you prey on us when we sleep
you chase after the tired, the poor, the weak
you know you mean only harm
you reach out with your long arm
I won't let you near me...
you may have the dollar on your side
from the gospel truth you cannot hide
I won't let you near me, oh no no
you shall learn to fear me, yes you will -Ben Harper
When we were home in August a number of people asked us about the spiritual oppression in Haiti, about vodou. Before we moved here we heard Christians say you can cross the border from the Dominican Republic into Haiti and literally feel the spiritual oppressiveness of this place. Not too long ago, I overheard a missionary telling a group of highschool students on a mission trip that the country of Haiti has actually been consecrated to Satan. This perception of Haiti, especially by people who live here, makes me really uncomfortable. I grew up in Africa and very much believe in the presence of spirits (or whatever you want to call the forces of good and evil). And while I believe that Haiti IS oppressed, I think that we too easily confuse spiritual and economic oppression. To say that the situation in Haiti is a result of some relationship that the country has with Satan (when by the way, virtually every Haitian I know considers themselves to be a Christian) lets us ignore the role that we play in keeping Haitians economically oppressed.
In the context of this discussion it’s also interesting to look a little bit at Haiti’s history. The Haitian revolution took place in 1804, a time when the development and wealth of the United States and Europe was very much dependent on slave labor. The Haitian revolution provided hope for slaves throughout the Americas, which in turn scared the poo out of plantation owners and slave masters. Because it was (and is still) rumored that the revolution was sparked by a vodou ceremony, many argue that those trying to suppress slave uprisings in the States intentionally used the word “voodoo” as a pejorative word associated with worshiping the devil and other derogatory images. In his essay, “Haiti’s Impact on the United States,” Greg Dunkel writes: “The historical context of [the word voodoo’s] introduction into US society was the uprising that began in the French colony of St. Domingue… The US, which was in large part a slavocracy, was completely shocked that the enslaved Africans of Haiti could organize themselves, rise up, smash the old order, kill their masters, and set up a new state that was able to maintain its independence. This rebellion was such a threat to the existence of the slavocracy if its example spread, and so inconceivable in a politccal framework totally saturated with racism and the denigration of people whose ancestors came from Africa, that the only explanation that they could see for enslaved people participating in it was that they were ‘deluded.’”
A Haitian activist friend of ours (a Christian) believes that vodou is a cultural tradition that stems from exclusion. Because slaves and after them, the poor majority, were excluded from church because they didn’t speak French and from access to social services because they didn’t have money, the combination of their traditional understanding of herbal medicine and African cultural backgrounds became vodou. He argues that vodou was above all a way for the majority to valorize themselves as people.
Regardless of whether or not there’s any truth to his theory, it’s actually amazing to me that so many Haitians have been able to embrace the God of their ancestor’s colonial masters. My experience here is that Haitians believe more openly and more fully than we do. We wake up every morning (or did before we moved) to the sound of hundreds of people participating in a 4 AM prayer service (whereas my own faith is admittedly not activated until about 7 AM); and knowledge that God is in control seems to underlie almost everything about Haitian culture.
I am not making the claim that vodou is never used as an oppressive force or used to exploit people. I do, however, believe that it’s no more spiritually oppressive than the worship of materialism. Before we judge the syncretism in other cultures, I think we need to look hard at the syncretism in our own. To be honest, I feel more spiritually uncomfortable in a shopping mall in North Carolina than I do when I hear vodou drums beating in the night or see a clay pot tied to a tree. I know that I’m not exempt from any kind of idolatry and I believe it’s important for me to think about the ways in which my lifestyle, built on centuries-old systems of colonialism and neocolonialism, might be an agent of oppression in other parts of the globe (and in the United States, too).