All posts tagged “Mayan

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Thinking theologically about economics and development

While in Portland for a conference earlier this year, Katie and I got to visit the famed Powell’s Books, along with our friend Elise. We had a ridiculously tiny window of about 30 minutes to explore the place between conference sessions, while it would take a full day or two to do the place justice. Nonetheless, I split my time between the Religion and Latin America sections (no surprise, right?). I ended up buying a book dealing with both.

God and Production in a Guatemalan Town (University of Texas Press) was written by Sheldon Annis 25 years ago, and focuses on the rise of Protestantism in Guatemala by honing in on social and economic trends in San Antonio Aguas Calientes, a small village near Antigua, a big tourist town in Guatemala.

There’s a lot less God than production in the book’s pages. The author himself concedes as much, but I was disappointed with that lopsidedness nonetheless. Throughout the book Annis attributes the rise in Protestantism largely to economic, social, and political trends in the country during the mid-80s. Only at the end does he concede that there may be more going on than meets the researcher’s eye when it comes to dramatic shifts in religious belief and practice. I think Catholics and Protestants alike would agree that their deeply held beliefs aren’t explainable in merely socio-economic terms. Nonetheless, for those who are accustomed to exploring how religion shapes culture (or how it ought to shape it), it’s helpful to consider how culture possibly shapes religion as well.

German sociologist Max Weber famously argued that a “Protestant work ethic” lay behind the rise of capitalism and the rapid creation of wealth in the West, and Annis draws on this argument when he explores the simultaneous rise of Protestantism and changes in economic activity in San Antonio. He suggests that the typical village in Guatemala has found its identity largely in Catholicism and its sense of “Indianness,” both remnants of the country’s colonial past. Additionally, the traditional village revolves around the milpa, a small plot of land used for growing corn and beans. This system is reliable for subsistence farming and it contributes to a sense of community harmony, but it doesn’t really work for economic growth. As milpas become overcrowded, those on the margins find themselves rethinking traditions and considering new ways of life.

It is here, in Annis’s view, that Protestantism finds an opening. While most Protestants begin from a place of social exclusion and economic hardship, many become entrepreneurial and end up doing comparatively well for themselves. Having left behind the “milpa logic” of their Catholic neighbors, Annis says, Protestants now embrace a very different “rags to riches” sort of logic, not unlike Weber’s analysis.

Though the findings of this book are by now a bit dated, I find all of this to be especially important and timely food for thought for Christians, whether Protestant or Catholic, who are working in the field of development. Several big questions come to mind.

What’s gained when shifts like these take place? Equally important, what’s lost? Is economic growth the absolute goal, trumping all other values including the “community harmony” represented in the more traditional way of life? Could there be a way to preserve traditional values alongside economic growth? How do we understand the connection between faith and development? Does one explain the other? Is the relationship symbiotic?

Our answers to these important questions hinge on our definition of development and our vision of “the good life.” And as Christians, we can’t define these things apart from our understanding of who God is, how he relates to the world, and how he calls us to respond.

Ultimately, of course, outsiders can’t be the ones to determine how those in villages in San Antonio will live. The men and women of San Antonio must be the ones to make their own decisions because they will be the ones left to live with the outcomes.

Yet this book serves as a reminder of something crucial: Christian development practitioners must be able to think theologically about their work, even while affirming the central role of community residents in shaping their own future, lest we contribute not to the community’s development, but to its eventual ruin.

[Photo credit:]

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Preserving Mayan language and culture in Guatemala

For a formative part of my childhood, my family lived in the western highlands of Guatemala in Sipacapa, a municipality of about 15,000. My parents were working as linguists among the Sipacapense, helping to preserve the local language which had been passed down orally from generation to generation, but, like the 21 other Mayan languages in the country, was at risk of becoming obsolete.

I was pleasantly surprised to see that Al Jazeera English’s Living the Language show produced an episode about ongoing efforts to preserve Mayan languages and cultures in Guatemala, where the Maya still comprise more than half the population, but where Spanish is used almost exclusively in schools, business, media and government.

It’s a fascinating look at what it means to be part of the majority population in a country long run by European-descended elites. “We can’t sit around and complain,” one Mayan leader says in the video. “We must act to save our language.”

[Image credit: Pedro Cruz Sunu via]

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Who is Rios Montt and why does it matter?

If you follow international news, you may have heard that a man by the name of Efraín Ríos Montt is set to appear in court in Guatemala this week. It’s important to understand why.

Montt is a former army general and televangelist who gained control of Guatemala in the early 1980s through a coup d’état.  He has long been tied to charges of genocide that took place during his short-lived rule as military dictator in 1982-3. During that time he had the full support of Washington, and in the midst of Cold War fears, Ronald Reagan famously asserted that Montt was “totally dedicated to democracy.”

As a sitting member of Congress until last week, Montt has enjoyed immunity from prosecution — until now. Importantly, while military leaders in Guatemala have always denied that genocide occurred (a claim that former general and newly inaugurated president Otto Pérez Molina continues to hold), Montt’s strategy has simply been to deny that he had anything to do with it — not to deny that the 626 massacres and 200,000 deaths over the course of 36 years actually happened. Military documents, for their part, seem to show a fairly direct chain of command from top to bottom during that time, so we’ll see how that argument holds up.

It’s impossible to understand Guatemala today without understanding its past, and Montt was at the center of one of its darkest hours. Here’s how I summarized the country’s recent history in a magazine piece I did on what’s currently happening in the town where I grew up:

Dietrich Bonhoeffer described history as the story of what people do with power. History has not been kind to Guatemala’s indigenous people. The country’s Mayan descendants, though comprising well over half the population, have time and again been dealt a losing hand by those in power.

After Columbus “discovered” the New World, Europeans  began settling in the region, usually exercising force as a means of gaining control in matters of politics, economics, and even religion. This wealthy and powerful Old World elite established large-scale coffee and banana plantations, or fincas, on Guatemala’s fertile lowlands. Many of the indigenous people, meanwhile, were pushed to resettle on small tracts of land in the more topographically challenging, and often less fertile, highlands, while some were forcibly conscripted into harvesting the fincas. The Guatemalan Catholic Church, which had by this time become a well-established social and political force, gave its silent assent to the new arrangement.

In the 20th century, with colonialism-as-usual waning, US interests at times assumed a less overt, but no less insidious, role in Guatemala. When, after years of dictatorial tyranny, a delicate democratic process resulted in the election in 1951 of a president committed to land reform, a major US fruit company with much to lose persuaded the Eisenhower administration that recent developments in Guatemala represented a turn towards communism. According to the domino logic of the Cold War, this was seen as an intolerable threat, and the CIA swiftly engineered a coup to overthrow Jacobo Arbenz, Guatemala’s head of state.

Within several years Guatemala had spiraled into a civil war over the struggle for land that would last 36 years, waged between left-wing guerrillas and the military forces representing right-wing dictators. Wanting nothing more than peace, the majority of Guatemalans — and especially the rural-dwelling indigenous poor — were caught in the middle.

After the signing of peace accords brought fighting to an end in 1996, reports by the United Nations and the Guatemalan Catholic Church (which had since “converted” to the side of the poor) revealed that the vast majority of  “disappearances,” deaths, and human rights abuses during the war occurred at the hands of the federal government and military forces. Among the most notorious offenders of human rights during the civil war was Efraín Ríos Montt, an army general and evangelical televangelist with strong US support, during whose short-lived presidency in 1982-83 the country saw an alarming escalation of rape, torture, and gruesome massacres of indigenous people. The United Nations accused him of genocide.

This was the world into which I was born at a small hospital in Guatemala City in 1982.

When I heard the news this week that Montt would finally be heading to court, I picked up a book by Victor Montejo, who as a school teacher witnessed one of the massacres that took place in rural Guatemala in 1982, and though he was tortured, he managed to escape with his life. The book is called Testimony: Death of a Guatemalan Village, and while it is terrible to read, I believe it testifies to the reality of what life was like for indigenous Guatemalans at that time. I hesitate to recommend it because it is vulgar and graphic, but it’s part of the legacy of the war, and one way or another, part of the legacy of Ríos Montt.

For those concerned with justice and peace, I’d encourage you to follow what happens with Montt and others connected to genocide and human rights abuses in Guatemala. God forbid that we’d ignore it, or that we’d lose this chance to learn from the tragedies of the recent past. And please, pray for the perpetrators, pray for the families of victims, and pray that some semblance of peace and justice would prevail in Guatemala at last.

[Photo credit: AP via]

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Repaso: Mayan apocalypse, LatAm’s economy, faith predictions, Alabama & immigration, Anne Lamott on writing, 16th century social media

1. Mayans weigh in on the end of the world
We’ve all heard about the supposed ancient Mayan prediction that the end of the world would come in 2012. Kevin Rushby with the Guardian has an interesting piece taking a look at the Mayans of today, and how rumors of an impending apocalypse have been greatly exaggerated. Rushby focuses largely on the Mayan religious landscape, including a look at the historical roots of their religious syncretism born out of a survival instinct:

The Mayans have had to survive for a long time as underdogs and they have done it by accommodation. When the Spanish came in 1523, plotting total cultural destruction, the indigenous people (Mayan is a catch-all term for several related languages and peoples) responded with guile. Images of Catholic saints were stuffed with old Mayan gods; parts of temples were incorporated into churches; at Nuestra Señora de la Merced in Antigua Guatemala you can see how Mayan masons carved symbols of maize and hummingbirds into the church facade.

2. The rise of Latin America’s economy
Al Jazeera English has a 25-minute feature on Latin America and how it has fared remarkably well in the midst of our current global economic woes. The show touches on mining in Peru and the rise of middle-class consumerism in Brazil. It’s encouraging to see much of the region rising out of poverty, but obviously the situation is not 100% rosy, and it will be interesting to see how these trends shape the region in non-economic terms:

3. Faith/religion trends for 2012
CNN’s Belief blog asked 15 faith leaders to offer their predictions for the coming year. Among them is Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, representing Latinos/Hispanics in the US:

America’s evangelical community will have its hands full addressing both a presidential election and offering a biblical response to “end of days” Mayan prophecies surrounding 2012. With the economy emerging as the primary issue for the November election, America’s born-again community will have an opportunity to contextualize an alternative narrative to the polarizing elements from both the right and the left by reconciling the righteousness message of Billy Graham with the justice platform of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. By offering compassionate, truth-filled solutions and focusing on the message of grace, love, reconciliation and healing, evangelicals will demonstrate that the greatest agenda stems neither from the donkey nor the elephant but rather from the lamb.

4. Churches and the problem with “welcoming the stranger”
The Los Angeles Times has a lengthy feature on one particular Southern Baptist Church in Alabama, which is seeking to navigate the difficult tension between anti-immigrant legislation in the state and its responsibilities as a faith community. The Get Religion blog also has an interesting analysis on the piece’s coverage of the religious angle in the story.

5. Anne Lamott on writing
Legendary writer and memoirist Anne Lamott had an essay in Sunset a couple of years ago (HT Michael Hyatt) with her best tips for writers, including how we use our time:

I’ve heard it said that every day you need half an hour of quiet time for yourself, or your Self, unless you’re incredibly busy and stressed, in which case you need an hour. I promise you, it is there. Fight tooth and nail to find time, to make it. It is our true wealth, this moment, this hour, this day.

6. 95 theses & 140 characters
The Economist has a fascinating take on Martin Luther and how earlier forms of “social media” had a lot to do with the success of the Reformation:

It is a familiar-sounding tale: after decades of simmering discontent a new form of media gives opponents of an authoritarian regime a way to express their views, register their solidarity and co-ordinate their actions. The protesters’ message spreads virally through social networks, making it impossible to suppress and highlighting the extent of public support for revolution. The combination of improved publishing technology and social networks is a catalyst for social change where previous efforts had failed. That’s what happened in the Arab spring. It’s also what happened during the Reformation, nearly 500 years ago, when Martin Luther and his allies took the new media of their day—pamphlets, ballads and woodcuts—and circulated them through social networks to promote their message of religious reform.

Repaso is intended as a thought-provoking compilation of news and commentary from the past week related to the intersections of faith, development, justice and peace. As always, I welcome your thoughts on any of the links and ideas in this roundup!

[Photo credit:]

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Repaso: Religion in development, immigration as civil rights, Mayan voter frustration, scavenging for gold in Guatemala, and integrated Latin America policy

1. A ‘devout atheist’ on the role of religion in development
The From Poverty to Power blog, by Oxfam research guru and ‘devout atheist’ Duncan Green, had a post a few weeks ago with an interesting case to make for the importance of religion in international relief, development and advocacy work.

2. New civil rights movement?
The New York Times has an interesting editorial and slideshow on the fallout from Alabama’s “oppressive” new immigration law, suggesting that immigration reform has become a new civil rights movement.

3. Mayan Guatemalans frustrated that their government can’t spell
Guatemalans went to the polls earlier this month for a runoff election in which Otto Perez Molina, a former army general, was elected president. The Christian Science Monitorhad an interesting story leading up to the election about how some 400,000 Mayan citizens have had trouble getting ID cards because of the complicated spelling of their names. Some aren’t buying the government’s excuses, though, saying this is just the latest evidence of anti-Mayan discrimination by the state.

4. A different kind of gold mining in Guatemala
My friend Tomas shared with me this heartbreaking story about those trying to make a living by scavenging through Guatemala City’s landfill in search of discarded jewelry and metal scraps:

At dawn, the scavengers arrive much as if coming to a regular work place. Many are wearing clean, ironed shirts and even whistling. They carry shovels and backpacks filled with their garbage bags, snacks and change of clothes. They leave their dry clothes at an improvised camp and start looking for treasures. Scavenging, which is prohibited by the government, can get particularly dangerous during storm season. The workers say many have died while trying to pick garbage out of water raging through the ravine. Dozens perished one day in 2008 when a mountain of garbage collapsed on them… Still, the “miners” call the dangerous heavy rain “the blessing of winter,” because the increased flow of water improves their chances of finding more metal.

5. Migration & development in Latin America
In October Bread for the World and Church World Service released a fact sheet about the connections between migration and economics in Latin America. Not surprisingly, economic hardship is the number one reason for migration from Latin America to the United States. These two groups are calling for an integrated approach to US development aid in Latin America with domestic immigration reform, which seems like a no-brainer to me. You can’t really address either problem on its own. I’d love to hear a presidential candidate offer a compelling vision for this sort of an integrated approach.

Repaso is intended as a thought-provoking compilation of news and commentary from the past week related to the intersections of faith, development, justice and peace. As always, I welcome your thoughts on any of the links and ideas in this roundup!