World’s End

John Ryle

  • The Missionaries by Norman Lewis
    Secker, 245 pp, £10.95, May 1988, ISBN 0 436 24595 7

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 millenial view, the prospect of the Christian message finally being heard in every part of the world brings mankind near to the end of time, a moment predicted in the Book of Revelation. It comes when the Great Commission of Matthew 28:19 to the Apostles is fulfilled, when disciples have been made among all peoples. At this point there appears ‘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 usher in the new heaven and earth foreseen by St John where righteousness reigns and death is no more.

The present inheritors of this apocalyptic strain in Christendom, evangelical missionaries attached to Protestant Churches in the United States, are engaged, therefore, in an urgent mission to reach the last remaining unproselytised tribes and translate the Gospel into their – usually unwritten – tongues, thus bringing the millennium to pass. Two organisations dominate this field, the New Tribes Mission (whose European headquarters is at Matlock Bath in Derbyshire) and the Wycliffe Bible Translators, known outside the US – in an attempt to gloss over their missionary purpose – as the Summer Institute of Linguistics. To a secular public more cognisant of American evangelism in its domestic form, thanks to the recent fiscal and sexual peccadilloes of TV preachers, it may come as a surprise to learn that these organisations, NTM and SIL, dedicated to the completion of the Great Commission, represent the biggest missionary enterprise in Christian history. Such people have 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 Two felling old growths of belief, planting the seed of the Word of God, harvesting souls.

Of the last remaining tribal 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 Fifties and Sixties 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. As 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, favoured by governments over Catholic missionaries even in these die-hard Catholic countries. For evangelicals do not concern themselves with human rights or social justice; they do not criticise government policy. 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 they are in active alliance with ranchers, loggers and mining interests, for they travel with the paradoxical baggage of imperial millenialism, where a vision of the end of the world is imbued with the values of a business civilisation, of capitalism triumphant. Missionaries of the evangelical persuasion are often the first to introduce their converts to wage labour, capital accumulation and the concept of land tenure, with attendant inequities and cruelties.

Evangelical literature is full of accounts of the pioneer missionaries’ acts of self-sacrifice and martyrdom. But secular observers, anthropologists for the most part, while not necessarily unsympathetic to missionary enterprise, have rightly been more concerned with their effect on Indian lives – effects to which the missionaries themselves often seem blind. Typically, these effects are a collapse of traditional social organisation, a catastrophic demographic decline and the subsequent haphazard incorporation of native populations into the squalid periphery 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 Asuncion. In the case of the few tribes 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. Missionaries is a book in this tradition, but its canvas is broader, its style more personal and episodic and its condemnation of the missionaries more unequivocal. Norman Lewis is a writer of unusual anthropological sensibility with an honourable record in the field: government policy in Brazil was changed 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 (reprinted in 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 began) and the Mexican Huichol Indians in the Sixties and ending with the Panare in Venezuela in the Eighties. These people represent contrasting cultural types: the Huichol are 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, long in contact with and resistant to Christian influence; while the Panare are genial savannah-dwellers, horticulturalists and fishermen co-existing peaceably with non-Indian ranchers, but, it seems, fatally sussceptible to the novel lures of missionaries.

Lewis’s guide among the Huichol was Ramon Medina Silva, a shaman of extraordinary gifts who was the informant and inspiration for a number of other writers, notably the American anthropologists Peter Furst and Barbara Myerhoff. In view of all the anthropological work on the Huichol, Lewis’s account of them is oddly nebulous. He was unable to join Ramon on the Peyote Hunt so we are not told what happens during this elaborate ritual, the locus of Huichol resistance to acculturation, despite the fact that there is a film made by Peter Furst and several books about it. Lewis also suggests, though he does not state, that Ramon, who died in 1971 shortly after his visit, was assassinated as part of a genocidal campaign against the Huichol, whereas 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.

Small details matter because ethno-journalism is properly subject to a radical kind of scepticism. Only the dedicated anthropological field-worker, speaking the language, knowing the people over a long period of time, can possibly claim any authority for his or her interpretation of events in such a society, so the sources of a reporter’s information are particularly important. (Missionaries is a book that documents complex events over several decades in obscure places among little-known peoples. Yet the publishers have 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 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. Lewis, it should be said, is generally impeccable in this regard. He records what he sees without sentimentality and faithfully reports the interpretations of named enthnographers – it seems he has a gift for charming this notoriously proprietorial breed of social scientist into willing co-operation.

But does he realise, for instance, that the principal translator of the texts of the Huichol pilgrimage, used by Furst and Myerhof and quoted by Lewis, is no ordinary ethnographer. He is revealed in the acknowledgments to Myerhof’s book to be Joseph E. Grimes of the Summer Institute – that is, a Wycliffite, dedicated to the systematic replacement of Huichol myths with those of Christendom. Like Moonies, like Creationists, the Wycliffe Bible Translators strive to infiltrate the world of secular education and scholarship, representing themselves as linguists or literacy workers, providing quasi-official language training for social-science researchers in a number of the countries where they work. (Their founder, the late Cameron Townsend, defended this ploy by analogy with Christ’s human guise as a carpenter.) Among Wycliffites, ethnoccntricity co-exists with the gift of tongues, sincerity with duplicity. They may be the only source of information on cosmologies they abhor.

In the case of the Panare, Lewis’s guide was Paul Henley, a Cambridge anthropologist, author of The Panare: Tradition and Change in the Amazon Frontier, who made a memorable television documentary about them in the early Eighties. Basing himself on Henley’s account 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 teach the Panare that the Panare are responsible for Christ’s crucifixion. For this crime, the death of the good shepherd (in Panare terms, 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 NTM 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 – a more recent arrival – the Summer Institute. In one or two cases, the routinised millenialism of the evangelicals seems to have got out of control: to pay their dues to God, some Panare simply sold all their possessions. And according to a Venezuelan Government report, the inhabitants of one village were persuaded to abandon their guns and fishing gear, 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 National Police. (The detail about the dogs adds credence to this story, stemming as it does from a reading of Revelation 23:14, where dogs, along with murderers, idolators and others, are excluded from the heavenly city.) But 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, a decline in ritual activity, a diminution of joy.

It’s 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, 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. This argument, of course, is for secular consumption, part of the divine deception practised by the Wycliffites, but it cannot be dismissed on these grounds alone. It is reasonable to argue, even from a secular point of view, that if the Indians must enter the modern world it would be better for them to come equipped with a grasp of its myths, whether they are the ancient millenarian fantasies of Christendom or the wonder tales of consumer culture, both of which the evangelicals purvey. If native peoples are trapped, as they now all are, by internal colonisation, 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 – not exactly 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 this report seems to me tinged with wishful thinking. It is certainly not typical of encounters between miners and indigenes. The more frequent outcome of such culture contact is sexual abuse, alcoholism, murder. And the victims, with very few exceptions, are the Indians.

Missionaries come armed with prophetic texts, a set of coercive myths. But the opposition, a broad coalition of anthropologists, community workers and radical Catholics, in their battle with the evangelicals, are also prone to embrace myth. In its naive form, their myth involves a primitivist romance about Amerindian life, an inversion of the missionary position: the forest as paradise and the serpent as Protestant missionary. 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 Lord. The two myths are opposed, but both, it may be noted, are in flight from 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 the opposition coalition have to steer a line between the celebration of traditional culture and an acknowledgment of the implacable process of global penetration.

This, I think, is why 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 their habitat. Lewis gives a figure of 250,000 for the present-day population of Brazilian Indians. This would, I think, be considered on the low side by most authorities, but there were ten, twenty times as many when the Portuguese first landed. He writes: ‘In the 1950s the great extermination of forest Indians began ...’ For Amerindians as a whole, the extermination began three centuries earlier. Now that the Indian massacres have more or less ceased, their habitat itself is under attack. Soon the forests will suffer the fate of the people who once inhabited them. Indian cultures are like rainforests: rich, complex, vulnerable. 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. There they may sometimes do good, picking up the pieces.

How do the Gospel fishermen sink their hooks in native hearts? It is true that the missionaries offer material advantages to their protégés and avenues of preferment (NTM workers are taught to single out Indians who are crippled or otherwise handicapped for special attention: these are often the most 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, the emergence of a consciousness linked to capital penetration and the awareness of sources of power outside the bounds of their traditional society. God, scientific medicine and the world market become powerfully associated with one another; capitalism and Christianity in the Americas appear to be co-terminous. 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 quickfire conversions. Threatened tribal peoples are liable to feel the allure – most people are – of a mythic system which 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, and 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 among the Panare. For the inhabitants of South America, furthermore, evangelicalism is perceived as US-made – on-line to the power centre of the hemisphere. To people adrift on the world’s rim all this makes a kind of sense.