From Economics to Theology: How the Canelas Understand the Good News

Fifty years ago, my wife and I, with our three pre-school daughters, accepted the invitation to live among Brazil’s Canela people in their main village. We immediately began to learn their culture and language. Our training had prepared us for many things, but even so the Canelas surprised us with their highly effective economic system.

We didn’t expect to see money since it was a four-day round-trip on foot to the nearest store, but thought there would be bartering—exchanging one kind of good for another—such as a set of bone tipped arrows for a haunch of deer meat. Instead, we soon learned that the economic system was credit based. Meticulous records were kept, not on paper but in Canela brains. Yes, every Canela remembered a record of debts owed to them and debts they owed to others.

We should not have been so surprised. A barter system depends on people producing things that are different from those others produce. But every Canela family produced exactly the same things as every other Canela family. Every family had hunters, water carriers, basket weavers, woodchoppers, gardeners, and cooks.

Hunter, muzzle loading shotgun and sloth. (No, it was not an endangered species!)

Hunter with muzzle loading shotgun and sloth. (No, it was not an endangered species!)

What they did not have, however, was an effective way to preserve fresh food. When a hunter returned with a large animal such as a deer, he knew his family could never eat it all before it spoiled. Everyone else knew this too. So other hunters would come and ask for a piece of meat, saying, “When I next kill a deer, I’ll pay you back.” Okay, no problem.

Our North American culture uses the same credit system when a neighbour is baking a cake and knocks on your door to borrow a cup of sugar. The Canela system, however, covered everything, not just material things but also time and effort. Twenty men would work for days to help one family cut house building poles and to construct the house, knowing the next time any of them needed help in a building project, they could get it from the family they had helped.

So what happens if a hunter has a crippling accident and he cannot pay a debt? No problem. The debt passes on to the hunter’s extended family: a brother or other male relative takes on the debt. Do this year after year and you have a fully functioning credit based economic system that touches every aspect of life. Although money is now more commonplace, much of the current Canela economic system still is on credit.

We used this cultural practice in our Bible translation to make the Good News clear. In some sense we human beings are in debt to God because of our disobedience to Him. Check out a parable about this in Matthew 18:23-35. We can’t pay the debt ourselves, nor can any of our extended family since we are all in the same fix. But God had mercy on us and sent Jesus, who called himself The Son of Man meaning “the one who became human like you”.

The Canelas call Jesus Mepahaka, “Our Older Brother”. The sin debt we could not pay passed on to our older brother, Jesus, who paid it with His own life. Our debt is paid, we are forgiven and we are free.

Isn’t it great to see how God prepared the Canelas to understand the Good News by imbedding this illustration in their own culture? It is what missiologists call a “Redemptive Analogy”.

It is just one more way that helps Canelas understand that the God of the Bible is not a foreign God, but the One they recognize as their own Creator, their own Heavenly Father. That’s why they talk about Him as Pahpam, Our Father. And the Canela Bible is called Pahpam Jarkwa (God’s Word).

Let’s keep praying that God’s Spirit will guide every cross-cultural missionary to discover the analogies to redemption that are imbedded in every culture. God invented languages, He invented cultures too, and made sure that His message of love was implanted in each culture.