Not all indigenous customs honorable

Curtis K. Shelburne

The last thing I wanted to do on a recent trip to San Antonio was to have to think much. Thinking is work and I do it poorly. I just wanted to relax. But my wife and I took a tour to a couple of the vintage San Antonio missions, and—here’s the mistake—watched a documentary video, and . . .

The nice volunteer lady at the first mission did a pretty good job (in a bit of a ditzy sort of way) filling us in on some of the history of the place. Established in 1731, it really has some history.

We hurried through the tour so we could get back to the Visitor Center for the last movie about the missions of San Antonio. A good bit of it was quite well done, but I admit that I found myself increasingly bugged by the unacknowledged but very apparent philosophy behind the documentary.

What would you call it? Political correctness? Air-headed (and very intolerant) liberalism? Secular humanism? All of the above?

I wanted to ask our guide (who loved the video) some questions, but I thought better of it:

Are you sure that the Indians—I mean, native Americans—were always unfailingly in the right? I don’t doubt the Christian missionaries at times made serious mistakes and worse, but do you really believe the native peoples never did? I don’t doubt that every culture has much to learn from other cultures, but aren’t some beliefs and practices actually better than others? I don’t doubt that missionaries should respect and learn from the many customs of indigenous folks that are worthy of respect, but if they find folks drinking warm blood out of their uncle’s skull, is it really a bad idea to encourage some better customs? (Forgive me. I used the word “better,” implying that there might actually be some objective standard of right and wrong and that some things, beliefs, and practices might truly be better than others.)

I don’t doubt that in cultures other than our own folks have seen some genuine truth and that some real diamonds may glimmer even within some largely pagan religions. I don’t doubt that people have at times truly worshiped the Creator even though they might not have known His real name, and that we can learn some things from them.

But—work with me here—IF it is possible to actually truly know God’s name, and IF He really has actually in written revelation told us about the name and work of a genuine Savior, aren’t indigenous peoples better off knowing His name and being taught about that Savior?

Such questions are, I know, hopelessly out of fashion. As G. K. Chesterton once wrote, “We are on the road to producing a race of man too mentally modest to believe in the multiplication table.” It seems so harsh to believe in objective standards. It seems so intolerant to believe that two times two always equals four.

But it is still true. If a thing is actually true, we should not be embarrassed about believing it and encouraging others to.

Curtis Shelburne is pastor of 16th & Ave. D. Church of Christ in Muleshoe. Contact him at