December 3, 2000
The Vodou religion is sometimes criticized as an "amoral" religion, one without a value system or code of behavior. This perception is caused by the lack of congruence between the moral code of the observer, usualla member of the Judeo-Christian tradition, and the value system of Vodou. The value systems of the two traditions are so different that the one is invisible to the other. I, who have been raised in the Episcopal church and then initiated into the Vodou religion as an adult, am capable of consciously integrating the split perceptions of two religions in a way that very few people can do.
The Judeo-Christian tradition posits a spectrum of spiritual states, with the highest or most desirable being that of the "good" person; and the lowest or least desirable that of the "evil" person. The "good" person in this tradition is kind, loving, selfless, generous, truthful, harmless to others; the "evil" person iss cruel, selfish, a liar, and hurtful to others. Material wealth and political power are not considered evidence of goodness, instead they are considered suspect as possible obstacles to correct spiritual orientation.
God in the Christian tradition is considered all-powerful and, most importantly, benign. Humans are viewed as the children of God, who loves, guides and protects all equally. For one person to hurt others is by definition evil, because it displeases God who loves and cares for all. God never does evil to humans, rather humans inflict evil upon each other, against the will of God.
In the Christian tradition, a good person victimized by an evil person is not blamed. In extreme cases, such individuals are considered martyrs and candidates for sainthood. The victimized individual enjoys the support of society, the judicial system, and most importantly God, who can be supplicated and invoked to save the victim and punish the aggressor.
The UN/OAS Civilian Mission in Haiti was a classic example of this tradition made manifest. Human rights violations are wrong because they are wrong, period. The United Nations has the human rights bible, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and those rights belong to everybody equally. The Multi-National Forces were invoked to save the victims and restrain, if not punish, the aggressor. Their own personnel could also be punished, severely punished, if they transgressed the rights of others, including the rights of persecutors like the Haitian Army or FRAPH. This is what made them so incomprehensible to the average Haitian, whose world view is defined by the Vodou tradition whether or not the individual Haitian is a practicing member of a Vodou congregation.
The Vodou tradition also posits a spectrum of existential states, with the highest or most desirable being that of the powerful person, and the lowest or least desirable being that of the powerless person. Power is defined as the ability to do what one wishes, obtain wealth, make others perform desired actions even against their will, or harm others without being punished or harmed in return. The proof of power is the individual's material wealth, or social and political status. In the Haitian Creole language, the words "moun de byen", literally "person of good", means both a good person and a rich person, a person with goods, as in worldly goods.
The lwa, the immediately accessible deities of Vodou, are considered less powerful than God, the "Great Master", but much more immediately efficacious. A person must serve the lwa in order to enjoy that particular lwa's protection. A person serves a lwa by singing songs about the lwa at a Vodou ceremony, dressing in the lwa's colors, making food offerings, and observing sexual continence on certain days of the week. Another individual who serves the lwa better, that is to say with more effort or material gifts, can enjoy a preferential standing. The lwa do not prescribe moral behavior. They confer protection and power.
In the Vodou tradition, a victim is by definition in the wrong. The lwa have shown their preference for the victimizer by giving that person more power than the victim. A victimized individual is an object of derision, feels shame, and supplicates the lwa in order to obtain power to wreak vengean=ce on the aggressor. Misfortune of any kind is always the fault, at least in part, of the person upon whom it falls, because that person failed to adequately protect himself. A victimizer, such as a FRAPH member or an attaché, is feared, but not reviled morally, at least until the powerful United Nations forces came and let it be known that they wanted it so.
I remember the pro-Aristide activists who before the Civilian Mission arrived, considered themselves simply to be fighting and losing a war against the pro-military team. They burned Macoutes alive when they could because they had no guns to shoot them with. It was a power struggle, tribal war, pure and simple.
Then the Civilian Mission came, and the political asylum program. The powerful foreigners, who could criticize the military and hold open the gateway to the United States, said to the pro-Aristide team that they were "victims of human rights violations." Indeed they were! And so the savvy activists, confronted with that world view, profited! Of course we are, they said, our rights have been grievously violated. They began to carry Creole language copies of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. They wanted to protect human rights - their rights, not the rights of the attachés.
I remember a seminar I did on women's rights. Haitian men often came to these seminars to intimidate those women that they hadn't manage to beat into staying at home.
One of those men informed me, at the very beginning of the seminar, that it is self-evident to any thinking person that women are by nature inferior to men.
"How so?", I asked, stifling my revulsion.
"Any lie you tell them, they believe you," he said. Case closed.
A Christian perceives the lie as an evil act perpetrated by the man upon the woman, against whom he sins. The woman who believes the lie is an innocent victim, to be succored but not blamed. Indeed, she is considered the spiritual superior of the man, because she did not lie. The man who lied is exhorted not to lie again, because lying is hurtful to others and therefore displeasing to God.
A Vodouisant, by contrast, perceives the lying man as a "winner" who has won a victory against the woman, the "loser", who deserves to be mocked and blamed for her credulity, the weakness which enabled the man to victimize her. She, not he, is in need of correction. She is exhorted by her neighbor women not to trust others, and it is considered perfectly permissible and even admirable if she is able to recoup her losses by lying to the man or to another completely unrelated individual.
"But, my brother," I chuckled, "aren't you ashamed? You have just now told the world that you are a liar!"
The man shook his head. "Well, if they believe you...", he said. For him, lying is not a defect, but a strategy in the exercise of power. He would feel shame if he was caught in a lie, not because he lied but because he lied ineffectively.
Vodouisants have had more exposure to Christianity that the converse, and so most Vodouisants have some conception of the Christian moral system, although they don't consider it applicable to their own lives. The man in my seminar was aware that lying is disapproved of by pastors, priests, and the Christian Bible. He can even use these concepts to make a sham "moral protest" as a power strategy if someone lies to him. But he himself will continue to lie when it suits his purpose.
I have always thought that this equation of power obtained by whatever means with evidence of spiritual favor lies at the root of Haitian political problems. I recall that the geographical areas of Benin, Nigeria, and the Congo were, prior to the African diaspora, organized politically as kingdoms. Some were stable agricultural societies, some were imperialist empires which conducted wars and trade battles with their neighbors. As in the monarchies of Europe, the divine right of the king to rule was recognized and enforced, and the will of the king was by definition the will of deity. Haiti's government, in the past, was typically elected as a democracy, but then functioned as a monarchy. The will of the President was enforced, and not the Constitution, the "bible" of running a government.
Even Haitian pastors of Protestant churches haven't escaped imbibing this all-pervasive attitude. During the military coup on September 30, 1991, thousands of Haitians were killed. Among the dead was Sylvio Claude, an activist Protestant pastor. Yet no Protestant Haitian pastor ever publicly denounced the Cedras regime or the acts which it committed. This task was left to a few liberation theologian priests of the Roman Catholic church.
During the same time period the Vodou clergy was silent. Even when members of Vodou congregations were numbered among the dead or tortured, no prominent Houngan or Mambo spoke out publicly against abuses. Some secretly performed magic spells for the return of the elected and exiled President, Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Others performed protection spells for members of paramilitary terrorist groups such as FRAPH. But, while social protest might be expected from a Christian leader, it would have seemed incongruous and outside the usual realm of activities for a Houngan or Mambo.
"Why didn't you protest?", I once asked the Haitian pastor of a small, independent Protestant church.
"It wasn't my duty," he replied. "Yes, of course rape, murder, and torture are sins. Yes, we are supposed to denounce sins."
"So why didn't you? Was it simply that you were afraid? I can certainly understand, if you were."
"No," he said, "I had nothing to be afraid of, because God is stronger than Satan."
"So why not protest?" I asked. "God is stronger, you will win."
"No," said the pastor. "Satan was in power at the time."
This sort of circular illogic is so very characteristic of Haitian psychology, it becomes almost invisible to the international observers trying to make sense of the inability of Haiti to function normally, no matter how coddled and propped-up and carefully led are it's leaders.
Will this change? Should it? In what way? These questions are crucial to the evolution of Haiti, but at this moment most Houngans and Mambos are not confronting them, and indeed haven't even begun to articulate them.
Peace and love,
Bon Mambo Racine Sans Bout Sa Te La Daginen,br. (Kathy S. Grey, M.S.)
"Se bon ki ra",
Good is rare - Haitian Proverb
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