Strange Christianity Made in America: Part II by Randy Woodley

The customs of the Nacirema, a still very poorly understood tribal group, came to the attention of anthropologists about forty years ago. They are a North American group living in the territory roughly between the Cree and the Tarahumare tribal groups. Little is known of their origin, although tradition states that they came from the east.

In the mid-seventies a group of anthropologists formalized the studies of this very strange and powerful culture. I’ve dusted off an old copy of their studies from my shelf to remind myself how this tribe became so powerful and, if they have changed much? You may rightly ask the question, “Why study the exotic tribes like the Nacirema?” I think there are things we can learn about ourselves that are easier learned from a distance. Looking at other cultures helps us to compare and contrast our own cultures. For example, like us, Nacirema culture is characterized by a highly developed market economy, which has evolved from having a rich natural habitat.

Here are some of the anthropologists observations concerning this strange tribe.

Homogeneity

… despite diversities origin, tradition, and economic level, there is surprisingly conformity in language, diet, hygiene, dress, basic skills, land use, community settlement, recreation and other activities. The people share a rather small range of moral, political, economic, and social attitudes, being divided in opinion chiefly by their denominational and occupational interest.…

Despite their incredibly diverse beginning, Nacirema society has been built on the myth of homogeneity, discarding all minority and divergent views from the historical record so that only the higher classes of their society, (noted by their fair skin), get the credit for societal accomplishments. Often, those who are not considered to be part of the dominant group are treated unjustly, discriminated against economically, imprisoned, and even randomly killed with little concern from the dominant culture. The upper class among the Nacirema also enjoys certain economic and class privileges that the others don’t share.

Material Well-Being

The high value placed on such comforts has caused industries to be geared to produce ever-greater quantities and improved versions. Nacirema [sic] seem to feel they have a “right” to such amenities.

Nacirema society has produced incredible amounts of extraneous products, producing way beyond their own needs. In fact, the comfort level of this society has far exceeded most other similar groups. There is also an apparent lack of concern about how this mass production and mass consumerism affects others in the world. The result has introduced a worldwide epidemic of human slavery needed simply to supply the wants of the Nacirema but, because the production was so prolific, they understood it to mean that their divinity favored and blessed them above all others.

Twofold Judgments

A special characteristic of thinking, fully reflected in Nacirema [sic] ways, is that of making twofold judgments based on principle….A situation is assigned to a category held high, thus providing a justification for positive effort, or to one held low, with justification for rejection, avoidance or other negative action. Two-fold judgments seem to be the rule in Nacirema [sic] life: moral-immoral, legal-illegal, right-wrong, sin-virtue, success-failure, clean-dirty, civilized-primitive, practical-impractical, introvert-extrovert, secular-religious, Christian-pagan.

This kind of thinking seems to force Nacirema [sic] into positions of exclusiveness. If one position is accepted, the other must be rejected. There is little possibility of keeping opposite or even parallel ideas in one’s thinking pattern. This is not the case in other cultures. Judging people and actions as absolutely right or wrong may have been a source of considerable strength in Nacirema [sic] history but it has also created pitfalls, particularly in the way it has influenced Nacirema [sic] in their relationship with other peoples…And the greatest difficulties will occur if the outsider assumes that other people’s basis of judgment is the same as his, or even that proper conduct will be based on moral rather than other kinds of principles.

The twofold judgment is, perhaps, the most striking cultural value among the Nacirema. The very basis of the two-fold judgment is deeply rooted in this cultural value and it has produced a lack of tolerance of others revealed in their laws, but particularly in their religion, thus creating a moral dualism. Sometimes the twofold judgment is described as an ‘either/or’ rather than a ‘both/and’ kind of thinking.  Many other peoples have no difficulty holding two seemingly opposite concepts together with equal value but this cultural value, seemingly is found in all their thinking, including “moralizing,” which classifies all action as either good or bad, their own position almost always seen as the morally superior one. Such a morally high position has been necessary in Nacirema history.

In essence, Nacirema expansion through imperialism needed justification, placing the once indigenous population’s beliefs and practices on the wrong side of moral judgments. Exploitation and colonization of the former indigenous peoples and their land was justified because the beliefs and practices of the indigene were seen to be on the other side of the moral divide, they were “bad.”

Humanity Above Nature

Up to now, the Nacirema [sic] has attempted to conquer nature. It has been something to overcome, to improve, to tear down and rebuild in a better way. They have tried to “break the soil,” to “harness” the natural resources, to treat the natural environment like a domestic animal. They have divided the plants and the animals into categories of useful and harmful. Harmful plants are weeds and harmful animals are “varmints”—the first to be uprooted or poisoned and the second to be trapped, shot, or poisoned…It must be admitted that many of the achievements of the Nacirema [sic] are due to this conquering attitude toward nature. The enormous agricultural productivity is one such achievement, although credit must also go to the fact that there were large expanses of fertile land available.

This conquering attitude toward nature appears to rest on at least three assumptions: that the universe is mechanistic, that humanity is the master, and that human beings are qualitatively different from all other forms of life. Specifically, Nacirema [sic] credit themelves with a special inner consciousness, a soul, for which they do not give other creatures credit.

This worldview of material dualism is presently, perhaps the most costly to the Nacirema themselves and to rest of the world, (though they hardly admit it). Today, the activity and influence of the Nacirema has cost them dearly by depleting earth’s vital natural resources. The verdict is still out concerning whether or not the great Nacirema experiment has crossed the brink of recovery or if the planet can ultimately be saved from total ruin. Unfortunately, little hope remains since the Nacirema deny the possibility that all creation has spirit or soul and therefore, do not understand themselves in a connected relationship to all creation.

Conclusion

Through an apt understanding of values among the Nacirema we can see how they have got to where they are now. The results of their homogeneous myth of superiority, their confidence in material wealth (which made them believe they were favored by their divinity), their extreme over confidence in a dualistic morality based on the Twofold Judgment, coupled with a conquest mentality based upon material dualism, (they hardly ever live without war), has placed the Nacirema at the center of the world stage and now at the center of our concerns.

As Americans, we should be concerned about this strange group. We should try to learn from their mistakes. We should deconstruct the dualism in their worldview and make sure that the same problems do not affect our lives, laws and religion. In fact, if you haven’t figured it out by now, as an American, we need only to look in the mirror and see that every A-m-e-r-i-c-a-n is simply a N-a-c-i-r-e-m-a  spelled backwards.

 

Quotes taken from:

Arensberg, Conrad M. and Arthur H. Niehoff.  1971  “American Cultural Values,” in Conrad M. Arensberg and Arthur H. Niehoff, Introducing social change. Chicago: Aldine Publishing Co.

Spradley, James P. and Michael A. Rynkiewich. 1975. The Nacirema: Readings on American culture. Boston and Toronto: Little, Brown and Company.

  • Matt huett

    Brilliant and disturbing. Thanks for you insights Randy.

  • http://fromelshaddo.blogspot.com/ Robert

    Clever piece!

    I would love to hear the Informed Concsiousness speak to the solution of the “homogeneous myth of superiority, their confidence in material wealth (which made them believe they were favored by their divinity), their extreme over confidence in a dualistic morality based on the Twofold Judgment, coupled with a conquest mentality based upon material dualism, (they hardly ever live without war), “!

    Thanks again for a very thought provoking post.

  • http://pilgrimsgrace.blogspot.com SJ

    Interesting though, for an “anthropologist” this is the most pointed jargon. I mean. Nothing was said that hasn’t been for almost a hundred years. The ironic point made is that we obviously judge our culture much harder than we would any “indigenous” people. For some reason it’s acceptable for tribal people to hunt species into extinction, to murder those in class war fair, and to have strong beliefs in their brand of spirituality being truth. We cannot.

    The only defense that anyone has ever come up with as to why we are so hard on ourselves is simply, that we are indeed better. Sure, no one says it but, “we’re more educated,” “we have the responsibility,” “we should understand by now…” Understand what? Our own superiority.

    Of course I don’t believe this, it just bothers me when someone writes crap about our culture expecting us to “be better,” while maintaining all the real problems in the world happen because white people exist.

  • http://ethnicspace.wordpress.com randywoodley

    SJ, thanks for your opinion. I think you may have misunderstood. “All the real problems in the world don’t happen because white people exist.” But, many problems in America are happening because of the way in which European invaders and settlers live. This has everything to do with worldview and the myth of superiority, most of which is I understand to be unconscious–not deliberate. Native Americans are far from perfect but after a many centuries, they learned how to live on this particular land.

    • http://pilgrimsgrace.blogspot.com SJ

      I think to reduce “Native Americans” as we have for the last 60 or so years is underhandedly just as destructive as the was these peoples have been treated by those of European descent for years. First of it reduces them to a conglomerate whole they never saw themselves as. There was no “red man” until “white men” entered the picture. I mean, individual tribes saw themselves as individuals until they were unified by racism.

      That said this mythical “Native American,” (as a unit) never existed. The tribes warred often, sometimes continuously with each other. Genocides, forced into slavery, or thrown off their land. They were oppressive to women and those they saw rascally inferior.

      THIS is ABSOLUTELY no reason to “justify” the treatment they received from European settlers. I only mean to say that we are kidding ourselves if we think that Europeans originated this evil. To over romanticized a culture is patronizing.

      My point still stands that while Americans may well indeed live with a sense of entitlement (unconscious or not), I don’t see many cultures where this isn’t the case.

  • mike h

    SJ,
    I really appreciate your input. To think for a second that any human culture is pure and above criticism is simply wrong-headed. I think, tho, there are a couple things to add to the mix. White, North Atlantic culture has inserted itself, not only in North America, but around the world as the dominant culture. Admittedly, they had bigger guns than anyone else. But, they did it in the name of Jesus. And, we have continued to exert our ‘superiority’ in the name of some higher ideal that supposedly has its roots in some Judeo/Christian ethic.
    Yes, every other culture has, and continues, to view itself as the best. Sometimes with devastating effect. However, our strength should allow us to serve better not impose our way.
    As far as the other issues that Randy raised in this post, see parts 1 & 3. He has some excellent takes on the dualism that infects our culture.

  • art brokop II

    As a follower of Creator/Yahweh who walked among us this writing exposes the exclusivity that a mono cultural view of Creator’s heart (Bible) which in truth has become a “different Gospel” that the elder “apostle” Paul warned us about 2000 years ago. He being a man of an exclusive cultural group even though purveyor of Creator/Yahweh’s heart learned to understand the truth and became the first “cross-cultural” teacher/elder. We must learn this and return value to the peoples created by Creator as He made them so His complete image can be seen and experienced as we walk this His sacred workmanship! Pastor Art (on to the next installment) Aho randy

    • mikeh

      I love the expression “Creator/Yahweh who walked among us.” Both the transcendence and the immanence of our Beloved is expressed. I would like to add, if it’s appropriate, “Creator/Yahweh who lives within us.” Thank You Pastor Art.

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