Being Human

Think for a moment about all the assumptions that you make about what it is to be human. Think about what our society says about being human. That we are motivated by monetary reward, and we are competitive and strive to win. That in society there are winners and losers, and this interesting one: ‘Even if everything were given out fairly, within a very few years we would again be unequal: some people would rise to the top again because they are better/more able/more aggressive’. You may agree or disagree with those statements, or have ideas of your own, but whatever they are, the work of Bruce Parry and the radical anthropologists may shift your ideas, as they have mine.

Bruce Parry has made a film called Tawai that I have not yet had the opportunity to watch, but at the Hawkwood Seed Festival he shared his thoughts on what has become, for him, a radical new idea on the nature of the human condition. He asked the question, “Why are some of these communities that I am seeing as I travel for the TV program ‘Tribe’ so egalitarian and peaceful? Are these people completely different to us? I go on, building on this idea, to ask this: are some people less aggressive by nature? Are the white western races by nature more aggressive and competitive? And is that the root of colonialism, capitalism and consumerism? I feel that this may have been the subconscious message that I received from my education along with many of the cultural assumptions above. This subtle racism that assumes that peaceful cultures are different by nature is hugely important, because it traps us – in our western culture – in a cycle of competition and aggression because we believe that is, just who we are.

Bruce Parry spoke passionately at the festival and talked a little about his own assumptions, that in some way, the ‘people were peaceful’ in these tribes, and how they had been radically shaken by anthropologists living with a tribe called the Mbendjele.

I share, down below, his thoughts from the website, including a wonderful film clip for you to enjoy. The key to the revelation here is that it is not nature (the nature of the human condition) that is different with peaceful people, but the choices that they make to design a culture – a complex habitation of rituals and language, that resist aggression, competition and greed. They have seen and articulated the problem and have chosen wisely.

If the film Tawai invites us to look at ourselves and take responsibility for our behaviour, the last bonus scene, Mbendjele, is a call to action.

The Mbendjele people are from the Congo, and like the Penan, they too are egalitarian immediate-return nomadic hunter gatherers. In Tawai, Jerome Lewis tells us that living in an egalitarian society requires “work on a bunch of levels: political, social and economic”, and our visit to the Mbendjele allows us to observe this constant group effort, working to maintain balance. At one time, some Mbendjele men pointed to one of their friends, “See that guy over there”, they said, “We all know that he is a great hunter, but a few years ago he started to brag about it, so we all stopped going hunting with him, and the women refused to cook his meat. We don’t want that behaviour here”.

While this example shows us how diligently everyone in the group is working to resist claims to status, so as to maintain harmony, there are also more formal rituals designed to achieve the same goal. Ingrid tells us that they primarily do this through massana, a form of play, dance and song, and sure enough we see the women, young and old, playfully teasing the men. This is a powerful scene to watch, and even more so to experience first hand. Ingrid tells me that this teasing is a formal way of publicly addressing antisocial behaviour within the group. Men who have been aggressive, disrespectful or even lazy lovers are playfully, humorously, but assertively, held to account by the women in the communal space.

What is fascinating about this ritual is the way it reveals how the women challenge the behaviour of the men. Rather than entering into a combative space, they embody their own quality of collective power, expressed through potent laughter, song and sexuality. But the women choose not to hold centre stage for too long, as this is an egalitarian society, and not a hierarchical matriarchy. They believe that to hold the power for too long could lead to resentment, so they willingly allow space for the men to have their turn, through their ritual called Ejengi.

The Mbendjele men tell us that Ejengi takes us back to the “roots of life”, to “the beginning of the world”. Jerome interprets this ritual to be in accordance with theories of how humanity overcame its hierarchical primate heritage, and instituted a trust-based, egalitarian society in its place. A setting that enabled language and culture to evolve. During the ritual reenactment, through song and dance, Ejengi seems to symbolise the alpha male, whose reproductive dominance our female ancestors rejected, simultaneously inviting the other men to join them. This invitation by the women, the Mbendjele say, established society as they live it today. Men and women continue to work together to banish the tendencies of the hoarding, competitive, aggressive male spirit, so that all can live together as equals. If this is the case, this ritual echoes up through the ages to remind us of the most incredible achievement of human history – when competitive, hierarchical groups dominated by aggressive males were successfully replaced by societies of equals.

There is more richness and complexity in these ideas than any I have encountered before, and expressing them well is far from easy. Beliefs around sexual identity and the differences, qualities and roles of sex and gender are evolving, and it is certainly not for me to say what, if any, the roles of men and women or the qualities of the masculine or feminine might or should ever be. But having seen the way the women of the Mbendjele powerfully hold themselves at the centre of their society – together, in solidarity – affirming their voice within the community, I felt that I was witnessing something very important, that needed to be shared. For me, sitting there, experiencing the potent strength and freedom of those women, asserting themselves as they wished to, in their own way, I was blown away – and I discovered a feeling which continues to grow today… hope.

Bruce Parry

Bruce’s words here about the role of women, and of the gender balance, and rejection of the alpha male shows the need for a complex conversation to be had. However as I re-read this passage now I recall the entire tent at the Seed Festival – men and women – in standing ovation for 5 minutes after his talk as we glimpsed the hope that we may be able to create a peaceful future working with our nature… there is HOPE.

I have tried to write a paragraph that imagines what this future may look like, but like Bruce, I have found that “expressing it is far from easy”. I have a feeling however, that as we begin to integrate these revelations into the way of Jesus that we follow, we will uncover enormous riches from the deepening of our understanding of the way of Peace, that Jesus calls us to live.

More to come…….

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