October 21, 2014
How to “Civilize” Primitive People
By Brittany Tedesco
Years ago, I sat across the table from a woman who attended the birthday dinner of a mutual friend. Though professing to be a Christian, she remarked how sad it is that missionaries invade primitive tribes and “civilize” them.
I would’ve agreed with her if she was referring to foreign colonialism, where invaders come in and urbanize the land by forcing out the indigenous people or relegating them to reservations. But as our conversation continued, I realized she viewed these tribes in much the same way as endangered animals or insects. She wished people would just leave them alone. Besides, what right do Christians have to infiltrate their cultures and take away their identities?
Many anthropologists share her viewpoint. For instance, in Peru, which is believed to contain the highest number of “uncontacted” tribes in the world after Brazil and Papua New Guinea, anthropologists have lobbied to give protected status to isolated, jungle tribes to keep them from outsiders.
The Ashaninka people, who reside in the rainforests of Peru, are like many primitive tribal groups who live in fear of spirit gods. And their particular beliefs have caused them to victimize children for generations.
When a problem arises, like an illness or injury, villagers assume someone stirred up an evil spirit…and children are typically the ones who are blamed. At the orders of their shaman, parents have been known to punish their children for alleged acts of witchcraft by beating them, burning them with fire or boiling water, and even burying them alive.
In Tanzania, albinos are murdered for their body parts, which are thought to contain magical powers to make people rich—rumors started by witchdoctors.
In fact, human sacrifice is a prevalent practice among tribes engaged in voodoo, animism, and other forms of witchcraft.
And I would venture to guess, even in this age of cultural relativism, that most people in developed nations would consider these cultural practices “uncivilized” or “barbaric.”
Secular anthropologist, Carolyn Fluehr-Lobban, who’s identified herself as a cultural relativist, became conflicted after studying how some African cultures treated women. It infuriated her. Upon confronting some of the men in these cultures, she was told to butt out. They used her argument for cultural relativism against her. If ethical and moral standards are relative to what a particular society or culture believes to be right and wrong, why should she try to change their culture?
Fluehr-Lobban is not a Christian. She claims no basis on which to correct the behavior of these tribes other than her own sense of morality. And yet, she’s willing to step in and try to change them so that…what? So they’ll act more “civilized”?
“When there is a choice between defending human rights and defending cultural relativism, anthropologists should choose to protect and promote human rights. We cannot just be bystanders,” she is quoted in Tim Keller’s book The Reason for God.
So what’s the difference between what she wants to do and what Christians want to do concerning primitive tribes?
One demands external change. The other offers a heart change.
When a life is surrendered to Christ, the Holy Spirit comes into that life and transforms it from the inside out.
People who once identified themselves solely by their ethnicity or culture now have a new identity. They’ve been transferred from the domain of darkness and into the kingdom of His beloved Son (Colossians 1:13).
In Christ there is no longer “Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28 NIV).
First and foremost, Christians are citizens of God’s kingdom. Culture is secondary. Striving and fighting to maintain an identity becomes moot.
As hearts change and minds are renewed through God’s Word, lives begin to change. Relationships are restored. Behavior that many would deem “uncivilized” or “barbaric” begins to stop, naturally—or should I say, supernaturally.
The gospel elevates. Life is produced when God’s principles are followed, and the natural consequences of sin are avoided.
Because native missionaries supported by Christian Aid Mission cared enough to share the gospel with the Ashaninka tribe, their perspective on the value of children has changed. And as they’ve discovered the significance of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross and His gift of unconditional love, they are no longer enslaved by fear of the powers of the spirits.
Their culture has changed. I guess you could say they’ve become civilized, although that’s a trite way of putting it. In reality, they’ve traded in their old identity for a new one.
In his book Exclusion & Embrace, Miroslav Volf makes the case that Christianity offers the most non-oppressive basis for self-image and identity. How so? Because this identity isn’t based on performance or conformance, it’s based in Christ.
In Christ, we can stop viewing ourselves as primarily an ethnicity or a gender. We’re so much more than that. We’re children, and friends, of the Living God. Why would we want to cling to any lesser identity?