Sabbath Sermon: COLONIZING DISASTER: Avatar, Haiti, Vodou, and You


(system) #1

On the planet Pandora, electrochemical communication across an underground root system links trees together, through billions of connections, like synapses between neurons in our brains. Imagine a global network that connects the trees with each other, a whole rainforest with every living organism, all constituent parts, bound together, communicating without a word, without a sound. The tall, blue-skinned Na’vi people who live on Pandora can access the power of the trees’ neural network, physically as well as psychically/spiritually. Interconnection, interdependence, are the basic realities of life.

Unfortunately for the planet and its people, Pandora is also the source for ‘unobtainium.’ This is a rare, floating metal highly prized by corporations and stockholders on another planet, whose inhabitants have started colonizing Pandora in order to mine the unobtainium and bring it home to their bleak, dying planet. Which, you may have guessed, is our planet Earth.

So goes the background to the recent blockbuster movie Avatar, the genius of producer James Cameron. A culture where interconnection is both biological and sacred - invaded by greedy businessmen with trigger-happy mercenaries bent on plundering natural resources for the highest profit - you know which planet Cameron’s thinking of as he writes this stuff.

I will admit that the plot of Avatar is not as inventive as its setting, and I am still waiting for a movie to come along that’s creative enough to imagine a nonviolent resolution to violent problems – but nonetheless, Avatar’s theological richness warrants a look, as much as its cool 3-D effects.

What I love most about the theology on Pandora is the way the Na’vi people allow their spiritual beliefs and rituals to respond to their environmental reality. They believe in an interconnected network of energy because it’s true and scientifically perceptible; they have instilled sacred values in that truth, which intensifies its power. What they do not do is construct an entire belief system based solely on human explanations, and then try to cram the realities of their natural environment in, scrambling to make sense of disasters that defy the very base of their faith systems – these Na’vi don’t try to shape their world to fit their beliefs, but allow their beliefs to reflect and honor their world.

It’s a story about spirit, from a scientist named Grace Augustine to an all-pervasive spirit-goddess called Eywa. (Some folks assert that ‘Eywa’ clearly implies the name of Wagner’s earth-goddess Erda; others assume Eywa is wordplay for Yahweh, a Hebrew name for God; still others could argue that Eywa is a nod to Iwa, the mystery spirits of Vodou religion who live among humans in an unseen realm. Like any good epic, its elements echo on many layers.)

Watching Avatar, you see hints of colonial conquests from around the world and across time:[2] European invasions of North America, the Caribbean, Africa; US military involvement in Viet Nam, Iraq, Afghanistan; genocides in Germany and Rwanda. The film is most interesting when it gets us thinking about invasions and conquests that have happened back here on Earth.

The earthquake in Haiti also has us thinking even more about colonization lately, as we pore over the country’s history in attempts to find some meaning in it all. It’s hard to fathom so much suffering for one, small, island country. As Haitian advocate Ezili Danto wrote - a week before the earthquake - “A real life example of what happened to the fictional Na’vi people in the movie is happening to Haiti right now.”[3]

Haiti has never been wealthy, though as Richard Kim writes in the Nation, “To say that it is the poorest nation in the Western hemisphere is to miss the point. Haiti was made poor – by France, the United States, Great Britain, other Western powers, and by the IMF (International Monetary Fund) and World Bank.”[4] Haiti’s vulnerability is not accidental.[5]

After being founded as a slave colony for France, freedmen and women banded with enslaved women and men to fight and gain independence (as the first black republic in the Americas). Incredibly, after its revolution against the French colonizers in 1804, the new nation of Haiti was forced to pay reparations to French slave holders – to compensate them for income lost from abolition. That’s right: slaves were forced to pay reparations to their former captors. (The total amount paid in today’s dollars, would top $20 billion.) External debt has stifled Haiti’s growth ever since. Loans from the International Monetary Fund in the 1980s and on came with strangling strings attached, such as making Haiti drop rice tariffs so the US could dump its rice there, undercutting local production to help US agribusiness. Result? “By 2005, three out of every four plates of rice eaten in Haiti came from the US.”[6]

And now an earthquake.

The International Monetary Fund’s extended credit facility has stepped in to try to offer another $100 million loan, to bring Haiti’s total debt to them to $265 million. Not that Haiti couldn’t use the money – but can it handle the added restrictions of the loan? As Christian activists with the Jubilee campaign have long argued, forgiving the entire debt could be a bigger help, so that the country can focus on recovery for its people instead of repaying crippling debt.

It’s the combination of forces that have magnified the suffering there. Eric Holt Gimenez of Food First says, “An earthquake is simply a natural hazard that in and of itself may or may not result in disaster. A disaster is a phenomenon in waiting that explodes on the scene when a hazard overwhelms people’s ability to anticipate, cope, resist, and recover … because of their high level of vulnerability.”

Our country has responded well to the earthquake in Haiti. President Obama’s administration has sent $100 million toward emergency aid, and, significantly, has granted Temporary Protected Status to Haiti, to allow survivors to find refuge in the United States and work to send money home, for a year and a half. UNICEF has sent $3.4 million to Haiti. Faith groups around the world have mobilized immediately to get aid on the ground.

All this is needed and good. But are we willing to respond to the underlying structural disasters in Haiti and elsewhere, which leave some countries especially unable to cope? Are we ready to work for justice even after the news cycle moves on, so that Haiti will never be as vulnerable again? __________________________________________ There are many ways to try to make sense of the senseless destruction Haiti has suffered. It’s both natural and necessary to look for meaning in powerful life events. As religion professor Elizabeth McAlister rightly states, “How we make meaning of this suffering will be crucial to how we respond, in the long term, as a global community.” [7]

And who will be the ones to make this meaning? We will. She says, “Religion’s most practical task is to make sense out of chaos.”[8] It’s our job as a church community. What sort of stories we tell about how this came to be will shape how we respond.

Some evangelical Christians are blaming the devil, not only for causing the earthquake but also for the colonial slavery system that prompted the Haitians to make the supposed ‘pact with the devil’ that Pat Robertson alleged last week – a theory that conveniently absolves European colonizers of responsibility for economic factors in the disaster.[9]

Some Pentecostal Christians are deducing signs of the end times, of the impending apocalypse.[10]

And some Vodou practitioners in Haiti have seen this as “a giant natural rebalancing act, a reaction against {abusive} human dealings with the ecosystem.”[11]

I point these out not to judge them but to note the variety of understandings, to show that we have a choice in how we look at disasters around us.

What if we also saw in this disaster a testimony to the interconnections of our lives, our shared responsibility, our shared capacity to enact change? An energizing spirit that binds us together across the planet, from a shared history and into the future? Perhaps surprisingly, I see more glimpses of that worldview in a secular Hollywood film than in the language of some of my fellow preachers.

Back to Avatar: At one point in the movie, Dr. Augustine tries to explain the incredible biological and energetic interconnections of the planet’s trees, the interconnections the Na’vi people understand and utilize. She says, “I’m not talking about pagan voodoo here – I’m talking about something real and measurable in the biology of the forest.”

Not pagan voodoo? Hmm. A few scenes later, this same scientist witnesses the Na’vi high priestess chanting to raise up sacred energies. She also watches a rite of passage for a man being welcomed into the People through a ceremony of ‘new birth,’ at which the entire community circles up to lay their hands on the man, radiating out in a web around him.

One Haitian activist pointed out that those rituals look quite a bit like Vodou, actually, a word that means, in Haiti, lifting up ‘sacred energies.’[12]

That may be. The thing is, that when I watched the Na’vi gatherings, I didn’t think of vodou. I thought of the many Christians through the ages who have shown support and commissioning through the act of gathering around and laying hands on a person. If you’ve been at the center of a laying on of hands, you’ve been able to feel the jolt of energy you get from that experience - that electric spirit, which you can also feel sometimes during special offerings for those in need in our communities and globally, like when the donations pour in for relief kits for Haiti. There’s energy in the air around us, sacred if anything is. What Avatar was mirroring was what religions have recognized for a long time: the sacred power of interconnected spirits and lives.

About his film, James Cameron said, “Avatar asks us to see that everything is connected, all human beings to each other, and us to the Earth. And if you have to go four and a half lights years to another, made-up planet to appreciate this miracle of the world that we have right here, well, you know what, that’s the wonder of cinema right there, that’s the magic.”

It’s that same energy that calls us to act for Haiti, knowing that the lives of our sisters and brothers to our south are inextricably interwoven with our own.

Well, I hope we don’t have to count on filmmakers to communicate this message to the world. The beauty of a world in which all humans are connected to each other and to the Earth is true and good news that is our job to share in the very manner of our living. Pouring our energy into immediate aid efforts after a devastating earthquake - that’s appreciating the miracle of our interconnection. Lobbying for debt relief for the world’s poorest nations - that’s appreciating the miracle of our interconnection. Refusing to blame victims of disaster - that’s appreciating our interconnection. Not letting the folks made rich by structural oppression hide behind the devil, as responsible for the gross inequalities of wealth across the globe - that’s appreciating interconnection. Helping each other make meaning out of disasters to make those disasters a lot less likely that’s appreciating interconnection. And it’s that miracle of interconnection that allows us to imagine new stories of encounter that go far beyond Hollywood’s script of good guys versus bad guys, beyond colonization and conquest to a more powerful identity of connectivity and cooperation.

In an interconnected, interdependent world, the very definitions of you and me, my gain at your expense - the very definitions of us and them break down, as a broader sense of a global “we” motivates us to lift up our weakest, most pained members. In such a world as we do have here on Earth, one Spirit lives and moves among us, animating us, activating us, calling us to feel it, believe it, love it, and live it.

We’ve got work to do. Amen.

Audrey deCoursey is associate pastor of the Highland Avenue Church of the Brethren. This sermon was delivered on 24 January 2010.

_____ Notes:

[2] Theologian Kwok Pui-lan has likened Avatar to the story of Joshua and the ancient Israelites’ conquest of Canaan – and the Canaanite people – except that in the movie, we aren’t on the side of the invaders. The strength of Avatar’s storytelling is in how resonates with the Canaanite story – an archetype of conquests to come – without getting bogged down trying to convey an exact parallel. Kwok’s argument underscores an important truth: colonization and conquest have always been on the minds of our Judeo-Christian faith, ever since Joshua’s day when the Hebrew people linked their identity to the land of Israel.

[3] Ezili Danto of Haitian Lawyers’ Leadership Network (HLLN)

[4] Richard Kim, “Haiti’s Recovery, A Repeated Tragedy,” from The Nation, 18 January 2010.

[5] “An earthquake is simply a natural hazard that in and of itself may or may not result in disaster. A disaster is a phenomenon in waiting that explodes on the scene when a hazard overwhelms people's ability to anticipate, cope, resist, and recover from a natural hazard because of their high level of vulnerability. When vulnerability is low, a hazard has little or no effect. When it is high, disasters are severe.” - Eric Holt Gimenez, “Haiti: Roots of Liberty, Roots of Disaster,” Huffington Post, 21 January 2010.

[6] Jubilee USA report, 2008.

[7] Elizabeth McAlister, “Devil’s Logic,” Forbes.com, 14 January 2010.

[8] Ibid.

[9] The inconsistency of this hypothesis is humorously spoofed in a letter to the editor, written by Lily Coyle, appearing in the 21 January 2010 Minneapolis Star-Tribune:

“Dear Pat Robertson,

“I know that you know that all press is good press, so I appreciate the shout-out. And you make God look like a big mean bully who kicks people when they are down, so I'm all over that action. But when you say that Haiti has made a pact with me, it is totally humiliating. I may be evil incarnate, but I'm no welcher.

“The way you put it, making a deal with me leaves folks desperate and impoverished. Sure, in the afterlife, but when I strike bargains with people, they first get something here on earth -- glamour, beauty, talent, wealth, fame, glory, a golden fiddle. Those Haitians have nothing, and I mean nothing. And that was before the earthquake.

“Haven't you seen "Crossroads"? Or "Damn Yankees"? If I had a thing going with Haiti, there'd be lots of banks, skyscrapers, SUVs, exclusive night clubs, Botox -- that kind of thing. An 80 percent poverty rate is so not my style. Nothing against it -- I'm just saying: Not how I roll.

“You're doing great work, Pat, and I don't want to clip your wings -- just, come on, you're making me look bad. And not the good kind of bad. Keep blaming God. That's working. But leave me out of it, please. Or we may need to renegotiate your own contract.

“Best, Satan”

[10] Noted by religion professor Michelle Gonzalez Maldonado, “’Biblical’ Disaster: Understanding Religion in Haiti,” Religion Dispatches, 18 January 2010. Haiti’s Pentecostal population is booming, and may grow further as people try to make sense of their suffering, just as many Guatemalans did after a quake in 1976 (magnitude 7.5). I myself have seen that country’s swelling Pentecostal fervor.

[11] Erol Josue, paraphrased by Vodou scholar Elizabeth McAlister, “Voodoo’s view of the quake in Haiti,” and “Why Does Haiti Suffer so Much?” in CNN.com, 18 January 2010.That is, as Vodou scholar Elizabeth McAlister says, “When you abuse the land – deforest her, plant only one crop, overpopulate her, erode her soil – she explodes, searching for a way to rebalance. The spirit of the land had become sick with abuse.”

[12] Ezili Danto, ibid.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/2139