“Who am I to judge?” — the issue of spiritual appropriation

I approach the subject of spiritual appropriation with ambiguous and conflicting feelings.  As an interfaith minister who is active in the interfaith movement, I feel this dichotomy deeply and have been asked directly to address the issue.

My personal belief in spiritual evolution is Earth-based.  As a believer in a system that is both primal and cosmic, I have participated in public and private rituals where I have joined on the drum and sung the old songs and breathed in the healing smoke of a smudge stick. I also often “create sacred space” with sound or water, because smudging is not part of my cultural background and because the goal is to create sacred space, not to use a particular symbol.  I also acknowledge the pain of others who see such participation as a direct insult, after centuries and generations of hatred and loss.  I strive to live my life in the Greatest Degree of Love, which sometimes means that my heartstrings are crossed – my support of sincere and individual beliefs is sometimes a-cross with my desire to support those who feel marginalized.  In the end, however, I must follow my most basic belief that everyone has the ability to touch the Divine through whatever path calls them.  Wise men from many faiths have expressed this idea – Sri Ramakrishna held that all religions are valid pathways to the same mountaintop, Rumi said “there are a thousand ways to kneel and kiss the Earth” and Grandfather Bearclaw tells us that “the true path is to serve others by sharing our gift.”

Most readers of this blog know that I also write most of the blog posts for Cultural Crossroads.  While completing the latest post on cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation, my mind kept returning to this issue of “spiritual appropriation” – that topic which is so discussed in interfaith circles.

In the Cultural Crossroads blog post, I wrote: “Look to the native peoples and see if they are tolerant…or amused…or angry…. Cultural  appropriation is particularly potential when the culture being ‘copied’ has traditionally been subjected to discrimination or colonization by the dominant culture.  Cultural  appropriation is one more insult, one more broken treaty, one more stereotyped characterization.”

The question of spiritual appropriation is not a simple issue; rather, it is important for us to consider when a person’s actions constitute “spiritual appropriation” and when those actions are, instead, indications of a genuine “spiritual conversion” to a belief system. We can usually spot the charlatan –  the fake shaman who is “out to make a buck” – but how do we address the true believer whose practice echoes rituals and beliefs of Native peoples?  We need to both protect individual freedom and respect native desires.  We can hold the Divine close in our hearts and be unafraid to stand in our truth and “own” our spirituality. We can share it with others who are in need, while separating that spiritual truth from the cultural experience of an ethnic group to which we do not belong by birth, such acknowledgement being also a part of Truth.

In the Cultural Crossroads blog post, I alluded to international folk dancing as an example of “cultural appreciation” rather than “cultural appropriation” and that can also stand as an example in the realm of spirituality.  Many years ago, my ethnic dance troupe often appeared at ethnic festivals, representing the dances of ethnic groups which did not have dance troupes of their own.  It is important to note that, in every instance, we did not “volunteer” to represent a culture but were invited to do so by the ethnic group itself.  We performed their dances with respect, and, when the group was able to support a dance group from among its own members, we congratulated them and no longer appeared on stage to “represent them” in those public festivals.  That’s as it should be. While our interest in the dances did not subside and we still danced, it was not as “representational” of the culture.   Our purpose in doing the dances of these cultures was to spread knowledge of the culture, not to represent ourselves as members of those cultures.

The United States is a society of pluralism, as well as cultural diversity, so it is not unusual to find adherents of many religions who are converts to that faith.  In the US, especially, many people of faith practice a faith other than the one in which they were raised.  Some faiths allow for – and even encourage – conversion, while other faiths do not seek, but will accept, converts.  By contrast, some spiritual adherents hold that their faith does not allow conversion and any attempt at practice is viewed as “appropriation” of their faith.

In many cases, the ethnicity of individual converts is a non-issue because that faith does not depend upon cultural cohesion among adherents.  Most faiths accept converts, even if they do not pursue them.  The Baha’i Faith was born in Iran but a central teaching is the unity of humanity.  Founded in India, Buddhism attracts followers from every culture.  Proselytizing is not a feature of Sikhism, but converts are welcome. Proselytizing is a well-known feature of both Islam and Christianity, regardless of the Middle Eastern origin of those faiths.

Even in the case of most faiths which are closely tied to culture, where “conversion” is not through a specific  universal ritual, conversion is still acceptable and understood.  Conversion is possible in Judaism, with specific rules and rituals. There is some discussion about the nature of “conversion” in Hinduism because Hinduism has been said to be more of a culture than a religion; however, it has been also been said that a person need only “accept and lead a Dharmic life” and there are many today, especially in the US, who do exactly that, through study of the Vedas, participation in Vedanta gatherings, and personal practices, as can be seen from the popularity of yoga and kirtan.

Even though “conversion” is not universally accepted within Hinduism, it is a tolerant belief system and some Hindu adherents view Western appropriation as teachings.  From the website for his book Indra’s Net: “Rajiv Malhotra argues that Vivekananda’s creative interpretations of Hindu dharma informed and influenced many Western intellectual movements of the post-modern era. Indeed, appropriations from Hinduism have provided a foundation for cutting-edge discoveries in several fields including cognitive science and neuroscience. Not only self-help gurus and lifestyle coaches but also scientists and philosophers increasingly draw on Hindu cosmology in framing their work.”

Native American spirituality is the most common example of a spirituality which is rooted in culture and which protects its rituals and beliefs against “appropriation” by non-Natives.   A Native American by birth, in fact, would likely not self-identify as “Native American” but as a member of a specific tribe.  Like Hinduism, but much more intensely, “Native American spirituality” is part of a culture, not a specific religion, and, adherents say, one cannot be separated from the other.

Some instances of “spiritual appropriation” are so blatant and deliberate that there is no question of the nature of the act.   Probably most easily-recognizable is the appropriation by the early Catholic Church of dates, rituals, and symbols appropriated from the indigenous and Earth-based spiritualities it supplanted.  It is well-known, for example,  that the date for Christmas was deliberately set to coincide with Solstice (although the dates are a bit off under the current modern calendar) and almost every Christmas symbol and many Easter symbols were directly  appropriated, all in an attempt to divert the attention of the people to the “new” religion of Christianity.  The appropriation was so complete that there are still many Christian practitioners today who do not understand or believe in those appropriations from early pagan religions.   (Of course, there are also instances, notably practitioners in parts of Mexico, who have retained their indigenous beliefs and rituals and simply “accommodated” the Christian overlay.)

The situation with “Native American spirituality” is different, mainly because of the protective feelings of the people themselves.  In order to be culturally-sensitive, we must give credence to the wishes of Natives peoples who object to what they view as appropriation.   On the other hand, also based upon sensitivity, and our American ideal of freedom of religion, we must acknowledge that holding to an earth-based spirituality can be personally satisfying and can be done with respect and sincerity.  While totally copying the rituals and symbols of a tribal people is appropriation and is not appreciated by those people, we also need to acknowledge when a person is truly moved by certain ideas and certain rituals, such that those ideas and rituals are embraced at a soul-level.

Just this past week, I attended a memorial service which was heavy with ritual, some of it similar to Native rituals and some originally-designed, but all of it heart-felt and heart-centered.  As Pope Francis said, in his 2013 press conference, “Who am I to judge?”

Spiritual and religious appropriation cannot be discerned, because it means looking into a persons’ soul.   It is not for us to judge what is in each heart, but to caution that we always must walk in Truth and Respect.  We should always think of other people and how our actions will affect them.

That empathy is the very essence of Respect.

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