account. He called us to repentance, and he called us to justice. He minced no words: white, Euro-American people have committed terrible sins against his people. And he made no apologizes for it. And like all true prophets, including Jesus, he was often misunderstood, dismissed, marginalized, and attacked. Maybe you've noticed what I have: that white people in the United States—even the Christian ones—aren't particularly fond of being reminded of the way they treated Native peoples. They often become very defensive and angry. (In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if I get a few angry emails just for brining it up now). Dr. Twiss didn't let that stop him. He was faithful to his calling: To prophetically witness to the Good News of Jesus Christ. And as any Bible student can tell you, that calling also entails calling people to repentance. Dr. Twiss was called by God to call white North Americans like me to repentance, and he did!
The history of "missions" among the Native tribes of North America was a disaster, with very, very few exceptions. Rather than bringing Good News, much of the earliest "missionary" initiatives were little more than cultural assimilation, robbery, and violence. It's common knowledge that Western "missions" has been virtually indistinguishable from Colonialism. But few textbooks, or even Christian books about the history of missions in North America, ever come close to recording the mass devastation that it caused. The closest any of us come to understanding even a small portion of it, is when some of us read Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee in high school (or at least those of us from more "progressive" school districts). Just the small sampling of stories Dr. Twiss shares in his first book One Church, Many Tribes turns the stomach and boils the blood. In story after story, case after case, Western "missionaries" were guided more by greed, violence, and a myopic, culturally-captive biblicism than the actual Gospel of Jesus. The vast majority of "missions" to Native tribes was a program of cultural assimilation and domination.
Perhaps one of Twiss's most poignant and prophetic insights was just how easily 21st century Evangelicals gloss over the heinous sin of covenant-breaking. While we claim to hold a high view of Scripture, how many of our churches have repented for the covenant-breaking our ancestors committed against the people who God first gave the land on which our buildings now stand? Another powerful wake up call Dr. Twiss gave us was the reality of the failure of North American "missions." After 400 years of "missions," most white Evangelicals cannot even name a Native Christian leader. They are often not welcome at our megachurches, let alone asked to speak. They are not speakers at our conferences. They are not the authors of the books in Christian bookstores. Where are the leaders produced by the "missionaries?"
I'm well aware these words are not pleasant. I'm well aware that they sting. I'm also aware that God used Dr. Twiss to deliver this stinging message to me, and I will be forever grateful for it.
A Prophetic Voice Calling us to Follow the Jesus Way
Dr. Twiss was not only a prophet because he called us to repentance. He was also a prophet because he cast a vision for a Way forward. He pointed the Church to Jesus and His Way. Twiss believed that Jesus could meet and transform any person into His disciple—a follower of the Jesus Way. He also believed that following the Jesus Way meant living out your allegiance to Jesus the Way God has made you. He believed that the Jesus Way could be followed without adopting the Western cultural packaging that has been associated with "Christianity" in North America. He believed following the Jesus Way for Native believers meant using their language, their symbols, their customs, their music, their dance to glorify Jesus.
This is actually not a new concept. Because of Paul, most of the New Testament deals with the cultural clash between Jewish and Gentile cultural expression. Read with the lens of cultural analysis, it's not difficult to see that Paul is adamant that Gentile believers do not have to adopt Jewish cultural practices in order to follow the Jesus Way. Instead, inspired by Holy Spirit, Paul teaches the Church that in Jesus a new Way of being human is created that both transcends and includes all human cultures. Because of Jesus, we can now be united. And as Dr. Twiss would say: Unity is only possible where there is diversity. The body of Christ requires both: unity and diversity!
While I did not know Richard Twiss well, the brief time I was able to spend with him (along with reading his books) has changed me irrevocably. I encountered a Native man transformed by Jesus, proud of who God made him to be, and called by God to preach the Gospel. I encountered a man who loved life, loved people, and loved God's Word. I also encountered a prophet who challenged the status quo, called God's people to repentance, and cast a vision for a Way forward in the Church. Meeting Richard Twiss has challenged me to examine myself—my sins and privilege as a white male—repent on behalf of my ancestors, and work for justice. Meeting Richard Twiss has renewed my sense of calling to preach the Gospel, to oppose systemic oppression, and to stand up for the oppressed. Meeting Richard Twiss has granted me a new perspective on the biblical vision of Shalom: the New City God is building.
I can't wait to see Richard again, in full regalia, surrounded by a sea of souls from every tribe and every tongue, all worshiping Creator together! He will lead us all in a Lakota song about Jesus, and we will dance around God's throne to his drum!
Theological Graffiti is a blog written by T. C. Moore @tc_moore ...a Jesus-disciple, husband, father, urban minister, sometimes designer, writer, preacher, and theology geek. For more about me, visit my Personal Website or my Online Profile. Otherwise, enjoy the graffiti.