Mayan Weaving, American Relations with China, and Remembering Suffering through Narratives

This post comes from a presentation I gave this semester in response to a lecture on Mayan weaving given by Allen Christensen, a talented Maya scholar at BYU.

I am also writing this in response to the discussion on relationships with China that Doug raised several days ago.

There is an interesting correlation between how Mayans and Christian Americans connect themselves with their religious narratives and how they produce clothing. This is one small way of exploring how Americans have become insensitive to human suffering in relationships with China and other poor countries.

In traditional Mayan cultures (and here I focus on a particular Guatemalan culture whom the weaver above belongs to), women who weave for their families start with raw materials (usually cotton), spin thread, weave it into cloth on a traditional loom (usually one passed down from a great grandmother), sew clothing, and embroider elaborate patterns on it. The patterns woven and embroidered into the clothing have special religious significance– they are related to narratives that remind the wearers of their origins as a religious community and connected them to their ancestors. There is also room to innovate on these patterns so that new, living interpretations are created by the weavers. The finished clothing is considered to be something living because it contains a part of the soul of the weaver and the wearer, for whom it is specifically made. Most important to note, the community considers the process of weaving and the clothing itself to have a sacred quality. The weavers’ work is highly respected in the community.

One particular reason why weaving seems to be sacred to this community is that there are deep cultural connections between childbirth and weaving. For example, when a woman says that she is “weaving” a cloth she uses the same language as when she talks about pregnancy and giving birth to a child. Thus they “give birth” to the things they weave. One of their traditional goddesses, the goddess of the moon, is concerned with both childbirth and weaving. (There are also special rituals surrounding pregnancy and childbearing that are very sacred).

In my interpretation, the traditions surrounding weaving seem to play a role in helping the community to remember the importance of respecting and responding compassionately to others and perhaps particularly human pain. First of all, bending over a loom or a piece of cloth involves pain and sacrifice. But this sacrifice is performed on behalf of others, partly to prevent suffering by clothing them and also to help provide them with connections to the community. In The Body in Pain, Elaine Scarry describes how work can serve as a way of allowing ourselves to experience moderate amounts of pain in order to relieve pain within our communities (169-73). In her mind, creative acts in general can be seen as compassionate responses to the pain of others (325). The weavers’ act seem to fit this idea particularly well. When weaving is considered sacred, doesn’t this serve as an indication of the great and even sacred importance of providing for others lives and preventing their suffering? Pregnancy might be so strongly tied to weaving partly because it too is a way that individuals suffer to provide life and health to others that is so necessary for the community.

What is comparable in contemporary Christian culture to the narratives and traditions surrounding Mayan weaving? The closest match I can think of is scripture. Scripture, like the Mayans’ weaving, is a powerful way for us to connect with narratives, our ancestors, and to discover meaning in our identities within a religious community. In addition to this, it is also a way for us to learn the importance of recognizing and responding to suffering. As Paul Ricoeur describes, the narratives of the Bible serve an important role in helping us to remember histories of human suffering. Unfortunately, since the Renaissance, perspectives of the Bible as one large “world history” (a new concept at the time) instead of individual, personal narratives have led Christians to connect themselves less personally with stories in the Bible (Figuring the Sacred 237-38). We have become less sensitive to perceiving that others before us have suffered great things, but still found hope in the midst of it because of Christ. Ricoeur insists that Western Christian culture needs to begin to learn to truly read the Bible again and connect the meaning we perceive in our lives with its narratives if we are going to solve a lot of the problems in our culture. Further, he suggests that the way we exploit resources and other people increases our forgetfulness of the significance of human suffering in Christian narrative:

The task is all the more compelling now that the post-Enlightenment age has displayed ominous symptoms that point toward collapse of the very capacity to tell stories and to listen to stories. The destruction of any genuine sense of tradition and authority in conjunction with the abusive prevalence of the will to dominate, exploit, and manipulate the natural environment of humankind– and consequently human being themselves– amounts to an increase of forgetfulness, especially of the past suffering of humankind, which is the ultimate cause of the impinging death of the capacity for storytelling. In that sense, the fight for a “rebirth of narrative”[…] in general and not only for biblical narrative– is, as such, a specifically Christian task (Ricoeur 238).

Part of the reason why remembering narratives and human suffering is a “specifically Christian task” is because of the unique significance of suffering in biblical narratives. Many if not all of the narratives suggest in their various ways how the suffering of Christ provides hope amidst personal human suffering. Elaine Scarry argues that in traditional Hebraic culture, prophecies about a God who suffers and opens a “new world” in response to human suffering created a strong conceptual connection between acts of creation/world making and responses to pain (173). Christ provides the example to base our own world making on– we are to recognize and respond to the suffering of others as he did by attempting to open hope in the midst of that suffering. Not that we can do this in the same way Christ does– only he can, but we are taught through the scriptures to begin to create a world more like the one he promises.

In light of what I have said about Mayans and Christians and their level of connection to their religious narratives, what can we say about how Americans produce their clothing in comparison with Mayans? Frankly, our lack of connection to our religious heritage and our moral responsibilities to respond to suffering becomes very apparent. Above is a pair of photographs from a jean factory in China, where they work all night sanding jeans to make them fashionable. Most American jeans are made in China. Unfortunately, the jean “dust” is horrible for human lungs, hence the mask. As the article this comes from describes
, our demanding global economy exploits and ignores damage to both the people who make our clothing and the natural environment. Compare the role of the foreign factory worker to the honored place of the weaver in Mayan culture. Also, while Mayan clothing is so precious that they are worn out or passed on to younger family members, as this article describes, Americans throw away tons of clothing they are simply tired of (probably because they are no longer fashionable) each year. (Another interesting comparison here would be what we intend our clothing is meant to reveal about our identities. Picking your wardrobe to look sexy, for example, is quite shallow compared to wearing something each day connected to religious beliefs). I would argue that it appears to be largely the Mayans’ deep connection to their religious narratives, which helps to perpetuate the special role of weaving in the community, that causes such a difference between their approach to clothing and that of American culture.

We cannot trust a global market economy to ensure moral relationships with others, but we can turn to our religious heritage and narratives about our ancestors and their relationships with Christ to help us find answers. Just look at traditional Mayans, whose deep connection with their beliefs allows them to resist pressures to “westernize” themselves (and specifically, to wear jeans). Religious narratives play a powerful force in our lives for good when we allow ourselves to connect with them on a personal level.

How does this connect to Latter-day Saints? Well, from what I can see, American Mormon culture in general doesn’t seem particularly interested in resisting the exploitive means used to cater to American consumers. But I think that we have reason to feel strongly about these issues and to take a stand. At a conference held by the Society for Mormon Philosophy and Theology in Salt Lake City recently, several presenters talked about the importance of using narrative theology in the church through developing personal relationships with the scripture. Throughout the history of the church, narrative approaches have often proven a powerful way– perhaps our best way– of creating a Latter-day Saint theology. If Ricoeur is right that personal connections with the scriptures’ narrative can help us to remember and be sensitive to all human suffering, it makes sense that the LDS people can (and do) find powerful ways to extend compassion to all other people.

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7 Responses

  1. Candice,

    This post is an excellent example of why you need to post more often :)

    I like very much what you are saying here, and it relates very much to Ronald Miller’s Facing Human Suffering: Psychology and Psychotherapy as Moral Engagement, which I have been reading.

    Some time I need to post about how the restored gospel offers the restoration of the laborer. I see a Zion community as one in which all laborers are valued equally. The doctor or lawyer is no better than the weaver or the sweeper. Rather, all labor is seen as the embodiment of a living sacrifice in which no work is alienated from the holistic fabric of the worker’s life, including his/her relationship to God, ancestors, spouse and children, and the entire community. How I long for that day!

  2. Nice post Candice. You’ll be happy to know I never buy pre faded jeans.

  3. Dennis,

    Your comment got me thinking about several items. Do you see the United Order as the doctrine that allows all laborers to be valued equally? How is socialism and the United Order the same or different?

    There are several comments in the scriptures about the saints had “no poor amoung them” is this the same a valuing all laborers equally?

    I’m very interested in your thoughts. I have often wondered these questions but have no real answer.

  4. Dennis’ comment reminds me of Isaiah 65:22– “They shall not build, and another inhabit; they shall not plant, and another eat: for as the days of a tree are the days of my people, and mine elect shall long enjoy the work of their hands.”

    In light of this post, I also think of Doctrine and Covenants 42:40– “And again, thou shalt not be proud in thy heart; let all thy garments be plain, and their beauty the beauty of the work of thine own hands[…]”

  5. Candice,
    Thanks for the Isaiah reference. I did a search and found two very good articles from Marion G. Romney about the Law of Consecration (Ensign Feb. 1979 and May 1977).

    These articles explained the differences in the politcal systems vs. the United Order.

    Some key items that I took away from the articles are:

    1. “In the first place the United Order recognized and was built upon the principle of private ownership of property; all that a man had and lived upon under the United Order, was his own.”

    2. “The Church did not own all of the property, and life under the united order was not, and never will be, a communal life…”

    3. “The united order is implemented by the voluntary freewill actions of men, evidenced by a consecration of all their property to the Church of God. No force of any kind is ever involved.”

    4. “The united order is nonpolitical. It is therefore totally unlike the various forms of socialism, which are political, both in theory and in practice. They are thus exposed to, and riddled by, the corruption which plagues and finally destroys all political governments which undertake to abridge man’s agency.”

    This quote was also very good:
    “The Church never was, and under existing commandments never will be, a communal society, under the directions thus far given by the Lord. The United Order was not communal nor communistic. It was completely and intensely individualistic, with a consecration of unneeded surpluses for the support of the Church and the poor.” (J. Reuben Clark, Jr., “The United Order and Law of Consecration As Set Out in the Revelations of the Lord,” from a pamphlet of articles reprinted from the Church Section of the Deseret News, 1942, pp. 26–27.)

    I’m looking forward to more posts from Candice.

  6. […] the new Thinking in a Marrow Bone site!"Moisture" and Other Words That Are Pseudo-SacredMayan Weaving, American Relations with China, and Remembering Suffering through NarrativesDoes God Have Exhaustive Definitive Foreknowledge? Another Case Study in a Pragmatic Approach to an […]

  7. […] [For a somewhat related post by Candice on Mayan weaving, click here.] […]

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