"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Human Sacrifice And The Gospel Of John

The Splendide was an old Victorian gingerbread hotel on the old road to Petionville, half way between Port-au-Prince and Kenscoff. The stairs, bannisters, and floors were all teak and mahogany, the urns and fittings were polished brass, and the porches and verandahs covered with bougainvillea.  The Splendide was similar to the Oloffson, the so-called ‘Greenwich Village of the tropics’; but never had its cachet. In its day the Oloffson had been the favorite winter watering hole of writers, artists, and celebrities and the locale for Graham Greene’s The Comedians, a novel set in the dark days of Papa Doc and the Tonton Macoutes.  The Splendide was more polished, reserved, and formal.

 Hotel Splendide

From the balcony of the Splendide one could see the city, the port, and the hills above Petionville, and when the breeze blew from the north, hear the sound of voodoo drums.

Haiti in the days of the Duvaliers, before the country descended into into political anarchy, crime, and civil unrest, was unique in the Caribbean because it had never become the modern resort destination of its neighbors.  The Duvaliers had no interest in developing the country either economically or socially, and it always ranked at the bottom of every developmental indicator for the Americas.  The roads were bad, electricity and water marginal, and public services scarce and inefficient; but because of this inattention and thanks to the many old gingerbread houses in the neighborhoods where wealthy mulattoes lived, the city had a shabby but romantic feel to it. 

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                    Randolph Langenbach

The presence of the Tonton Macoutes, easily recognizable in their porkpie hats and sunglasses added an air of danger and menace.  Both the Macoutes and the little dandy, Aubelin Joliecoeur who knew everyone and could arrange anything, made the Oloffson even more romantic and desirable.

“The one good thing about repressive dictatorships”, said a guest at the Oloffson, “is law and order”; and indeed Duvalier’s police state ensured an untroubled, crime-free capital. Foreigners could drink in the dancehalls of Carrefour, eat at the best French restaurants in Petionville, spend weekends on the South Coast beaches of Macaya and Les Cayes, and walk the streets of Port-au-Prince at night.

Voodoo – a charismatic animist religion brought to the Caribbean by slaves from Dahomey – was a powerful expression of faith and, in such a repressive political regime, a validation of individual belief.  Duvalier himself revived the traditions of voodoo and later used them to consolidate his power. He claimed to be a houngan, or voodoo priest himself; and deliberately modeled his image on that of Baron Samedi.

Baron Samedi

Voodoo ceremonies were celebrated everywhere and involved animal sacrifice, chanting, and African ritual. Participants were thought to be visited by voodoo spirits who were powerful and all-present. 

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Ritual sacrifice has been part of religion since antiquity, and even the Hebrews of the Old Testament were called on by Yahweh to sacrifice animals in atonement.  Cannibalism and human sacrifice has also been common.

As Marvin Harris (Cannibals and Kings, 1978) points out, the Aztecs killed thousands in ritual sacrifice and then ate the victims:

“There really is no mystery concerning what happened to the bodies since all the eyewitness accounts are in fundamental agreement. Anyone with a knowledge of how the Tupinamba, the Huron and other village societies disposed of their sacrificial victims should be able to come to the same conclusion: the victims were eaten.

After having torn their hearts from them and poured the blood into a gourd vessel, which the master of the slain man himself received, they started the body rolling down the pyramid steps. It came to rest upon a small square below. There some old men, whom they called Quaquacuiltin, laid hold of it and carried it to their tribal temple, where they dismembered it and divided it up in order to eat it.

After they had slain them and torn out their hearts, they took them away gently, rolling them down the steps. When they had reached the bottom, they cut off their heads and inserted a rod though them, and they carried the bodies to the houses which they called calpulli, where they divided them up in order to eat them.... and they took out their hearts and struck off their heads. And later they divided up all the body among themselves and ate it...

The Zapotecs, a pre-Columbian Mesoamerican society, lived in a world of natural, immanent power.  Spiritual forces were in the lightning and thunder, the violent storms, predatory animals, and in the rising and setting of the moon and sun.  They were brooding in the massive mountains or in the night sky.  They were everywhere, frighteningly real.  There was no distinction between human life, nature, and the gods.    There was no escaping the temperamental and eruptive forces of Nature and the gods. Human sacrifice was the ultimate appeasement of powerful gods.

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   Codex Magliabechiano, Folio 70 (Wikipedia)

Farther north in the Aztec civilization, warriors dressed as panthers, wolves, mountain lions, and bears and became them as they engaged the enemy.  They were human soldiers and animals and gods all at once.

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At the other end of the religious expression is the Gospel of John, the opening verses of which are the most esoterically complex of any in the Bible.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

Here John explicates the essence of God and Man – logos, the Word, the ineffable essence which preceded God, which was God and which was the incarnation of Jesus Christ.  Theologians in the first centuries after Christ wrestled with the impossible conundrums of the Trinity, the nature of the Holy Spirit, existence before existence, and the contradiction of spirit and flesh in one being.   Although Christianity has as many ‘pagan’ expressions of faith as any other religion, it is based on Hellenistic thought, itself derived from Plato and Aristotle.   

So concerned was Pope John Paul II about the move away from the logic of Aristotle, Augustine, and Aquinas, and the embrace of charismatic cultism that he spared no words to express his hostility to evangelical Protestant sects.  The Los Angeles Times reported on his visit to Brazil in 1991:

In a scorching blast at evangelical Protestant "sects," Pope John Paul II accused them Sunday of seducing with "false mirages" and misleading with "distorted simplifications."

He exhorted Brazilian bishops to stem the rapid expansion of rival religions in this traditionally Roman Catholic nation of 150 million people by leading a counter-campaign of Catholic evangelization.

On the second day of a 10-day tour in Brazil, the Pope made it clear that he is not happy with the state of Brazilian Catholicism. He told a national convention of bishops that religious ignorance and "serious lack of doctrine" among the people has left them vulnerable to moral deterioration and "to the seduction of sects and new religious groups."

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Was John Paul right? Does ecstatic experience have no place in religion?  Is Catholicism, so based on logic and the rational exploration of divinity, a more evolved religion that Voodoo or Zapotec paganism?

Evangelical churches will say nothing of the sort.  Catholicism, with its inflexible, arcane theology; its authoritarianism and insistence on Church intermediation in spiritual affairs is not at all evolved but retrograde. True religion is not decided by the Vatican but by individuals who find their personal Jesus.

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In fact many of the services in charismatic black churches in the South are reminiscent of the ecstatic ceremonies of Dahomey and West Africa.

Hinduism offers the best of both worlds – a highly sophisticated philosophy, similar to that expressed in John; and an exuberant popular faith. It doesn’t matter whether a believer is an ascetic contemplating the One or a devotee of Ganesh, both are expressing religious faith.  There is no question of evolution.

Image result for ganesh on float bombay parade

The Christianity of John and the Catholic Church is more persuasive.  Man is a rational being who was created with faculties of reason and logic, and therefore to dismiss these gateways to spiritual experience seems wrong. This is not to deny the mystical, but to accept the foundational arguments that must precede it. In other words, expressions of faith can be even more fulfilling if the mysteries of divinity have been explored and understood.  

Yet what more powerful human experience could there be than to stand praying at the altar of the Zapotec gods in the Valley of Oaxaca, feeling the immanent spiritual power of mountains, sky, and thunder, and in one ecstatic, purely elegiac moment of ritual death, join in supplication, penitence, and fear?

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