Friday, April 4, 2008

Cape Verde

I just got back from Cape Verde. It was one of the most spectacular trips of my life. I'll be posting photos soon, but for now, two quick anecdotes.

On my first day of hiking, I decided to go against the advice of the professional guide at the residencial, Casa Cavoquinho, that I stayed at. He said the path was extremely hard to follow and very difficult and dangerous. He was right. When I told one of the villagers near the top of the mountain what I intended to do, he looked at me like I was insane. A couple of kids followed me most of the way pointing the way down... down a practically vertical drop, with barely visible switchbacks cutting back and forth, several hundred meter drops on either side. After I made it past the most difficult section, I met a kid, probably no more than 10, carry a bag of rice and a knife. He seemed as if he were waiting for me to come down. He began to lead me through the rest of the trail, waiting for me whenever I paused to take a picture. Whenever we got to a difficult section, he would wait at the bottom to make sure I made it down ok. After we finished the last hard part, I thanked him and we parted ways. I never had a better guide in my life.

On the way back from Lungi International Airport, I decided against the overcrowded and lumberous Kissy Ferry. Instead, I made my way through the ramshackle village port of Tagrin and found some of the boats that head over to Freetown, across the mouth of Sierra Leone river that spills out into the Atlantic. You often see them, overcrowded and making their journey across the water. The boats are broken down messes, made of wood and leaks. The seats amount to either standing against the side or balancing on the edge, gripping the sides to prevent yourself from falling over the side as the boat rocked about in the waves. After enough people boarded, the boat set off. Mid-way across the water, another boat approached on the return trip from Freetown, and my boat began to veer directly towards it. The boats nearly crashed head on, the sides grating together, and people sitting on the sides of the other boat diving toward the center to avoid the colliding wood. At the last second, one passenger from the other boat dived on. Apparently that's how transfers in Sierra Leone take place.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

An Eostre Thought and Easter Confession

(I wrote this the night before Easter while sitting on my balcony overlooking a city stuck in a pre-electricity era. I had just been reading the Bhavagad Gita, and trying unsuccessfully to drown out the preaching of a Sierra Leonean version of Rev. Wright with Ali Farka Toure’s Malian jazz. I post it now as a belated and bit convoluted Eostre/Easter reflection.)

Easter - the most sacred Christian holiday - was named after a German fertility goddess, Eostre. It's a relic of a conversion effort by Christians who realized that - like Joe’s Nye soft power - they could make conversion more palatable by masking it in the pagan holiday’s garbs of bunnies and eggs and Eostre. Soft power in conversion: the compliment to the traditional hard power of coercion through threats of hellfire and bribes of eternal reward and drinking wells - luring the Dogon people from their cliffside homes at the Bandiagara escarpment to the stretching plains of Mali...

Both Good Friday and Easter are about suffering and death, and about God's answer to suffering and death. I have written of suffering before regarding the girl from Moyamba. From Plantinga to Swinburne, the Free Will Defense (FWD) and almost every explanation of problem of evil casts all evil, in every detail, as necessary and essential for some higher good (in turn transforming God into Raymond Sullivan's ironic utilitarian deity rather than typical Kantian, commandment-based moralist he's portrayed as). For if some evil is truly unnecessarily, people fear Archibald MacLeish's refrain would hold true, "I heard it called out in the yellow wood, if god is good, god is not god. If god is god, god is not good." So as a result, they try to answer pointless suffering by denying it altogether. But no Free Will Defense of Plantinga or Swinburne has been able to weave an argument to justify or excuse the ingenious savagery, the brilliant detail and artistry of cruelty... from a 14-year old girl forced to go through FGM by the Bondo secret society in Sierra Leone; to a 12-year old being raped and dying of her injuries in Bo district; to a girl from Moyamba bleeding from menstruation through her nipples.

But just like the traditional answer to the problem of evil, the traditional take on Easter tries to make sense of suffering, death, and evil by turning that them into something good, the Sad Friday into a Good Friday, a theological "switch in time" to rewrite history. Jesus’ death becomes some form of divine human sacrifice (i.e. the lamb of God as in the tradition to slaughter a lamb as a sacrifice for sins); blood ransom to Satan or Ancient Law (that god crafted himself, as in C.S. Lewis’s depiction); substitutionary atonement with innocent blood appeasing God; or, in the Jack Miles’ creative literary portrayal, divine suicide. In each depiction, Jesus’ death then becomes part of his plan, his goal and purpose, and his cry on the cross, “Eloi, Eloi, Lama Sabachthani? (My god, my god, why have you forsaken me?),” becomes either a mistake or an act of sophistry.

But to take away Jesus’ abandonment by God is to take away his humanity. To make it part of some divine plan is to make it inapplicable to the horrible, meaningless, and absurd suffering around us. Jesus becomes the austere image in the cathedral halls, the serene face on the stained glass instead of the startling image in Hans Holbein’s painting, “The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb,” which so shook Dostoyevsky it haunted him his whole life. As Prince Myshkin exclaimed, “Why some people might lose their faith by looking at such a picture!”

It is that suffering and abandoned Jesus that appeals to me, because it is that Jesus that you see, to borrow from him, in the “least of these.” It is that Jesus reflected in every child recruited into the Small Boys Unit (SBU) of Charles Taylor, in the rank and file of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) in Sierra Leone. It is that Jesus reflected in every prisoner languishing in the cells of Evin in Tehran, in the dungeons of China, and the modern day gulag of Russia. It is that Jesus reflected in the children dying of disease or families wiped out by natural catastrophes. But too often, Easter tries to transform this senselessness into God’s divine plan, his divine instrument of justice. All evil, all suffering becomes a necessary part of God's plan, and God becomes a monster, Christopher Hitchen's dictator-in-the-sky.

Too often, Easter - instead of offering meaning - denies the real horror of the cross altogether, denying reality and offering insult to injury by undermining Jesus' death. And in doing so, it turns the God it is meant to praise into a monster, justifying evils that can never be explained or justified.

For me, the Easter moment, the Easter story is about the struggle to find the hope in the face of pointless, meaningless suffering. It is not about denying the meaningless suffering altogether. It is the paradox G.K. Chesterton described as where "God seemed himself for an instant to be an atheist." It is the question that made Kant back away from his deontological framework, forcing him to adopt a teleos based on God’s divine justice. It is the question that caused the disciples to abandon Jesus, to only return and found the world’s largest religion in his name. But Christianity perhaps more than any other religion, should enable its believers to face meaningless, awful, heart-rending suffering. Not because that evil doesn't exist, for it undeniable does. But because hopefully it is not the end of the story, but only part of it.

I confess I hope there is a heaven, a resurrection to provide some semblance of justice in the end; that all the dying children may have a chance to know some of the wonder and joy and beauty of life. But I also know even if death has been defeated, as in that famous verse of 1 Corinthians 15:55, suffering hasn’t. No power in the world can take away the suffering those innocent children felt. No God is powerful enough to pull off that "switch in time".

I also hope that if our abandonment is as final, as agonizing as Jesus may have come to believe on the cross; if that abandonment - that “final disappointment” as PJ Harvey would say - is really the final answer, I hope we can still discover magic in this world. For if this is all there is, then everything we do today, in the here-and-now, is all that matters, and that will ever matter.