Sunday, May 12, 2013

Not Always a Saintly Mission

Madre Laura and native Colombias
(Photo: Radio Super Popayan)
The national celebration over the canonization of Madre Laura, Colombia's first saint, should be tempered with reflection on the tragedy of America's indigenous people's since the continent's 'discovery' by Christopher Columbus.

Madre Laura worked tirelessly and selflessly to defend and evangelicize Colombia's native peoples and should be admired and honored for her efforts. I have no doubt that she meant the best and aided many native people.

But evangelization, one of the central themes of Europeans' interaction with Native Americans, has also produced great tragedy. Spreading the Catholic faith was one of Spain's justifications for colonizing the Americas (Spain had just driven the last Arab armies from its territory - and expelled its Jews and Moslems). But spreading Catholicism often became a cover for the exploitation, enslavement and even mass murder of native peoples.

Even in its most benevolent and well-intentioned forms, like Madre Laura's efforts, evangelization permanently changed indigenous people's values and ways of living. In southern Bolivia I saw the results of United States evangelicals' efforts to convince the Ayoreos, a hunter-gatherer people, to switch their faith from an owl to Jesus Christ and settle down around evangelical missions. But after the hunter-gatherers abandonded their traditional lifestyle, they discovered junk food, alcoholism, prostitution, crime and Western diseases such as measles, diabetes and obesity. When I visited them, they were inhabiting plastic and cardboard shacks in slums on the outskirts of the city of Santa Cruz. The slum did have a ramshackle Christian church, tho. I met a daughter of one of the missionaries, who expressed only pride in her parents' accomplishments.

In May 2007 indigenous leaders responded angrily to Pope Benedict's claim that Catholicism was 'not imposed' on native peoples.

"While we are believers" in Christianity, said Luis Andrade, director of the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia (ONIC), "we cannot accept that the church tries to deny its responsibility in the aniquilation of our identity and culture."

Of course, Christian evangelicals have not been the only Westerners to impact native cultures. Hunters, miners, soldiers, guerrillas, farmers and slave hunters have all done so, and without the evangelicals benevolent goals. And, evangelicals such as Madre Laura have often defended indigenous peoples and what remains of their culture from such hostile outside forces.

Still, it's hard to think of anything more fundamental to a people's culture and way of life than their religion. So, by replacing that religion with a foreign one, western evangelicals permanently change - and perhaps destroy - native people's ways of life.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours


Ally Brown said...

great post Mike.

I once had an argument with a Spanish guy who criticised British colonisation, which he said was only about murder, as opposed to Spanish colonisation which was entirely benevolent - "for language, religion and love!" he said. Quite apart from all the murdering and exploiting - of people and resources - the Spanish did, imposing a belief system by way of the sword can in no way be morally justified. I just can't understand how the spokesperson quoted here can insist that "we are Christian believers" while also knowing full well that they wouldn't be if their ancestors hadn't lost a battle. Doesn't he ever wonder what that says about the truth of his belief system?

I have a relative who is a missionary in Amazonian Peru. Whenever some smart-arse on the internet criticises atheists for being too forceful, I think of my relative - at the very thin edge of a very, very thick wedge.

Stuart Oswald said...

Whow,... This is jam packed with nonsense and bigotry. You've really outdone yourself here with this one. Don't know where to start.

Miguel said...

Hi Ally,

I was also struck by the indigenous man's insistence that 'We are believers.' In fact, I almost left it out, it seemed so strange. But I think that it's a reflection of how fundamental Christianity and Catholicism is to Latin society. Even more, he may feel that they need to be 'believers' in something, and feels they can't go back to traditional beliefs.

Stuart - I'd appreciate your pointing out the 'nonsense and bigotry' you mention.


Stuart Oswald said...

I'll just simply state that, you are living on occupied land!

Stuart Oswald said...

And for Ally, you really have no (reasonable) concept of religion or faith. Atheism is another belief system in itself! The funny thing is when an Atheist is so righteous, they are righteous from their own ignorance. Religion is not like going to a supermarket and choosing it for a day. Once you understand that, then you understand why the spokesperson holds Christianity has his faith.

Ally Brown said...

Stuart, to paraphrase Ricky Gervais, atheism is a belief system like "off" is a TV channel.

Stuart Oswald said...

To paraphrase myself, an atheist has a TV but continues to watch while it's off.