Repotted: Evangelism and American Exceptionalism in the Congo
By Jessica Vetter '11
Literature of Peace and Social Justice
Students were to write a synthetic research paper, centered on one of the literary texts we read in the semester and explore how this text illuminates a key theme or issue related to peace and social justice. They had the option of doing a creative synthetic research paper, modeled on Susan Griffin’s excerpt from A Chorus of Stones: The Private Life of War, which we read in class. Griffin’s essay is structured as a “montage,” and Jess took this idea and ran with it. One of the challenges of this “montage” approach is to arrange the fragments in such a way that they comment on one another, engaging the reader in the process of discovering connections. Jess did a wonderful job of structuring her essay, juxtaposing personal reflection, literary analysis of The Poisonwood Bible, and critical research. She also created a unifying theme through the motif of the garden. I was impressed by the creativity of Jess’s essay and by the thoughtful complexity of her analysis.
We are waiting for peace to break out
We are waiting for flowers to bloom
We are waiting for the moon to come from behind the black clouds of war
We are waiting for the light
We are waiting.
– Carlos Reyes
Do not think the knowledge you presently possess is changeless, absolute truth.
-Thich Nhat Hanh
Seventh grade. Creative writing class. The teacher beckons me to the front of the class, in my purple jeans and oversized Mickey Mouse sweater.
It’s 2003 – war has just been declared on Iraq. War has been going on in the Congo since 1960. I hold my paper in front of me. Inspired by my parent’s political talk, I have written a poem. It reads:
Weary of war
Fed up with feud
Dispassionate about dispute
Harried by hate
Weighed by warnings
Fearful of fights…
Distasteful towards discord
Silent with struggle
But most of all
Weary of war
But it wasn’t just politics. I had an uncle, a jolly Santalike man with a bowl full of rice. Hair had abandoned the crown of his head. He would ruffle my blond hair, holding a strand up to his head. “Does this match?” he asks, snorting at my horrified face. His name is Iradj Taheri and he is from Iran.
Wars continue after peace treaties have been established. Throughout the Congo people surrender to hunger, to disease, to looted and burned villages, to hopelessness. The estimated death toll, after thirty-two months of war, is cited at three million people, most of them children (Ognibene). Those numbers are from 2003, the not so distant past.
That fourteen-year-old poet just wanted people to get along. After two towers crashed to the ground, her uncle was forced to become an American citizen. People looked at him on the sidewalk suspiciously because his skin was dark like leather. People bubble with hate just under their own skin. It stretches and shifts, pockets of it poking out – a pot almost boiling over, just streaks of moisture breaking over the rim. It takes a lot of Cover Girl to conceal hatred. It slips through the cracks and you catch sight of it in the sharp curl of a nose, the subtle twist of the lips, the disorienting circle of an eye roll.
In Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, the Price family, on a mission trip, lands in the Congo with the goal of recreating their American home, as if their lives could be so easily repotted like a plant and take root in a new environment. They carry Betty Crocker cake mixes, linen Easter suits, a hand mirror, and cans of deviled ham. Orleanna, their mother, mutters under her breath, “The bare minimum, for my children” (13).
But, as a father and preacher, Nathan’s ultimate goal isn’t just to recreate their lifestyle – through the force of his will, he wants to transform the Congo jungle into a Georgia garden and the native heathens to respectable Western Christians.
As part of his goal to bring Georgia to the Congo, he tries to plant “Kentucky wonderbeans, crookneck and patty-pan squash, Big Boy tomatoes” (Kingsolver 39). Nathan works the land into an ideal Georgia plot, ignoring the advice of a well-meaning villager. She tells him “[The plant] won’t be grow. You got to be make hills” (40). He disregards her advice, telling his daughter Leah, “our world is filled with mystery” (40). And yet, after the first rain, his perfect garden has flooded, the torrential downpour hammering the plants and drowning them. Instead of taking advice, he fights the natural way of things, uselessly picking battles he can’t win with the Congo. It sets the tone for the rest of his mission trip.
War comes in many forms. The war on hunger. The war on terror. The war on poverty. The war on homosexuality, the war on obesity, the war on sex-drugsand- rockandroll, the war on violence in video games, the war on dogs without leashes. The war on war just for the sake of war.
Modern evangelism began in 1879 in the Lower Congo with Protestant missionaries (Mahaniah 36). Four main societies extended their arms into the jungle: the American Baptist Foreign Mission Society, the British Baptist Mission Society, the Christian Missionary Alliance, and the Swedish Svenska Missions Forbundet. The first pioneers were met with great resistance on the part of the African people, who felt they had no reason to give up their native beliefs. The missionaries attempted to convert the natives for six years with no concrete results.
In a grand gesture meant to recreate Jesus’ fishes and loaves parable, Nathan Price throws sticks of dynamite into the river. He dredges up food aplenty. “He performed a backward version… trying to stuff ten thousand fish into fifty mouths” (Kingsolver 70). The smell of fish, rotting for lack of ice, haunts the village for days. The Congolese remain unconverted to the love and abundance of Jesus.
By 1886, King Leopold’s armies had invaded the Congo, forcing the natives into labor on railroad construction (Mahaniah 37). Sympathy for the mission workers grew, as they didn’t use violence to accomplish their goals. Subsequently, the natives realized that missionaries and converts were protected from King Leopold’s violent agents and burned their nkisi, sacred statues and magico-medical amulets.
As their popularity grew, the Protestant workers built schools and churches, training evangelists to do their traveling mission work. Printing presses were set up and soon the missions were mass producing evangelistic materials in native African languages (Fabian 174). The pamphlets were easily transported because of their size and were more affordable than books.
Jesus says preach, and they preach. Jesus says spread my word, so they proselytize. “Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (New International Version, Matt. 28.18-20).
If Jesus said kill thy neighbor, would they reach for the nearest blunt object?
The Kimpese school, a missionary training center eventually named L’Ecole de Pasteurs et d’Instituteurs, officially opened in March of 1909 (Manhaniah 38). Prospective teachers were groomed to spread the word of God, and taught the Old and New Testaments, religion, arithmetic, writing, geography, history, general knowledge, physical education, and singing.
Hands closing in, digging through the mud and grasping one lucky soul. Remolding and shaping, smoothing out the rough edges, refining. Painting them over with a coat of civilization until they shine.
The Kimpese students maintained a busy schedule paired with heavy manual labour, which was meant to cure the Africans of their “laziness.” They couldn’t drink alcohol or smoke and were only allowed to eat food sitting at a table because to eat elsewhere was uncivilized (Manhaniah 40). While the students went hungry, fruit from the forbidden trees at the station rotted on the ground.
Nathan Price embodies the American assumptions that create national arrogance. His faith, rooted in Puritanism, elevates his culture above all others. Susan Strehle writes, “Nathan believes in his cultural and racial superiority to the Congolese… Nathan regards Africans as lacking in maturity, intellect, and sophistication; he also condemns them as pagans who worship false gods.” He presents a tragic figure: so focused on his desire to save the doomed souls of the pagans, he is utterly blind to his own shortcomings and unable to focus on anyone’s opinion but his own. In the novel itself, his daughters and wife all have alternating voices and sections, but Nathan is surprisingly absent. His voice shines through nonetheless – so pervasive is his ideology and domination that it’s impossible to escape. It sneaks out through the words of his family.
The fire catches on the sacred statue, the nkisi’s lips first. For a moment, it looks as if the figure is speaking in flames that blossom out until the center is a charred circle. It dances across the wood until it reaches the baby hoisted on the nkisi’s shoulder.
Terry Tempest Williams writes in her essay, “The Open Space of Democracy: I think together we’ve realized that what is most threatening to the status quo is dialogue. Because honest dialogue and deep listening require us to change, to give up the rigidity of our opinions for the sacred heart of stories, where we remember who we are and who we are not. (38)
Every Sunday the good reverend Price announces, “Jesus is bangala!” (Kingsolver 276). The intended meaning – Jesus is precious – is perverted by his pronunciation. Instead, he declares that Jesus is the rashcausing poisonwood tree. An itchy rash. Inconvenient and irritating but mostly benign, much like Price himself. Words, Kingsolver tells us through this repeated scene, have multiple meanings, especially in the Congo. A situation must be examined from all angles. Her book must be examined from multiple angles to decode all its meanings.
The chill of October has just set in and I am at a dinner party with family friends. After the first few bottles of wine, the conversation has inevitably turned to politics. My father’s coworker, a talkative man, gesticulates wildly as a bit of his spittle lands by the wine carafe. I have just tried to explain Terry Tempest William’s vision of deep listening. Ed cuts me off. “I try and listen. Deeply. The wife- ” He gestures toward Carol, “sometimes I feel like she says the same thing over and over again. And I overlay what I think she’s saying with what she actually is. And I think, what if she says something different? So I should really listen.” He pauses to add gravity, then sucks in air, filling up like a balloon. “But she never does!”
Kingsolver herself was described as a person with strong convictions, unafraid to live by them and express them through her writing (DeMarr). She has traveled and lived abroad multiple times, including Africa as a child where she learned what it was like to be the outsider. “The people of our village had not seen white kids. I had really long hair… and people didn’t think it was hair… and they’d try to pull it off. I got a real extreme look at what it’s like to be a minority.” Her active parents taught her strong values that influenced her politically-charged writing. Kingsolver believes that “what happened to the Congo is one of the most important parables of our century” (Kingsolver, quoted in Strehle).
I am strolling down a street in the historic part of Rome. Strawberry gelato is sliding down the cone and through my fingers, but it’s cool against my skin. A short distance away, I see three colorful, familiar signs in a row, jauntily protruding from an old building. McDonalds. Burger King. Subway. America is everywhere.
Civilization meant the same to Nathan as it did to other Westerners: his God, his culture, his truth, his language. But Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh suggests that the precepts Nathan has based his life on are wrong, arguing that truth is found in life and that learning is a lifelong process. “Do not think the knowledge you presently possess is changeless, absolute truth. Avoid being narrowminded and bound to present views” (207).
Thich Nhat Hanh also writes: “Do not force others, including children, by any means whatsoever, to adopt your views” (207). Yet another field where Nathan has failed.
Each of his daughters responds to his abuse and intolerance in a different way.
Rachel, the embodiment of the worst of American culture, is more concerned with herself and her own situation. She never has a strong relationship with Nathan and seems distant and apathetic to him, objecting mostly to leaving the comfort of America. When the family lands in the Congo, she immediately recognizes that things are out of their control. “Man oh man, are we in for it now,” Rachel says. “We are supposed to be calling the shots here, but it doesn’t look to me like we’re in charge of a thing, not even our own selves” (Kingsolver 22). Her materialism leads her to eventually set up her own bit of America in Africa, relatively unscathed by her father. “I’m afraid all those childhood lessons in holiness slid off me like hot butter off the griddle,” she says (Kingsolver 515).
Ruth May is only present in the novel for a short time but her voice reveals just how much she’s been shaped by her father. She verbalizes the internalized stereotypes she has learned from her father, his “rhetoric of white superiority and biblical truth” (Ognibene), especially concerning the “heathens.” Curious about the distended bellies of the starving villagers, she says, “They’re hungry as can be and don’t get their vitamins. And still God makes them look fat. I reckon that’s what they get for being the Tribes of Ham” (Kingsolver 50).
Despite being twins, Leah and Adah have two very different experiences with their father. The hemiplegic Adah takes a more passive role in the novel, not speaking until she is an adult. Ironically referring to him as ‘Our Father” and mocking his self righteous and superior attitude, she identifies his ignorant errors from the beginning. Much like her mother, she sees the events of the Congo as her fault. “He’s my father,” Adah Price says. “I own half of his genes and all of his history” (Kingsolver 533).
Leah, on the other hand, idolizes Nathan and tries futilely to make him happy, preferring to “help my father work on his garden” (Kingsolver 35). She tries to display her knowledge of the Bible to impress him, but falls short at every turn. She berates herself, saying, “… for of course I had known that. If only I could ever bring forth all that I knew quickly enough to suit Father” (Kingsolver 37). But as she learns more about the Congo and meets the educated schoolteacher, Anatole, and the missionary Brother Fowles, she begins to realize that maybe her father doesn’t have a perfect understanding of the world. Through the course of all his mistakes, she comes to understand that “empty words, like empty vines, bear no fruit” (Ognibene). Leah changes the most of all her sisters, becoming a sort of “unmissionary” who refuses to participate in the same mistakes as her father, wanting none of his history as her own.
Worship comes in many forms. In the patience of a sprouting tree, the slow trill of the piano echoing through the pews, filling the space with “Amazing Grace.” It can be found in the construction of an nkisi or in the thud of feet dancing across packed earth.
Kingsolver presents Brother Fowles as the antithesis of Nathan. The missionary who held Nathan’s position before he went “native,” Fowles is portrayed as humble and wise, if not a bit eccentric. It’s apparent why the rigid Christians think he’s become pagan. He respects all forms of worship and believes God can be found in nature.
Brother Fowles says of the villagers, “Everything they do is with one eye to the spirit. When they plant their yams and manioc, they’re praying. When they harvest, they’re praying. Even when they conceive their children, I think they’re praying” (Kingsolver 247).
An anti-war (anti- American Empire) poem seems farther and farther out of reach. I struggle to find words that mirror “weary of war.”
Fowles begins to open up the family to a new way of living and evangelizing. He shows them that the Bible is not set in stone by any means. Brother Fowles asks Leah what she believes God thinks of the Congo, of the “flowering trees in the forest, the birds, the drenching downpours, the heart of the sun.” “He glories in them!” she answers (Kingsolver 247). Leah begins to wrench herself free from the chains of her father.
We are drugged with propaganda about our own excellence, perpetuated by our holy mission to save the rest of the world from itself.
In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Americans defined their mission in the New World in biblical terms. They were a “chosen people” on an “errand in the wilderness” (Strehle). This set the tone for America’s interaction with other countries and peoples. Religious interaction was no different. Nathan’s missionary approach was consistent with the tradition of the 1950s, suggests Wes Howard-Brook. Rejection of the word of God is simply one of the many crosses the missionaries are to bear during the course of their work. But Howard-Brook takes it a step further: what if it is because missionaries arrogantly refuse to preach in the native tongue? As Adah reflects on her father’s backward sermon, “Praise the Lord, hallelujah, my friends! For Jesus will make you itch like nobody’s business” (Kingsolver 276).
What if Nathan preached the true gospel, instead of just the Poisonwood Bible? What if he practiced deep listening, as Terry Tempest Williams sees it?
Catholic missions followed almost ten years after the Protestants first began their evangelizing efforts (Mananiah 44). The Catholic missionaries took much the same route – setting up schools, training a set of elite to assist in their traveling mission – but had the benefit of estranged ex-Protestants joining with them. The Protestant church had such rigid rules and one misstep meant expulsion. The new Catholics did everything they could to retaliate against the Protestants and promote their new religion (47). The Catholic missions were more lenient – drinking palm wine was acceptable, dancing was encouraged to an extent, and the traditional nkisi were replaced with rosaries and crucifixes.
Sometimes I’m so consumed by the arrogance and ignorance of America, I feel as if I’m choking on it. How would we respond to African missionaries, preaching their truth to us? Telling us that trees are also people, that they are muntu, and they have roots and a head? We would laugh them out of our country, or chase them with flaming crosses.
After a potential missionary finished at school, he would return to his village completely changed. His training was so focused on the “accoutrements of Western civilization” that fitting back into the village was hardly possible (Mahaniah 44). His habits were changed – he held himself to a high standard of cleanliness and mannerisms and no longer participated in so-called pagan rituals. The missions worked hard to separate the Christian convert from the heathens. No wonder the villagers called him “mudele ndombe,” or white man in black skin.
Later in life, long after she and her sisters followed their mother away from Nathan, Leah encounters real missionaries, whose message isn’t perverted by their own agenda. She describes them as “soft spoken men” whose work is in hospitals or in the fields planting soybeans, who have “risked Mobuto and every imaginable parasite in the backwater places where children were left to die” (Kingsolver 435). They contrast with Nathan’s hard exterior and unwillingness to do any work that doesn’t directly promote his own mission.
“Contrary to popular opinion, religion and politics are not separate entities, but a powerful combined force used historically not only to “convert the savages” but to convert the masses to believe that what is done in the name of democratic, Christian principles is done for the greater good” (Ognibene).
Nathan’s arrogance isn’t just rooted in his interpretation of the Bible, but at the heart of Nathan’s failures is American exceptionalism.
The moment that marks the official failure of Price’s outreach is when Tata Ndu, the village’s pagan chief, attends Nathan’s church service. The villagers have been treating Jesus as a sort of backup god, for when their personal ones are upset with them. More and more people have been filtering into the church, which Nathan sees only as successful conversion and not as survival instinct. Ndu makes an executive decision to vote on allowing Jesus into the office of personal God of Kilanga village. Jesus loses. When Nathan rails against the injustice of it, Ndu rebukes him, saying, “Tata Price, white men have brought us many programs to improve our thinking… the program of Jesus and the program of elections. You say these things are good. You cannot say now that they are not good” (Kingsolver 331).
We Americans are a new breed, the “Democratic Empire” in which all citizens are complicit in their passivity and instead of conquering just people, we conquer cultures too, in the name of freedom. America the Empire, extending into the Religions and Cultures of the world. Her arms are all encompassing.
Adah, throughout the whole novel, has a better understanding of the truth than anyone else, including Nathan. She muses, “How is it different from Grandfather God sending the African children to hell for being born too far from a Baptist Church? … Might those pagan babies send us to hell for living too far from a jungle?” (Kingsolver 298). She understands more than any that what works for one culture doesn’t necessarily work for another, and to presume that one religion could possibly be transplanted to a different society is ludicrous. I dream of an explosion of cultures – Wal-Mart rises triumphantly from the manioc field and a woman rushes from a hospital in New York to leave her twins under trees in the park.
Nathan’s final lot is bitter – his family has deserted him and he has failed to convert even one person. In a desperate attempt to baptize the children, he takes them onto the river. The boat is knocked over by a crocodile and the children drown. The villagers, convinced he is a white witch doctor, burn him. Like the Africans burned their nkisi. Burned the symbol of their beliefs.
That fourteen-year-old poet, with the Iranian uncle, is still searching for the words to write a poem to change hate to love. A poem with the ability to open people’s minds and hearts. A poem that inspires deep listening. Instead, twenty-one now, she can only write a narrative about the Price family infused with a little bit of hope:
I imagine the family as a garden – Orleanna the gardener, tending to and nurturing them through sunny days and rain alike. Leah and Adah are two chrysanthemums (inverses of each other), Rachel a dandelion; common, pretty, but still a weed. And if Ruth May, the biggest of them all, is a sunflower opening its face to the sun, then Nathan is the Kuduzu vine. He overtakes their lives lightning-quick, choking the life out of them. But as he fails and fades, the women gradually heal and dare to open their petals to the world again.
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