February 13, 2013
Remembering Richard Twiss
He did much for indigenous Christians and the wider Church. But there is much left to do.
As many of you have heard, Native activist and theologian Richard Twiss died suddenly last Saturday. Twiss was a powerful leader, a challenging theologian, a pastor at heart, and one of the best men I’ve ever met.
Others closer to Richard have reflected on his contributions to indigenous peoples and to the church. If you’re not familiar with his life or work, you need to do some catch up—it’s well worth your time.
I knew him, but only as a dot in his peripheral vision: first as a pimply college student introduced to him in passing at a Portland university; then as a face in the crowd during speeches and community workshops; later as a handshake and a few jokes at a conference coffee station; finally, as a name in his email inbox asking him to tell his story for Leadership’s pastoral audience. Another email I sent (an hour before he collapsed in Washington, DC) asked for advice on how to connect pastors with their local Native communities in sensitive and empowering ways. I’m genuinely grieved that that message will never receive his reply.
Central to Richard’s life and ministry was the drive to walk in the path of Jesus as a proud and faithful Native man. He challenged the institutional church with his bold and joyful worship of triune Creator through his traditional dances and ceremonies, and with his sharp theology that refused to allow the “cowboys” to co-opt the gospel. He had a vision of a Christ-sprung justice that joyfully drummed down racial barriers. He was bold in speaking the truth, often blending cultural confrontation with a dark, hilarious sense of humor that lightened a room while twitching the truth just a little deeper into our ribs.
But there is so much left to do. The global church, for all its strides forward, is crippled by ignorance, by remnants of colonial folly and oppression that cling to the gospel and poison its truth in the mouths of indigenous peoples on every continent. Richard was right—the gospel we preach is far too often that “the old is gone, all things must become white.”
I’m just a white boy, a goofy “Q-tip” that alternates between forgetfulness of the oppressed around me, and the occasional spasm of white guilt. But in brief moments of clarity, I catch a vision of the church that Richard saw—one made whole by the blood of Jesus, standing free, strong, and humble. He saw us worshiping Creator in a din of diversity: a lovely cacophony of praise that drowned out even the loudest echoes of old sins and modern systemic evils. He saw the joy of a people made whole, living lightly on the land, dwelling in a harmony that trounced the American dream and all the attendant lies it brings with it into the Western church. He saw Christ, the incarnate one, reflected in the lives and prayers of his people of every tribe, tongue, and nation.
Richard’s simple commitment to Jesus beyond labels or cultural niceties was a breath of fresh air that blew through the Evangelical kitchen:
When Jesus came into my life and overwhelmed me with his love, I wanted nothing more than simply to follow him. I began a life of transformation because he rescued me from a life of addiction, abuse, self-destruction, and likely from a premature death. I longed for the same transformation for our people. Yet I found myself tripping over the cultural trappings of American Christianity. Following the ways of Jesus seemed one thing; becoming a white Christian quite another.
Yet, in spite of all of this, I find in Jesus the possibility for forgiveness, reconciliation, and the path toward Shalom alongside my fellow human beings. We are all ikce wicasa "common human persons" on this road, and Jesus shows us there is always hope for redemption.
We must remember that vision as we remember Richard. And after we have given his body back to the earth, and committed his spirit to the God who led it on such a lovely, difficult journey, we need to pick up where he left off.
We need to engage with key local organizations for Jesus and the common good. Where we are gifted to think, we must think creatively about the way that faithful theology intersects with the nuances of culture. Where we are gifted to communicate, we must preach, write, and speak to those around us. And in all, we must labor tirelessly for reconciliation, with humor, humanity, boldness, and sensitivity.
Like Richard said, we all need to take back the cultural stories of Christianity and think long and awfully hard about what they all mean.
Richard left us plenty to think about. We have a significant body of his work, including speeches, sermons, books, a budding Native theological school, and a strong organization to carry on his mission. With that said though, the church has lost a unique and potent voice. “It takes many people to be Richard Twiss,” Wiconi International said in a recent Facebook post. Indeed it does. And though many may step in to help fill and advance his various roles, we will never have another Richard Twiss. But already his death has brought increased awareness to the issues that his heart beat for, including the sufferings of the Lakota and other Native Americans still oppressed by dehumanizing policies and attitudes.
Richard, even those of us who barely knew you miss you keenly. Thank you for a life well lived, for a legacy of honesty and Christian openness, for your work that brought (and uncovered) Jesus so clearly in places that were often seen as just punchlines for cruel jokes. While your family and friends commit you to our common maker, I pray a prayer of thanksgiving for you. I hope to know you better in the long days we shall share in Creator’s coming kingdom. And I am inspired to seek what I can do to pick up one of the myriad tasks that you began so well, and have left for us to continue.
You can support Richard’s continuing ministry with a donation to Wiconi International.