Two Kingdoms: Low German Mennonites in Charagua, Bolivia

This may not relate much to the general topic of this blog (though that’s never stopped me before), but it does have to do with my work in Bolivia. By the end of this post I might find a way to tie it back to food, theology and consumerism.

Under the new Bolivian Constitution there is a process by which communities can become autonomous zones. There are various versions of autonomy for different groups. In 2009 the Charagua Municipality voted to become one of 11 autonomous zones in the country. They are forming an “autonomous indigenous zone”, which in the actual language of the constitution also includes “campesinos”, or small farmers, in order to make it apply more generally to an area. Charagua municipality is primarily composed of Guaranis who live in rural villages scattered throughout the area. The second largest group is actually the Low German Mennonites (LGMs) living on four colonies located just east of Charagua Estación where we live. In the main city of Charagua and the Estación there are Quechuas, Aymaras and non-indigenous Spanish-speaking Bolivians. This means that there are five main languages spoken in the area: Guarani, Quechua, Aymara, Spanish and Low German.

Since 2009 the community has formed an Assembly for Autonomy that is in the process of creating a structure that will govern this area. There are conflicts between those living in the urban center that did not vote for autonomy and the majority Guarani population that live in rural areas and did. These have to be worked out over time. Instead of simply imposing the wishes of the majority Guarani, the Assembly is trying to include all of the parties affected by this change in constructing an Assembly that represents everyone in Charagua Municipality.

While LGMs desire to continue their tradition of living “Stille im Land (Quiet in the Land)” by not participating in the autonomy process, they are the second largest population in the area and probably the largest economic producers. At the end of July the Assembly working on the Autonomy process invited the LGMs to meet with them to inform them about the process, ask for their input and participation. Both the coordinator for the MCC Low German Program and the Country Representative for Bolivia came to the meeting to help with translation for the LGMs. Since the coordinator is still learning Spanish and the Country Rep doesn’t speak Low German they both had to help translate using English in the middle to translate between the two of them. It was a long morning with so many languages, but very interesting. Overall the meeting went very well and was respectful on all sides.

One of the convictions of faith in the LGM’s tradition is that they should not participate in government in any way. This has to do with their understanding of the relationship between the kingdom of God and the kingdoms of the world. Many Christians have some form of a two kingdom theology, at least in theory, but in practice they do not make the kinds of distinctions that the Anabaptist tradition has made. More progressive Mennonites (a branch of the Anabaptist tree) make a distinction between the two kingdoms, for example, by refusing military service, but would believe that Christians can and should vote and even participate in government by holding office (though there is much disagreement over the particulars). Clearly, the LGMs have chosen a much harder distinction by living in colonies and abstaining from any involvement in government or politics.

This, however, does not mean that they reject the authority of the government (as some anarchist mennonites might do). Instead they submit to the authority of the government, as ordained by God. The government is a necessary reality to rule over the kingdoms of the world and as people who live in the world the LGMs submit themselves to the authority of these governing bodies, even as they refuse to participate in them. At the meeting they expressed their thankfulness for the information and the work of the Assembly, but did not want to participate in the process. They said they would submit themselves to whatever the governing authorities decided. Whether or not you agree with their method for embodying the kingdom or even their theology, their practice of the kingdom certainly encompasses the whole of their lives. This was difficult for some people to understand, but they were respectful of their convictions.

Their colony system is their attempt to live as faithfully as possible to the convictions of their ancestors and their tradition in embodying the kingdom of God in their lives together. What has made this possible is the agreement, or Privilegium, that they have had with the Bolivian government since 1962 which gives them certain privileges such as exemption from military service, their own educational system in their own language, their own judicial system and land. Since the new Bolivian Constitution was approved all previous agreements now have to be revisited and either re-approved, changed or rejected. So, in many ways LGMs have been able to live in Bolivia under their own version of autonomy for almost fifty years. This is similar to what the Guaranis are creating in Charagua. Yet, this new autonomous zone will encompass another autonomous zone that has existed for over fifty years.

It seems clear to me that these two “kingdoms” will likely come into more conflict at some time in the future. Conflict is not a bad thing, but something that can hopefully be dealt with constructively. First, I have already mentioned that the LGMs are a huge economic factor in the national economy of Bolivia and particularly in Charagua. They currently do not pay taxes to the government and do not desire to do so, but several people mentioned that citizenship (78% of LGMs are citizens in Bolivia) comes with both rights and responsibilities. We will have to wait to see how this plays out in the future.

In many ways it seems likely that things will continue much as they have for fifty years, but there may be important issues, such as taxes or land, that will test the ability of these two groups with very different worldviews to find the common ground to coexist. The history of the LGMs is one in which time after time they have decided to move to different countries because of changes in their agreements with the governing authorities. There may only be so many more places for them to move before they will have to find a way to deal with the world as it changes around them while maintaining their most treasured traditions and community life.

The question of how to work out the relationship between the kingdom of God and the kingdoms of the world we live in is certainly a difficult one. You can find faithful Christians advocating everything from one extreme of complete accommodation to culture to the LGM version of detachment and isolation from the world into closed communities. For those of us who believe that decentralization and the support of local and regional systems for food production and economic activity are essential for a sustainable future the kind of autonomy sought by both communities are helpful in figuring out how to make this dream a reality in the future. If we hope to move from a world obsessed by the bigness of globalization, consumerism and a growth economy to one that thrives on the diversity of small businesses, communities, decentralized authority we will need the mechanism of autonomous zones that make it possible for people to make their own decisions about things that affect them. Increased participation in local issues, economy, production, organization and governance is necessary to strengthen local and regional economies. Autonomous zones might be the thing that makes it not only possible, but necessary for people to take control of their own lives and communities.

There. I tied it back to the theme of this blog after all.

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