Avoiding Indigenous Backlash

When I was a much younger man, I taught primary and secondary school at a resident-campus-program in northern Arizona, a handful of miles off the Navajo Indian Reservation. Much of how the school went about their business could have been ripped from a Catholic Jesuit School playbook 500 years before. Children were not allowed to speak their native language (since the staff, with its high turn-over rate, never learned Navajo), history curriculum were from the viewpoint of the White settlers, not one building had elements of Navajo architecture, even the food was mostly non-Navajo, etc., etc.

Fourteen years later I was visiting there with a work team to do some repairs on the campus. I was asked to address the staff on whatever subject I desired, during the weekly devotional time. What I chose to do was deliver a missiological paper on what happens when you position yourself to be viewed as the enemy of a culture. (Which is how the school was viewed on the Reservation, and attendance had plummeted to almost non-existence.) As Christians, with a doctrine of Creation and Creator, we ought to be the protectors of everything good, noble and praiseworthy in Navajo culture, I said. (Lots of Pauline material for this). When we aren’t, we not only become viewed as an outsider attack on the peoples’ own culture, but we sow the seeds for a second or third generation re-fascination with the original, indigenous religion, and a backlash against Christianity.

Have you noticed this? Christianization, currently, often comes simultaneously with a degradation of the natural environment and a tearing of the social fabric due to the overnight incursion of international civilization and connection to world markets. (Christianity doesn’t cause this, but it’s all happening at the same time these days). When Christians do not become the protectors of everything good, noble and true in a culture, you can bet that in a couple generations there will be a movement calling people back to their ancestors’ ways. Part of this is reaction to the decimation of traditional culture brought on by hooking up to the world money machine, and part of it is noticing the ills of civilization and their affects on the population. When this happens, all sorts of traditional – and important – knowledge starts getting lost, (‘What plant did grandma use for headaches? How did they make bows? How did they track and hunt boar? How did boys know they had become young men…?’), and people start talking nostalgically about their great-grandparents’ ways. That nostalgia becomes a powerful force, and creates backlash against the modern world AND Christian faith, as an outsider invasive species. This happens a lot in pre-modern societies these days, ones that were thrown into contact with the modern world quickly.

Have you observed some of this happening? What would this mean for your work? How could you and your organization be the protector of everything good, noble and praiseworthy in the local culture and religion? How would that change some things you do and say?

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Reinhold Niebuhr on Economic Disparity

I admit that I tend, like most people, I suspect, to think of terms like economic inequality, social justice and social disparity as phrases growing out of the 1960s social movements. I understand why some of my friends roll their eyes at these terms, seeing as there has always been economic inequality among humans on Earth – for our entire history! – and that such terms are often favorite code words today for confiscating resources that someone worked diligently to earn to help their family, and redistributing them to people who are not working. In a culture built on the Protestant Work Ethic and Germanic ideals of work-hard-be-rewarded-well-prosperity, it’s easy to see why many people consider these terms less than useful.

However, Christians have been concerned about economic injustice and disparity since the beginning. Christianity’s emphasis on God’s concern for the poor is drawn from its constant appearance in the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. Preachers as far back as Gregory the Great (540-604 AD) not only railed about concern for the poor, but also were already analyzing contributing factors as to why they were poor in the first place (Gregory himself observed that rural poverty due to a poor harvest had a different genesis  than urban poverty where the societal structures in place kept rich people rich and poor people desperately poor.)* John Wesley, Anglican founder of the Methodists, argued that a Christian should make as much money in his business as he could – as long as it didn’t harm his neighbor’s business! (Sermon: On the Use of Money). For myself, I am not against a factory owner making more money than the factory worker. Having known those owners, and their story, including un-assisted rags-to-riches stories that, yes indeed, were done without crushing anyone, not even systemically, I don’t have a problem that they are enjoying the fruit of their hard work. The ancient scroll of Proverbs in the Old Testament celebrated the cause-and-effect benefits of diligent work 3000 years ago. Every time someone succeeds, it does not mean it was via injustice, however hidden. A seven-person broom business in Bangladesh started with a Muhammad Yunus micro-loan shouldn’t have to listen to the charge of systemic injustice. I know American businesses started by very poor people that succeeded the same way. Constant assumptions of systemic injustice whenever someone does well, are over-reaching on the subject.

What does strike me as a new conundrum, is that in the current way our transnational corporate world is organized, the factory owner now makes over 350 times what the worker does, whereas 60 years ago they made about 12 times more than the worker. The fact that the owner was from that same town and felt a sense of responsibility for his workers, created a context in which all-or-nothing short term profits were NOT the order of the day. This is one of the chief reasons thinkers like Fritz Schumacher argued for smaller businesses rather than mega. But I got thinking of all of this when I was reading The Theology of Reinhold Niebuhr by E. Campbell today and came across this passage – using those terms like social injustice, in 1932! Here is Niebuhr’s quote, from Moral Man and Immoral Society: A Study in Ethics and Politics (1932):

                “The sharpening of class antagonism within each modern industrial nation is increasingly destroying national unity and imperiling international comity as well. It may be that the constant growth of economic inequality and social injustice in our industrial civilization will force the nations into a final conflict… the disintegration of national loyalties through class antagonisms has proceeded so far in the more advanced nations, that they can hardly dare to permit the logic inherent in the present situation to take its course. Conditions in these nations, particularly in Germany… reveal what desperate devices are necessary for the preservation of even a semblance of national unity…

                If the possibilities and perils of the contemporary situation are to be fully understood it will be necessary to study the class antagonism within the nations carefully and estimate their importance for the future of civilization.”

Heightened disparity undermining civilization. This from a landmark Christian theologian back in 1932. Interesting.

*Wealth and Poverty in Early Church and Society (Holy Cross Studies in Patristic Theology and History) Susan R. Holman, editor. 2008.

Etic not just Emic

Etic and emic are words that come to us from cultural anthropology. Emic views of a situation are from within, from inside the worldview of a particular culture, an intimate view. Etic views are those from outside, attempting to understand through comparison across many cultures. A big picture view.  

Most of us automatically think in emic categories – from within the culture or subgroup we belong to. Like all humans, I of course view things emic-ly, but you can also develop the habit of taking the etic view as well. So, for instance, when my college-age son once asked me “What do you think of tongues?”[1] Although I responded with all kinds of emic insider observations, my first reaction was etic: “Well, ecstatic mystical experiences show up in all the world religions. It’s something humans do. A certain portion of people find that to be a central component of their spiritual experience, others don’t seem wired that way.”  Or another, more nerdy, example: when asked recently to list ten things about myself, my first response was as etic as I could draw: “I am a biological creature, created by God, living in the Sol System of the Milky Way galaxy.” I probably should have said something about carbon-based or oxygen.

Viewing things from an etic perspective can help bring a wider perspective and break us out of narrow paradigms which are parochial and don’t take the big picture reality into account. We often emic-ly assume something has a theological raison d’etre when worldwide studies show it to have more of a cultural one. The fact that two of my graduate degrees had healthy doses of cultural anthropology  certainly helps me be aware of etic realities.  Cross-disciplinary reading is also very valuable in this arena. If you only read within one realm (say, Christian theology, or even a substrata of that), you often get caught drawing emic conclusions which are woefully lacking in awareness of etic realities staring you in the face. Some of the completely ignorant, and laughable if it weren’t so egregious, comments made by Christians regarding Islam are a common example these days. Understanding some of the practices in the Old Testament over three thousand years ago are another. Reading across the social sciences, hard sciences, and history, help protect us from embarrassing emic limitations.


[1] “Tongues” is an emic Christian word referring to the experience of glossalia. There are a variety of opinions on the subject from within Christianity.