Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Wisdom, Part I

Sometimes I believe those of us of western European descent and heritage are the most ethnocentric of all peoples. Phrases such as the White man's burden, manifest destiny, and lesser breeds without the law ring out a belief in righteousness and superiority that history denies. This overbearing pride and presumption of the superiority of " the West" has been around for centuries. It has been manifested in numerous ways, from militant, evangelistic Christianity to colonialism and imperialism. It has subjugated and destroyed peoples and their cultures. It has also retarded the growth of those who have believed the deceptive proposition of European (White) superiority.

In recent days the words of the President of the United States, echoed by the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, have been full of this hubris of superiority. Mr. Bush and Mr. Blair suggest that governments based upon the English version of democracy and the economic system in which most of the means of production are privately owned and production is guided and income distributed largely through the operation of markets are superior to all other forms. Of course, they are not alone; there are many, even those who oppose their policies, who accept the same assumptions.

One way or another I have been saying the above for years. However, as any experienced preacher knows, the majority of us humans do not learn from our errors, whether they be errors of action or belief. If, however, we are offered what seems to us be a "better way," we may make adjustments to the paradigm out of which we live and act. That is especially true if the paradigm shift answers the question "what's in it for me?".

During the cold weather of the past few days, I took some time to rearrange and organize the many books in my library. During the process, I came across a book, based on a PBS series, entitled Millennium: Tribal Wisdom and the Modern World by David Maybury-Lewis, that I purchased and first read about ten years ago. That evening, I built a fire in my fireplace and Alex and I settled down in my easy chair to reread and explore the book. I have been reading it since.

The key words in the title are tribal wisdom. They are the antithesis of economic and political paradigm that drive us of the Western European mindset. The stories in the book remind me that we may not be so wise or superior in our belief tat democracy and capitalism are superior to all other forms of politics and economics.

For example, there is the story of Lende Mbatu of the Weyewa people of Sumba, Indonesia. The Weyewa do not use money. Rather, their economic system is based upon exchange. As one Weyewa elder explains it:

It's the custom of life... that we exchange our belongings and we don't hang on to what we have... We exchange favors and we exchange meat and we exchange labor-how else could it be?

Lende Mbatu's "burden of dreams" was a pledge he made to his deceased father's spirit construct his tomb from a twenty-five ton bolder. He needed manpower-a minimum of four hundred workers-to drag his huge rock from where it was quarried the mile to where it will mark the tomb of his father. Since the Weyewa do not use cash, Weyewa could not hire the needed laborers. However, since the economy and society is based upon the principle of exchange in which one's wealth in measured by the number of people with whom one has exchange relationships, he sent out the word to his community of the time and place of his need.

The story concludes on the day Lende set to move the boulder:

Lende's exchange partners arrive in great numbers. The stone is successfully dragged to its new location. Animals are slaughtered and a great feast in prepared. Lende is delighted. He has fulfilled his promise to his father, and he has increased his stature and wealth within the community. Lende looks around at the hundreds of laborers and guests and says to himself, "My corrals are all empty but my wealth is all around me."

My corrals are all empty but my wealth is all around me. His wealth is in people-in his friends who come when he calls and to whom he goes when they call. Is there not something we can learn from this "primitive" society and its cashless economy? I wonder again at our ethnocentric claims of superiority!


  1. well...i do know that there are alternatives to the market system. My mother's people lived communally and practiced self sufficiency and it was from they that Ghandi took many of his ideas.

    Globalisation and the whole global village idea has brought many advances. But I think we've lost a lot in the translation.

    In my heart, I feel we need to make a return to the local, in order to make a difference, globally. Spiritual Oneness is one possible by-product of the global village, but our global economic system is killing the planet as she is.

    I don't know what my part is in it, but I know I have to take part in a change.

    Thanks Nick, for bringing this again to the forefront of my mind.

  2. Nick, I think you should seriously consider taking posts like these and assembling them into a book. You have a real talent for simplifying topics like this and making them interesting and fun to read.

  3. RECEREND SUMANGALI TANIA PINK: Thank you. I wonder if there is any hope that our world can return to the days when people and corporations would expect to make a reasonable and honest profit rather than the enormous profits (such as Exxon's over the past few years) that are destroying people and cultures? Unfortunately, I rather doubt it.

    THOMAS: Thank you. I am doing what I love: writing and, in some ways, teaching and sharing. I really wonder if there is a way that I can make a living doing that?

  4. It makes you wonder, doesn't it? If their system was so bad then how did it work so well, and without killing the planet in the process (which we are so successfully doing)?

    More food for thought. Thanks Nick.


  5. I agree with Rose: that's a lot of food for thought.

  6. This is excellent, Nick!

  7. great post (and I like your new look :))

  8. The worship of the market god is the leading form of idolatry in our time.

    Millenium sounds good...I'm going to see if Netflix has it.

    Best wishes for your mother and you.

  9. Good points. Our greatest wealth is not in goods and money but family and relationships. ec

  10. The argument against societies without materialism is that peole are not sufficiently incented to work hard and achieve great things. For example, would a society like Lende's be able to develop cures for diseases?

    The argument for such societies is that materialism causes many of the diseases.

  11. I've always said that the "primitive" people can teach us so much. Theirs is a simple life, a peaceful wonderful it must be!!

  12. I can understand totally what you mean by tribal wisdom. I feel that those of us who are descendant from an aboriginal people of a land do carry that in our genes. Although it sometimes gets lost in today's capitalism, not that I'm not a capitalist...I am.

    However, I have always believed that the "white man" has a lot to answer to in their takeover of countries in the past and the way the indigenes were treated.

    (Steps down from high horse) I shall go now. If I keep going, I'll start haranguing and no-one needs that...grin.

  13. Our most important sources of wealth are intangible.

  14. True Wisdom.

    Thnak you!!!!!!!!!!!!