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Indian Tribalism: The Communist-Missionary Ideal for Brazil in the Twenty-First Century (XV)

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November 30, 1977

PART III “Aggiornate” Missionary Voices

Section VII

Striking At Civilization

It is understandable that, deviating so profoundly from Catholic missionary tradition, the “updated” missiologists might formulate serious objections against it, as well as against its glorious corollary, the Church’s civilizing action.

30. The Methods of Anchieta and Nobrega Allegedly Caused the Dissolution and Death of the Indians.

From the document Y – Juca – Pirama – O Índio: Aquele Que Deve Morrer, signed by bishops and missionaries:

Everyone will agree that, in the name of a policy of integration that failed to integrate even the civilized, one cannot violate a culture that, although primitive, has guaranteed the age old subsistence of its peoples. A civilized society only has the right of speaking about integration of the Indian on the day there is no one dying from hunger in its midst.” (O Popular, Goiânia, 11/22/1973)

The brothers Villas-Bôas say about the Indians: ‘For centuries they have survived thanks to hunting, fishing, and a rudimentary agriculture. They are happy with their beliefs and their most beautiful rituals. Why then destroy this age old culture? Merely to impose our way of life on them? To civilize? What for? To destroy the existing tribal organization and afterwards leave the Indians marginalized in our society? (O Estado de São Paulo, 11/17/1972).

We should recognize that Christian entities, more concerned about ‘giving assistance’ to the Indians, frequently lacked this vision and sociopolitical conscience. As a consequence, under mistaken pretexts of an alienated charity, they frequently betray their evangelical mission of tenaciously defending the Indians from physical or cultural death or of respecting their liberty and dignity as human persons.

The Catholic priests themselves – as stated in a recent press article – after more than 400 years of catechesis, found themselves obliged to change their tactics, for if they continued with the same purpose as Anchieta and Nóbrega [sic] they would achieve nothing more than the dissolution, marginalization, destruction and death of what remains of indigenous Brazilian groups. And this change in tactics was precisely in the sense of respecting the Indian with his beliefs and way of life, to value his culture rather than seeking to impose the culture of those who are civilized. (O Popular, Goiânia, 11/22/1973) (Doc. 9, pp. 18-19)

Commentary
Not everything is wrong in this description. But what unilaterality, what exaggeration, what injustice!

Compare the somber surrealism of this text with the rosy unrealism of the description of tribal life.

31. Understanding Medicine Is No More Valuable Than Knowing How to Make Dye From Genipap.

From the book Cartas da Prisão by Fray Betto;

The other day, speaking with P., I asked:

“Who is more cultured? A physician or an Indian?”

“A physician, of course,” he answered me.

“Why the doctor?”

“Because the doctor went to school, read many books, learned to cure diseases and perform operations, and got a diploma.”

“Then tell me something: does the doctor know how to fish with a bow and arrow, to make dye from genipap, to recognize the cry of the copybara, form the trunk of a tree into a canoe, to cultivate cassava and maize, to weave the fiber of buriti, to light a fire without a match, to walk in the jungle without a compass and to prepare meat without salt?”

My companion thought a little and, half-surprised, answered:

“No. He doesn’t know how.”

“Then why do you say that the physician is more cultured than the Indian?”

“From what I’ve seen, the physician has the culture of a physician and the Indian has the culture of an Indian.”

From that moment on, P. came to understand something that the great majority of people with university diplomas do not know (in spite of the monumental work of Lévi-Strauss): that men more cultured than others do not exist; what exist are parallel cultures. (Doc. 23, p. 116)

Commentary
Here Fray Betto does not refer to two concretely existing characters: doctor X and Indian Y. If he had, he might be right. No one denies the possibility of a certain native in particular having, for example, an elevation of soul and an artistic sense greater than those of a given doctor. Now elevation of soul and artistic sense are cultural values. And from this standpoint, some privileged and exceptional Indian can, even in his savage state, raise himself above his peers.

Fray Betto, on the contrary, deals with general situations. That is, an average doctor as he customarily is and an ordinary savage as he usually is.

In the above text, he clearly denies the cultural superiority of the doctor over the savage. And he states uninhibitedly that the knowledge of medicine is in itself no more than “making dye from genipap, recognizing the cry of the copybara, preparing meat without salt” and the like. Now, in this, whether or not based on what he calls “the monumental work of Lévi-Strauss,” he completely lacks the most elementary common sense. The subversive friar takes this position invoking another absurd principle, that “parallel cultures” are not susceptible of being compared with one another, and that the statement that some men are more cultured than others rings false. In the final analysis, Fray Betto denies the possibility of any social hierarchy. Nature admits horizontal structures, just as communism denies any vertical structure in society.

Naturally, it is easy for one based on this principle to attack the meritorious civilizing action inherent to traditional Catholic missiology.

But what glory for it to receive such an attack …

32. The Price of Each Step of Our Progress Is the Ruin of One More Tribe.

From Fray Betto’s Cartas da Prisão:

The fact that the white race deems culture to be only that which it knows, led it to ‘pacify’ the Indians. Whom do the ‘savages’ harm? No one. They lead their lives, their culture, their history. But we, the whites, consider ourselves a superior race (and this complex led us to decimate the red men, to isolate the yellow race, and to subjugate the Negros). We forgot that the Indian had his own civilization, which in many respects was more advanced than our own (eg. Aztecs and Mayans). And with our amnesia, we have continued to delve deeper into the jungles, polluting the air and water, bribing the Indian as gift-bearing Greeks and corrupting him with our illusory promises. (Doc. 23, pp. 116-117)

Commentary
The thesis of “parallel cultures” underlies this passage from Fray Betto. Whence extending the goods of our civilization to the Indians seems useless to him and, in certain aspects, even harmful.

The question: “Whom do the ‘savages’ harm?” is astonishing. What about polygamy? And infanticide, which text number 22 admits as existing among them? Are these not harmful, especially for their weakest?

Concerning the specifically Christian benefits of the missionary’s civilizing work and the defense that these benefits provide against the neo-pagan influence of our civilization, see Part 1, numbers 4 and 5.

33. “See How They Are: They Are Ashamed of Their Own Bodies and Cover Their Skin.”

From Fray Betto’s Cartas da Prisão:

At times I imagine the chief assembling his frightened tribe in order to explain what is happening: ‘Brothers, be always wary, because at any moment these pale-faced savages could overtake us. Until this moon we have enjoyed the same peace and prosperity in which our ancestors lived. We have kept our innocence, without our heart becoming contaminated by ambition and malice; we have lived with what nature has provided us, without having to appropriate the goods of the earth or to define our territory; thanks to our gods, we have never known sickness, hunger, enmity; our youth is strong and courageous, our women fertile and pure. It is now, however, that the savages shatter our age old tranquillity. They threaten us with their fire sticks and their blades of steel; they frighten us with their metallic birds and they set traps for us with gewgaws without which we have spent moons and moons of happiness. See how they are: they are ashamed of their own bodies and they cover their skin, they go about destroying the jungle, scaring away the animals and withering the plants. They want to imprison us and confine us in their parks so they can destroy our land and our tribe. However, do not give up without a fight. The land that we tread on knew man when our ancestors came here, who left it to their children and their children’s children. It belongs to us and for it, which gives us life and nourishment without demanding work, we will fight to the utmost of our strength. (Doc.23, pp. 117-118)

Commentary
Fray Betto tries to see the civilized in the savage and the savage in the civilized.

In this text, with disconcerting one-sidedness, the “Pale-faces” – the civilized – are seen exclusively as malefactors.

Who can deny that there were some malefactors among the civilizers? But who can affirm that all civilizers were this way?

Although the text refers specifically to a Japanese group that “just settled in Brazil in order to export Indian artifacts,” several of its criticisms are allusive in fact to all the settlers that have worked here. Therefore, allusive also to the great civilizing missionaries that are one of the glories of our history. If they did not use firearms or commit injustices, they nevertheless taught modesty, agriculture, etc.

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