Some time ago, one of my favorite websites, The Revealer, posted an essay by New York University doctoral candidate in anthropology, Lucas Bessire entitled "The Real Point of the Spear". Bessire reviews the evangelical missionary movie End of the Spear, which depicts the saga of several missionaries killed at the hands of Huaorani indians in South America, relatives of whom eventually returned to South American to be reconciled with the villagers. Bessire introduces the story:
What some believers refer to as "the greatest missionary story of the 20th Century" began when five young American missionaries, led by Nate Saint, were speared during their attempts to contact the Huaorani in 1956. Despite this bloody start, the wives and sister of these "martyrs" returned to contact and convert the same Huaorani to evangelical Christianity. Immortalized in a 1956 Life magazine report, and brought to nation-wide television audiences in the 1960s, this narrative is credited with inspiring thousands of young Americans to become "warriors for Christ" in foreign mission fields, and over the years this triumphant tale has taken on shades of Gospel truth.
As is typical of most fundamentalist Christian publicity efforts, what is not presented to the public is far more revealing than those manufactured and cherry-picked tidbits that are woven into the presentation itself. Bessire does a fair job of reviewing the movie on its cinematic merits, even though he comes away less than satisfied:
Can such a poorly designed and executed film be an effective vehicle for the Christian message? Can faith hold it together? Surely not for secular audiences. End of the Spear's Indians are too wicked, the Saints are too good and the emotional climaxes come too fast. By the time we learn that Nate Saint supposedly ascended directly into Heaven, and actually watch the missionary's plane fly away into the sunset, the little anthropologist inside all of us is more amused than enraged.
But then Bessire gets to the heart of the matter, and for me, the real story that lies behind missionary work among indigenous peoples of the world today:
End of the Spear is more fiction than fact, more Judas than Jesus. If there were no stakes to this kind of project -- no real Huaorani, no real missionaries, and no real anthropologists -- then this review could end here. But this film does decidedly serious work in the real world by erasing the actual conditions and consequences of the evangelical missionary work that's still occurring all over lowland South America today, largely financed by the well-meaning constituents of North American churches.
Like all good propagandists, missionaries need to establish a clear dichotomy between themselves and their potential converts. The converts are typically considered "uneducated", "barbaric", "poor", "in need of spiritual fulfillment", "require Western medicine", "violent" or some other adjective that works. Missionaries on the other hand are "decent people", "civilized", "educated", "peaceful", "bringing God's love" or some other glowing rhetoric. In all cases, indigenous culture is ripped from its context and compared to a Euro-American standard.
The approximately 700 Huaorani, called Auca (Savages), that survived into the 20th century were only able to do so by fiercely defending their homeland on the south banks of the Rio Napo against explorers and colonists. In return, they were hunted down like animals, enslaved, and murdered whenever possible. As anthropologist Laura Rival and others have demonstrated, this violence was legitimated by exaggerated reports of their violent, aggressive nature; one suspects End of the Spear would play well for an audience seeking reassurance for such images... The movie replaces the all-too-human fallacies of the missionary heroes with grotesque European imaginings of indigenous savagery. This is a widespread colonial fantasy of indigenous nature that has consistently been used to legitimize violence and savage behavior by "civilized" populations against native peoples.
And what is never discussed about missionaries is the financial connection that typically uses Christian conversion as a cover for the exploitation of natural resources:
The missionizing endeavor among the Huaorani, as for many groups, was possible because of the convergence of corporate and state interests in taking possession of territory and resources that belonged to native people; in this case, rubber and oil. Missionaries were given exclusive state license to "contact," round up and sedentize particularly troublesome groups who were not sufficiently terrorized to surrender. All of this is erased from End of the Spear.
Finally, although depicted as heroes in the film, a look into actual motivations and dealings of the Christian missionaries who converted the Huaorani reveals a darker side that is conspicuously absent from the film:
The film's Christ-like portrayal of Nate Saint is complicated by reports from the anthropologist Lawrence Ziegler-Otero, who conducted fieldwork with the Huaorani in 1995-1996. Contrary to the film's core message (of the missionaries' Jesus-like non-violence), he reports unanimous indigenous claims that missionaries shot and killed a native man in the 1956 encounter. The film's portrayal of Dayumae's relationship with the missionaries is also intentionally misleading. The filmmakers conceal an unsettling characteristic that is typical of early "contact" work in lowland South America. Missionary success depended on linguistic and cultural translation, and they enlisted captive Indians for this purpose. In order to access these individuals, however, missionaries had to become complicit in local systems of slavery.
I spent a number of years in Africa (and am still conducting an archaeological project there) and unfortunately encountered missionaries on a number of occaisions. They were alway rude, disprespectful of local customs, and held the indigenous population largely in contempt until they were sufficiently convinced of the zeal of their subjects' conversions. If they weren't outright contemptuous, they played wonderfully at the role of used-car salesmen, using poverty and sickness as a weapon to convince the locals that life would be better if only they followed Jesus. There may be "good" missionaries: those who seek only to help out as as well as they can and prosyletize by their quiet work (I actually heard of one, a Catholic nun, who was apparently chastised by evangelical missionaries for never talking about God, only working hard alongside the local people - she replied that her actions were a much louder voice for God than all the preaching in the world). However, my experience with reading history, ethnographic accounts, and more imporantly witnessing missionary behavior on a first hand basis has always lead me to largely despise these people. I regularly lied to missionaries about the work I was doing in Africa, particularly when doing ethnoarchaeological work with the Hadza (I would usually spin them a good story about studying impala mating behavior or whatever struck my fancy at the time). Neither was this a position I came to suddenly: even when I was active in the Catholic Church, I never made contributions of any kind to missionary efforts.
Unfortunately, missionary work seems to be on the increase in Africa (and not just Christian missions - Islamic missions are on the rise as well). That is the last thing African nations need within their borders. But the lure of cash largely allows missionaries free reign in many of these countries (seems God's warriors can't get his message out without buying people off in the process). Indigenous people deserve better.