by William J. Kornfield
As far as an analysis of Fishers of Men or Founders of Empire? is concerned, unfortunately this book is not an objective appraisal of Wycliffe Bible Translators/Summer Insitute of Linguistics.
Fishers of Men or Founders of Empire? This book is a prodigious work. Seven years of research went into a rather carefully footnoted, 344-page work. Each chapter has anywhere from 49 to 152 bibliographical references. The author purports to give an objective critique of the history, development, and present work of Wycliffe Bible Translators/Summer Institute of Linguistics. Beginning with the death of Chet Bitter-man in Colombia in 1981, and a biographical sketch of the founder in Guatemala, the author then describes William Cameron Townsend’s work in Mexico and Peru, as well as analyzes SIL’s activities in Colombia and Ecuador, briefly touching Bolivia, Brazil, Panama, Vietnam, Indonesia, and Africa. The book ends with a rather severe critique of SIL’s work among the Aucas of Educador.
As far as an analysis of Fishers of Men or Founders of Empire? is concerned, unfortunately this book is not an objective appraisal of Wycliffe Bible Translators/Summer Insitute of Linguistics, as even some of the subtitles indicate in the table of contents: "Bible as Weapon," "The Lord Himself Didn’t Tell the Whole Story," "The Founder Adjusts His Halo," "Who Preaches God’s Word Down Here?" and "Authentic and Ruined Aucas." It seems that David Stoll, the author, continually impugns motives and makes unfounded inferences and value judgments, overgeneralizations, and misleading statements that cannot be proven, as some sample quotations will illustrate: "But among North American evangelicals, who found their promised land without overturning the social order, millenial expectation has become associated with prosperity and privilege of empire. Hope for the end of this evil age readily translates into support for militarism and counter-revolution" (p. 24). "While the Summer Institute was organized as an intrigue, it is clearly an evangelical intrigue with its own jealously guarded objectives" (p. 86). "For the membership, Townsend constructed a new and sanctified semantic universe, a cult of divine expediency derived from evangelical means but essentially privy to Wycliffe itself" (p. 79).
Phrases that imply guilt but lack substantiation are rampant: "quite possibly," "perhaps," "is likely that," "one can imagine that," "probably," "said to be," and "may have" are typical. There are also many loaded statements that impute false motivation and/or involve guilt, such as, "ulterior purpose," "inspire disbelief," "lend an air of fraud," "manipulating native language," "alleged indispensability," "special interest lobby," and "near magical powers of manipulation." Such statements are value judgments without factual proof, apparently made with the explicit purpose of discrediting SIL as well as other evangelical missions.
Yet, in fairness to Stoll, not all of his statements regarding SIL and evangelicals are negative, and on occasion, he seems to present some aspects in a favorable light: "Besides reviving pride in the Quichua language, reducing family violence and democratizing religion, the new religion is being used to strengthen the reciprocity networks necessary to survive growing land scarcity, competition and individualism" (p. 214). "To Representative Alejandro Carrion it was clear that SIL was offering Indians Christianity, not imposing it; preserving their legends; and teaching them reading, hygiene and civilized forms of life" (p. 216). "The North Americans were doing what Mexican linguists never had been willing to, work in the most remote parts of the country without conveniences of any kind and for little pay" (p. 227). As an interesting corollary to Wycliffe translators working under difficult conditions at great personal sacrifice, it is insightful to note that SIL in Bolivia has trained four national linguists, none of whom are working in tribal areas today.
One of Stoll’s central concerns is to demonstrate the seeming duplicity of the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL)-a "non-sectarian institute was pledging itself to a sectarian programme" (p. 64), thus claiming that SIL has purposely hidden its true identity as an evangelical missionary organization, known as Wycliffe Bible Translators in the States, and SIL on the field. As I carefully perused the book and then reread key sections of it, I realized that the author himself, in spite of his bias against evangelical Christianity, has undoubtedly done SIL a service. Many of Stoll’s statements demonstrate the very opposite of duplicity, a few of which are cited here: "Buoyed by his success with the Chol, John Beekman went to Guatemala and told the President that the Bible would set Indians free from superstition" (p. 52). "Hearing the founder’s hope of translating the Bible into Mexico’s Indian languages, the grave direct Cardenas asked only if the linguists would help Indians in practical ways as Townsend was" (p. 66). "Yet like other evangelical groups in the Brazilian Amazon, SIL is known for circumspection. ‘They are more concerned with Bible translation . . . and spiritual conversion than with economic or political work,’ a Survival International Observer summarized" (p. 220). "The Summer Institute’s largest branch also promises to excel in promoting local Bible translation" (p. 244).
Quite apart from Stoll’s book and Wycliffe Bible Translators’ Translation magazine, there are many statements from the Peruvian Press and Time magazine that have clearly indicated the spiritual nature of SIL, such as: "Yet SIL workers are missionaries too, in their way. They call themselves ‘Undenominational evangelical Christians’; their fundamental purpose is to produce a translation of the New Testament into every language they deal with and to make sure that the people can read it with comprehension" (Peruvian Times, July 25,1958). "Already 16 of the 24 tribes with which the Institute has worked have been provided with alphabets, primers and textbooks . Researchers are now working on translations of the Bible. Among the most important works submitted: a translation of the New Testament into Piro, translations of the Gospel of St. Mark into Machiguenga and Amuesha" (Time, April 30, 1956).
As a missionary and an anthropologist who has spent a quarter of a century in Latin America, I have known many Wycliffe (SIL) workers and never once did I have cause to question their commitment as Christian missionaries, or have cause to think of them as being deceitful in hiding their true intentions. I have never doubted that SIL members were missionary linguists, committed to using scholarship to serve both God and man.
While I do not question Stoll’s sincerity, it appears that his biases, which are largely political and economic in nature, have led him to gather much of his information from unreliable sources which had an axe to grind. Thus, his documentation not only often lacks factual proof, but in some cases is based on falsehood, such as stating that Mr. Townsend was stripped of an honor previously awarded him in Mexico (p. 230); that Peru’s system of bilingual education did not include a single Peruvian linguist (p. 145); that SIL "harrassed, bribed and tricked" warlike Aucas "out of the way of the oil companies" (p. 296).
Also in the light of current anthropological thinking and practice, the best way to understand a culture is to get an insider’s view of the society by positive identification over time, living within their cultural context, rather than simply studying and observing it as an outsider. I hardly think Stoll’s "two nights" in Cushillococha (p. 147) qualify him to evaluate that situation, even from the most elementary principles of anthropological field work. His approach stands in marked contrast to SIL translators’ long-term residence among the tribes, something that secular author Matthew Huxley mentions as key to much of SIL’s success in the tribes (Farewell to Eden, p. 214).
Apparently, many of David Stoll’s biases, some of which appear to be religious in nature, are based on presuppositions that do not allow him to see that WBT/SIL has made significant academic contributions, is not a religious sect, and has no geo-political objectives. Thus, his statement, "Behind the academic facade was a religious sect, and behind that were geo-political objectives" is best understood in the light of presuppositions that have led him to make false conclusions. It is certainly to WBT/SIL’s credit the positive way they have responded to negative criticism, as evidenced in the superb letter printed in The Other Side (February, 1983) by SIL anthropologist James Yost, in answer to David Stoll’s charges against Wycliffe Bible Translators. One of the most encouraging aspects that has grown out of the tensions created by a book like Stoll’s has been the sober reaction of WBT/SIL leadership to seek out what ways his criticisms could help the world’s largest nondenominational mission refine its policies, improve its presentation and, where necessary mend its ways. It is to be hoped that other missions will be as positively sensitive to outside criticism, and respond in kind.
In spite of the many inherent weaknesses in the book, Stoll needs to be heard, not only by WBT/SIL but by other evangelical missions. The author gives some valuable insights about how others see us in a politically volatile world. My intention here is to sift through the author’s biases against evangelical Christianity, take his otherwise negative criticisms and turn them around positively, and thus profit from some of Stoll’s observations. In my attempt to differentiate fact from fiction, I am indebted to WBT/SIL workers, leaders, and anthropologists for taking the time to answer specific questions, either personally or by correspondence. As a result of such inquiries and my own perusal of Fishers of Men or Founders of Empire?I have come to the following conclusions:
Sincerity is not enough. If we are interpreted as being something very different from what we perceive ourselves as being or doing, then reassessment of the situation should be made, along with appropriate measures. For instance, the high profile of a large, modern, Western-style jungle base like Yarinacocha in Peru has been a special target for those who think in terms of North American encroachment, imperialism, and "state expansion." Another example of possible misinterpretation is the dual nature of WBT/SIL. Apparently in some instances WBT/SIL may need to spell out more clearly to some host governments the relationship between the Summer Institute of Linguistics and Wycliffe Bible Translators. The WBT/SIL dichotomy is not an irreconcilable dilemma between the sacred and the secular, but rather a healthy plus factor as these two aspects are integrated into a whole-where scientific contributions become a sacred trust and one’s faith certainly is involved in such contributions. This is particularly true in Bible translation work, where good science and linguistics go hand in hand with accurate translations and meaningful literacy work.
While I do not advocate "going native," when the disparities become too great between our Western lifestyles and the people we have come to serve, we will need to seriously reevaluate the effect of our material possessions and technology on non-Western egalitarian oriented societies. SIL’s jungle bases have often appeared to be isolated islands of North American affluence. For this reason, I have long been an advocate of taking bilingual education out to the tribes rather than bringing native peoples into modern, technologically advanced bases. A corollary of Western affluence also applies to other missions, where expatriates live in luxurious urban homes quite out of keeping with their own backgrounds and their ministry to the lower ranked social classes of the Third World.
For those missionaries working with tribal peoples, it is imperative that the gospel be lived out and then shared in humility and simplicity, devoid of Western cultural trappings. Our leadership training and community development projects are still largely cultural transplants, where Western values and thought forms continue to be superimposed on Third World peoples. We still feel we know what’s best for indigenous peoples, even though our publications speak of self-determination principles as though this was common practice. Respect for indigenous cultures and self-determination need to be priority working principles at the forefront of all cultural contact and penetration.
In preparing tribal peoples to be independent of us, capable of defending themselves in the face of exploitation from the outside world, such peoples must be free to choose or reject those elements from Western civilization that will best fit their needs and enable them to cope more effectively. While the missionary linguist can make them more aware of the options and alternatives beyond their own tribal setting, the ultimate decision should be theirs even though it may go against the translator’s "better judgment."
Superimposed change is generally counterproductive and short-lived, lasting not much longer than the missionary’s physical presence. It is certainly to WBT/SIL’s credit what secular writer Matthew Huxley points out in Farewell to Eden (1964), a positive, objective analysis of WBT/SIL work among Peruvian tribes: "It is therefore heartening to see how a number of S.I.L. field workers have attempted to strike a balance between the two poles of total Peruvianization and total withdrawal into a protected society."
Any Westerner working with tribal peoples needs to realize the de facto political and economic , implications of such work. Will contact with Western civilization lead to oppression and marginality by the larger society, or preservation and true development of the smaller? Are we really interested in saving aboriginal lands for the aborigine, or do we sometimes compromise indigenous populations in order to keep on the right side of government? Where self-determination principles contradict the government’s view of "integration" into the national culture, our first priority should be the tribe’s welfare. Since ethnocide occurs when native peoples lose their right and ability to maintain self-determination, can the missionary linguist be politically neutral and thus viewed as supporting the status quo of continued injustice and exploitation from the outside?
While vested interests from the outside world often usurp the native community’s right to choose for itself, the tribal missionary should do everything possible to positively influence attitudes that are biased against indigenous populations and often result in "integration" at the lowest end of the social scale. Again, as Matthew Huxley points out in’ Farewell to Eden, a number of SIL translators have done a creditable job in defending human rights and preserving native lands.
Career workers should be proficient in the national or official language of the host country, as well as having a solid understanding of the historical, economic, and political background of the national culture. This is essential to helping indigenous peoples, as the missionary often becomes the cultural broker between a tribal people and the larger outside government. Thus in Latin America, mastery of Spanish (or Portuguese in Brazil) as well as a good understanding of the larger culture, is critically important for those workers called to labor among the isolated, often oppressed tribal groups in lowland jungles or the Andean highlands.
It is important that support personnel-technicians, short-term workers-administrators as well as linguists, have in-depth training in cross-cultural communications and cultural anthropology; otherwise they will be prone to think and act only in those categories already familiar to them from their own home background. Senior administrators, who have taken early retirement from successful business careers in the West, are particularly susceptible to blind spots in cross-cultural situations. More often than not our Western, compartmentalized, individualistic, and efficiency orientation tend to obscure a holistic vision of the Third World, as well as tribal peoples, and their needs. In the case of aboriginal peoples, these Western values become handicaps that not only short-circuit effective communication, but blind one from seeing the often negative consequences, and far-reaching capitalistic implications of what is being done to an egalitarian society; by using the term "capitalistic" I am referring to a system of economics where personal, individualistic gain takes precedence over the well-being of the whole.
Finally, I believe that the kind of attacks Wycliffe has experienced will increase. Quite probably certain political and anthropological organizations will distribute Stall’s book widely, especially in countries where WBT/SIL is working. The implications for all evangelical missionaries are obvious. Therefore, it is essential that this book be read, studied carefully, and discussed. We cannot keep our heads in the sand while the world passes us by, or buries us in the process.
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