Ayahuasca and Transnational Religious Poetics (Roger Green)

This conference script was partially delivered at the Telos-Paul Piccone Conference in New York, February 15-16, 2020. The conference theme was: “After the Welfare State, Reconceiving Mutual Aid.” The implicit idea of Mutual Aid was advanced in Peter Kropotkin’s 1902 book, Mutual Aid–A Factor in Evolution. Kropotkin argued against social Darwinist attitudes stressing competition, which followed ideas of natural selection in Darwin. Social implications underwrote differing attitudes between emergent twentieth-century notions of communism and capitalism well before the Bolshevik Revolution.

While forward-thinking for his time, Peter Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid (1902) remains mired in a eurochristian social frame.  His analysis appropriately contests the fallacies of the social application of evolutionary theory by the likes of Thomas Malthus and the limited anthropology of Thomas Hobbes.  He notes that “while some of [Hobbes’s] eighteenth-century followers endeavoured to prove that at no epoch of its existence — not even in its most primitive condition — mankind lived in a state of perpetual warfare” (50), citing Huxley as his example he laments that “Hobbesian philosophy has plenty of admirers still.”

Unfortunately, the ongoing genocide of Indigenous Peoples in the twenty-first century evidences the persistence of privileging “civilization” narratives that impose what Mark Rifkin has called “settler time.”  In Beyond Settler Time Rifkin writes, “U.S. settler colonialism produces its own temporal formation, with its own particular ways of apprehending time, and the state’s policies, mappings, and imperatives generate the frame of reference (such as plotting events with respect to their place in national history and seeing change in terms of American progress)” (2).  

Indigenous theorists have critiqued both the Marxian trajectories informing Kropotkin and the colonialist tendencies persistent in current forms of liberalism, but these critics are rarely heard at academic conferences outside of explicitly themed Indigenous Studies conferences.  For example, in Red Skin, White Masks, Glen Sean Coulthard (Yellowknives Dene) argues that “the politics of recognition in its contemporary liberal form promises to reproduce the very configurations of colonialist, racist, patriarchal state power that Indigenous peoples’ demands for recognition have historically sought to transcend” (3).  In his rejection of liberal multiculturalism, Coulthard advocates a rehabilitated notion of Marx’s theory of primitive accumulation whereby accumulation is not relegated to a particular period but rather seen in the “persistent role that unconcealed, violent dispossession continues to play” (9). 

It is within Coulthard’s attention to persistent, violent dispossession that I situate my own use of the term genocide against transcendent and event-based descriptions of the crime.  As Russell Means (Lakota), a prominent member of the American Indian Movement, said forty years ago regarding European revolutions, “every revolution in European history has served to reinforce Europe’s tendencies and abilities to export destruction to other peoples, other cultures and the environment itself.”  It is with these Indigenous thinkers in mind that I want to address the topic of mutual aid with respect to the diaspora of ayahuasca outside of its Amazonian home.

As one conference attender last weekend responded to me in rather parochial terms, my thought was “outdated” because postcolonial scholars such as Gayatri Spivak have for a long time been considered as mimicking empire from their own privileged positions. As I had to explain, there is nothing “post” about the colonialism Indigenous populations face. It is constant, and many populations work on a historical memory reaching back more than five-hundred years that cannot be framed under critiques of “identity politics” and neoliberal reaction-formations, whether or not eurochristians want to believe in the accuracy of “oral” history. More than that, the fact that Indigenous writers call out the inconsistencies within colonial source material itself against non-Indigenous academics whose ideological deafness insulates their ability to continue to erase Indigenous Peoples even while “morally” agreeing with the historical problem attests to the persistence of eurochristian ethnocentrism even among well-educated theorists of the so-called “postsecular” era.

Peter Kropotkin argues in 1902 that mutual aid “flows still even now, and it seeks its way to find out a new expression which would not be the State, nor the mediæval city, nor the village community of the barbarians, nor the savage clan, but would proceed from all of them, and yet be superior to them in its wider and more deeply humane conceptions” (121-122).  Despite his good intentions and critique of Christian imperialism, Kropotkin displays a eurochristian gaze on Indigenous Peoples that arguably persists in contemporary notions of mutual aid.  

I use the term ‘eurochristian’ here following wazhazhe, Osage historian of Native traditions, Tink Tinker, to designate a social movement rather than a religion. This is something some conference attendees could not comprehend, charging me with ahistorical generalizations. Again, I had to correct that I was not calling all Christianity “European.” Coptic Christians, hybridized forms such as the African American Church and Cone’s Black Theology and Black Power — while Christian — are not eurochristian.  To understand this, as Kropotkin’s own sources display, colonizers largely regarded religion as absent among Indigenous Peoples early on.  

David Chidester writes: “in the history of religions, the great divide between natural, savage, or primitive religions and civil religions was the basic principle of classification” (305).  Tomoko Masuzawa argues, ‘religion’ was “endowed with all the weight and moral cathexis that was once proper to liberal Protestant theology.  This load of ideational energy has now been dislodged from that original site and transferred to ‘religion itself,’ now that the very theology has run up against the wall of its own undeniable history” (320).  Brent Nongbri notes, “the idea of religion is not as natural or as universal as it is often assumed to be.  Religion has a history.  It was born out of a mix of Christian disputes about truth, European colonial exploits, and the formation of nation-states” (154).  

In particular, as Chidester details in Empire of Religion, Christian colonizers in Africa and the Americas initially describe the native inhabitants as having no religion and only later come to recognize their practices as “something like religion.”  The World Religions model, which grew out of an ethnocentric notion of “rationalism” that assumed Christianity to be the most “evolved” religion, came to designate and locate other “faiths” from a pretension to eurochristian, “civilized” space.  Space became “neutral” while justifying displacement and removal of Amerindians as land became “property.” 

In contrast, Tink Tinker (among others) has repeatedly argued that Amerindians traditionally had no concept of ‘religion.’  Whether overtly Catholic, Protestant, or expressed as “natural religion,” European conceptions of ‘religion’ tend to be metaphorically hierarchical, and when we loosely apply the term, as frequently occurs in anthropological writing and museums, we inadvertently perpetuate a eurochristian frame persistent in Kropotkin and in need of critique as we consider mutual aid.  As Eduardo Kohn mentions with respect to our being colonized by ways of thinking about relationality:

We can only imagine the ways in which selves and thoughts might form associations through our assumptions about the forms of associations that structure human language.  And then, in ways that go unnoticed, we project these assumptions onto nonhumans.  Without realizing it we attribute to nonhumans properties that are our own, and then, to compound this, we narcissistically ask them to provide us with corrective reflections of ourselves. (21)  

Kohn’s description reads nicely if we are describing eurochristian thought, and though he is writing this in order to understand “how forests think,” his book relies heavily on linguistic analyses of Quechua and resounds with the inhumane treatment of Amerindians despite the eurochristian “decision” that they were indeed humans with “natural rights,” which are not “natural” but rather alienated through a conceptualizing eurochristian legalistic process.  This reveals an underwritten eurochristian political theology in binaries between religion and ‘the secular’, as well as in debates about religious freedom.  

Therefore, I propose that in thinking mutual aid in the twenty-first century we consider the Luis León’s concept of religious poetics, especially as we consider transnational impulses such as the diaspora of ayahuasca outside of South America. León’s concept of religious poetics potentially aids the study of ayahuasca religions, where scholars too often employ the term “syncretic” without attention to the historical inequities involved in such mixing.  For León, religious poetics emphasizes not just making something new but a recovery project situated in Indigenous practices such as Aztecan concepts of flor y canto and neplantism or “in-betweenness.”  In La Llorona’s Children, he writes:

central to the following is the return of poesis as a viable method not only to study and understand the way people attempt to make sense of themselves, others, and religion, but also to do, make and achieve religion itself. Rather than constructing a genealogy of borderlands poetics as a “return” after an absence, […] I construct it as an instance of the Nietzschean eternal return. (17)

Embedded in León’s conception of living and dying in borderlands spaces is the necropolitics of colonial efforts framing the self-formations subjectivating mestizaje concepts necessary to understand how ayahuasca and ayahuasca religiosities are imbricated in the drama of ongoing colonization.  

While León’s work is not based on South American contexts, it is currently the best available religious theory capable for describing the phenomena underwriting ayahuasca religions in diaspora in the north because it emphasizes the mestizaje death-space of the borderlands and people forced to migrate through it, rather than those taking commercial flights to yoga studios where privileged eurochristians can puke and shit in peaceful contemplation of their self-transcendence.

It’s well-known that the U.S. Supreme Court’s recognition of ayahuasca religions has allowed for expansion in this diaspora.  Processes of legal recognition with respect to the First Amendment in the U.S. can be seen with the Courts’ recognition of theologically-Christian ayahuasca religions such as the União do Vegetal (UDV) and Santo Daime churches in the exemption for the use of ayahuasca as sacrament despite its containing of Dimethyltryptamine (DMT).  DMT is a schedule I substance under the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, which has been a legal tool for the prohibitionist rhetoric of the War on Drugs – a cover for U.S. imperialism throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.  

Tied to its eurochristian roots, the Drug War is the current incarnation of Augustine’s theory of “just war,” which has repeatedly used in subjugating and genocidal policies toward Amerindians.  Unlike socialists, anarchists have long fought against prohibitionist attitudes.  As Susan Boyd writes:

Prohibition […] inhibits human creativity, contemplation, spiritual, and intellectual exploration. It is anti-communitarian and supports a hierarchal view of the world in which we live. Early anarchists such as Emma Goldman and Peter Kropotkin, questioned moral reformers and advocates of prohibition. Goldman noted how socialists advocated prohibition in order to win votes; thus suggesting that prohibition has never been a question of critical thinkers vs. conservative pundits.

Even in debates among controlled substances surrounding ideas of cognitive liberty (such as Charlotte Walsh), eurochristian framing persists in static and transcendent notions of “freedom,” which are informed by Protestant eurochristian perspectives.  

Contrasting and at times complimenting this is an entire discourse on Amazonian “shamanism” rooted in universalized conceptions of religiosity and perpetuated by “secular” emphases on ayahuasca’s “healing” potential and the domestication of psychedelic substances to biopolitical regimes of healthcare evidenced by the recent psychedelic renaissance.  As scholars such as R. Andrew Chesnut have noted, the rapid spread of faith healing throughout South America during the twentieth century was accompanied by liberalized “secular” states and complimented by charismatic forms of Catholicism in reaction.

The rapid spread of Protestant and non-denominational missionary efforts to “civilize” Amazonian Indians cannot be separated from U.S.-foreign policies of “development” in South America, fueled by Cold War and Drug War rhetoric as contemporary eurochristian forms of just war. Contesting the assimilation of ayahuasca use into persistent colonial frames requires critical attention to deep cultural frames without regressing into archaic charges of ‘essentialism’. 

Contemporary anthropologist, Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, has advanced the term ‘Amerindian perspectivism’ to account for persistent deep-framing despite more than five hundred years of eurochristian colonization.  Such terminology is necessary because most of these scholars are not Amerindian and because the discourse itself is caught up in the colonial romance of the “disappeared” Indian.  Viveiros de Castro says:

“perspectivism” [is] a label for a set of ideas and practices found throughout indigenous America and to which I shall refer, for simplicity’s sake, as though it were a cosmology.  This cosmology imagines a universe peopled by different types of subjective agencies, human as well as nonhuman, each endowed with the same generic type of soul, that is, the same set of cognitive and volitional capacities.  The possession of a similar soul implies the possession of similar concepts, which determine that all subjects see things in the same way.  In particular, individuals of the same species see each other (and each other only) as humans see themselves, that is, as beings endowed with a human figure and habits, seeing their bodily and behavioral aspects in the form of human culture.  What changes when passing from one species of subject to another is the “objective correlative,” the referent of these concepts: what jaguars see as “manioc beer” (the proper drink of people, jaguar-type or otherwise), humans see as “blood.”  Where we see a muddy salt-lick on a river-bank, tapirs see their big ceremonial house, and so on. (58)

Accounts of Amerindian perspectivism quickly run up against charges of essentialism that Amerindian scholars themselves frequently face through uncritical academic pedantry conscripted by neoliberal politics of recognition. Just as one of my conference responders had already prefabricated a diatribe against postcolonial discourse, conflating Indigenous theories with 1970s discourses imbricated within the possibility of liberated nation-states, the persistent inability among eurochristians is an persistent reluctance to listen. They listen partially and then reformulate a new universalist vision without ever asking or engaging with Indigenous Peoples on their thinking–because their thought, their extensive reading in western philosophical thought inherently “grants” them the privilege of speaking in generalized platitudes concerning all beings on the planet.

With respect to the U.S. Courts’ recognition of União do Vegetal (UDV) in 2006, Elizabeth Povinelli writes:

at the moment that the Supreme Court upheld the Circuit Court of Appeals’ exemption [for an ayahuasca religion], the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) was removing all references to the ‘Native American Church’ in its regulatory guidelines and replacing it with reference to members of federally recognized tribes. This change aligns the enforcement regulations of the DEA with the actual language of the AIRFA, which does not recognize members of the Native American Church, but recognizes Native Americans. So we have a decision that exempts members of the UDV on the basis of an analogy with members of the NAC, even as the DEA is refusing to recognize the equality of rights among all members of the NAC. (126)

I should stress again that the groups receiving religious “exemptions” are avowedly Christian in their theology, as is the Native American Church.  Nevertheless, Povinelli indicates that the general religious exemption for the psychedelic substance par excellence in the United States, peyote, did not hold as the American Indian Religious Freedom Act (AIRFA) moved toward ethno-national definitions legitimating indigeneity, a clear politics of recognition.  Outside of argument for religiously “exempt” status for ayahuasca, a growing multitude of New Age rhetoric similarly capitalizes on universalizing references to Indigenous practices while being steeped in western liberalism’s fixation on the experience of the individual, liberal subject in a rights-based tradition.  

Let me be very clear here. My definition of ‘New Age’ corresponds to Wouter Hanegraaff’s description:

All New Age religion is characterized by the fact that it expresses its criticism of modern western culture by presenting alternatives derived from a secularized esotericism.  It adopts from traditional esotericism an emphasis on the primacy of personal religious experience and on this-worldly types of holism (as alternatives to dualism and reductionism), but generally reinterprets esoteric tenets from secularized perspectives.  Since the new elements of “causality,” the study of religions, evolutionism, and psychology are fundamental components, New Age religion cannot be characterized as a return to a pre-Enlightenment worldviews but is to be seen as a qualitatively new syncretism of esoteric and secular elements. Paradoxically, New Age criticism of modern western culture is expressed to a considerable extent on the premises of that same culture . . . The New Age movement is characterized by a popular western culture criticism expressed in terms of a secularized esotericism. (520-521)

Making things even more complex, in 2016 the National Council of Native American Churches rejected attempts by groups claiming to be part of the Native American Church who use ayahuasca or other entheogens.  So while the state regulations require people to “prove” their Indigenous status before the law on one front, those people constantly battle appropriative rhetorics of “Indigenous spiritualities and traditions” employed by New Age seekers and fringe branches of the Native American Church on another front.  At the same time, researchers of ayahuasca almost inevitably must advocate for its beneficial properties against the hegemonic discourse informed by Drug War rhetoric.

I want to suggest that discussions of mutual aid in the twenty-first-century attempt more engagement with Indigenous scholarship, which generally works with a longer history in mind.  There is nothing “prior” or “primitive” about the accumulation of capital in this thought.  While Amerindians are often treated as archaic or extinct in both public and academic discourse, the interspecies regard of Amerindian perspectivism points to ontologies necessary for addressing the environmental concerns.  

Rather than occupying a “zero degree,” a liminal space between subject and object, conscious and unconscious, immanent and transcendent; perspectivism advances an interspecies recognition of personhood (Viveiros de Castro 57).  As we track discursive motivations surrounding ayahuasca’s diaspora, we have the opportunity to confront erasure in its persistently eurochristian discursive forms.

Bia Labate, perhaps the most prolific researcher and community organizer on all things ayahuasca-related, has recently written of the need to address “the emergence of the new psychedelic science conference market” amid talk “about the ‘commodification of psychedelics’ or the ‘new psychedelic businesses’ or ‘corporations’,” because “this boom is affecting all areas of our field.”  While I agree with Labate, I also believe that amid general impulses to advocate for ayahuasca or other prohibited substances under the banner of “cognitive liberty” we too easily ignore persistent inequities affecting Indigenous Peoples subtly fueled by transnational eurochristian religious impulses.

We see León’s religious poetics at work in the collective policy statements by Indigenous groups in South America.  At the 2018 Brazilian Indigenous Conference on Ayahuasca, Indigenous groups stated, “We will broaden the dialogue with public authorities in the different spheres of power at national and international level in a unified form among the peoples, maintaining the autonomy of indigenous peoples and respect for their ways of life.”

Relying on international groups such as the United Nations, they said, “We will define strategies for authorizing the circulation of ‘ayahuasca,’ demanding the creation of institutional mechanisms for applying and disseminating traditional rights, seeking to sensitize those professionals who work in the control and inspection bodies, as well as agencies within the legal system.”  Relying on national groups such as Brazil’s National Indian Foundation (FUNAI), they write, “We will guide people who visit the villages according to the objectives of their visit and the internal norms of each people, and will inform FUNAI about the entrance of these visitors.” 

Yet, as Gerard Colby and Charlotte Dennett’s eight hundred paged tome, Thy Will Be Done, details — the creation of FUNAI, as it reorganized after the scandalously genocidal policies of its former incarnation, the Service for the Protection of the Indian (SPI), persisted in intimate involvement with U.S. missionary groups such as the Summer Institute of Linguistics and Wycliffe Bible study and the influence of U.S. policies from the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA).  Such groups were intimately involved in efforts by U.S. capitalists such as Nelson Rockefeller and his various companies, such as New Jersey Standard Oil, the C.I.A., and a fight against “godless communism” throughout South America.  Counterinsurgency efforts were aimed at winning “hearts and minds” of local peoples, and missionary work among Indigenous Peoples were explicitly used for this purpose (264). 

From the perspective of a longer history of eurochristian deep framing, these efforts cannot be separated along the lines of “secular” policies of “development” and overtly religious forms of missionary “civilizing.”  Rockefeller, like William Cameron Townsend, saw his efforts as a form of evangelical colonial beneficence toward Indians, yet colonial corruption was embedded in the plans.  Massive land purchases were meant to establish oil and other natural resource extractions throughout Brazil, Peru, and Ecuador.  In the late 1950s, for example, corrupt SPL members had discovered an “Indian Trick”:

In Mato Grosso, where Nelson [Rockefeller] dreamed of immigrants working his land for him, land speculators cheated settlers out of their land titles.  The speculators were often local politicians, a phenomenon not unknown in the United Sates.  Once the settlers improved [sic] the land, the politicians used corrupted SPI agents to assert Indian land rights and then to move Indians onto remote parts of the land.  The Indians, ironically, were the only people in Brazil who had constitutional rights to untitled land they occupied.  Once the Indians were “discovered,” the settlers were promptly denounced as “stealers” of Indian land and fleeced of their titles.  Then SPI removed the Indians to “safer” reserves and gave the titles to friends. (317)

Such practices were not confined to Mato Grosso alone, and New Jersey Standard Oil also benefited from political disruptions caused by the war between Peru and Ecuador, allowing the company access to lands on the west side of the Amazon (277). In Colby and Dennett’s words, throughout South and Central America, agrarian land reforms would benefit missionary efforts such as the Summer Institute of Linguistics: “Behind the rhetoric of God and bilingual democracies, oil and land whispered between the lines of government contracts with SIL.  They were the secret of SIL’s power and [William Cameron Townsend’s] unique ability to help the United States as an official delegate of Peru at Inter-American Indian Congresses“(244).  

The corrupt land policies applied to settlers in the twentieth century combined with centuries of reduction and removal practices applied to Indians from the time of the Spanish invasion.  As Glenn Shepard’s work attests, no matter how ironic it was that ayahuasca use spread among Indians because of missionary efforts, what we see is the development of ‘ayahuasca’ as a generic concoction condensing various claims to religious freedom, Indigenous rights to self-determination, and the arrival of capitalism extending U.S. hegemony sought since the Monroe Doctrine of 1823. The diaspora of ayahuasca does not simply radiate its afterglow from the Amazon toward the rest of the world.  It is part of a process of religious poetics where local populations must inevitably contend with deep frames of eurochristian colonialism. 

Undoubtedly, non-denominational Protestantism has long presented transnational missionary efforts well beyond the geographical delineations of nation-states.  Similarly, Catholic universalism has sought to administer the gospel through more locally-inflected religiosities.  Yet as Chesnut has detailed, the influx of Protestant missionary efforts in South America in the wake of liberalizing efforts by South and Central American nation-states throughout the twentieth-century embarked on intensified civilizing efforts under the banner of ‘healing’.  

Chesnut particularly describes the ways Protestant efforts stemming from Los Angeles in the early twentieth-century exported transnational Protestantism to South America through rhetorics of faith-healing for the poor, even as their regionally novel organizations became hierarchically imbricated within Latin American politics.  Eurochristian missionary work is imbricated within U.S. political hegemony, even when its aspirations seek a more “universal” religious impulse that transcends nation-states and their imperialism.  For that very reason, they perpetuate an older, Roman-inflected, notion of eurochristian empire.

I am well-aware that Christian impulses such as The Benedict Option.  In The Benedict Option, for example, Dreher laments the loss of Christian “civilization,” but he has no time for nostalgia.  Instead, the fractured communities are to create “cells” where people can live in a “truly” Christian way.  Both Thomas Kidd and Dreher are moving toward similar solutions and rejecting some of the white supremacy supported by the dogmatic Christian right in the U.S., who see their rightwing vote as an implicit expression of their Christianity.  

As Kidd’s recent book, Who is an Evangelical?, argues with respect to the U.S., the sentiment of “post-Christianity” is at times a rhetoric surrounding a crisis among white evangelicals in the waning of the Christian right movement.  In that context, contemporary Protestants often refer to themselves as simply “Christian,” with the implication being that Catholics are somehow not Christians.  These rhetorical contestations actually serve another purpose.  

In positing dramatic disputes between liberal and conservative eurochristians, they occupy a public discursive space that could otherwise address inequity and the genocide of Amerindian Peoples.  The disputes thus cooperate with one another by demanding that only eurochristian issues take to stage for public debate.  The notion of hybridity (much less “syncretism”), however, ought not be contextualized within a “neutral” eurochristian perspective.  The engine of disputes between “liberal” and “conservative” Christians, like “liberal” and “conservative” political categories is fueled by eurochristian framing which always already excluded Indigenous Peoples unless they have embraced Christianity. 

Both Kidd and Dreher denounce the Trump administration’s politics as well, favoring a transnational Christian movement and revaluation of traditional values.  All of this is an expression of the rise of Charismatic Catholicism and rapid evangelizing among Protestants and Pentecostals the Americas during the mid-twentieth century.  

As Martin Marty’s October 31, 1517: Martin Luther and the Day that Changed the World notes, there has largely been a reconciliation among Catholics and Protestants, at least at official levels.  This does not, however, appear to be the case among many Christians in the United States who have inherited centuries of anti-papal attitudes that stems directly from New England’s political-theological influences.  Nevertheless, in the universal catholic agenda, the “repaired” relationship was not only with Protestant churches but with the Eastern Orthodox tradition as well.  

A Global conception of Christianity has been on the rise for half a century, and this probably informed the eurochristian support of the recognition of ayahuasca religions in the U.S.  Much of that public discourse on ayahuasca is tied to liberal politics of recognition.  

All of this comes poignantly clear we we notice current persistence of evangelical “civilizing” initiatives. Last week in Brazil, tapes released anonymously to The Intercept reveal a closed-door attempt to put an evangelical anthropologist, Edward Matoanelli Luz, into a position “for the area that cares for isolated Indians from Funai [Coordinator of Isolated and Recently Contacted Indians CGIIRC]. The audio also shows that the group’s goal is to convert indigenous people to Christianity.” The controversy over SPI that led to the formation of FUNAI and eventually Article 231 of the 1988 Brazilian Constitution bars missionaries from evangelizing Indians.

As the article reports, “The anthropologist is the son of the president of the New Tribes of Brazil Mission, the MNTB, pastor Edward Gomes da Luz. The MNTB is an American evangelical current that arranges missionaries to preach, build churches and convert recently contacted indigenous peoples, native languages. Novas Tribos was already expelled by Funai from the lands of the Zo’é people in 1991, accused of imposing Christian doctrine and spreading diseases. In 2015, the chain was denounced by the Federal Public Ministry of allying with Brazil nut exploiters who enslaved indigenous people.

This echoes Brazil’s evangelical President, Jair Bolsonaro’s appointment of Pastor Ricardo Lopes Dias as head of the sector of isolated Indians. In 2019, we saw raging fires in Brazil, where the avowedly evangelical president, Jair Bolsonaro, had been claiming since his first day in office that he will undermine Indigenous People’s rights to land.  Among his rationales for forcibly assimilating and displacing Indigenous Peoples into broader Brazilian society has been an intention to destroy the forest for expanding agribusiness.  The forced assimilation is also culturally genocidal. 

 This is persistent Eurocentric “civilization” rhetoric at work.  As Fiona Watson wrote in The Gaurdian just as he was being elected in 2018:

Bolsonaro thinks “Indians smell, are uneducated and don’t speak our language”, and that “the recognition of indigenous land is an obstacle to agribusiness”. He declares that he will reduce or abolish Amazonian indigenous reserves and has vowed on several occasions: “If I become president, there will not be one centimetre more of indigenous land.” He recently corrected himself, declaring that he meant not one millimetre.  

Accompanying this rather clear agenda of genocidal intent for capitalist growth, Bolsonaro also frames a liberal, “protective” rhetoric with respect removing Indigenous Peoples from their lands, saying they are “manipulated” by non-governmental forces. So, he is apparently “looking out for them”?  No, this is logic inspired by over five-hundred years of eurochristian deep framing.

Simultaneously, as Reuters reports, “A Brazilian congressional committee on Tuesday [August 27, 2019] approved a proposed constitutional amendment to allow commercial agriculture on indigenous reserves, a practice that is currently prohibited.”  While some leaders in the international community have voiced concern that the loss of the Amazon concerns the entire world, Bolsonaro has reacted by intensifying his own nationalism.[4]  This kind of behavior is a direct reflection of the colonizing habitus of the eurochristians reaching as far back as the Doctrine of Discovery.

With respect to the “recognized” ayahuasca religions from Brazil, Santo Daime (including ubandaime), Barquinha, and the União do Vegetal (UDV), all of them are avowedly Christian with a Christological theological domination, despite the copresencing at times of orixás and spirits of indios and caboclos – in other words, hybridities.  So, it is not that mixing (hybridity) does not happen.  The issue is attending to asymmetrical forms of power over time.  

In the U.S., the eurochristian support played a significant role in Supreme Court cases “recognizing” and “legitimating” ayahuasca religion and in granting religious exemptions for the use of entheogens like ayahuasca as sacrament.  Again, as Charles Hayes notes with respect to the Supreme Court decision on the UDV church’s use of ayahuasca:

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the National Association of Evangelicals defended the UDV’s case for religious freedom, prompting psychedelic researcher and UCLA professor Charles Grob, an expert witness at the hearing, to notice that “religious rights can apparently trump the Drug War.” (66-67)

With respect to Indigenous Peoples, this is a truly interesting statement.  So long as a church’s theology is avowedly Christian, the very status of Christianity can exempt a group and its sacrament from Drug War politics.  Ayahuasca gets support from both Protestants and Catholics beneath an overarching value of “religious freedom,” but the very idea of ‘religion’ within that conception is always already eurochristian. In order for existing Indigenous groups who have used ayahuasca (or other plant-mixed substances) to vie for cultural self-determination, they must enter a discursive zone predicated on their erasure. This includes eurochristian concepts such as ‘religion’ and all the eurochristian baggage accompanying it in an individualized, androcentric, rights-bearing culture that myopically assumes humans are the only species on the planet we’re destroying.    

Roger Green is general editor of The New Polis (www.thenewpolis.com) and a Senior Lecturer in the English Department at Metropolitan State University of Denver.  His work brings political theology into conversation with psychedelics and aesthetics.  He is the author of A Transatlantic Political Theology of Psychedelic Aesthetics: Enchanted Citizens (Palgrave 2019). Roger is completing a second PhD in Religious Studies and Theology at The University of Denver / Iliff School of Theology, where he is working on the political-theological impulses underwriting the ayahuasca diaspora.


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