Adrift on the world’s rim
In South and Central America—indigenes, missionaries, anthropologists and the great changeBy John Ryle • 13 October 1988 • London Review of Books • The Missionaries by Norman Lewis • Revised • Posted 2016 • 3,536 words
European and American imperial expansion carries with it an apocalyptic strain in which the march of empire is identified with the coming of the kingdom of God, the kingdom of the last days. According to this millennial view, the prospect of the Christian message finally being heard in every part of the world brings mankind near to the end of time, as predicted in the Book of Revelation.
By this account, the climactic event will take place when the Great Commission to the Apostles (Matthew 28:19) is fulfilled and disciples have been made among all peoples. At this point there will appear “a great multitude… from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and tongues… crying out with a loud voice ‘Salvation belongs to our God’”. These events will usher in the new heaven and earth foreseen by St John, a place where righteousness reigns and death is no more.
Among the inheritors of this apocalyptic strain in Christianity are evangelical missionaries attached to Protestant Churches in the United States. They are engaged in an urgent mission to reach the last remaining unproselytised peoples and translate the Gospel into indigenous tongues, thus, notionally at least, bringing the millennium to pass. Two organisations dominate this field, the New Tribes Mission (whose European headquarters is at Matlock Bath in Dersyshire) and the Wycliffe Bible Translators (known outside the US, glossing over their missionary purpose, as the Summer Institute of Linguistics, or SIL). To a secular public more cognisant of American evangelism in its easily mocked domestic form—thanks most recently to revelations of the fiscal and sexual peccadilloes of Jimmy Swaggart and other TV preachers—it may come as a surprise to learn that these organisations, NTM and SIL, dedicated to the completion of the Great Commission in lands outside the West, represent by far the most extensive missionary enterprise in Christian history. The enterprise involves the creation of written forms for hitherto unwritten languages, followed by painstaking translation work. SIL staff frequently hold advanced degrees in ethnolinguistics. This kind of missionary has no time for the swaggerers and braggarts of the electronic church.
Altogether there are some fifty thousand evangelical missionaries in the field. SIL alone has more than four thousand translators working in seven hundred languages. Their targets are people beyond the aegis of television, outside the world market, where traditional culture has not yet been reduced to folklore and spectacle. These societies are now found almost exclusively in deserts or tropical rainforests. In these last redoubts of the primitive, where a human possibility that has almost vanished from the earth is still preserved, missionaries of the Summer Institute and the New Tribes Mission have been busy since the end of World War II, felling old growths of belief, planting the seed of the Word of God, and harvesting souls.
Of the last remaining tribally-organised peoples, the Amerindians of South and Central America have been the most affected by the postwar missionary surge. For centuries the constraints of geography and the opposition of the Catholic Church kept evangelicals out of Latin American countries, but in the 1950s and 1960s the economic hegemony of the United States and the dedication of pioneer missionaries overcame these barriers in one country after another. In Guatemala and Mexico, Bolivia and Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru, Protestant missions were established among the most remote and recalcitrant tribes of the interior.
This expansion was facilitated by the evangelicals’ willingness to render almost everything unto Caesar. When other Churches in Latin America, notably the Catholic Church, entered into conflict with governments and business interests over questions of social justice and the rights of indigenous peoples, evangelicals came into their own. Governments, even in these die-hard Catholic countries, came to favour them over Catholic missionaries. For evangelicals of this stripe do not, on the whole, concern themselves with human rights or social justice; they do not criticise government policy in their host countries. To them—at least this is the charitable explanation—such questions are an irrelevance in view of the imminent coming of the Kingdom. At best evangelicals are quietist; at worst in active alliance with ranchers, loggers and mining interests. These missionaries travel with the paradoxical baggage of imperial millenialism, where a vision of the end of the world is imbued with the values of business civilisation, of capitalism triumphant. It is evangelical missionaries who have often been the first to introduce their converts to wage labour, capital accumulation and the concept of land tenure, with attendant inequities and cruelties.
Fishers of men
Evangelical literature is full of accounts of the pioneer missionaries’ acts of self-sacrifice and martyrdom. But secular observers and allies of the communities they target—anthropologists for the most part—while not necessarily unsympathetic to missionary enterprise, have been more concerned with the effects they have on preexisting forms of Amerindian lives and livelihoods, effects to which the missionaries themselves often seem blind. Typically, there is a collapse of traditional social organisation, a catastrophic demographic decline and the subsequent haphazard incorporation of native populations into the squalid periphery of the realm of civilisation.
In one notorious case, members of the New Tribes Mission in Paraguay were involved in forcible settlement programmes which rapidly reduced a thriving forest-dwelling Indian population to beggary and degradation, the men street-corner drunks, their female children prostituted on the streets of Asunción. In the case of those few groups not already in touch with civilizados, the first contact may be seen as an augury: missionaries bring medicine, but they also bring disease, disease to which Indians have no resistance. For every missionary who sacrificed his life to bring the Word to the heathen, a hundred heathen died of flu.
Outstanding among secular accounts of missionary work in South America is David Stoll’s Fishers of Men or Founders of Empire? (1982), a meticulous analysis of the work of the Wycliffe Bible translators. By the time of its publication the tide of opinion had turned against SIL in many Latin American countries and the organization had been expelled from Ecuador, Mexico and Brazil amid accusations of clandestine links with US government agencies. Today, though, it seems, with the rise of protestant churches in Latin America, the tide may be turning back.
Norman Lewis’ Missionaries is a book in the same tradition as David Stoll’s, but its canvas is broader, its style more personal and episodic and its condemnation of the missionaries more unequivocal. Lewis is a writer of unusual anthropological sensibility. He has an honourable record in the field: it is said that government policy in Brazil was modified in part as a result of the international protests which followed his campaigning article in the Sunday Times on the massacres of Brazilian Indians in the Sixties. (This piece is reprinted in his A View of the World, 1986). In Missionaries Lewis reviews his experiences with indigenous peoples and foreign missionaries over three decades of travelling in Latin America and South-East Asia, beginning with the Maya-Quiche of Guatemala (where SIL also began) and the Mexican Huichol Indians in the 1960s, and ending with the Panare in Venezuela in the 1980s.
These groups represent contrasting cultural types: the Huichol are stereotypically taciturn inhabitants of the high desert of the Sierra Madre Occidental in North-West Mexico, celebrated in anthropological literature for an annual journey to obtain the hallucinogenic peyote cactus for their shamanic rites. Huichol have long been in contact with—and resistant to—Christian influence. The Panare, by contrast, are genial savannah dwellers, horticulturalists and fishermen co-existing peaceably with non-Indian ranchers, and, it seems, fatally susceptible to the novel lures of missionaries.
Lewis’s guide among the Huichol was Ramon Medina Silva, a shaman of unusual gifts who was also the informant and inspiration for a number of other writers, notably the American anthropologists Peter Furst and Barbara Myerhoff. It’s odd, in view of all the anthropological work on the Huichol, that Lewis’s account of them is so nebulous. He was unable to join Ramon Medina Silva on the Peyote Hunt, so we are not told what happens during this elaborate ritual, an event that is the locus of Huichol resistance to acculturation. One wonders if Lewis can be unaware of the film made by Peter Furst about the Peyote hunt, and the several books that have been written about it. Lewis also suggests, though he does not state, that Ramon, who died in 1971, shortly after Lewis’ visit, was assassinated as part of a genocidal campaign against the Huichol. But Barbara Myerhoff, who was in the area at the time, says in her Peyote Hunt (1974) that he was killed in a drunken quarrel at his rancho in the sierra.
These details matter. Ethnojournalism is properly subject to a radical kind of scepticism. Only the dedicated anthropological field-worker, speaking the language, knowing a people over a long period of time, can claim real authority for his or her interpretation of events in such a society, so the sources of a reporter’s information are particularly important. Although Missionaries does not claim scholarly authority, it is a book that documents complex events over several decades in obscure places among little-known peoples. And there are gaps and doubts here. (The publishers, furthermore, have, inconveniently, not seen fit to provide a map. Nor an index. Nor a bibliography. Nor a chronology. And the book has no illustrations of any kind.)
In the case against the evangelical missionaries, evidence of their ethnocentrism, their failure to understand the culture they are trying to transform, is crucial: so it is necessary that those making the case be free of any suspicion of it themselves. Lewis is generally fairly impeccable on this count: he records what he sees without sentimentality and faithfully reports the interpretations of named ethnographers—it seems he has a gift for charming this notoriously proprietorial breed of social scientist into willing co-operation. But in more than one case he misses a detail that would both strengthen and complicate his case.
Thus the principal translator of the texts of the Huichol pilgrimage, used by Furst and Myerhof and quoted by Lewis, is no ordinary ethnographer. This translator is revealed in the acknowledgments to Myerhof’s book to be Joseph E. Grimes of the Summer Institute—that is to say, a bible translator, dedicated, at least in theory, to the systematic replacement of Huichol myths with those of Christendom. Like Moonies and Creationists, the Wycliffe Bible Translators have infiltrated the world of secular education and scholarship—in the case of SIL it is as linguists or literacy workers providing quasi-official language training for social-science researchers in a number of the countries where they work.
The founder of the Summer Institute, the late Cameron Townsend, defended this strategy by analogy with Christ’s human guise as a carpenter. Among Wycliffites, ethnocentricity coexists with the gift of tongues, sincerity with a kind of duplicity. They may be the only source of information on cosmologies that, from a religious point of view, they abhor. Recognition of such paradoxes is a necessary precondition for assessing the quality of the esoteric knowledge offered by chroniclers of the vanishing periphery.
The food-sharer who looks after the pigs
In the case of the Panare, by contrast, Lewis’s guide was not an indigene, nor a missionary, but a Cambridge anthropologist, Paul Henley, author of The Panare: Tradition and Change in the Amazon Frontier, who made a memorable television documentary about them in the 1980s. Basing his account on Henley’s book and his own visits, Lewis paints an Arcadian picture of the life of the Panare before the coming of the Protestants: an endless feast in a landscape of Eden. Enter the New Tribes Mission, determined that the Panare shall eat of the fruit of the tree of knowledge. Less subtle than the SIL, the NTM, we are told, teach the Panare that they—the Panare—are responsible for Christ’s crucifixion. For this crime, the death of the good shepherd (as translated for the Panare, “the food-sharer-who-looks-after-the- pigs”), they must be punished.
“Do you have something to pay me with,” asks God in the catechism prepared by the New Tribes Mission for the Panare, “so that I won’t roast you in the fire?”
The latest news of the Panare is that half of them, about a thousand, have been converted, either by the New Tribes Mission or—more recently—the Summer Institute. In one or two cases, the millennialism of the evangelicals seems to have got out of control: in order to pay their dues to God, some Panare sold all their possessions. According to a Venezuelan Government report, the inhabitants of one village were persuaded to abandon their guns and fishing gear, to kill all their dogs and join their pastor in incessant prayer in order to prepare the way for the second coming. They were rescued from starvation by the Venezuelan police. (The detail about the dogs adds credence to this story, stemming as it does, most likely, from a reading of Revelation 23:14, where dogs, along with murderers, idolators and others, are excluded from the heavenly city.) These end-of-the-world excesses, it seems, are not typical of the missionary presence among the Panare. This is more characteristically represented in an air of anxiety and secretiveness among converts. But both result in a decline in ritual activity, a diminution of joy.
It sounds grim. But is it the worst thing that could have happened to them? Lewis seems in no doubt that it is. He dismisses the argument frequently put forward by the Summer Institute, which is the subtler of the two main evangelical organisations, that the integration of Indians as wage-earners and consumers into the national life of the countries they find themselves in is inevitable, and that missions should seek to prepare them for the transition. Although this argument may be for secular consumption—part of the divine deception practised by the Wycliff Bible Translators—it cannot be dismissed on these grounds alone. From a secular point of view it is also reasonable to argue that if the Amerindians must enter the modern world it would be better for them to come equipped with a grasp of its myths, whether these are the ancient millenarian dreams of Christendom or the wonder tales of consumer culture, both of which the evangelicals purvey. If indigenous peoples are trapped, as they now all are, by internal colonisation in nation states, missionaries of one kind or another may be their only source of such instruction.
If not missionaries, then it will be others they have to deal with: gold prospectors, drug barons, land-grabbers—that is to say, not the salt of the earth. The least persuasive passage in Lewis’s book is his account of a group of Panare living in the vicinity of a diamond mine who have become market gardeners for the miners. Lewis puts this forward as a model of secular co-operation between Indians and civilizados. But his take on intercultural relations here seems tinged with wishful thinking. It is certainly not typical of encounters between miners and indigenous peoples in South America. The more frequent outcome of such culture contact is sexual abuse, alcoholism and violence. And the victims, with very few exceptions, are the Indians.
The primitivist romance
Missionaries come armed with prophetic texts, a set of coercive myths. But those opposing their influence, a broad coalition of anthropologists, community activists and radical Catholics, in their engagement with the evangelicals, are also prone to embrace a mythic interpretation of events. In its naive form, their myth involves a primitivist romance about Amerindian life, an inversion of the missionary position, with the forest as paradise and the missionary as the serpent in the garden. For some westerners this fantasy about the tribal past can be as powerful as the evangelicals’ fantasy of the post-apocalyptic future, a yearning for paganism which matches the millenarians’ terrible impatience for the coming of the Lord.
The two myths are opposed, but they have a factor in common: they are both in flight from the reality of the present. It is not, of course, necessary to idealise the traditional culture of the Indians in order to be outraged by those who wish to destroy it, but to be effective in opposing these acts of destruction it is necessary to steer a line between the celebration of traditional culture and an acknowledgment of the implacable process of global penetration. This, I think, is the reason that Lewis clutches at straws in Panare vegetable gardens. The Amerindian story does not look set for a happy ending. Their present plight is the culmination of many centuries of conflict, a slow holocaust which has resulted in a catastrophic depletion of their gene pool and destruction of their habitat. Lewis gives a figure of 250,000 for the present-day population of Brazilian Indians. This would be considered on the low side by most authorities. But in any case there were ten or twenty times as many when the Portuguese explorers first landed in South America.
Lewis writes: “In the 1950s the great extermination of forest Indians began…” But for Amerindians in general, the extermination began many centuries earlier. Now that the Indian massacres have more or less ceased, their habitat itself is under attack. Soon the forests will suffer the same fate as the people who once inhabited them. The forests and the human societies that live there are alike: rich, complex, vulnerable. And once they are gone, they are gone. The transformation of tribesmen into peasants or derelicts, the depletion of the soil and game, the impoverishment of traditional ecological knowledge, government-backed settler invasions—these things are the final phase of an accelerating global process; missionaries may be the spearhead of the process; but more often they follow in its wake.
The great change
How do the Gospel fishermen sink their hooks in native hearts? Does what they offer have a value that even secularists may be able to accept, something that may be of help picking up the pieces in the wake of economic and social disruption? Missionaries certainly offer material advantages to their protégés, and sometimes avenues of preferment. New Tribes Mission workers are taught, we learn, to single out Indians who are crippled or otherwise handicapped for special attention, since these are often the most apt and diligent converts. But the power of the missionaries does not spring simply from material wealth or applied social psychology. What they offer is a resolution of the expectations and anxieties aroused by the knowledge of modernity. They promote, knowingly or not, the emergence of a consciousness linked to capital penetration and the awareness of sources of power outside the bounds of traditional society. God, scientific medicine and the world market become powerfully associated with one another; in the Americas, in particular, capitalism and Christianity may appear to be coterminous. The old affinity of Protestantism for capitalism can be seen at work here, albeit in a degenerate form.
More than this, the evangelicals offer a vision of history which makes sense to people whose world is effectively coming to an end. We do indeed live in the last days, the last days of societies outside the global reach of modernity. From within such a society it must look very much like the end of the world. The missionaries are both heralds and agents of this alteration. They offer to transform time—hence the quick-fire conversions. Threatened tribal peoples may well feel the allure—as many people do—of such a mythic system, one that claims the whole world is on the brink of destruction and subsequent redemption. The myriad indigenous end-of-the-world movements that have sprung up at the edges of the West—cargo cults in the Pacific, Rastafarianism in the Caribbean, the Ghost Dance among North American Plains Indians—bear witness to the ubiquity of the millenial impulse. Missionaries of the apocalypse may thus find, not resistance, but an excess of devotion, as it seems they have done among the Panare. For the inhabitants of South America, furthermore, evangelical Christianity is perceived as US-made—and thus on-line to the power centre of the hemisphere. To people adrift on the world’s rim all this makes a kind of sense.
Evangelicals offer a religious solution to a crisis in such indigenous people’s sense of time and place. The solution they offer is radical but, from a secular viewpoint, false. Secular romantic primitivists, on the other hand, tend to downplay the inexorable acceleration of history which has drawn native peoples into a common fate with ours. Theirs is a lost cause. It is important for our sake, for the sake of cultural diversity—or the memory of it—that the destruction of these survivals of old-established, pre-capitalist forms of life should be chronicled; The Missionaries serves this purpose. But the only thing outsiders can really do to help, if we are concerned with the fate of indigenous peoples themselves, is help them buy time to make their own adjustment to the great change. ★