“The Venezuelan government has given a Christian missionary group from the US until Sunday to leave the country.”
– The BBC, Feb 12
The BBC news report (provided below) refers to the government’s expulsion of U.S. missionaries from the Amazon region of Venezuela where they work to convert the Yanomamö Indians to christianity.
Napoleon A. Chagnon is a Professor Emeritus of Sociobiology at U.C. Santa Barbara. He first made contact with the Yanomamö Indians in Venezuela’s Amazonia, in 1964. An editorial review of the Fifth Edition of his book, Yanomamö, The Fierce People speaks of its author, Napoleon A. Chagnon,
“He gives an unforgettable portrait of an extraordinary people in this eloquent, meticulously detailed, and often passionate book.”
Based upon my first reading of the Third Edition of the book many years ago and third reading again this year, this editorial description of Chagnon’s book is modest. When the 3rd Edition was published, Chagnon had lived with the Yanamomo for about 4 years. In the last chapter of the 3rd Edition, Chagnon describes the effects of the missionaries – Catholic and Protestant – on these amazing human beings.
In addition to their “contribution” of “civilized” clothing to the Yanomamö culture, the missionaries brought with them a number of other less benign gifts: disease, guns, tourism and a systematic eradication of their way of life. Some would disagree with my use of the term – but I think of it as a form of genocide. This “systematic erasure” of their culture has never been complete. The Yanomamö are a strong and resilient people. Nonetheless, the overall effects of the missionaries’ attempt to convert these people from their way of life and view of the world to their own brand of christianity is a modern tragedy.
There have been many ways through which missionaries have brought harm to the Yanomamö, but I will only reference a few of the more obvious in this brief article.
The Yanomamö refer to themselves as “The Fierce People” – using great displays of ferocity with their masks and dances. But they have developed a wisdom that helps them avoid war by settling their differences with an organized fight between 2 individual tribesmen. The mildest of these is “chest pounding” in which one man stands in the center of the village compound and allows the other to strike him with a blow to the pectoral muscle. Typically the recipient of these blows can take only 3 or 4. Then the man who is struck takes his turn. This all takes place as members of the two tribes look on. A winner is declared and disputes are often settled in this manner. The introduction of guns began to change this method of conflict resolution in some of these tribes.
Professor Chagnon approached one Protestant Missionary and asked her why she gave a shotgun to a tribe who had only ever fought with chest pounding, club fighting and only with bow and arrow when they had an all out war. She explained that the shotgun kept the Yanomamö near their mission. After giving them the shotgun “for hunting purposes”, they were dependent on the Mission for their ammunition. This, she explained, gives the missionaries opportunity to “win them to Christ” – saving their souls. When Chagnon pointed out that the gun she gave was used to kill a man in a raid, she replied defensively that she heard this tribe had also received a gun from Brazilians and that he (Chagnon) could not be sure that it was her gun was used in the murder. Incredibly, this mission continued to give guns and ammunition to the indigenous people after this became known to them.
Chagnon asked another missionary a hypothetical question (paraphrase): ‘If your mission work brought a disease to the tribe you’re working with – a disease that killed 200 people – but resulted in the salvation of one of their souls – would you think the deaths would be justified.’ The missionary answered in the affirmative. The salvation of one soul for eternity is of greater value than 200 dying from a disease in this life.
“Chagnon had denounced them [missionaries] for encouraging Indians to live near missions, which renders them more susceptible to disease, and giving them shotguns, which increases their fatality rate. Hunters need dispersion. Concentrated, they quickly out-hunt the area. They become dependent on the mission for food. This gives the missionaries corporeal and hence spiritual power.”
Chagnon also described the way in which these missionaries have brought a great deal of tourism to the Amazon – resulting in funding for their religious work. An infrastructure had to be developed to support the tourism. Those who worked for the tourism industry exploited the Yanomamö’s hunting grounds and rivers, wiping out whole species from the tribal lands – species upon which the Yanomamö were dependent for food. One such animal was the river otter – once abundant in the Orinoco and its tributaries but non existent in the 70’s after tourism developed. This hunting and fishing by those who work the tourist industry is done to feed themselves and tourists! The Yanomamö’s food sources exist in a very delicate balance. They have to travel far to hunt and fish. The environment around one of their villages can only sustain them and the village garden for a limited period of time. After their surrounds are exhausted of food, they have to move their entire village to a new place. This often exposes them to an enemy tribe and sometimes to raids and war. When outsiders intrude into their environment it places them in danger.
When I was a young, ordained minister in Pennsylvania, I once visited the New Tribes Missionary “Boot Camp” (note the military term they use. Similarly, when they return to the U.S. to visit churches for fund raising, they call their one year return a “furlough”.) During those years, I lived with an indoctrination received from the fundamentalist christians – one that I received as a child and had had never critically examined. In 1965, I came very close to going to Venezuela as a New Tribes Missionary among the Yanomamö. I had peers who did go and as far as I know, continue to preach their gospel to the Yanomamö today.
In those days, I learned the New Tribes Missionaries’ views of these “lost souls” – the Yanomamö. I learned their clever methods for gaining the trust of the Yanomamö. To fully appreciate the motivation and work of these missionaries, one must first understand the priorities they hold for the people they have come to convert.
These missionaries truly believe that these people are condemned to everlasting punishment in a place “where the fire is not quenched and the worm dieth not” – unless they hear the Gospel of the Christian Bible and “receive Christ into their hearts” as their only Lord and Savior. Never mind that millions have been born, lived out their lives and died without ever hearing this “gospel”. If asked about such people, the answer from the missionaries is uniform: some are elected to be children of God and some are not! Just as with Fundamentalist (orthodox) Jews who believe they are the “Chosen Ones”, Fundamentalist Christians believe they are “Spiritual Israel” – the chosen ones. So strongly do they believe this that they go to places like the jungles of Venezuela to impose their “truth” upon people who are vulnerable to their approach. But their Bible doctrine does not tell us everything there is to know about their motivation to move their families to a remote place like the jungles of Venezuela
I knew 2 such men very well – men who were members of the church of my childhood – The Laurel Hill Gospel Tabernacle, Jennerstown, PA. I socialized with them, hunted pheasants with them and even worked with one of them for a period of time. These two men were living with their wives and children in a rural area of Pennsylvania. They had young children. One had a small chicken farm and sold eggs for a living and the other worked in the coal mines. It was my observation that neither were really happy with their lot in life. Neither had received a formal education beyond high school. Neither had ever lived away from the community in which they were born. Their views on child-rearing were authoritarian to the extreme and one was physically abusing his children while I knew him, justifying the abuse with a religious “spare the rod and spoil the child” mentality. Both received their only training and post secondary education from New Tribes Missions. When the opportunity came for them to escape their rather dull, hometown existence … to go to an exotic land, live in the jungle and receive high praise from their only social circle – the church – and become “foreign missionaries” – heroes – it was a no-brainer. They found an escape hatch and took it. They said of course, that they were “called by God to full time Christian Service”. A divine calling.
During my second visit to Venezuela in October, 2005, President Chavez made the decision to remove the evangelical missionaries from the country. The government acted quickly. During my third visit in December, over 100 of the 160 missionaries had been sent back to the U.S. Now about 130 are gone and 30 New Tribes Missionaries have left the tribal areas but remain in Venezuela.
It is interesting to see that in its news article below, the BBC does not bother to go into any of the real reasons for the eviction of the missionaries from Venezuela. It does not discuss the missionaries’ trampling on the culture of the Yanomamö, the introduction of disease, guns, powerful lights for night hunting and motors for their canoes – all of which contributes to the upset of their delicate existance. Instead, it only reports that President Chavez “… has called them spies of the CIA and colonialists”. But over the last 8 years, we have witnessed the Venezuelan government’s commitment to protect the indigenous people throughout Venezuela; thus we understand the moral underpinnings of this decision.
Based upon my study of Napoleon A. Chagnon’s remarkable life and research – and my personal experience with New Tribes Missions – I am absolutely delighted to see that President Hugo Chavez has had the wisdom and courage to remove these religious interlopers fromthe Venezuelan tribal landsand from having any contact with its defenseless inhabitants – the indigenous people – the Yanomamö – “The Fierce People”.
Mr Chavez has repeatedly told the missionaries to leave the country The Venezuelan government has given a Christian missionary group from the US until Sunday to leave the country.
President Hugo Chavez has repeatedly called for the expulsion of the New Tribes Mission, saying they are American imperialists.
He has called them spies of the CIA and colonialists.
Most of the 160 evangelical preachers and their families have already gone back to the US, after he asked them to leave last October.
Only 30 New Tribes missionaries are still in Venezuela.
For the past 60 years, the New Tribes Mission, which has its world headquarters in Florida, has been trying to convert indigenous groups in Venezuela to Christianity.
It is a non-denominational Christian society which says it is only funded by private individuals, not by the US government.
The missionaries live and work in the remotest areas of the country, including the Amazon rainforest.
Their goal is find tribes untouched by so-called “civilisation” in order to convert them to Christianity.
So far New Tribes representatives have been preaching to 12 different indigenous groups here in Venezuela.
The group says in return for agreeing to adopt the Christian faith, the indigenous people receive basic health care and literacy classes.
But a spokesman for New Tribes has told the BBC all the missionaries have left the tribal areas to comply with the Venezuelan government’s demands.
However this may not be enough for Venezuela’s Interior Ministry, which has called for the missionaries to leave Venezuela altogether.