Friday, July 23, 2004

Indigenous Religion

My wife and I have been in Antigua, Guatemala for the last two weeks studying Spanish.  Today we got the chance to go up into the hills to the Temple of San Simon.  The rites there are a mixture of Mayan and Catholic practices.  People pray to the local saint for healing and favors.  They can receive blessing with holy water from the priest.  They also light devotional candles for various purposes.  Our Spanish teachers who came along (and happen to be Pentecostal Christians) told us that the different colors of candles represent different types of requests: red for love, green for prosperity, white for protection, black for curses, etc.  I'm not entirely sure that they had the full story on this, though.  They are a bit biased, as you might imagine, and consider the whole thing pretty satanic.

The local rites also include some animal sacrifice, mostly chickens, though we didn't see this happen in the hour or so that we were there.  The main type of sacrifice, though, seemed to be burnt offerings outside in the church grounds.  We sat and watched one of these.

The man began by using incendiary sand to create a design on the ground.  I couldn't really make out the design this man made, but other people seemed to be making an even sided cross with a circle around it.  On top of the design, he put what seemed to amount to chunky sawdust.  Then he started to place the candles.  He started with off-white.  He took about 12 clusters of 20 candles each and spread them around in circle.  Then he started to set out the colored candles, beginning with white, black, red, and yellow.  If I were to believe my Pentecostal guides, I would think he was praying for protection, love, curses, and whatever yellow stands for, in equal amounts.  However, I remembered that these colors are the colors of the cardinal directions, north, south, east, and west, in Native American tradition, and that is how he had them laid out.  He then spread out some blue and red candles around the circle.  He prayed over the pile of what now must have been at least 1000 candles.  He prayed over it from all four cardinal directions, making the sign of the cross over it and himself several times.  After a few finishing touches and some alcohol sprinkled over everything, he lit his prayer pyre.  He continued praying and offered four eggs in the fire.

Our guides were a little offended by the whole thing, but I couldn't help but feel in the presence of God and prayer.  Sure, these traditions were very different than the Americanized Protestant brand of Christianity that is so present even here, but when you think about it, it's really not that different than much of the Biblical traditions.  The Hebrew Bible is filled with directions and examples of animal and incense sacrifice.  Mary was purified in the temple after the birth of Jesus with the sacrifice of two doves.  Jesus participated multiple times in the animal sacrifice rites of the Passover.  These Mayan traditions are different than my own, but I could not help but feel that God was being reached.

I think it is important for us to rethink our view of indigenous and other religions.  The typical view is to see all indigenous practices as pagan and demonic and to attempt to replace them completely with the Christianity of the missionary's own country and culture.  Why can we not see that these people already know God in some way?  How can we think that we worship a God who created the entire universe, with billions and billions of stars and God only knows how many worlds, but that God only revealed Godself to a few Christians on this small planet?  How can we think that the prayers of others are not heard by God?  Why can we not be in dialogue with those who understand God differently instead of trying to destroy everything they have and know?  How can we, the ones who have come in and destroyed cultures and economies around the world in the name of higher profits at home claim that we have a monopoly on the truth of God?


Blogger Brian said...

My boy, I'm afraid it sounds like you've earned yourself a one-way ticket to Hell. Iliff really has gotten to you, hasn't it? :)

I agree that it's insane to believe that all powerful, almighty, omniscient God revealed Himself occasionally for a couple of thousand years to some weirdos wandering around in the desert, then stopped entirely.

In all seriousness, one thing I think is fascinating is listening to evangelical missionaries. They talk a lot about fighting "syncretism." Syncretism is (in their minds) the tendency of "native" people to take what they're learning about Christianity and mix it in with local traditions and religious practices. This is a bad thing because they're obviously missing all of the important parts of Christianity.

Of course many of these same missionaries miss how American Christians have made Jesus the champion of capitalism and the hero of democracy. It's amazing to me that they can criticize people for making Christianity relevant to them and their lives and completely miss the fact that Americans (for the most part) have done the exact same thing!

9:18 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think it might be a little bit presumptious to say he is going to hell.

There seems to be many different ways to do things in the world. As you travel you learn things you never thought existed. A like wise for travelers to the US. Did you know Australians do not know what ranch dressing is? Here it is an American staple, like ketchup.

I think religion follows much of the same pattern. We are all communicating with God to be better people. I think some people have just found different ways to do so.

8:53 PM  
Blogger david said...

I think brian is just making a joke about me going to hell. We were, after all, both groomsmen in each others weddings.

I agree with you that there are a huge variety of ways that people communicate with God. Even just within the Christian tradition there is such a diversity that it's hard to even tell that we're all supposedly part of the same religion.

10:12 PM  
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