Right now at the Vatican in Rome there is a synod meeting of bishops and others on the issues of Amazonia, convened for three weeks by Pope Francis. Amazonia is a large region (almost 8 million square kilometers) that extends into eight countries: Brazil, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela, Guyana, Surinam and French Guiana. At first glance, it might seem like an odd subject upon which the Catholic Church should convene a synod, but on second glance, it makes perfect sense and ties into a long history with important relevance for today.
We Western “First World” people tend to think the great encounter with the world’s indigenous peoples is something that happened in the quite distant past, something that is basically over with. Admittedly, the aftermath of this encounter is still playing out, but we tend to think the encounter itself is something in the past tense. In Amazonia, this is not the case. There are hundreds of tribes there that have had extremely minimal encounters with the western world, and there are well over a quarter of a million indigenous people there who are living through this “encounter” right now, who are on the front line of this battle.
Moreover, what is and has been happening in Amazonia is emblematic of a tension that is occurring worldwide over the ever-increasing march of globalization across the entire planet. Peoples who do not want to step, or who have very serious reservations about stepping, onto the conveyor belt of the forces of globalization are facing massive odds against their survival. But the issues involved are much greater and more complicated than the survival of particular groups of native peoples. The issues involved touch upon international human rights, mission work, and capitalism’s global exploitative reach for ever more land and natural resources.
The Catholic Church is 2,000 years old and has been involved with, for better or worse, any number of “encounters” not dissimilar to this one in Amazonia. There is a massive institutional memory in the written record of the Roman Church that goes right back to the first century. Despite oversimplifications that you might read, the Roman Church’s record in its mission work has not been an unending horror story. Again and again, the Church has defended the rights and lives of indigenous peoples and encouraged the preservation of much of their native ways.
This Church policy was spelled out in some detail in a famous letter written by Pope Gregory the Great in the year 601. In it, he gave instructions to a monk named Augustine, whom he had sent to bring Christianity to the Anglo-Saxons in what is today England. Pope Gregory states clearly Augustine was not to use an iron fist in the conversion process, but rather the opposite. He was not to wantonly destroy all the people’s rituals and sacred places, but rather to slowly and carefully transform their meaning.
Of course, pagan rituals, such as human sacrifice and trial by combat, were to be stopped entirely — not such a bad idea, after all. But other things, such as the May pole spring ritual and the Yule log Christmas ritual, were fully allowed. Even our English word “Easter” (which is not used in the Romance languages) is a classic example of this process: our English word comes from the Northumbrian “Eostre,” meaning “dawn,” and also the name of a northern pagan goddess of spring. The Church at the time was well aware and condoned this overlapping of religious rituals.
Later on, the famous Catholic priest Bartolome de las Casas (1484-1566) spent his life crisscrossing the Atlantic and engaging in his lifelong “defense of the Indians” in the Caribbean and Mexico. He was the first to argue, successfully, that the indigenous peoples of the New World were fellow human beings, and he is thereby credited with creating the modern idea of “human rights.” The western exploitation of native peoples and their lands is a huge 500+year-old problem the Church has grappled with over and over.
The Working Document issued by the Vatican for the Amazon Synod (available online) lays out the hard questions at the absolute center of the situation in Amazonia. The document shows the Church is well aware this is a multi-layered, highly complex problem. The solution will, by necessity, involve mission work of a sort, but done with an approach that will incorporate Amazonian indigenous people’s religious rituals and attitudes toward the land into local, Brazilian Catholic traditions. There is even a word for this process: “inculturation.” One might say, “Well, just let those people remain isolated and 100% pagan residents of the jungle.” That is easier said than done. The Church knows, and enables, that the natives themselves must be directly involved, in charge of solutions and of their own fate.
Both legal and illegal encroachment into their native lands is being done by miners, cattle farmers, road builders, organized crime, gangs, etc. The current president of Brazil is staunchly against indigenous peoples’ rights and wants to stop setting native Amazon lands aside, keeping them undeveloped and “unused.” Just letting the native peoples be, letting them live totally isolated from all Western civilization is — sadly but truly — not a sustainable, realistic option.
As Karl Marx foresaw in his masterwork Das Kapital, the capitalist system will scour the entire planet, every square mile, decade after decade after decade, always seeking land, water, natural resources and people to exploit for profit. This is at the very heart of how the system works. Marx was right; history continues to provide the proof.
Sooner or later, all the Amazonian indigenous peoples will have to live through their own “encounter,” one way or another. We all have much at stake in their survival. We cannot sit by and allow them and their lands to be destroyed. The jungles of the Amazon are, as the well-known phrase puts it, “the lungs of our planet.” For physical, physiological and psychological reasons, the Amazon is ground zero in the battle for planet Earth, for the peoples of the Earth — and even for the soul of humanity.
I think we all should be grateful that the Catholic Church, under the leadership of Pope Francis, is responding to this challenge head on. The Church, with its long and complex history, has some unique resources — human, financial, logistical and intellectual — to bring to bear on this crisis.
It will be fascinating to see what will be coming forth from this Synod on the Amazon, both in terms of documents and in terms of hands-on actions on the ground over the next 20 years. The wheels of the Vatican grind slowly, but exceedingly fine.
John Nassivera is a former professor who retains affiliation with Columbia University’s Society of Fellows in the Humanities. He lives in Vermont and part-time in Mexico.