Quite a few years ago I accompanied a group from the church I was working for on a missions trip to Ensenada. We passed through beautiful San Diego with palm trees, green foliage and modern buildings. Then as we passed over the border into Mexico everything changed. The ground was brown and barren. There were no luxury buildings. It looked like a wasteland as we pulled into the city. One word came to mind of why this was so, “government”. The climate was the same, the ground was fertile, the people friendly. The only thing different was the government. The way people organize their lives together must be the culprit. This was true, but a limited truth. It must also be the people, I thought. The people just don’t have the same standards. They way they think must be limiting their ability to flourish. But something that I did not consider was history. History tied to geography. I thought that there must be something intrinsically wrong with the people. Questions come to mind. What makes the U.S. more prosperous than other countries? Why didn’t Mexico become wealthy and the U.S. struggle? Why does one dominate group become that way? One thing I did not consider was geography.
Jared Diamond traces the history of human societies in his book Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. The premise is that developing countries had much in their favor. They had a favorable climate for growing crops, they had fertile soil, they had enough protein in their diet, and they had larger animals that could be put to work. The geography was conducive to prosperity. That also helped to grow populations large enough to develop chiefdoms, states and organized governments. Hunter-gatherers were always at a disadvantage. They were pushed to the margins, absorbed or killed. They did not have the means to resist stronger organized people. Governments with authority were able to develop an efficient means of food production and distribution, water provisions and shelter. Authoritarian communities are stronger than the hunter-gatherer subsistence living. Those with authority structures thrived; those who did not were often subject to those who were.
Another example is language. The saying “knowledge is power” contains truth. If you know about the terrain and the people that you are encountering, then you have a huge advantage. You have the ability to plan. One thing Diamond points out is that writing and weapons went together. It enabled technology. What makes the difference in cultures that create technology? Is it intelligence, risk taking people or the readiness in the culture? The larger picture is that knowledge is cumulative. It relies on others. The proximity to other societies is a huge advantage. They can learn from each other. Again geography is the reason. What is upsetting, as Diamond traces the history of the world, is the fact that the powerful always exploit the weak. While Diamond presents the facts scientifically, he does comment occasionally on the brutality with seeming distain. He paints a bleak picture of humanity. There seems to be no moral guide. One group spreads at the expense of other groups.
The positive message is that Diamond confronts our prejudice. The differences between the histories of peoples have not been due to innate differences in the people themselves, but to the differences in their environments. He states, “Environment molds history”. (page 352) The negative is the there doesn’t seem to be much hope presented to solve present historical dilemmas, only to explain them. The one bright spot was when Diamond compared the histories of the Koreans and the Japanese. They come from the same heredity. They are physically similar. But the war of Japan on Korean left a permanent resentment and downright hate in the Korean people. The bright spot? He states that their futures depend on their ability to rediscover their “ancient bonds between them”. (Page 449) Perhaps a shift in how we see and deal with other countries is to know our common bonds. And also to realize the advantages the western world has had is not because of our brilliance, but our favorable environment. Societies thrive on the proximity to other societies. Cumulatively they do better.
What is not answered is why did peoples develop a competitive and exploitive outlook, instead of a cooperative one? Diamond’s response seems to be that this happens only within countries when they are made to cooperate. Which is true. But, why is conquest so much a part of larger countries and states? What is it about humanity that behaves this way?
While I was reading I kept thinking of the Christian Church. In the book of Acts Chapter 2 it describes a community of shared learning, shared concern for each other and a sharing of resources. The church is to be an alternative society. Jesus calls his followers to not rule over each other, but serve. But, like ancient Israel, when the church adopts the practices of the world around it, it becomes idolatrous. When powerful countries used religion as a means to an end, both became corrupt. Diamond calls these “kleptocracies”. They use power to exploit its people in the name of religion. They rule by stealing. The historical church has had its share of guilt there.
A few questions for me remain:
- Beyond Diamond’s thesis of environments being a huge factor in societies becoming powerful or not, does religion contribute in ways that are not exploitive? Has the church retarded exploitive practices? Diamond seems to miss this.
- The church has been complicit in governmental conquest in the past. In what ways is this idolatrous practice evident today?