January 09, 2014

Krista's Journal: There Are No Sins, Only Consequences

August 7, 2008

Creating this program was an astonishing reminder of how what is "other" — religious otherness, especially — can become stereotyped and remain stubbornly so. The immediate association most of us have with Vodou, it seems, was invented in the West. It was most indelibly planted in American imaginations by Bela Lugosi's portrayal of an evil, doll-wielding Haitian "voodoo" priest in a 1932 Hollywood film, White Zombie — at a time when the U.S. was in the final throes of a 19-year occupation of Haiti. Vodou's real roots can be traced back more than 6,000 years to the part of West Africa we now know as Benin. It was born in the Caribbean after slave ships arrived in Haiti in the early 16th century and African slaves mingled their religious beliefs with the Roman Catholicism of colonizers and slavemasters. A similar process gave rise to Santeria in Cuba and Candomble in Brazil, shaping the culture that would emerge. As Patrick Bellegarde-Smith describes how these slaves in the southern part of the western hemisphere hid the spirits they knew inside their veneration of Catholic saints, I'm evocatively reminded of my conversation about the origins of the African-American spiritual with Joe Carter. And the relationship between African religions and Catholic Christianity was also as symbiotic as it was surreptitious. To this day, many Haitians combine Vodou practice with Catholic devotion. In a cinematic clip that you'll hear in this program, the narrator of a 1953 documentary from a film shot by the avant-garde filmmaker Maya Deren describes a Catholic litany preceding Vodou ritual, part and parcel of the same experience. Practitioners of African religions like Christians, Patrick Bellegarde-Smith explains, are monotheistic. But they believe that the one high God is remote and far away. They recognize a vivid world of spirits and deities who are God's emissaries and manifestations. Most Haitian spirits are imagined as counterparts to specific Catholic saints. Yet Haitian gods are more complex than Catholic saints, Bellegarde-Smith says. Saints are representations of good people, "mostly good white people." Vodou deities mirror the moral complexity of human beings and make themselves known with all the qualities of character of human beings, dark and light. This is, perhaps, one origin of the frightening image Vodou has in the West. But for Patrick Bellegarde-Smith, it is a piece of spiritual realism. In human life, as he understands it, there are no sins — there are consequences. And these he takes seriously; this, for him, is the work of human moral discernment, more complex than following rules. In the spirit of Speaking of Faith, we explore this religion from the inside, and it is a surprising and often unfamiliar realm. Yet the breadth of this discussion does makes Vodou seem less foreign. We hear of its relationships to other transplanted African traditions, but also of its intriguing kinship with aspects of Catholicism, Hinduism, African-American Pentecostalism, and Native American spirituality. Most importantly, perhaps, this interview is another bracing reminder for me of the necessity of bracketing religion in to our view of the world and other peoples. Without understanding something of Vodou, it is not possible to understand the people of Haiti — including the many expatriate Haitians in the U.S. Learning of this spiritual world gives me a necessary complement not only to Hollywood but also to grim factual summaries that routinely classify Haiti as "the poorest nation in the western hemisphere." If Patrick Bellegarde-Smith is to be believed, ancient spiritual riches lie beneath the surface of terrible poverty in Haiti, not defeating it but meeting and transcending it in daily, private lives. And Haitian elites like him are living into a 21st-century paradox — of finding tools for modernity, and imagining a better post-colonial future, by reclaiming the ancient roots and resources they have in Vodou.

Recommended Reading

Image of Mama Lola: A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn Updated and Expanded Edition (Comparative Studies in Religion and Society)
Author: Karen McCarthy Brown
Publisher: University of California Press (2001)
Binding: Paperback, 440 pages

Patrick Bellegarde-Smith has authored several scholarly anthologies about Haitian Vodou, including Haitian Vodou: Spirit, Myth, and Reality and Vodou in Haitian Life and Culture: Invisible Powers. Karen McCarthy Brown's fascinating, classic work Mama Lola: A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn is a tremendous introduction to Haitian Vodou for Western readers.

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is a professor at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee and author of many books about Vodou.