Tag Archives: Cross-Cultural

The Original Sin of Church and State

I’ve been interested in First People, Native American, indigenous issues ever since I spent two weeks on the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming. I was working at a Lutheran camp based near Ft. Collins, CO and worked with High School youth groups on week-long service trips. We were invited by the local Arapahoe chief to participate in a sweat lodge. It was an experience I’ll never forget. I’m not so interested in adopting their spirituality or somehow trying to “go native” by putting a dream catcher in my car and wearing lots of topaz. I want to avoid appropriating and co-opting their culture, because it can be easily become another form of colonization, domination and oppression. However, I do believe indigenous people have a lot to teach and remind us about our own traditions and things we’ve lost.

I probably stole this from someone, but I believe that the original sin of the United States (as well as the majority of nation-states in existence today, particularly in the western hemisphere) is what we did to the people that first inhabited the places we now call home. Do we even need to go over the list? Genocide, cultural oppression and extinction, theft of land, desecration of sacred places, broken treaties. The list goes on and continues today. What we in the church often leave out of our theological equations and history of Christianity is the complicity of the church with the state in perpetrating such acts on indigenous people around the globe. I believe strongly that this is a (perhaps THE) most fundamental sin with which we, both church and state, must reckon. Our current economic, political, social arrangement is based on the historical and continuing exploitation of these people, their land and their resources.

Bolivia has the largest percentage of indigenous people in South America (maybe more than Guatemala which has the highest percent in Central America). Three groups make up most of that indigenous population; Quechua, Aymara and Guarani. There are some other groups mainly from the eastern lowlands that I don’t know much about. In Charagua, where I live, we are on the northern edge of the Chaco region, which is the historic home of the Guarani people extending through northern Paraguay and parts of Peru, Argentina and maybe Uruguay and Chile. Needless to say it’s a large region and crosses many of the arbitrary borders that were created by the Spanish. The Chaco War was basically a conflict between Standard Oil and Royal Dutch Shell, none of whose employees participated in the fighting over the border between Paraguay and Bolivia.

This fundamental sin has obviously done damage to indigenous communities everywhere, but some of the effects are more subtle than the more obvious. In working with a couple Guarani communities here, I’ve noticed that they have adopted a lot of industrial agriculture’s methods of production. While they continue to produce a lot of food for their own consumption, they primarily produce commodity crops like sorghum, sesame, corn and soy for sale to large agribusinesses. They use a lot of chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides to manage their crops. These are people who have lived on this land and handed down knowledge about the local flora and fauna for probably thousands of years. They survived in the harsh Chaco climate for millenia without growing these crops or using chemicals. Now this knowledge is all but lost. There are still lots of people with knowledge about local plants that are edible and good for medicinal purposes. MCC’s head of rural and agricultural programs in Bolivia, Patrocinio, showed me four different weeds that could be used to either make tea or a medicinal salve in my own backyard.

This is the effect of our civilization’s original sin. It harms the people with the knowledge we most need to survive on this planet. How many North Americans could name ten native plants that they could eat in their area? Not many. This is our basic relationship between people across the globe. All of our injustices and inequality come back historically to the exploitation of indigenous people and their land. We cannot simply wish that it remain in the past and somehow move on, forgiving and forgetting. This sin is continuing and we continue to participate in it.

If this is our original sin, for both church and state, how can we, as individuals and churches (I have little hope for the state), find redemption, reconciliation and salvation for our complicity? I would like to suggest that the first thing we can do is learn about the people that used to live on the land that now belongs to our house or are church. We must expand our imaginations past the lifetimes of ourselves and our family to the people that first encountered the white man in our area. How did those people live? How long did they live there? How did they survive? Are any of them still alive? What knowledge still remains from the thousands of years of experience living without oil and coal?

Then we must also expand our imaginations forward into the future. What will the world look like in seven generations if we continue down this path? If there is knowledge left from these people left, what can we learn from it? If there is no knowledge left, what can we do to begin learning about the places where we live? How can we partner with indigenous people to begin to steer this boat the right way and if it turns out to be the Titanic to help get people safely off?

I believe strongly that the salvation of our world (including the church) lies in our relationship to indigenous people around the world. What might this mean for Christian theology? If salvation, in some sense, lies beyond the church (perhaps in order for the church to reclaim her own tradition), what does that mean for how we understand what Jesus did and who the church is? I believe that Jesus birth, life, work, death and resurrection is good news for people that are marginalized and oppressed. Indigenous people are marginalized in a way that seems fundamentally different than others. They have been an obstacle in the way of progress and civilization. Now that we are reaching some of the limits of this project, indigenous people provide an alternative possibility for how to live in the world with each other and with nature.

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.

The New World Religion

When considering a metaphor for describing a reality that is inherently difficult to grasp, it can be easy to lose your grip on the thing to which the metaphor points. The authors’ of Affluenza follow their metaphor closely and it works for the most part. The best part of their metaphor is that it makes the book more fun to read, gives it a hook and is actually helpful in understanding the reality of what the metaphor describes. I think the metaphor of consumerism as a disease remains helpful and describes an aspect of the reality that we might lose if we dismissed it completely.

As a theologian (aren’t we all), however, I am also interested in the idea that consumerism is a religious enterprise (that’s a simile, not a metaphor). William Cavanaugh has pointed out how notoriously difficult it is to define religion. He criticizes the work of many scholars of religion, pointing out that they often don’t abide by their own definitions. They are usually too broad or too narrow to be helpful either excluding examples most people consider religions like Buddhism or including things that most people would not consider religions like football (either American or soccer, both would fit).

The way I am thinking about religion is more on the broad side. Nevertheless, I feel the danger of being too broad and it becoming useless both as a definition and as a metaphor. There are difficulties here because there are other words used to describe similar phenomena. Ideology, culture and worldview attempt to describe some network of underlying beliefs or assumptions that animate, motivate or dictate someone or a community’s way of responding to the world. Ideology is similar to religious belief in that in its mature form it is something freely chosen and adopted as one’s own. Culture can also be similar to religious belief in that it arises in a social or communal context and involves the influence of the community. Some aspect of both are at play in consumerism. Worldview is perhaps the most similar, but attempts to encompass aspects outside of religion like culture that are at work in the way we perceive, interpret and respond to the world. Tomes have been written with various theories about all these words and what they mean.

In considering whether religion is an appropriate way of talking about consumerism, I am primarily concerned with the way that religion functions, particularly religions that claim a universal mission, such as Christianity, Islam or Mormonism. I could easily write a book in the vein of Affluenza, naming the high priests, describing the rites and rituals, basically making a comparison between something called religion and something else called consumerism. What I am more interested in is in what ways consumerism actually is a kind of religion. This is a more ambitious and difficult task, which is probably why I have only thrown out references to the idea without exploring it in depth yet.

It would be helpful first to unpack what exactly I am trying to understand in religious terms. Consumerism, or the consumer economy, are related to globalization, global economy, growth economy and perhaps also the idea of development. Almost all of these terms are somewhat vague. Therefore they will need some clarification in their definitions and relationships to each other. Globalization is the overarching concept that seems to encompass the others. It is the corollary to Christianity or Islam. Consumerism is the vehicle that spreads this religion, while the consumer or growth economy (and maybe even the idea of development) are the message, or gospel, that consumerism intends to spread in order to support this overarching project of globalization.

I hope to explore this more in depth in the future, but for now here are the features that I see these aspects of globalization sharing in common with religions, primarily the Abrahamic traditions of Christianity, Judaism and Islam.

  • Belief/Faith- As much as economists want their field to be a science it remains a field that relies on untested assumptions about how human beings behave and what is best for them and the world.
  • Universal Message- The message is for all people. Obviously not everyone agrees with the tenets of globalization and consumerism, but the belief is that everyone should.
  • Universal Mission- Because there are people who resist the message, or adhere to contradictory beliefs from other religions, there must be a mission, universal in scope, to convert people to the truth of these beliefs.
  • Evangelism- This grows out of the other three aspects, but it is important to recognize that those who believe in and practice this religion reveal it through their actions. Advertising executives, CEOs, government officials and even NGOs make statements and actions that reveal their assumptions and beliefs.

Of course this preliminary post only sets the stage and raises lots of questions. Here are some of my initial questions which come to mind:

  • Is there a distinction between those who are believers in this religion and those who participate unwittingly, a sort of cultural consumer (like cultural Christians, etc.)?
  • What are the origin stories/creation myths of globalization/consumerism?
  • What are the rites and rituals of this supposed religion? How do they function and relate to what we normally consider religions?
  • Is Global Consumer-anity in direct competition with the other religions? Is it functionally exclusive to other belief systems?
  • In what ways do we adhere to multiple belief systems simultaneously? Are there Christian, Islamic, Latin American, Russian, or indigenous versions of Global Consumer-anity? Do they compete with each other or on the level of Global Consumer-anity do they basically get along?

It’s clear that the same issues that are present in studying other religions arise when trying to understand the phenomenon of consumerism and globalization in these terms. How does this “religion” relate to other religions and across cultures? What are the different sects, denominations or cults within the religion? What are the orthodox teachings or doctrines? I hope I get to write this book someday. But if someone else beats me to it, I will just keep growing my own food and trying to need as little as possible.

Poop, Preaching and Pestilence

I love alliteration, and the above trio of words really does the trick. What could I possibly be talking about? And why on earth would they all start with the same letter? Some things may remain a mystery, but I will try and unmask this one.

As I read The Humanure Handbook, planned and built my own composting toilet system, I was struck by many of the connections the author made between composting your own excrement and spiritual matters. One of the biggest hurdles to humanure composting is that our own dung has a history of causing problems. It’s not really our scat that’s the problem, but how we choose to deal with the inevitable end product of eating and digestion. It turns out that Christianity has often been a part of perpetuating this sanitation problem.

Nearly twenty centuries since the rise of Christianity, and down to a period within living memory, at the appearance of any pestilence the Church authorities, instead of devising sanitary measures, have very generally preached the necessity of immediate atonement for offenses against the Almighty. In the principal towns of Europe, as well as in the country at large, down to a recent period, the most ordinary sanitary precautions were neglected and pestilences continued to be attributed to the wrath of God or the malice of Satan. (Andrew D. White, cofounder of Cornell University quoted in The Humanure Handbook 77)

Many will scoff at the silliness of our predecessors and shrug their shoulders. What else were they to do with their limited understanding of diseases at the time? Perhaps. But it seems to be an unfortunate tendency of our faith (and perhaps faith in general, or even more the human condition) to find convenient scapegoats for the problems that plague us. The best scapegoats are the ones beyond our control. It’s much harder to think critically about the world around us and try to solve problems together with others. Furthermore, Jenkins points out the hypocrisy of this blame game,

The pestilences at that time in the Protestant colonies in America were also attributed to divine wrath or satanic malice, but when the diseases afflicted the Native Americans, they were considered beneficial. ‘The pestilence among the Indians, before the arrival of the Plymouth Colony, was attributed in a notable work of that period to the Divine purpose of clearing New England for the heralds of the gospel.’ (79)

Yes, it is the tell tale sign that we are just making stuff up when we flip an argument on its head when it serves our purpose and then do some impressive mental gymnastics in order to make sense of our own schizophrenic attitudes. The problem here is basic sanitation and how to deal with our own droppings, but we easily muddy the waters with our beliefs by making it about religious nonsense. Lest we think that this is simply a mentality of a bygone era the author has an interesting interview with himself in the final chapter which includes this exchange,

Myself: To give you an example of how clueless Americans are about composting humanure, let me tell you about some missionaries in Central America.

Me: Missionaries?

MS: That’s right. A group of missionaries was visiting an indigenous group in El Salvador and they were appalled by the lack of sanitation. There were no flush toilets anywhere. The available toilet facilities were crude, smelly, fly-infested pit latrines… But they didn’t know what to do. So, they shipped a dozen portable toilets down there at great expense…Well, the village in El Salavador got the portable toilets and the people there set them up. They even used them – until they filled up. The following year, the missionaries visited the village again to see how their new toilets were working.

M: And?

MS: And nothing. The toilets had filled up and the villagers stopped using them. They went back to their pit latrines. [The portable toilets were] filled to the brim with urine and crap, stinking to high heaven, and a fly heaven at that. The missionaries hadn’t thought about what to do with the toilets when they were full. In the U.S., they’re pumped out and the contents taken to a sewage plant. In El Salvador, they were simply abandoned.

M: So what’s your point?

MS: The point is that we don’t have a clue about constructively recycling humanure. Most people in the U.S. have never even had to think about it, let alone do it. If the missionaries had known about composting , they may have been able to help the destitute people in Central America in a meaningful and sustainable way. But they had no idea that humanure is as recyclable as cow manure. (229-230)

While missionaries (which is an unfortunate and problematic term in itself) have adapted and changed in many ways, the Christianity that sends them forth into the world to spread the Gospel continues to be clueless about many things. Only nuts like Pat Robertson blame pestilence on God or Satan anymore, but we still haven’t grasped some basic concepts about the nature of God’s creation, such as nutrient cycles. What’s even more disturbing for me as a Christian is that it’s right there in our own Scripture.

Designate a place outside the camp where you can go to relieve yourself. As part of your equipment have something to dig with, and when you relieve yourself, dig a hole and cover up your excrement. (Deuteronomy 23:12-13)

Perhaps this is the first compost pile. The first practitioners of humanure composting may have been those wandering Israelites. While I don’t want to bring back stoning, this is one Old Testament law that we could benefit from keeping.