Wednesday, February 20, 2008

On the road to freetown...

On Tuesday, I made my way back from Kabala in the Koinadugu District of Sierra Leone. We rolled down the windows of the 4WD, offering some relief from the heat by letting the dry, dusty, hot air rush into the car. As we pulled into Makeni for a brief stop to buy some vegetables, a woman came over. Her right arm was marred by severe burns from her hand to shoulder. The scars covered her flesh like a thick bacteria slowly crawling its way up and around her body. Her left hand was even worse. A mangled mess, her fingers wrapped around themselves and splayed off in different directions. You could only imagine what caused the injuries. Perhaps in the war she was caught in a Revolutionary United Front (RUF) attack; or perhaps the Civil Defence Force (CDF) or Kamajors suspected her of RUF complicity; or perhaps it was just a cooking or work accident. There are so many potential sources of pain and injury. It need not be as "glamorous" as civil war, genocide, slaughter, or torture. Torture comes in too many forms to narrow it down in such a way...

The woman approached our car, and shoved her disfigured hand in through the window into our faces, asking for money. Like anyone else, we recoiled, said no, and rolled up our windows. We finished our shopping and continued on our way back to Freetown.

I suppose I should try to say something profound now. But these things happen all the time here.

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For reasons I may explain later, I came back from Kabala with a new sense of purpose in the choices I have made. Or at least I tell myself. I've always been good with words, laying out philosophy and principles with rhetorical and poetic flourish, but words without actions are dead, as James 2:20 reflected about faith. There's no need to write about all the new things I've learned or decided. If I really learned them, the only words that matter will be carried out through my actions, in the kingdom of the here-and-now, and anyone with eyes to see will be able to judge what really lies in my heart and in my head. For now, I depart with just one last reflection.

While climbing one of the many hills in Kabala, I thought about the great commission - the moment in the Christian story when Jesus tells the disciples to go out into the world and spread his word. Jack Miles argued in God: A Biography how, in the Jewish canon, God had been moved to silence after his argument with Job, how God never spoke again but became the silent, reclusive, tired Ancient of Days described in Daniel. What if the central narrative of the Bible is less about how God acts in the world, but how He's decided not to? Maybe the Great Commission is also a hand-off of responsibility to us, to take on the burden of the world and heal it, to become "world saviors," as the Gnostics would put it? Christian or not, maybe there will be great strength and power and compassion and love available to us if we seek it ("seek and you shall find") - whether from man's natural goodness, his ability to reason, or from the "divine spark" in each of our hearts, or whatever term of art we may use - but perhaps, at the end of the day, the only God to help us is the God within us. The responsibility is ours. And it's terrible and terrifying, and liberating...

We need not fly to Sierra Leone to find injustice and suffering. It can be found anywhere - in our cities, in our towns, in our neighborhoods, and in our day-to-day relationships, and it's just as real there as anywhere else. For human rights doesn't begin in some remote corner of the Congo, or some impoverished slum in Freetown. It begins at home - with how we treat everyone we profess to hold dear in our heart. If we can't do even that right... how can we ever talk about human rights and respect for man?

2 comments:

Dave Chen said...

I wish I knew. The question continues to haunt me, and having taken Pascal's wager doesn't make the concern and worry less tortuous. Is this our fate, to be eternally damned to such paradoxes of suffering?

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