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

Over forty 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 planned 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.

What they did not have, however, was an easy way to preserve fresh food. When a hunter returned with 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 culture uses the same credit system when a neighbour runs out of sugar while she is baking a cake and comes to borrow a cup of sugar. The Canela system, however, covered everything, even time and effort. Twenty men would work for days helping one family cut house building poles and constructing the house, knowing the next time any of them needed help in a building project, they could get it from the person they had helped.

So what happens if a hunter incurs a debt he cannot pay because of a crippling accident? 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 (Romans 11:30.) 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 free.

Isn’t it great to see how God prepared the Canelas to understand the Good News by embedding this illustration in their culture? It helps them understand that the God of the Bible is not a foreign God, but one they recognize as their own.