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We Interrupt "A Sorcerers Notebook"
To answer a question posed to me by my Bishop
The other day while doing his annual check on Ministers on the on leave from call status for PHD work, my Bishop, the Rev. Jaech of the Southwest Washington Synod of the ELCA posed a rather important question to me: “Can you provide a summary document that states how your ministry as a Baba Awo in Ifa is compatible and in alignment with Christian faith and doctrine? ”
He wanted an answer for people who have been questioning my “faith” and status as a “Christian” lately. Apparently there are people who still do that sort of thing.
He really is a “pastoral” Bishop, and the conversation was really great. Quite the interest in my classes , studies, reading list etc. I figured I would save him the hassle of answering inquiries personally and just publish it.
On a personal note while I haven’t been watching the play by play in the ELCA lately, I suspect I want public eyes on my response before this vote in May on whether or not I can remain on the roster of the ELCA.
Please see my response to my Bishop below:
Greetings in the name of the Holy One, the One who was killed through a conspiracy of the state and clergy, greetings in the name of The Holy brown body of a lynching victim, tried by holy people and holy councils, greetings in the name of him who was met with charges like heresy, and blasphemy, I greet you in the name of my God, Jesus Christ of Nazareth, Amen.
First: Bishop Jaech I wanted to thank you for your and the Synod’s continued care of me as a Rostered Leader in a very tumultuous time for the world, and from what I gather online, the ELCA. I’m sure you have better things to be doing than chasing down my theological musings.
Second: I want to thank the Synod Council for the opportunity to speak directly to anyone who has a concern, or any member of this church, or Rostered Leader, who reaches out to you about the beliefs of one “Rev. Lenny Duncan.” You may share this letter freely with them.
I will start by stating it seems a bit unfair to be asked by the church to defend my dissertation work in my first semester. There is an anti-black and anti-intellectual fervor to this request I would be remiss not to mention.
I want to answer the question you posed, and provide your request for:
“a summary document that states how your ministry as a Baba Awo in Ifa is compatible and in alignment with Christian faith and doctrine.”
To answer this question I believe there are a few more questions or theological “wonderings” to unpack to arrive at some clarity for interested parties.
First, does being a cultural and indigenous leader from one’s own tribe make one not a Christian?
Second, is Ifa a religion, a cultural heritage, the history of the most enslaved tribes of the Western Africa or the dying original language of those people?
Third, what does a Post-Colonial Historical or Cultural study of “Religion” demand from us as Christians?
Fourth, and I would hope this would be an obvious question, what gifts does this bring to the Church?
Does being a cultural and indigenous leader from one’s own tribe make one not a Christian?
The short answer to this question has been, throughout our history, no. If Ifa is a divination system, and a series of doctrinal beliefs, it is also the cultural and indigenous teachings through which one encounters the wisdom of the Yoruba people, the people of now Nigeria. The divination system is a mathematical binary number system based on an oral corpos of 1024 stories, poems, sayings, and proverbs that tell of our peoples 2,400 years of recorded history as recognized by UNESCO.
This corpos includes, but is not limited to, two major migrations, an ancient urban planning system, an alternative indigenous history of the continent of Africa , rules, plans and the “civilizing customs” of the Creator and the order of our society. Ifa is the oral tradition in which we have passed down our culture since 300 BCE.
To become a Baba Awo is to become the repository for the history and culture of my people. To call Ifa a religion and not the culture of a people is a misnomer that often happens in “North-South'' theological, anthropological, and historical/cultural studies and conversations.
I call it the European supremacy presupposition of the enlightenment. It is an assumption that anything that is encountered must be measured and weighed against an imperial scale, thus the word empirical; the measurement of empire. When you are already starting from a position of “the way the world is” or treat your culture’s worldview as the “fact” to weigh all other worldviews against, then all things that are outside, or “other”, are thus always lesser or in error.
An example of this assimilation of empire through measurement would be to begin with the theological scale of the 95 Theses as a way of measuring, categorizing, naming and thus “understanding” the 1024 proverbs of ese Ifa.
To say that Ifa has no part in Christianity is to say that the indigenous culture of the 75% of Black Americans descended from slavery on this continent have no cultural, historical, or societal benefit for the Kin-dom of God, or the ELCA. It is only western paradigms who study other religious, spiritual, or cultural expressions of humanity in order to find error and offer their own supremacy as correction.
Among the Yoruba, some report as many as 60% of Christians are “dedicated” to their Orisha, or Divine Messenger of one of the elements of nature the Creator gave us for life. In Nigeria to be a cab driver and not join the Ogun society, the spirit of iron, is career suicide. To be a farmer and labor on behalf of the elderly, sick, widowed, and orphaned and to not belong to the now almost extinct Oko society, the spirit of agriculture, would be to fly in the face of the 2300 year old society’s beliefs and practices.
Another result of the European supremacy presupposition of the enlightenment worldview is the false wall placed between spirit and matter, or between culture, science, and the ethereal. For the people of Yoruba heritage to tell us that these worlds are separate, or that the reality of the sacred stories of the Bible or those of the ese Ifa corpus aren’t all real as the periodic table would just get you a strange look by those learned in Ifa. Scientific knowledge, historical wisdom, and spiritual practice are not separate. The categorization of reality into separate and completely independent systems is truly an enterprise of whiteness and does not show up in most indigenous cultures.
When the “Yoruba people”, which, by the way, is a colonial term that was created by western anthropologists, where taught about Jesus Christ they immediately recognized who he was, having encountered the Muslim peoples of the west 700 years earlier. In case you are unfamiliar with how Jesus figures prominently in the Qu’aaran Jesus will return for their Eschaton as well, busy fellow. They named Jesus “little Orunmilla” or “little Ifa.” Meaning, they saw Christ as the same regenerative Spirit of Destiny they believed in for salvation. This is the same force they called the “rebounding force” or the Holy Spirit of Ela, who became incarnate as Orunmilla. They saw these two stories as one in the same. The common wisdom being synchronicity, because of course the Creator spoke in a unique way for a unique people.
The Yoruba people had been unseen by people of European descent since the time of Emperor Nero when discovered 40-30 years before the civil war. Little did they know that their entire heritage, culture, resources, and their own very children, would be permanently changed by this chance encounter with these unmemorable people. In the post-slavery diaspora of Black Peoples, Baba Awo’s and Iyanafa’s where the keepers of our decimated cultural tradition. They were our most learned and trusted leaders, scientists, doctors, and thinkers. They held what is the western equivalent of a graduate degree, much like the colleges of Islam where one memorized the entire Quran, or all of the Hadith of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). Or like Luther's study of the Psalms and his endeavor of learning to sing them all in Latin. But in the case of the Black Peoples of the so called Americas Baba Awo’s and Iyanafa’s were forced, in response to White Supremacy, to become the entire living record of our people, passed on in this oral tradition.
To call Ifa a religion, as measured against the religion of Christianity, is a complete misunderstanding of African indigenous, and frankly most indigenous culture, and is built on exactly the same premise as colonialism. The justification for control and enslavement of Black and Brown and Indigenous bodies was that we were “heathens”, and thus subhuman. Our beliefs and ways of life were an anathema to the Creator and being “civilized” was a blessing of God.
This entire line of question actually doubles down on that grievous error of this church's ancestors. To say that a Baba Awo cannot be a Christian is the same as saying any culturally learned person outside of the Western worldview isn't Christian. This view is why the global south Christian church continues to grow and the north’s doesn't. They have learned to honor indigenous peoples' lived reality in the context they serve, while the north is still trying to superimpose a western cultural tradition, and then add Christian “highlights” and call it church “history”.
Is Ifa a religion, a cultural heritage, the history of the most enslaved tribes of the Western Africa or the dying original language of those people?
Yes. It is all four, and to believe that these are all separate realities and thus must be treated in some sort of hierarchy to create power structures is another western supremacy plot. It is creating standards for what is “true” and “real”.
Ifa is the last bit of culture left to many diasporic Black persons who are the sons of your property, the daughters of your cargo, and the queers of your fields.
With the ecological crisis we are facing along the equator that will fatally affect Nigeria, my culture, it’s story, it’s people may not exist in 25 years. It is sad that I actually considered providing my genetic testing to prove my “authenticity” to this church. I will save myself that indignity.
The original Yorba language, which early Catholic missionaries reported sounds like people singing hymns to one another as a form of communication, was so shamed by the French colonialists that only 6% of its peoples still speak it in Nigeria. UNESCO has called it a crisis of world heritage, and Baba Wande Abimbola, the worlds ambassador of Ifa, asked Black peoples everywhere in the Diaspora to take up the challenge of preserving a heritage erased by the cotton fields of the south of your United States America, and the inner cities of your former kingdom of England.
The triangular trade route from Ghana, Benin, and Nigeria, to the Carolinas, then to England became the backbone of world capitalism, and the fiscal lubricant of the entire industrial revolution.
If Ifa is a religion at all, as I discuss above, it is also a self-defensive preservation of culture. It is in the latter capacity that I am a Baba Awo. The tradition is that I offer divination services, and post a price, that I can then decline, which I always do for Black people. It is through the manipulation of the palm nuts, or divination, that I arrive at a corpus of stories, proverbs, or sayings I share with the “client” and thus another piece of our ancient and proud culture is passed on. This is as much our way as the Sun Dance ceremony is to the indigenous of this land. To deny this in the church would be to be guilty, again, of the same sin as the first colonizers who found us. It is the inability to see the Imago Dei in cultures that are not white and European.
In this way, Ifa is a response to genoicide.
What does a Post-Colonial Historical or Cultural study of “Religion” demand from us as Christians?
The greatest demand today is actually quite simple. It simply is: believe Black, Brown, and Indegenous peoples. That's it.
Believe us and treat our cosmologies, worldviews, cultures, and the way we have always integrated new discoveries into non dualistic paradigms as just as valuable as your own. Don't force us to use this Babylon worldview. Meaning BIPOC people have a place in the church even if you don't understand that place.
White people, Christianity, and the western enlightenment worldview is a blip on the history of my people. The demand to adopt a western Christian supremacist theological view is the same urge of eugenics. It is the perverse need to prove that your doctrine, cultural starting place, context, history, and the conclusions of your own people are “right.” Superior. Correct.
It is my responsibility as a follower of Jesus to not pretend to be approaching all this as an outsider. As a Lutheran Christian, theologian, and thinker I have always been encouraged to push the boundaries in ways that are within the framework of community. I have endeavored to do that in a community that has been incredibly unsafe for me and others like me. No matter how you vote in May, I will always be considered these three. No one will ever say I am not an ELCA member, or Lutheran. We are stuck with each other for better or worse, Beloved. Yet here I sit again once again defending my own culture and history, and the ignoble job of teaching you your own history, and my people's history of having to defend itself from you.
I am a Black queer doing the work along the edges that needs to be done, because this majority white church has frankly refused to. If one is to take the 95 Theses seriously, or the hard work of Melacanthon to help create systematics from the mad polemic of Luther, or the liturgical theology of Rev. Lathrop who demonstrated the “liturgy of Africa” as something to be envied by the ELCA, then one must look to indegenous culture and practice of place and sacred space as one answer for a liberatory and ecologically radical worldview that allows Jesus to move within and of a culture, not above it.
We must find ways to be better to each other if we are to demonstrate what healing from the wounds of slavery looks like to this church, to this nation, and perhaps to the world. I write this in the sincere hope and belief that we can be better.
As a leader I have spent the better part of a decade teaching and living out what this healing might look like. I have written, preached, and witnessed about my profuse love of Christ that I experienced through the Lutheran tradition. If I can’t be allowed to express that experience of our living God in culturally unique ways, then we are truly lost. I weep for a church that doesn’t recognize its own siblings the world over.
The obvious question, what gifts does this bring to the Church?
Specifically: me. And others like me, who already have an intense love, dance, and relationship with the Almighty. I have applied to the Association of Teaching Theologians, I am working on a follow up to Dear Church, and I want to share the gifts of my African Diaspora culture, belief, and worldview with this church if allowed. I turned to this very cultural practice because of the trauma I encountered while in service to the church. During the 2020 uprisings, while I and Black people were abandoned by most major institutions to the existential crisis that has now fractured our republic, I served my people in the streets. While serving as a called and ordained Pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America I was shot at and tear gassed by police and federal agents and two young Black men in my parish were killed by police, something that has never happened to me before. In the truest Christian sense: I died to myself. All I did during that entire time is exactly what this church taught me to do. I did this because I take my ordination vows seriously.
I stayed as close to the most vulnerable for as long as I could. When people called for violence, I preached peace, when those said we should lose hope, I prayed, when they said the church wasn't coming to help, I assured them you were. Standing on the firing lines in the name of grace shattered me. I began memorizing and teaching the 1024 verses of ese Ifa in self defense and it became medicine for me. In this sense I was named “doctor”, or Baba, by my people. It is identical to the call that Jesus discusses in Luke 4 when he says: Physician, heal thyself. He means nation, people, community, then him. Becoming a Baba Awo allowed me to embody this scripture in a culturally unique way for my people in the Americas. I hope this Synod and Church allows me the proper 6 years to finish my study of this tradition and defend my dissertation, which is what all this is about. I am a Black queer studying his own heritage. I pray you allow that medicine into your church, but I suspect other traditions would gratefully accept it.
May God’s love be “the small ax” to the “big tree” of all our hearts.
Rev. Lenny Duncan, they/them
PHD Candidate, Historical and Cultural Studies of Religion, New Religious Movements, Graduate Theological Union
Olosun Oshundayìísi Baba Awó Amosun Egbe Jumoke
Back to a Sorcerers Notebook in March!