Deye Mon Ge Mon
Steed V. Davidson—February 10, 2010
- Isaiah 6:10–13, Luke 5:10–11
The simple Haitian proverb, beyond the mountains there are more mountains, speaks both to the mountainous terrain of the country as well as its tumultuous history. So far 2010 represents yet one more of those mountains the determined people who successfully revolted against French imperial rule need to face. In the wake of the January earthquake the world has renewed its attention to the people of Haiti unlike any time before this nation came into existence. While in the midst of a crisis few countries offered any hesitation and many rushed to help, the general picture of Haiti and Haitians remains that of unfortunate, pitiable, miserable, underdeveloped, mistreated, uneducated people that have just made all the wrong choices. The repeated phrase, “we were just trying to help,” said both as a badge of honor and as a defense for unforgivable paternalism, reveals a level of ignorance on the part of many outside of Haiti and the record of US involvement in the history of the country. The claims to be well-intentioned notwithstanding much of the “help” offered to Haiti before the earthquake brought renewed interest in the plight of the country was at best misguided.
The narrative about Haiti written largely by outsiders who do not know the story of Haiti is constantly headlined as, “the poorest nation in the western hemisphere.” This unexamined line continues to propound the myth that poverty is either a natural occurrence or the result of some fault. The chanters of this mantra never interrogate the statement because it requires an interrogation of their own country’s wealth. I am yet to read the article on Haiti that refers to it as the first independent republic in the Americas, or the first successful African slave revolt against European slavery, or the first African nation that soundly defeated the forces of Napoleon. These historical realities that lie at the heart of the Haitian story remain hidden from view because they tell a different narrative. They tell the narrative of the collection of slaves led by an ingenious man Toussaint L’overture waged a struggle against the French for control of the slave colony. As a slave himself L’overture gave a new character to the rebellion when he joined it and his passion for freedom soon found resonance among his charges. St. Domingue was a sugar producing colony and the wealthiest of France’s possessions in the Caribbean. The loss of this colony would deal a deadly blow to their economy but more so the loss of the colony not to another European power but to slaves would devastate the French reputation. And so it was that at the start of the 19th century, Napoleon had to lead his wounded troops and galleons back to France after a humiliating defeat by at the hands of L’overture’s forces. In January of 1804 the Haitians declared themselves a republic and recovered the Amerindian name for the western side of the island, Ayaiti—land of mountains.
The calypsonian, David Rudder in 1988 in his song Haiti I’m Sorry sums up the historical value of the Haitian revolution. “Toussaint was a mighty warrior and to make matters worse he was black. Back and back in those days when black men knew their place was in the back. In the aftermath of the Haitian revolution, L’overture and subsequent Haitian leaders needed to deal with Europeans and the newly formed United States as part of the world community. In general the French were committed to regaining Haiti and restoring slavery to the island. L’overture in dealing with Napoleon insisted that slavery would never again be a part of the island. French forces in the continued attacks to recapture the territory, later captured L’overture and exiled him to France where he died. Ultimately, the French insisted that the Haitians pay reparations for their loss of the valuable colony, a debt that they continued to service until 1938. The poorest nation in the western hemisphere? The Haitians also looked to Britain and the US for recognition and help. But the British had made common cause with the French to capture the colony and were not about to let formers slaves get their hands on it. The US President, Thomas Jefferson, was outraged at the idea as he put it of “niggers speaking French” that he refused to recognize the country and instead colluded with Napoleon to retake the colony. The French occupation claims in Louisiana became part of the deal to help the French, this eventually worked in the favor of the US since the French never recaptured the colony and Napoleon had already ceded the rights to Louisiana to the US. The reality was the French, the British and the US did not want to see Haiti survive; a successful slave revolution so close to continued slave holding areas posed a danger to their concerns. The Haitian revolution survived and the country has moved from one mountain to another, led mostly by corrupt and tyrannical leaders who also contributed to the present state of the nation.
The narrative of Haiti marks a critical opening in the history of all Africans in the hemisphere. The Haitians not only proved that revolt against slavery could be successful on such a large scale but they also demonstrated that an insistence on their humanity required that they live as freed people no less than any other. The ideals of the French revolution: Liberty, Equality and Fraternity, inspired them to believe that as human beings they too shared in those ideals. With the success of the French revolution many in Haiti thought that their status had changed and that slavery would be abolished. When this was not forthcoming the seeds of revolution began quite unsuccessfully at first. A similar irony holds for the US whose recent independence celebrated the freedom of all people but still maintained the system of slavery and the exclusion of Africans from their understanding of what it means to be human. Styling the Haitian revolutionaries as Black Jacobins the historian CLR James speaks of his work in this way: “I would write a book in which Africans or people of African decent instead of constantly being the object of other peoples’ exploitation and ferocity would themselves be taking action on a grand scale and shaping other people to their own needs.” The Haitian revolution remains not only a historical watershed but also a placeholder of the aspirations of all those who have been robbed of their humanity and systematically excluded from the benefits of society. The narrative of Haiti lies in more than just poverty. It consists of the demand for freedom, the pursuit of full humanity, the will to live, the triumph over obstacles and set backs, the power of the human will to thrive.
Against this history the word of God meets us today with two narratives that have been mistakenly labeled as calls and rendered fanciful to suit our imaginations. Isaiah’s willingness to volunteer in a time of need amidst the visionary experiences of the temple soon gets tempered by the realities that God lays out in the commission. This commission sends Isaiah to a stubborn people; people who will either refuse to hear or be too confused to understand. And the almost fruitless task will continue up to time of disaster when the Isaiah faces the challenge of finding a way out of the disaster. The willingness of Isaiah in v. 8 needs always to be matched to the realities of what God actually asks us to. These realities make of ministry and the task of leadership not one of comfort and ease, but constant toil, commitment and dedication to a firm cause. Yes climbing mountain after mountain. Similarly, as we the gospel of Luke we encounter this gospels rendering of how Simon, James and John and perhaps some other become disciples of Jesus. They follow Jesus not because Jesus calls them as in Matthew and Luke, but of their own choosing. Jesus’ statement to Simon that catching people, not fishing for people as mistakenly understood here, will be in his future. This statement seems to fire the imagination of Simon and his partners that they could no longer remain in the fishing business. Here is a man for whom humanity was first and foremost, the concerns of the sick and demon possessed. Here is a man whose commitment lies with good news for the poor, release to captive, freedom for the oppressed. And Simon experiences this first hand when Jesus heals his mother-in-law. The statement from Jesus about humanity and their future serves to alter their experiences because they know what it is to live from one mountain to the next and now Jesus brings them the motivation for overcoming those mountains. Jesus shows them a dedication to humanity; to humans struggling in life, moving from one mountain to another.
To think of the twin concerns of epiphany and vocation as this lectionary segment wants us to do needs to happen in the context of the realities of human beings. The Haitian experiences exemplify the fate of Africans in this hemisphere from the day the first of Columbus’ ships landed in the Bahamas and the European pillage of lands resulted in the decimation of indigenous population. To supply the cheap labor needed for plantations and to save the indigenous population from further decline, Bartholomew de las Casas proposed sourcing this labor from Africa. Ever since then Africans have been climbing mountain after mountain trying to maintain their humanity, to live as free people with dignity. This dehumanization of one people ultimately dehumanizes all of us as human beings and the task to regain our full humanity, to be the person for others as Jesus appears to us remains our vocation and ministry today. We hardly recover that through acts of pity and charity. We hardly get there through trite apologies. We hardly recover the sense of dignity lost through hiding history and picking that parts that make us look good. We get there through a commitment to labor in the interest of God’s people. We get there through insistence of justice, transformation and renewal of our communities. We get there through the grace that comes from the one who lived that dedicated lives for others. We get there through a commitment that determines never to give in or to give up. We there in reliance on him who gives us the strength to do more than we can think or ask, or even what we volunteer for. We get there because God is powerful and the God of power that we seek supplies us the resources to climb these mountains.
The end may not always be pretty for us who commit ourselves to this struggle, but we know that it becomes better for all. Jesus who has already won that new life for all people simply opens our awareness to the possibility that we can join the growing movement of those dedicated to the task of catching people; of capturing their imaginations with a new narrative about themselves and other people, a new story of transformation for all humanity, a new possibility for life, a new zeal to move across the mountains.