By Published On: March 4, 2008Categories: Religion1 Comment on Wigglesworth


“So how do you say this?” said the man eagerly as he pointed to the scrawl on his napkin. He repeated carefully back to me: “Wiggalswort.” Curiosity got the better of me and I asked the elderly but sprightly man who he was referring to. After all it was the first time that introducing myself as English (something that happens several times every day) had elicited that response.

I should have taken greater note of the gaudy yellow book under his arm: “Amazing true stories of the world’s greatest miracles!!!” Half an hour later I was still trying to feign polite interest at his recounting of the life of every 19th Century British missionary that had stepped foot on Latin America soil.

Victor, the Argentinean evangelical priest who cornered me in a café in central Cochabamba, had a knowledge of mission history that may well feature as one of the miracles in his book. I also have no doubt that it outweighed his insight into the history of pre-colonial peoples from either his home country Argentina or Bolivia.

sVictor is typical of the smartly-Sunday-dressed Bolivians – who walk in large groups around the village I live on Saturday mornings – asking if they can leave some biblical literature for us and talk about their faith. When Juliette asks them about how they include Pachamama (mother earth) in their teachings, they tend to make quick excuses to leave. According to a friend researching indigenous groups who have chosen to isolate themselves, the biggest threat they face in Bolivia is from evangelical sects determined to convert them.

Whereas for many centuries, it was Catholicism that seemed to determine to wipe out indigenous cultures, it is now evangelical Protestantism in all its different guises that has taken up that task. Any indigenous beliefs are dismissed by these evangelicals as “pagan” and “dangerous.” Catholicism by contrast at least seems to have come to an uneasy existence alongside traditional beliefs, evident in the syncretic ceremonies around All Saints Day and many local festivals. I have a friend Calixto – both a catechist and a traditional yatiri – who even goes much further and consciously mixes Catholicism with indigenous spiritual practices, arguing that the Church will have to change radically – accepting for example the need for chacha-warmi (men-female leadership) in the priesthood.      

Another friend, Yawar, a cultural activist, dismisses Catholic syncretism as another attempt to implant Catholicism into communities that would otherwise reject the foreign creed and instead assert their pride in the rooted age-long indigenous beliefs tied to the cycles of nature. Yawar points to the way that Catholicism has entrenched patriarchy and hierarchy, turns nature into something to be dominated, and which consistently has opposed radical change. Based on the historical evidence (even now the Church in the name of dialogue in Bolivia, consistently aligns itself with the elites and against social justice) it is hard to argue with him.

However as someone who was brought up in a Christian faith, who has profound respect for the radical (if often untold) nature of Jesus’ teachings and who has a deep-seated belief in God, I find myself closer to the views of Calixto, who says that Catholicism has become part of Bolivian life because it has values and truths that are universal. He asserts that many indigenous Bolivians are perfectly capable of deciding what to embrace and reject in Christianity and which indigenous beliefs and values they are determined to maintain as well. He sees his role as affirming that process, and encouraging indigenous communities to reassert their pride in indigenous beliefs.

However I do think Yawar is right that the church can never talk about a respectful relationship with other cultures or even eulogise its apparent tolerance of syncretism, if it is not prepared to recognise its responsibility for the genocide of indigenous peoples, question its age-long alliances with the structures of colonial and elite power, and its insistence that the only important truths lay within its belief systems.

At a time when the Australian government has finally accepted the need to apologise to the aboriginal peoples, it is time for the church to make a profound apology to the indigenous peoples for their destruction of peoples, cultures and values. Only in a spirit of profound repentance, humility and openness to other truths, can the Church truly communicate the true message of radical love that Jesus embodied. Without this the Church sadly continues its colonial course of destroying cultures and peoples whose values have something crucial to teach the world.


One Comment

  1. Sarah March 10, 2008 at 2:37 pm - Reply

    An interesting and thought-provoking post as usual, Nick. Did you see that the Vatican has declared that environmental pollution and accumulating excessive wealth are now mortal sins? http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/europe/7287071.stm

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