Loving Haiti

MomaLola Few religions are as routinely maligned as Vodou. I have to admit that my own interest was originally spurred in an uncouth manner—a combination of Live and Let Die and a sleepless night after watching The Believers. (I know, I know, The Believers was about Santeria, and not Vodou proper.) These sensationalist treatments nevertheless incubated a curiosity that broke the surface when I started to notice a book entitled, Moma Lola, a Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn in university bookstores. The author, Karen McCarthy Brown, took Moma Lola on as an anthropology research project and ultimately became friends with her subject. I was immediately chagrined to learn that much of the distaste towards Vodou (this is my own observation, not Brown’s) seems laced with, if not based upon, overt racism. Vodou is the faith of the descendants of African slaves living in the poorest nation in the western hemisphere. Those who adhere to it often live an existence that few would accept in a world awash in riches. The people in Moma Lola’s story are poor and deprived, and their nation is kept that way by complications of a past tied too intimately with slavery.

Although Brown is not a scholar of religion, her account is a very accessible introduction to the belief system of Vodou. Most adherents, it becomes clear, think of themselves as Catholic. They see no contradiction between the teachings of Rome and the activities of spirits (the “gods” of Vodou are in reality spirits that operate in a world where God is too busy to pay attention to everyone) who must be propitiated. The rituals associated with Vodou are common among peoples who believe in connections between things as they seem and things as they are. In fact, reading the accounts of possession that Brown provides, I was reminded very much of charismatic Protestant experiences of being “slain in the spirit.” Ironically, both traditions believe in the same god. Why anyone should fear Vodou, unless it is because they secretly harbor a deep-seated fear in the efficacy of magic, is baffling. Like most religions, it is moral and concerned with upholding good over evil.

Haiti has a unique history that has put it at the creative epicenter of religions forced into collision while being economically exploited by nations that putatively support democracy. Religion, as Karl Marx noted, is for the poor. Brown takes her readers through her own experiences with a religion few outsiders really know, introducing the “gods” of this intricate religion along the way. Moma Lola, a healer, tries to survive in New York City after a difficult life in Haiti, and rather than make her escape, she returns on occasion to help others. Even in the spiritual circus that the Big Apple represents, people are suspicious of Vodou (and Santeria), despite their common cause with other religions of the developed world. You can read the 400 pages of Brown’s Moma Lola with nary a mention of “voodoo dolls” or zombies. Instead you’ll find people—often women—working to survive in a hostile world. Untested attitudes toward other religions often bear their own dark secrets, and Vodou, as lived by Moma Lola, belies and exposes many hidden prejudices on the part of the affluent world.

Serpents, Rainbows, and Black Pearls

Riding on a bus with a bunch of coughing commuters may not be the best setting for reading about poisons and zombies. I am also aware that Wade Davis has come into criticism by some of his professional colleagues and that the movie based on his book, The Serpent and the Rainbow, may have led to an aneurism or two among scholars of Haiti. Nevertheless, Borders was closing down and a copy of the book remained on the shelf for an insanely low price, and October would soon be upon us. This past week I read Davis’ intriguing account of his experience with real-life zombies and the fascinating religion of vodoun. A number of issues were raised by his account, not least of which is that the feared religion of “voodoo” is a direct result of the evils of African slavery that brought indigenous gods into the realm of Christianity, and mixed them vigorously. My first “exposure” to vodoun was in the old James Bond movie, Live and Let Die. It terrified me as a child, and even with rational eyes, I’m not sure I fare much better as an adult.

No matter what one thinks of Wade Davis and his work, The Serpent and the Rainbow is a fascinating work. One of the most interesting aspects Davis raises is the continuing issue of defining death. Premature burial may sounds like the hysteria of a Poe-induced nightmare, but, as Davis shows, most methods of measuring death are susceptible to being fooled. Those who are termed “zombies,” in the vodoun sense of the word, are people declared dead by medical professionals, yet who are later found, after their burials, very much alive. Many readers will find this difficult to accept, but it is a phenomenon that goes back to Seabrook’s swashbuckling adventures of early last century and even before. If Davis is to be believed, it is thoroughly documented.

Paradigm shifts are seldom welcomed. We prefer to live within the comfort of the universe in which we grew up. Science and religion agree on this point—things are not what they seem. Zombies in the Walking Dead sense do not exist despite the fact that they are the kind most popularly known. We like them because they can’t hurt us; they lurch through the streets of our nightmares and our zombie walks, but they are not real. It could be, however, that our understanding of our world is woefully incomplete. Confronted with that which challenges our tidy universe, whether it be quantum physics or Haitian religion, we must consider the benefits of a mind kept open to the possibilities. Do vodoun priests in the hidden shadows of the Caribbean enslave the living dead? Disney answered with a resounding yes in Pirates of the Caribbean, but then, in Hollywood it is sometimes preferable to have the zombies in front of the screen.

Slash and Burn

Extinction is an evitable part of life in the universe we’ve inherited. Throughout the eons of our planet mass extinctions have occurred several times, and the new world that emerges is strange and unexpected. We as primates owe our existence to such a natural occurrence at the end of the Cretaceous Period. We evolved religion, which, in some species, bestows the right upon us to alter, or even destroy, our environment. The lame reasoning that generally accompanies such amateur theologies is that a deity is about to sweep down and reclaim those “he” (inevitably) likes. All the rest are just part of a hellish charade to make the righteous feel their entitlement more acutely. So we now find ourselves facing, as scientists warn, another great extinction. This one is of our own making.

The causes are not too difficult to discern. For centuries the dominant religions in the western world have preached messages easily mistaken for selfishness. The perverse aberration called the “prosperity gospel” is one such bastard theology. (I use that term in its literal sense here: the prosperity gospel claims false parentage in declaring that Jesus rewards the affluent with material wealth.) An article in Sunday’s New Jersey Star-Ledger points out that the unprecedented human involvement in extinctions. Using Haiti as a test-case, Faye Flam of the Philadelphia Inquirer notes that 99 percent of that nation’s forests have been wiped out as the poorest people in the western hemisphere seek wood for the basic necessities of life. Just over six hundred miles to the north begins one of the most affluent nations in the world where as long as we get our own, the rest of the world can go extinct. We are so blessed. While the loss of forest barely keeps the people of Haiti alive, it drives unnumbered species to extinction.

Entitlement is an odd phenomenon. Without those further down the food chain, the advantages of privilege disappear. When there are no poor to support the wealthy, the comparison fails. The same is true on a species level. As privileged Homo sapiens, we have climbed to the top of the mountain and made ourselves gods. Other species are counted as chattels to be divided up among the wealthy. The rarer they are, the more valuable. Problem is, once rarity reaches extinction there’s no turning back. Our environment placed us in this position and gave us the grey-matter to figure it out. Instead we liken ourselves to gods who do not need this world that gave us birth. Biology disagrees, as time will tell.

Icon of the prosperity gospel.

Rushing in Where Angels Fear to Tread

As my daughter’s public school undertakes its humble efforts to raise funds for the devastated nation of Haiti, contributing the little that unemployed children can raise, Rush Limbaugh unapologetically proclaims that Americans shouldn’t contribute to the earthquake relief. The New Jersey Star-Ledger notes that on Wednesday Limbaugh declared that Americans already support Haiti through their tax dollars and shouldn’t feel the need to contribute anything beyond that to the poorest nation in our hemisphere. This is true Christianity, according to the Neo-Con gospel.

Rush Limbaugh basks in the limelight as the outspoken representative of the “Gott und Ich” school of religious politics. With an estimated annual salary around the $400 million mark, Limbaugh comfortably sits back and watches the world burn around him. Together with James Dobson, Pat Robertson, and others who support the new, compassionless version of Christianity (Christianity 2.0), they inveigh directly into the ears of high-ranking politicians with coarse voices declaring that God wills for them to be the sole arbiters of what is right. I only hope that Americans are really listening. Really listening.

Religion has always been a form of social control. From earliest times, those who claim to know the will of the gods tell others what they need to do to placate the angry deities that hover all around. Earthquakes are the work of such angry gods. What do they demand? Listen to your local priest. America has been beset with a plague of Religious Right voices that are well-funded and so parsimonious that seldom can the gentle voice of reason be heard. While Limbaugh enjoys his enormous wealth kids who have never known anything like basic comfort are dying in the thousands in a nation right next door. And the people say, “Amen.”

Theodicy Versus Idiocy

Among the leading reasons generally given for atheism in developed countries is the problem of theodicy. Theodicy is the act of justifying God, as implied by the roots of the word itself. In a world where many innocent suffer, as well as many guilty, the question of how a loving God and divine fairness fit into such a warped and corrupted system presents questions often left unanswerable. My class tonight will be reviewing Job, a book steeped in the issue of misfortune. The best that the narrator can offer is that Yahweh made a bet with the Satan and Job came out on the losing end. Not much hope for justice there.

This week’s horrific earthquake in Haiti has elicited high levels of sympathy and support as this poorest of western hemisphere nations struggles to find some kind of balance in a reeling world. The question of where God is amid all this tragedy, perhaps 100,000 dead, pensively teeters in minds sensitive to the human condition. Other minds, however, blare idiotic platitudes that only drive mourning theists closer to the other side. Pat Robertson, a major political player who has been a card-holding member of the Religious Right from its unholy inception, has declared that Haitians are paying the price for an ancient deal they made with the devil. In a theology that makes a mockery of even the Charlie Daniels band, Robertson stated, according to MCT News, that Haiti had made “a pact with the devil.” He said, “Something happened a long time ago in Haiti, and people might not want to talk about it… They were under the heel of the French… and they got together and swore a pact to the devil. They said, ‘We will serve you if you’ll get us free from the French.’ True story.”

This drivel, based on hearsay history and implicit racism, does not justify a loving, or even neutral, God. Instead, the Conservative deity is shown in his true colors: racist, supersessionist, arrogant, and uncaring. This is the deity behind the Religious Right. Some people castigate Pat Robertson for being outspoken and perhaps senile. I applaud him. He shows clearly what intellectual rubbish the Religious Right promotes. He simply has fewer inhibitions to admitting it.

In Job, there was a deal made with the Satan. The perpetrator of that deal was Yahweh. No answer is given as to why the innocent suffer. Job is a most profound book, wrapped in a childlike story of two supernatural beings trying to show each other up. If we look hard enough we can find the Religious Right in the book as well. Their voices are those of the “friends” that Yahweh ultimately condemns when he finally speaks from the whirlwind.