Editor’s Note: It is clear to anyone who investigates the history of West Michigan that religion has played a significant role in both promoting and resisting systems of oppression. The religious right for nearly 200 years in West Michigan has acted as a counter-revolutionary force to either silence or co-opt efforts to challenge power and privilege. This is the first in a series of postings that look at the role and function of the religious right through a People’s History lens.
Reprinted from The FUNdamentalist (April 1996)
In October, Ralph Reed, director of the Christian Coalition, spoke in Grand Rapids by invitation from the Acton Institute. (Founded by a Catholic priest, the Acton Institute believes that Christianity and Capitalism make great bedfellows) In attempting to localize the influence of the Religious Right I gave a presentation at the Institute for Global Education the month prior to Reed’s visit. While researching the local connections I was amazed at how many groups there were and what role they play on the international scene. This essay will focus on the Wycliff Bible Translators/Summer Institute of Linguistics work and their relationship to the Illinois based group, The Bible League, which has its Latin American branch based in Jenison, Michigan.
Around the turn of the century a growing number of Christians, called Millennialists, thought that the Great Tribulation would occur by the year 2000. This cosmological view of the world prompted many missionary groups to work towards evangelizing the planet before the rapture, with the hope of bringing more souls to Christ. One such young evangelist, Camerond Townsend, felt that more than any other population in the world, indigenous people would benefit the most.
After being challenged to translate the Christian New Testament into a Mayan language known as Cakchiquel, Townsend decided that he would develop an organization to translate the Christian bible into all the indigenous languages in the world. Thus the Wycliff Bible Translators came to be. This was in the 1930’s when there was some antichurch sentiments running through Latin America. To avoid the appearance of being missionaries, Townsend decided to call his overseas operation the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL), to lend more credibility to his efforts. In the end the SIL, who’s claim that they were not an evangelistic organization, came under significant fire for their deception as a linguistic group and the role they would play in the colonization, exploitation and genocidal policies directed at many indigenous communities around the world.
While researching the historical role of SIL I discovered that a local group, The Bible League, was translating Christian bibles for SIL in Mexico and Peru. I wrote to The Bible League to ask if they were aware of the accusations made against SIL by well known scholars, anthropologists and Indigenous groups? A Rev. Chester Schemper wrote me back stating that “SIL publicly and categorically denies these charges as completely false. We have every reason to accept SIL’s categorical denials.” Rev. Schemper and the folks at SIL may categorically dent these accusations, but there is too much credible scholarship that says otherwise.
SIL formally has its beginnings in Mexico. Cameron Townsend was invited to Mexico by a government official who was impressed with Townsend’s work in Guatemala. Townsend was quickly able to win over the administration of Lazaro Cardenas in supporting his project to learn the native languages of southern Mexico. Cardenas was very impressed with Townsend’s projects that he even bought him a brand new car to show his gratitude. So why would a government that tended to be anti-clerical give such support to a Christian group like SIL? Consistent with most “liberal” and “revolutionary” governments in the Americas, Cardenas was hoping to bring the indigenous population more fully into the national identity. This strategy has been employed mostly to provide cheap labor for expanding markets, but also to snuff out potential indigenous led insurgent movements or the support of those movements. The work of SIL fit nicely into this nationalist program.
Beginning in the 1970’s, however, SIL came under attack from Mexican activists, indigenous groups and anthropologists. One example of this criticism came from anthropologists who were shocked when they found out that a SIL translated dictionary of the Tzotzil speaking Maya of southern Mexico had eliminated both Spanish and native words for ideological concepts that threatened the status quo. Interestingly this came at a time when there were significant conflicts in the region. Another anthropologist cited in Is God An American: An Anthropological Perspective on the Missionary Work of the Summer Institute of Linguistics (Hvalkof & Aaby, 1981), observes that SIL encouraged indigenous people to submit to the repression since it was being perpetrated by the local authorities. “If any of you are killed by the bosses….do not retaliate. God is the one who has set the bosses in authority over us; therefore we must pray for them. They are part of God’s plan…God is in control and He always works for our good. It is impossible for anyone to kill us before God says we can come home. If we are killed by them, let us consider that since God is over all, this is part of his will.”
In 1979, a commission from Mexico’s College of Ethnology and Social Anthropology had presented the government with a report that concluded “SIL supports the expansion of capitalism in areas rich in natural resources, opening these areas to the capital markets and turning the population into a docile and cheap labor force.” (Spiritual Warfare, Diamond 1989) This comes as no surprise when one realizes who has been funding SIL over the years. In Thy Will Be Done, the authors give us this list: the Pew Family Sun Oil Company, Nelson Baker Hunt Placid Oil, Standard Oil of New Jersey, Weyerhauser, Samuel Milbank Corn Products Corporation, USA military surplus, USAID, US Department of Defense, CIA and the US State Department just to name a few.
When I wrote The Bible League and inquired as to their relationship with SIL, I also asked “do you think that Indigenous communities that have practiced their own forms of religion for centuries need Christianity? Is Christianity a superior form of religion, and how do you respect people’s basic right to engage in their own form of worship and beliefs?” Their response was “The Bible League is convinced that what the world needs more than anything else is the Bible, which introduces men to Christ in who people can find hope for now and eternity….If the people were to respond to it, this would certainly be a lot better world to live in.” At this point it would do us well to ask for whom is it a better world to live in? From all of the sources I have read and cited here, just in regard to SIL, suggests that indigenous people are worse off than they were before the missionaries invaded their territory. In fact, SIL has been very intolerant and antagonistic towards the religious traditions of the indigenous groups they have come in contact with.
SIL has viewed indigenous religious beliefs and practices as the “principle abode of Satan.” (Fishers of Men or Founders of Kingdom, Stoll 1982) In standard imperial fashion this missionary group even equated the indigenous peoples troubles with their practice of “witchcraft and shamanism.” With this kind of thinking it is understandable that these kinds of religious groups would feel that their work is not only good, but necessary. Indeed, like much of the Cold War rhetoric, SIL saw the influence of communism in many countries, where nationalist or revolutionary movements grew, as the influence of Satan. To collaborate with US government agencies or US client state authorities was standard fare in the battle for people’s souls. This imperialist practice even reached into the realm of culture. Stoll cities one example where SIL was “supplanting Amuesha sacred music with its own. Set to Amuesha words, all too familiar tunes like ‘O My Darling Clementine’ and ‘The Battle Hymn of the Republic’ were leaping out of cheap play-back only cassette players which translators distributed from Peru to Guatemala.” This may not seem like such a big deal to The Bible League or many others, since it is the very nature of missionary groups to engage in this type of religious and cultural imperialism, but in the realm of international law it is simply called genocide.
According to the 1947-48 Genocide Convention “genocide does not necessarily mean the immediate destruction of a nation. It is rather intended to signify a coordinated plan of different actions aimed at the essential foundation of life of national groups, with the aim of annihilating the group themselves. The objectives of such a plan would be the disintegration of the political and social institutions of culture, language, and national groups…” This type of genocide, sometimes called cultural genocide, is stated quite clearly by the North American Congress on Latin America in regards to SIL, “The integration policies, however designed to abolish the reservation, wipe out the material basis for any possible continuance of indigenous culture. These policies force upon the Indians a whole spectrum of relationships based on private ownership of property and remove the underpinnings of their cultural survival.” (Report on the Americas – NACLA 1973)
For the past 20 years or so SIL has been the target of much criticism by numerous groups, especially indigenous. In 1980, at the Inter-American conference, delegates denounced SIL and asked that conference participants withdraw an honor that had been given to SIL founder Cameron Townsend in 1972, Benefactor of the Linguistically Isolated Population of America.” The decision was unanimous. According to Guatemalan author Victor Perera “SIL officials pressured Guatemalan politicians not to ratify funding for the Academy of Mayan Languages in 1990” for fear of losing control over linguistic work in the country. (Unfinished Conquest, 1993) Perera goes on to cite Mayan cultural activist Demitrio Cojti on the SIL, “The time has come for Mayas to reclaim their own languages as well as the distinct cultural vision they sustain. We have no more need of foreign excavators and interpreters of our Maya heritage.”
It is my view that as Mayans and other Indigenous people struggle to reclaim cultural autonomy, and in some cases political sovereignty, we need to respect and support these efforts. The Bible League, even though it may deny the charges of SIL participation in government and corporate crimes, it is still an accomplice in genocide. In many ways they serve the same function as Catholic priests did who blessed the European conquest of the Americas, chaplains who blessed soldiers and bombs as they murder civilians, or Christian leaders who encouraged the anti-semitic and fascist policies of Nazi Germany. One might ask how providing bibles overseas could be equated with the heinous atrocities committed in the previous examples? One may remember that US Chief Justice Robert Jackson, who presided at the Nuremberg trials against war criminals, sentenced Julius Stricker to death for his part in the Nazi extermination campaign. Stricker’s crime was acting as the editor of a German newspaper that dehumanized the Jews and contributed to the German public’s acceptance and participation in genocide, particularly with the racist caricatures of Jews on the pages of Der Sturmer. The Bible League does no less, since its literature promotes a cultural assimilation that can lead to cultural genocide.
I would encourage people to challenge the Bible League on this matter by contacting them at 16801 Van Dam Road, South Holland, Illinois, 60473 or call the Jenison, Michigan office at 616-457-3900. Also, I would suggest that we investigate and challenge the activities of any and all foreign missionary groups to see if they are engaged in similar activities. Ultimately we may need to call into question and challenge the very nature of mission work, since it is based upon the assumption that the truth they proclaim is superior to that of Indigenous people.