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6112: "Morality", Power, and the Vodou Tradition in Haiti (fwd)

From: Racine125@aol.com

The Vodou religion is sometimes criticized as an "amoral" religion, one 
without a value system or code of behavior.  This perception is caused by the 
lack of congruence between the moral code of the observer, usually a member 
of the Judeo-Christian tradition, and the value system of Vodou.  The value 
systems of the two traditions are so different that the one is invisible to 
the other.  I, who have been raised in the Episcopal church and then 
initiated into the Vodou religion as an adult, am capable of consciously 
integrating the split perceptions of two religions in a way that very few 
people can do.

The Judeo-Christian tradition posits a spectrum of spiritual states, with the 
highest or most desirable being that of the "good" person; and the lowest or 
least desirable that of the "evil" person. The "good" person in this 
tradition is kind, loving, selfless, generous, truthful, harmless to others; 
the "evil" person iss cruel, selfish, a liar, and hurtful to others.  
Material wealth and political power are not considered evidence of goodness, 
instead they are considered suspect as possible obstacles to correct 
spiritual orientation.

God in the Christian tradition is considered all-powerful and, most 
importantly, benign.  Humans are viewed as the children of God, who loves, 
guides and protects all equally.  For one person to hurt others is by 
definition evil, because it displeases God who loves and cares for all.  God 
never does evil to humans, rather humans inflict evil upon each other, 
against the will of God.

In the Christian tradition, a good person victimized by an evil person is not 
blamed.  In extreme cases, such individuals are considered martyrs and 
candidates for sainthood.  The victimized individual enjoys the support of 
society, the judicial system, and most importantly, God, who can be 
supplicated and invoked to save the victim and punish the aggressor.

The UN/OAS Civilian Mission in Haiti was a classic example of this tradition 
made manifest.  Human rights violations are wrong because they are wrong, 
period.  The United Nations has the human rights bible, the Universal 
Declaration of Human Rights, and those rights belong to everybody equally.  
The Multi-National Forces were invoked to save the victims and restrain, if 
not punish, the aggressor.  Their own personnel could also be punished, 
severely punished, if they transgressed the rights of others, including the 
rights of persecutors like the Haitian Army or FRAPH.  This is what made them 
so incomprehensible to the average Haitian, whose world view is defined by 
the Vodou tradition whether or not the individual Haitian is a practicing 
member of a Vodou congregation.

The Vodou tradition also posits a spectrum of existential states, with the 
highest or most desirable being that of the powerful person, and the lowest 
or least desirable being that of the powerless person.  Power is defined as 
the ability to do what one wishes, obtain wealth, make others perform desired 
actions even against their will, or harm others without being harmed in 
return.  The proof of power is the individual's material wealth, or social 
and political status.  In the Haitian Creole language, the words "moun de 
byen", literally "person of good", meant both a good person and a rich 
person, a person with goods, as in worldly goods.

The lwa, the immediately accessible deities of Vodou, are considered less 
powerful than God, the "Great Master", but much more immediately efficacious. 
 A person has to serve the lwa in order to enjoy that particular lwa's 
protection.  A person serves a lwa by singing songs about the lwa at a Vodou 
ceremony, dressing in the lwa's colors, making food offerings, and observing 
sexual continence on certain days of the week. Another individual who serves 
the lwa better, that is to say with more effort or material gifts, can enjoy 
a preferential standing.  Tho did not prescribe moral behavior.  They confer 
protection and power.

In the Vodou tradition, a victim is by definition in the wrong. The lwa have 
shown their preference for the victimizer by giving that person more power 
than the victim.  A victimized individual is an object of derision, feels 
shame, and supplicates the lwa in order to obtain power to wreak vengeance on 
the aggressor.  Misfortune of any kind is always the fault, at least in part, 
of the person upon whom it falls, because that person failed to adequately 
protect himself.  A victimizer, such as a FRAPH member or an attaché, is 
feared, but not reviled morally, at least until the powerful United Nations 
forces came and let it be known that they wanted it so.

I remembered the pro-Aristide activists who, before the Civilian Mission 
arrived, considered themselves simply to be fighting, and losing, a war 
against the pro-military team.  They burned Macoutes alive when they could, 
because they had no guns to shoot them with.  It was a power struggle, tribal 
war, pure and simple.

Then the Civilian Mission came, and the political asylum program.  The 
powerful foreigners, who could criticize the military and hold open the 
gateway to the United States, said to the pro-Aristide team that they were 
â??victims of human rights violations.'  Indeed they were!  And so the savvy 
activists, confronted with that world view, profited!  Of course we are, they 
said, our rights have been grievously violated.  They began to carry Creole 
language copies of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  They wanted to 
protect human rights - their rights, not the rights of the attachés.

I remembered a seminar I did on women's rights.  Haitian men often came to 
these seminars to intimidate those women that they hadn't manage to beat into 
staying at home.

One of those men informed me, at the very beginning of the seminar, that it 
is self-evident to any thinking person that women are by nature inferior to 

"How so?", I asked, stifling my revulsion.

"Any lie you tell them, they believe you," he said.  Case closed.

A Christian would perceive a lie as an evil act perpetrated by the man upon 
the woman, against whom he sins.  The woman who believes the lie is an 
innocent victim, to be succored but not blamed.  Indeed, she is considered 
the spiritual superior of the man, because she does not lie.  The man who 
lies is exhorted not to lie again, because lying is hurtful to others and 
therefore displeasing to God.

A member of the Vodou tradition, by contrast, perceives the lying man as a 
"winner" who has won a victory against the woman, the "loser", who deserves 
to be mocked and blamed for her credulity, the weakness which enabled the man 
to victimize her.  She, not he, is in need of correction.  She is exhorted by 
her neighbor women not to trust others, and it is considered perfectly 
permissible and even admirable if she is able to recoup her losses by lying 
to the man or to another completely unrelated individual.

"But, my brother," I chuckled, "aren't you ashamed?  You have just now told 
the world that you are a liar!" 

The man shook his head.  "Well, if they believe you...", he said.  For him, 
lying is not a defect, but a strategy in the exercise of power.  He would 
feel shame if he was caught in a lie, not because he lied but because he lied 

Vodouisants have had more exposure to Christianity that the converse, and so 
most Vodou believers have some conception of the Christian moral system, 
although they don't consider it applicable to their own lives.  The man in my 
seminar was aware that lying is disapproved of by pastors, priests, and the 
Christian Bible.  He can even use these concepts to make a sham "moral 
protest" as a power strategy if someone lies to him.  But he himself will 
continue to lie when it suits his purpose.

I have always thought that this equation of power obtained by whatever means 
with evidence of spiritual favor lies at the root of Haitian political 
problems.  I recall that the geographical areas of Benin, Nigeria, and the 
Congo were, prior to the African diaspora, organized politically as kingdoms. 
 Some were stable agricultural societies, some were imperialist empires which 
conducted wars and trade battles with their neighbors.  As in the monarchies 
of Europe, the divine right of the king to rule was recognized and enforced, 
and the will of the king was by definition the will of deity.  Haiti's 
government, in the past, was typically elected as a democracy, but then 
functioned as a monarchy.  The will of the President was enforced, and not 
the Constitution, the "bible" of running a government.

Even Haitian pastors of Protestant churches haven't escaped imbibing this 
all-pervasive attitude. During the military coup on September 30, 1991, 
thousands of Haitians were killed. Among the dead was Sylvio Claude, an 
activist Protestant pastor.  Yet no Protestant Haitian pastor ever publicly 
denounced the regime or the acts which it committed.  This task was left to a 
few liberation theologian priests of the Roman Catholic church.

During the same time period the Vodou clergy, of course, was silent.  Even 
when members of Vodou congregations were numbered among the dead or tortured, 
no prominent houngan or mambo spoke out publicly against abuses.  Some 
secretly performed magic spells for the return of the elected and exiled 
President, Jean-Bertrand Aristide.  Others performed protection spells for 
members of paramilitary terrorist groups such as FRAPH.  But, while social 
protest might be expected from a Christian leader, it would have seemed 
incongruous and outside the usual realm of activities for a Houngan or Mambo. 

"Why didn't you protest?", I had once asked the Haitian pastor of a small, 
independent Protestant church.

"It wasn't my duty," he replied.  "Yes, of course rape, murder, and torture 
are sins.  Yes, we are supposed to denounce sins."

"So why didn't you?  Was it simply that you were afraid?  I can certainly 
understand, if you were."

"No," he said, "I had nothing to be afraid of, because God is stronger than 

"So why not protest?" I asked.  "God is stronger, you will win."    

"No," said the pastor.  "Satan was in power at the time."

This sort of circular illogic is so very characteristic of Haitian 
psychology, it becomes almost invisible to the international observers trying 
to make sense of the inability of Haiti to function normally, no matter how 
coddled and propped-up and carefully led are it's leaders.

Will this change?  Should it?  In what way?  These questions are crucial to 
the evolution of Haiti, but at this moment most Houngans and Mambos are not 
confronting them, and indeed haven't even begun to express them.

Peace and love,

Bon Mambo Racine Sans Bout Sa Te La Daginen

"Se bon ki ra", 
     Good is rare - Haitian Proverb

The VODOU Page - http://members.aol.com/racine125/index.html