Washington, DC (BWA)--Indigenous populations worldwide are, in the main, at the margins of society -- from Amerindians in the Americas to the Austronesian peoples of Taiwan and other Asian countries; from Polynesians in the Pacific to the Jumma tribes in the Chittagong Hills of Bangladesh; from nomadic tribes in Africa to the Sami people in northern Scandinavia. This marginalization deserves the special attention of Christians.
These persons and groups have had long historical ties to a particular land or territory before colonization by a dominant, usually foreign, group or culture.
Several historical realities characterize the experiences of indigenous groups -- slavery, genocide, colonization, forcible removal from ancestral lands, desecration of holy places and burial grounds, lack of freedom, economic exploitation and insufficient meaningful economic opportunities, political disfranchisement, humiliation and discrimination, and arbitrary arrests and detention.
Many such horrors were conducted in the name of the Christian God and the Christian church by avowed Christians, creating huge stumbling blocks in the way of the proclamation and demonstration of the Gospel of the God of love, peace, and reconciliation. No wonder, then, that some indigenous groups, such as Native Americans in the United States, identify with the Canaanites in the Old Testament stories rather than with the Hebrews bound for the Promised Land since the Canaanites were uprooted, forcibly removed from the land, and, in many instances, exterminated.
Christians have much to repent of in the treatment and exploitation of indigenous populations. Deception, betrayal, false and failed promises compounded the many sins committed in the name of the Christian God by those who claimed allegiance to the Christian church.
Some Christians, including Baptists, are making amends. The BWA lauds efforts being made by Baptists in Taiwan who are reaching out to, and ministering to the country's indigenous populations, especially the youth. We commend the Baptist Union of New Zealand for its Baptist Maori Ministries, with special focus on leadership and youth development among Maoris. We affirm the work among First Nations people by Baptists in Canada through cross-cultural and inter-cultural ministries and other initiatives. We are heartened that the Bangladesh Baptist Church Fellowship has developed ministries in the Chittagong Hill Tracts among the Chakmas, one of the Jumma tribes.
Yet, there is further room for reparations and restitutions. There are an estimated 5,000 indigenous groups in 72 countries comprising between 300 million and 350 million people, roughly five percent of the world's population. Group populations range from a few dozen to hundreds of thousands and more. Many groups experienced dramatic declines and even extinction. A significant number are now threatened in many of the 72 countries where they exist.
Consistent with a 1987 BWA affirmation of "the dignity and equality of all groups before God," Baptists should take up the cause of indigenous groups and persons in their context. In defending "the proper freedom and human rights of religious and racial minorities," Baptists should lead the way in advocating for the restoration of indigenous land and territorial rights, or compensation for the loss of same; for cultural and linguistic preservation; for economic and social development; and for political enfranchisement. Above all, Baptist Christians should present the liberating Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ to indigenous people, many of whom experienced that Gospel as one marked by exploitation, manipulation, deception and greed.
Baptists have an obligation to indigenous populations if for no other reason that, in some instances, Baptists have been culpable in the exploitation and denigration of indigenous groups. More so however, as people who defend freedom and justice, we should be doing it for all, consistent with the prophetic stance of Jesus Christ.