RELIGION AND ATROCITY: I know full well that many terrible actions have been undertaken in the past in the name of “religion”, and that this tendency continues to this day. But still, as I have been pursuing my research project on how societies deal with legacies of violence, I have become increasingly aware that in the aftermath of universe-shattering atrocities, religion can in some cases play some really helpful roles.
(I am writing these thoughts from Mozambqiue. More on that, below.)
Religion can comfort the afflicted. It can help survivors to once again discern some worthwhile structure in the universe. It can provide help in healing wounded spirits, and some lessons on how to avoid iterations of violence and atrocity. It CAN do all these things– which is not to say that it always does them…
Last year, I noticed some religions doing these things in Rwanda– a country that along with neighbors Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo cries out for help in a cruel, atrocity-laden world. Yes, I know that in 1994 some church leaders were deeply imlicated in the commission of the genocide. But it seemed to me that over the years since 1994, other church leaders– especially in the evangelistic protestant churches– were doing an incredible job of helping to heal the deep rifts inside Rwandan society.
I worshiped with one of the numerous vibrant local Quaker communities. Their enthusiastically evangelical worship service– like their social projects around the country– united Hutus and Tutsis, survivors of the genocide along with family members of suspected perpetrators.
I saw the same kind of unifying role being played by Moucecore, the evangelical Anglican mission were I stayed in Kigali.
Here in Mozambique, I was at first mainly concerned with looking at the unique role some local church leaders played in facilitating the peace negotiations that in 1992 finally succeeded in bringing an end to– by then– some 16 years of internecine civil war.
(I was sitting talking with a group of former civil war combatants in a small town here yesterday. And I mentioned– based on my own personal experience in Lebanon as well as my study of other cases, that so-called “civil wars”– i.e., those inside countries– are actually often much nastier and more atrocious than big, formal, inter-state wars. My interlocutors there all nodded and smiled wryly in recognition of this sad truth.)
But I have always also been really interested in the role that many religions– indigenous religions, as well as formal Christian and Muslim denominations and syncretic religions that combine elements from more than one of these roots–played both during and after the war in helping those scarred by war to rebuild their universes and their selves.
On Wednesday, we were talking to the leader of a nationwide group of disabled ex-combatants. He pegged into our meeting on his critches, one trouser-leg hanging empty as he walked. He talked very movingly about how, once the fact of his disablement came home to him– he had been wounded by one of the millions of landmines planted throughout the country– he had lost nearly all sense of his own worth.
“The worst thing was seeing my family look at me and feel sad about me,” he said. “That made me feel so guilty. I couldn’t decide whether to leave the family and go someplace else, or just kill myself… But in the end, it was through going to church that I learned to deal with my disablement. It was the church that gave me a feeling of community, and the church that helped me see I must find a way to live the way I am now.”
Today, Salomao, Leila, and I had two really productive, wonderful meetings with religious leaders. The first was with (Anglican) Bishop Dinis Sengulane, who along with Cardinal Alexander Dos Santos (whom we saw Tuesday) and two other local church leaders had helped persuade President Chissano, back in 1988, that the Mozambique government needed to enter into direct talks with the leaders of the Renamo opposition if it wanted to find a way to end the war.
He shared incredible numbers of deep insights with us– all crammed into a 40-minute meeting. He summed up the principles that had enabled the church leaders’ work of persuasion to to succeed; and described the campaign the churches waged in the community to help prepare Mozambicans for peace even while their leaders were still negotiating.
Sengulane has written a short book about these experiences called “Victory without losers”– in Portuguese only, I’m afraid. But we’ll get hold of a copy. I think I’m pretty good at deciphering written Portuguese– so who knows, maybe reading his book will bring me instant comprehension???
And after that, we drove to the headquarters of the Association of Mozambican Traditional Healers. This was my second visit there. Back in late August 2001, I made a whirlwind visit to them with my friend Breyette Lorntz (who speaks a little Portuguese) and Francisco Assis, an activist with the local Methodist peace organization, Justapaz.
The first time, the meeting had been rushed, ragged, and very inconclusive. One problem was that Francisco Assis did not have a language in common with the Association spokesperson with whom we were meeting, so all items of dialogue had to go through two entire channels of interpretation between me and the spokesman. (Try discussing things like post-violence trauma in such a way: inclarity piled upon inclarity.)
This time, at least Salomao was able to speak to the dozen or so traditional healers who took part in the meeting in a mutually understandable local language. Plus, he was already fairly familiar with the project, since he’s been working with it for a little while already. So communication seemed much better. Until we came to the point that had embarrassed and confused me during the last meeting– the one where the healers flat-out ask for a contribution.
Maybe Salomao and I should have talked about this possibility before. But anyway, I kind of really understood the healers’ point of view when the request came. I mean, here they are, people of incredible wisdom and knowledge. But neither they nor their wisdom gets much respect in the modern world.
Plus hey, people are asking for money for their services ALL THE TIME in the world I come from: but they do so in complcated, ritualized ways like making grant proposals and jumping through all the requisite hoops to try to win those grants. (I know whereof I speak. Believe me.)
So maybe there’s something refreshing about a different tradition in which, as they told me, you should make an offering right at the very beginning in order to pave the way for the good spirits to come to the encounter.
“Otherwise,” one them told us, “if a person seeking help from a healer doesn’t do this, he might even get dizzy and lose his way or not even be able to find his way out of the room!”
“What do you think?” I asked Salomao. “Should I make a contribution?”
“Maybe. Whatever you think.”
I dug into my purse for some meticais (the local currency) and handed them to S. He, Leila, the head of the Association and I were all sitting fairly formally behind a table on one side of the cavernous, nearly bare room where we were meeting. (Not much, if anything, had changed in it since I was there nearly two years ago. These guys are certainly operating on very low budgets.)
The other side of the table, the ten-plus other healers were facing us on low benches. About half were wearing fairly snappy uniforms of blue pants (or skirt) and white shirt with Association insignia in their epaulettes. The words “Salvation Army” did pop into my mind. The rest of them were wearing “normal” Mozambican dress– that is, informal Western-style dress for the guys; pretty African-style dresses for the women. One uniformed guy, a loquacious spokesman, held some kind of a carved stick in one hand and a cellphone in the other.
Previously, I had dug out a copy of one of my Boston Review articles to give them– an offering of some of my expertise in return for some of theirs.
Now, Salomao placed the meticais ceremoniously on top of my article, telling our hosts that I wanted to help them preserve their traditions and perhaps help them buy some paint to re-paint their headquarters.
The placing of this offering on the table was a cause for loud expressions of jubilation. (I think it was the money that caused this, not the article.) One of the women ululated briefly. Others clapped. Everyone broke into broad smiles. Salomao explained that they had said that the fact of my having made the donation– I think everyone knew it was not a large one– meant that I was respecting their way of doing things.
We were, however, near the end of the meeting. Everyone was very friendly as S took a couple of photos and as we all made our farewells…
I haven’t actually written anything here yet about the CONTENT of what the healers had talked about. As with Sengulane– or as with the traditional healer who was part of the group we met with in Bela Vista yesterday– this group also had some really powerful insights. At one point, Marais (the loquacious one) explained that all black people here know well that if a person is coming home from war, then his father should consult a healer and make sure that the right ceremonies are performed on the returning one before he even comes into the house. These ceremonies involve speaking with the spirits of the ancestors to enlist their help in making sure the transition from warrior to peaceable person is a successful one…
This certainly tracks with evrything else I have learned– primarily from the excellent works by Alcinda Honwana and Carolyn Nordstrom– about the attention that Mozambican traditional healers pay to this particularly sensitive transition in a person’s life (as to many other transitions, too.)
So how is American society going to be dealing with all the warriors who’re going to be landing back on our shores from Iraq, over the months ahead? Do we even recognize that this transition from warrior to “regular” person is a significant one at all?
Today, in Charlottesville, my friends Michele Mattioli, Chip Tucker, and Betsy Tucker, and their friends all had court hearings regarding the sit-in they staged at our local Congressman’s office the day President Bush launched the war against Iraq. I remember that in JWN a couple of days after that, I put in some excrpts from the great statement that Michele had composed in order to explain her participation in (and leadership of) the action. One of the exact points she mentioned there was that the US combatants were all decent people who would be scarred by their participation in fighting and killing… Michele, how right you were.