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Monday, May 04, 2009

A review of "Spirit of the Rainforest"

I love reading missionary books. Though I haven't read every missionary classic (I still haven't gotten around to reading God's Smuggler though I am a huge fan of Brother Andrew), I've read most of them. From Don Richardson's Eternity in their Hearts to K.P. Yohannan's Revolution in World Missions to Bruce Olson's classic autobiography Bruchko, most missionaries that I know have a staple of books that they turn to for inspiration. And with the exception of Yohannan's book, nearly every missionary classic is written from the perspective of a white missionary. Never have I read a book narrated from the perspective of a life long shaman living in the remote jungles of the Amazon.

Until now.

Enter Jungleman, the narrator of Spirit of the Rainforest. Without giving too much away, I can tell you that Jungleman was a real shaman of the Yanamomo people that narrated his story over a period of several years to an American named Mark Andrew Ritchie before he died in 1994. According to a friend of mine, Dorothy Miller, who edited the book, Spirit of the Rainforest is in every university library in the United States, and for good reason. Jungleman's first hand narrative provides valuable insights for anthropologists into the lives and culture of a very remote Amazon tribe--even though Jungleman pulls no punches in describing his disdain for anthropologists.

Fair warning. Jungleman's first hand narrative may be one of the most violent books you'll ever read. Anyone who thinks that native cultures should be preserved no matter what (lest "Eden" somehow be spoiled) and that missionaries are guilty of cultural imperialism are in for a rude awakening. In Jungleman's world, and indeed the Yanomamo world, the jungle is populated by spirits that actively communicate with people. These spirits cause the Yanomamo people to raid villages, slaughter their relatives, take the women captive, and then wait in fear for retaliation. Like the Waodani people in End of the Spear, the cycle of violence and revenge has persisted for as long as any Yanomamo can remember.

What I really liked about this book is that it confirms one of the central themes I've written about in my latest book "Alone with a Jihadist"--namely that violence begets violence. Nowhere is this more evident than in a very moving speech given by Shoefoot, the leader of a mysterious village called "Honey" that happens to follow the ways of Yai Pada (the Yanomamo word for God). After his fellow villagers raid another village over a violent domestic dispute between a husband and a wife, Shoefoot, (also known as "Doesn't grab women" because he refuses to behave like other men in his position) has this to say to his people:
I want to talk to you about one little thing today. Those of you who can read have seen in Yai Pada's book where it says, 'If it is possible, as much as you can, live at peace with all men. And never take vengeance into your own hands, but leave room for Yai Pada's anger.' Yai Pada says 'Vengeance is mine, I will pay back.' Because you are my family and my best friends in the world, I want you to know that I think Yai Pada wrote those words just for us Yanomamo. You all know that our whole life all we ever wanted was vengeance. You old women know how you saved the bones of your relatives, waiting for your boys to grow up so they could drink those bones and go kill. You know that our old spirits always told us to kill for vengeance. Now we follow a spirit that tells us to do completely different. I tell you that Yai Pada wrote this for the Yanomamo because no one knows more about war than we do. We all know that no fight ever ends. We always make sure that it goes on and on. If we let Yai Pada take care of vengeance, then our fights will always get smaller. If he wants to kill them, let him. But we won't be blamed for it when it happens, and the fight will never get bigger. I'm not going to say I like what you did. You were wrong to try to take vengeance yourselves. When you take the fight to them, it always gets worse.

It would be very easy to read this story and praise Shoefoot for his courageous stance against violence in his culture. I'm sure many readers of this book have done that, and have missed the point entirely. Before you allow yourself to feel those warm fuzzy feelings of admiration for Shoefoot, I'd like to invite you to an exercise. Read Shoefoot's words again, but this time imagine an American pastor saying this to a congregation of Bible believing Christians on the anniversary of 9/11. I wonder how many members he would have left after delivering such a speech?

Is it possible that Yai Pada wrote the words "Vengeance is mine" not just for the Yanomamo people, but for us as well?