Kinship with God: Indigenous Christianity in an Amazonian World

Ryan Schram on Aparecida Vilaça’s Praying and Preying

Aparecida Vilaça, Praying and Preying: Christianity in Indigenous Amazonia, University of California Press, 2016, 330pp., $29.95
Aparecida Vilaça, Praying and Preying: Christianity in Indigenous Amazonia, University of California Press, 2016, 330pp., $29.95
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In her latest book, Praying and Preying, cultural anthropologist Aparecida Vilaça examines how the Wari’, an indigenous society of Amazonia, became Evangelical Christians, and what they discovered about Christianity that Western missionaries did not know.

For many years, Vilaça has conducted ethnographic research among Wari’, whose villages lie in reservations in the Pacaás Novos river region of Rondônia state in Brazil. Her study focuses on the Wari’ community and the Wari’ way of life but some of the most fascinating moments of this book occur when she brings herself and her family into the story. Such moments reveal how much she and they have become part of the community. In one of these key moments, Vilaça describes how her adoptive Wari’ father, Paletó, would ask her to become a Christian:

“He attempted, as my father, to make me share his perspective, telling me that he would suffer in heaven, where he would be forced to refuse my pleas for water. Explaining why he insisted on talking to me about God, he said, ‘Were you not my kin [wari’ ne, “my people”]…’ ”

Wari’ are only humans (wari’) in relation to an other: their enemies or their prey animals that they hunt. From the perspectives of these others, the Wari’ are not wari’; they are predators and enemies, and the others are the humans. Enemies, prey – and by extension “white” Brazilians like Vilaça – are not simply different kinds of being. Rather each occupies a different perspective on the world. Animals are only different because “their body is like that.” That is, their differences are relative to how Wari’, as humans, see them; from their own perspective, these others are the real wari’ and Wari’ have different bodies. Yet, one is not really born Wari’. Rather, like Vilaça herself, one has to be incorporated into the community of the Wari’ and become part of their collective body by living together with them and adopting their perspective.

Over her many trips to Wari’ lands, Vilaça has studied many aspects of their cosmology, their way of life and its recent transformations. Praying and Preying, along with her past work, stands, in this reviewer’s mind, as some of the finest ethnographic expositions of what anthropologist Viveiros De Castro calls “Amerindian perspectivism.” As he and other ethnographers of this region have argued, Wari’ and other indigenous Amazonians live in a world in which many possible realities coexist as alternative perspectives. It’s not just that where one stands depends on where one sits, but that what one is depends on the perspective one occupies vis-a-vis others.

For Vilaça, one can only appreciate the consequences of the colonial encounter between cultures, particularly the Wari’ encounter with Christian missions, in light of this ontological multiplicity. The New Tribes Mission, an Evangelical Protestant organization based in the US, has proclaimed the Christian God for decades among the Wari’. While Wari’ first saw these foreigners as prey, they also knew that they appeared as an other to the other, and that both realities were equally present in the encounter. Now, Wari’ say that God sees them and says: “This is my true people [wari’].” Wari’ say that they are Christians because God made them his kin, just as Paletó says Vilaça and her children are also his wari’. Christian missionaries wanted Wari’ to change their lives permanently, and so see this as one particular culture’s way of expressing their religious conversion. Yet, although Wari’ people embraced Christianity, Vilaça tells us that they did so on terms that made sense to them. They converted to Christianity by adding a Christian dualism to their repertoire of perspectives on themselves. Though Christianity, or at least important strands within it, is premised on ontological dualism of mind and matter as an absolute fact – assuming, in other words that there is one single, objective perspective on reality, what Vilaça calls an “ontological reduction” – the Wari’ people rejected this simplification. Instead, they consistently shift from their perspective on God to God’s perspective on them and back again. Vilaça’s adoptive father, Paletó, conceptualizes heaven not so much as a place where he sits in the bosom of Abraham, but as a vantage point on others, even his own relatives, who are not saved and are condemned to suffer in hell apart from their kin. One cannot help but note that this is also how Lazarus experienced heaven, in the Gospel of Luke. Lazarus, too, beholds the suffering of the rich man in hell and wishes to bring him water. It is not simply the case that Wari’ have indigenized Christianity. Paletó’s way of conceptualizing his afterlife reveals the relational qualities present in the Christian story of salvation to which most individualistic moderns have become blind.

Many scholars of Christianity would acknowledge that its theologies have historically defined salvation as an inherently individual attribute. For that very reason, Christianity is and has been both a disruptive and creative force in many societies, especially in societies to which it is brought by outsiders seeking new converts. Yet, although Christian evangelists appeal to people as individuals, the social and collective dimensions of Christianity have always been an important part of its message. Paul’s advice to Christian wives of pagan husbands is to stay married and pray for their husband’s salvation. Augustine, to whom we can probably attribute the dominant model of Christian conversion as an individual choice to change, nevertheless was saved in part thanks to the prayers of his mother Saint Monica. Throughout the world, it remains the case that Christians may choose to be saved, but like apostles on the road to Emmaus, they see each other in the breaking of the bread. This is not just an alternative version of Christianity in which individuals are saved in the context of their ties to others. Rather, any kind of conversion is itself paradoxically predicated on an existing relationship between Christian evangelists and non-Christian hearers. This relationship, moreover, necessarily involves the translation of Christian ideas of faith into terms that will make sense to those who have no faith.

This in particular is the central problem of the anthropology of Christianity. Even now, with a substantial list of ethnographies documenting Christianity in various social and cultural settings (including and especially those of the University of California Press series, of which this book is one), the anthropology of Christianity as a culture still feels new. Perhaps this is because anthropologists of Christianity are still discovering new aspects of this individual–relational paradox. For instance, in his study of the Urapmin of Papua New Guinea, Joel Robbins argues that the conversion of this indigenous society took place in two stages, first as an attempt to draw in foreign resources for local purposes and then as a permanent rupture and realignment of the culture’s values driven by the inexorable logic of Christian individualism.

For Vilaça, Wari’ people have interpreted Christianity in terms that make sense to them as Wari’ living in a multiverse, while simultaneously remaining committed to the idea that Christianity requires an individual choice to abandon one’s old life in favor of a new self and a new identity. In some parts of the text, Vilaça nods to Robbins’s two-stage model and his additional claim that Urapmin Pentecostals continually oscillate between their indigenous kinship order and a Christian society of individuals. The more profound claim of her book, however, is Vilaça’s suggestion that two states, a Wari’ perspectival multiverse and a Christian dualist cosmology (in which one’s being is fixed) are simultaneously present in their faith practice.

To understand this claim, it is important to note first that Vilaça is taking up one specific aspect of the problem of conversion. She is primarily interested in Christianity’s ontological premises, and only secondarily in questions of Christian personhood and morality, which have so long dominated ethnographic studies of Christianity. For Vilaça, Christianity has always been based on a dualism of thought and substance in which one’s being is distinct from one’s knowledge or perspective. In this regard, she argues that Christian ontology is not simply an instance of Western dualism, but an example of an “ontological reduction” and an “aversion to paradoxes.” She is interested in the Wari’ because their difference cannot be comprehended as a matter of collective belief. That kind of statement would in itself be an example of the narrow dualistic thinking in which culture is distinct from nature. Rather, Wari’ and others are open to many different possible worlds, while Christianity, anthropology, and much of the rest of the Western intellectual tradition is trapped by its own assumption that nature exists independently of the mind’s relationship to it.

Likewise, although like others in her field Vilaça is interested in how Wari’ society has changed, she uses “change” to mean something besides a movement from one state to another. When she would sometimes observe that younger Wari’ know little of the old ways, elder Wari’ would simply say, “they are now completely white.” Upon first hearing this, she reacted with some horror at what the statement implied. Over the course of the book, however, Vilaça shows us that this is not how her Wari’ interlocutors understand their adoption of Christianity. In fact, when young people act in ways that suggest their acculturation, Wari’ see it as evidence that they have gained a new capacity. Similarly, in adopting Christianity, Wari’ believe that they gain a new kind of understanding: they can now see themselves as God sees them. God made Wari’ into his wari’, which is to say his kin, and a particular type of person with whom He shares the same existence. This is why Wari’ believe that in becoming Christian they become kin with all other Christians.

In this respect, Wari’ people see themselves differently than most Brazilians and other Indians see them. The institutions of global governance, as much as they believe indigenous people to be worthy of protection, also see cultural difference as something to be managed. In other words, they see many rural and indigenous peoples not as kin but as objects of intervention in the name of development. To the eyes of a white, metropolitan, Western-dominated global system, Wari’ people have not changed enough. Yet according to Wari’ themselves, they have changed and will continue to change into ever newer forms, while forging new kinship ties with other groups. Christianity in the end is simply another opportunity for Wari’ to learn a new way of seeing and to become something new.

It can also be said that Wari’ see themselves quite differently than do cultural anthropologists, who even after years of self-critique still mostly operate within a paradigm of cultural relativism. Insofar as cultural anthropologists generally want to understand other ways of life by situating them within the context of a culture, they implicitly commit themselves to an ontological dualism of mind and body, or culture and nature. Since the publication of Marilyn Strathern’s The Gender of the Gift in 1988, it has been the hope of many that anthropology would turn away from its own metaphysical biases, and instead turn to ethnography as a means to draw out the ways in which social actors themselves produce their own theories of their collective being in the ways they read their own actions. As Vilaça notes, “[Wari’] do not see themselves through the lens of culture.”

It is in this context – a Wari’ multiverse in which one’s being is contingent on the perspective one occupies – that Vilaça says we must ask the question of Wari’ conversion. Vilaça argues that some anthropologists, especially in the past, would lament upon hearing people of the Global South declare that they are truly Christian. Vilaça candidly admits in her book to feeling the pull of that same nostalgia. She and other contemporary ethnographers of Christianity recognize that the center of global Christianity is no longer in Europe. Unlike her, many of these observers focus on the culturally diverse forms of Christianity and thus still frame global Christianity in terms of continuity and change, as empirical facts. For Vilaça, however, one of the chief characteristics of the Wari’ way of life is the “capacity to alternate.” To quote from Debra McDougall’s recent ethnography of indigenous Christianity, Wari’ perspectivism includes a “radical openness” to others. For Vilaça, therefore, understanding them must entail a much more cosmopolitan and inclusive vision of humanity and of the Christian faith.

It may be that Christianity’s defining feature is not individualism as a value system, but the paradox that is necessarily created in real communities by the demand to seek individual salvation while creating a community of fellow believers. Wari’, like their shamans, are expert shapeshifters, and can successfully embrace both sides of this paradox. Paletó asks his daughter, Vilaça, to see her fate from his perspective, which means that he imagines his own salvation from the perspective of the damned. He cannot imagine heavenly rest without also imagining others experiencing torment. So he is motivated to create a reality in which all are kin with God. If Christianity is an ontological reduction, it will create these kinds of paradoxes wherever it goes. And, if so, perhaps the Wari’ are not so different from other Christians around the world, or even from actual Christian congregations in Western societies. Maybe global Christianity, which is already creating so many unexpected transnational connections through the global dissemination of Christian films, music, writings and other media, is in fact making all Christians kin. If that is true, then the anthropology of Christianity must also change in order to be ready to hear a new Christian theology: not one culture’s interpretation of Christianity, but the next phase in a millennia-old culture that has never stopped changing.

Ryan Schram is a cultural anthropologist whose work deals with how indigenous peoples of Oceania produce themselves as different kinds of historical subjects. He is the author of a forthcoming book, tentatively titled Harvests, Feasts, and Graves: Postcultural Consciousness in Contemporary Papua New Guinea (Cornell University Press, February 2018). His research website is