Graduate Theological Union

A Visionary Theology: 2004 GTU Alum of the Year

George E. “Tink” Tinker

Tink Tinker describes himself, in 2004’s Spirit and Resistance: Political Theology and American Indian Liberation, as “a theologian who is unequivocally committed to the well-being and liberation of my own (American Indian) community.” As a longtime activist in urban American Indian communities; a leading indigenous voice within the field of liberation theology; and a professor at Iliff School of Theology for 20 years, Tinker plays a uniquely multifaceted role in his mission to improve the well-being of his Native American community.

Tinker is professor of American Indian cultures and religious traditions at the Iliff School of Theology, in Denver, Colorado, where he has taught since 1985. He earned his doctorate in Biblical Studies at the GTU in 1983, and is an ordained Lutheran pastor (PLTS M. Div. ‘72). He is an enrolled member of the Osage Nation.

The Theological is the Political
Central to Tinker’s work is the idea that an American Indian theology must be “overtly political.” Native American suffering in the face of oppression is reflected in rates of unemployment, alcoholism, suicides, and homicides that are from ten to six hundred percent higher than the total U.S. population. In this community, theologians must take seriously the political reality. To this end, Tinker’s work encompasses issues of sustainability, development, economics, and state sovereignty.

Tinker has long been engaged in community activism, which he sees as a necessary part of intellectual reflection. He is on the leadership council of the American Indian Movement (AIM) of Colorado, which organizes a range of campaigns. He also directs Four Winds American Indian Survival project in Denver. This group seeks to rebuild the Indian community through spiritual and ceremonial practices rooted in the ancient traditions of the different Indian peoples that have been brought to metropolitan Denver over the past four decades.

Standing at the Boundary
While Tinker’s work has focused outward to concerns of the Native American Indian community, his questions are rooted in his own personal identity and history. Raised in New Mexico by a non-Indian Lutheran mother and a Native American Indian father, he has spent much of his life exploring his multi-cultural identity. “I’ve tried to hold in tension my mother and father. Those two worlds—they are different worlds. I spent a good portion of my career finding new ways to express Christianity that would fit with Indian culture.”

Although he hasn’t rejected either aspect of his historical identity, Tinker’s primary spiritual path is Native American. He served as pastor to a Native American church for many years, and he and his extended family participate in an annual Osage spring ceremony in Oklahoma.

Delwin Brown, dean at Pacific School of Religion and Tinker’s former colleague at Iliff, says that he “stands at the boundary of two traditions, Native American and Christian, and negotiates between them. He is working out a Native American vision in conversation with and critique of the dominant culture. For each world, he serves as a translator to the other.”

A Visionary Spirituality
In addition to his new book Spirit and Resistance: Political Theology and American Indian Liberation, he is the author of Missionary Conquest: The Gospel and Native American Genocide (1993), and some three dozen journal articles. He is co-author of Native American Theology (2001), and is currently working on two volumes that articulate a native spirituality.

For Tinker, spirituality should be creative and constructive. “I want to argue for radical and creative vision that will ultimately change the way we live together on this planet,” he writes in Spirit and Resistance. Cultivating this vision of justice involves remembering past struggles and resisting oppression, as well as celebrating cultural and religious identity in the present.

Dreaming a new vision of the world will necessitate a shift of focus from the individual to the community. The basis for this kind of shift can be found explicitly in Native American religious thought, as Tinker establishes in Spirit and Resistance. “The transformation must begin with a theological shift away from the individual toward a theology that founds and sustains a community existence. The salvation of the communal whole (that is, the world) demands a theology that treats the community as a whole and avoids unnecessary fracturing of the community into individual actors.”

Tink Tinker’s commitment to remembering the past and articulating a vision of the future gives hope not only for the North American Indian peoples, but for the global community as well.

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