“No,” I replied to Shelley’s mom, Marilyn, “this is just normal Haiti traffic”.
I pulled forward, narrowly avoiding an unforgiving tap from a Mack truck that was making a 20 point turn in the middle of the road. This was not too far from another Mack truck “apan” (brokedown) in the middle of the road with a small, dry palm branch sticking out of it’s hood as if Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree was hailing the Messiah. The palm was intended to inform oncoming motorists that there was something in the way and it wasn’t about to move, but to me it looked as unequal to the task and unnecessary as a post-it-note on the Hindenburg reading “I’m on fire”.
Today the Haitian electoral sorcerers were supposed to conjure some clear declaration about the vote count. There was no protest as far as I could see. Maybe that’s because the Haitian people know that this election doesn’t face some simple challenge like counting “dimpled” or “hanging” chads, and a recount of fraudulent votes will not diminish their fraudulence. There were monumentally catastrophic election procedures, completely incapable of collecting a real sampling of the per capita votes of “pep la” (the people). (See this video). The UN spent 30 million dollars for this election, half of which came from the U.S. That’s chump change when it comes to government operations, but here, when I see money like that being wasted it makes me want to chug a Nalgene full of syrup of ipecac… But see how my mind wanders. It takes a billboard like this one to bring me back into focus:
“Ou nan dezolasyon? Jezi se espwa ou”
I couldn’t help but read the glossy new sign as I pulled into the airport departures drop-off area. “Are you in desolation? Jesus is your hope.” There was a big white Jesus hand reaching down as if to pull somebody up… or hand something out. Underneath the sign…. lots and lots and lots of dust covered tarps and tents. Thousands of tents that have been lived in for a year by people that have almost all lost family members and homes, have weathered tropical storms, and now fear the spread of Cholera and political unrest. My instant, involuntary visceral reaction to the billboard was to feel nauseous. My secondary reaction was to ask myself why. Why is it that something so important to me, something I believe so strongly, could be so repulsive? I DO believe that Jesus is the most sure hope for those in desolation, but this sign had me looking for another Nalgene shot of ipecac. Why?
My first thought was, “Which Jesus?” Which Jesus is the true hope for Haiti’s desolation? Is it the Jesus with a big WHITE hand? Is it the bleach-robed, super clean Jesus looming over dirty tent-dwellers to pull them out of their yucky untouchable filth? Is it the well-fed, healthy Jesus handing out food to the hungry and medications to the sick (while destroying the agricultural and food markets of Haiti and sending the best Haitian doctors and hospitals the way of the Dodo bird)? Is it the spiritual Jesus that cares nothing for the bodies and corporeal realities of those who suffer, but offers them peace of mind and reconciliation with God while they starve? Is it the social Jesus, who can’t liberate people from real demons and spiritual darkness, but can rally the desperately poor into rebellion from empires and “the man”? Is it the Jesus who answers prayers that actually move things or the Jesus who has his own unyielding agenda whether or not you converse with him (thank you very much)? Is it the Jesus who caused the earthquake, stood by while it happened, or rallied his forces together to respond to and heal the hurt caused by His enemy? Is this happy Jesus, angry Jesus, judging Jesus, forgiving Jesus, healing Jesus, ruling Jesus, subversive Jesus, social Jesus, Santa Jesus, Now Jesus, Soon Jesus, or Sweet By and By Jesus? Is this Jesus for sale, Jesus selling, Jesus buying, or Jesus paying the price? Is this conquistador Jesus, colonial Jesus, NGO Jesus, corporate Jesus, humanitarian Jesus, MINUSTAH Jesus, liberation Jesus, red Jesus, Tea Party Jesus, IN JE$U$ WE TRUST? Is he altar call Jesus, come as you are Jesus, sackcloth and ashes Jesus, turn or burn Jesus, earn-the-right-to-be-heard Jesus, Buddy Christ, Daddy God, Sovereign Lord, in control Jesus, delegating power Jesus, or Jesus at war? Is this T.V.s begging Jesus, the high Church’s stone Jesus, the NorthWest’s non-confrontational hipster Christ, the southern preacher’s “Low-erd Aw-mitey”, the East’s community organizer Jesus, or the moral guardian of Minnesotan Norwegian bachelor farmers? Is it Bono’s Jesus, Glen Beck’s Jesus, Obama’s Jesus, Bush’s Jesus, Right Jesus, Left Jesus, Purple Jesus, Rainbow Jesus? Purpose Driven Jesus, Mere Christ, Crazy Jesus, Shack Jesus, Left By Jesus, Nooma Jesus, Emergent Jesus, 700 Jesus, or Praise the Jesus? He-sus or She-sus? Is this Rabbi Jesus? Philosopher Jesus? Economist Jesus? Doctor Jesus? Power Jesus? Suffering Servant? Risen King? Coming Judge? Man of Sorrows?
Is this the Jesus of the Gospels, the Jesus of the denominational doctrines, or the Jesus of the missions policy handbook? Is this Jesus going to call Haitians away from their identity and culture or to transformation from within? Is he going to affirm anything about them or is he going to call them to death and new creation? Or both?
Why does this Jesus pay for a billboard? Who does he pay? Why is this Jesus glossy? Who speaks for him when you call his phone number? Why does he reach down instead of across? WHY THE HELL DOES THIS JESUS NEED TO ASK HAITIANS IN A TENT CITY IF THEY ARE IN DESOLATION, FOR CHRIST’S SAKE?! Why isn’t there blood or dirt on his hands? Has He been to Haiti before? So many Jesuses have. Does He have a way to tell the desolate ILLITERATE people about the hope he is bringing?
I look over my back and see a man exit his tent to dump a bucket of some liquid into the fetid trench that tightly encases the displacement camp. His clothes remind me that he hasn’t always been homeless. The smells remind me that there is more around me than just this looming billboard, and that I’m definitely not sitting in a seminary class, or on an American highway. This is the real world, and it has been for a long time now. This is the world where Jesus said he could best be seen and touched and talked to in interaction with the most underprivelaged people on the planet. Here. In the prisons and ghettos. In the ravines and the dumps. In Cite Soleil and La Saline, in the IDP camps and the clinics. In the tin shanties and the crowded tap taps. According to Jesus, the poor and powerless (the “meek”) are his Kingdom’s landlords. Jesus says that if he didn’t know us through their faces and experiences of us, then he doesn’t know us at all. Perhaps at Heaven’s gates there are hundreds of thousands of Haitians and other powerless people from around the world and when the new arrivals show up Jesus turns to these weak ones and says, “Hey, do any of you know this new guy? Did he offer you any help? Did he comfort you? Did he give you dignity and hope? Should we let him in?” Maybe this is why “the poor will always be with you,” because they have such an important role to play. They are his memory of us at the last judgment, He says. The poor have been working with sheep and goats for a long time. They are good at it.
Crusade. That’s a loaded word. When I hear the word “crusade” my imagination wanders to images of a safari hunt, fresh pelts of numerical converts displayed on Christian broadcasting networks to announce the trophy kill. Or I think of the “Culture War” that makes enemies of sinners that Jesus loves enough to die for. So is this what we will crusade against in Haiti? Moral depravity? Voudou? Political corruption? Crusade against what? I agreee, something… a lot of things need to be conquered here, there is so much evil that needs to come under the authority of the only good King… but what? Who? How? Haven’t Haitians been conquered enough? Who really has power here? Is Graham’s Jesus’ fighting against flesh and blood, or against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms? I’m not asking whether Graham is going to bring some threat to people’s bodies. Of course not.
I remind myself that a great majority of the temporary housing structures I have seen around Port Au Prince were built by Graham’s organization, Samaritan’s Purse. I have seen them accomplish far more than many of the larger NGOs, and they have penetrated into communities that have seen very little other help. They are also doing great work in response to Cholera. In this way, they have been announcing the Kingdom of God… where people do not sleep outside during a hurricane or die of diarrhea. But I wonder whether Graham himself knows the Haitian people well enough to verbally announce the “Good News of the Kingdom of God” here. Does he know that there are hardly any atheists in Haiti? Does he know that most people involved in voodoo will call themselves Christians? Does he know that conversion stories are cheap street politics used to leverage aid from “blan”? Does he know that many people who believe fervently in prayer and only worship Christ will still turn to a houngan when they want a more expedient result? (Don’t judge… we turn to our insurance companies and savings accounts and doctors and politicians in much the same way). Does he know that the gospel in Haiti (as everywhere) is a matter of power and not of words? Does he believe that Christ’s power is a power under or a power over? Does he know that there is a great “revival” in Haiti of Christian faith, but that it almost universally assumes that God is angry and sent the earthquake as an act of judgment (as if the cross meant nothing)? I sincerely hope that Graham and his team have this sensitivity and wisdom. I am praying for his “crusade”…that it would stand for love and justice and the Kingdom of God and not for other kingdoms, rules, or authorities.
I write all this knowing that much of my audience won’t know what I’m talking about, and I’m sorry if I offend or seem off in the stratosphere somewhere. But if our churches facilitate the status quo and there is no conflict between the Kingdom of God and the Kingdoms of this world than we either live in Heaven and there’s nothing left to do, or we aren’t really bringing the Kingdom to earth as it is in Heaven.
Haiti needs Jesus more than it needs anything else, and it needs a clear gospel of the Kingdom even more than it needs a cohesive relief plan, or a functional government… But that statement is redundant, because the gospel IS a universal relief plan and it announces the only functional government. I heard somebody say in anticipation of the Graham crusade, “Haiti doesn’t need to look to a new president, they need to look to Jesus.” I agree whole-heartedly with the statement, but its phrasing assumes that Jesus is not running for president. Don’t be mistaken, He IS running for President. In Heaven every crown will be tossed at his feet and all the kings of the earth will bow before him. Every tongue will name him King. And when Jesus taught us to pray he said to pray for the KINGDOM to come on earth as it is in heaven. If Graham announces that REAL kingdom in the face of Haiti’s would-be presidents, he will be preaching the gospel. And he would be announcing a revolution that, though peaceful, would bring him great personal risk. A king has come, a government has been established and the Empire of love is gaining ground against every power in this world.
Christmas brought Herod’s paranoid infanticide because it announced an alternative to oppressive worldly government… the coming of Israel’s king. Christmas means no less today… in fact it means more. Not just Israel’s king has come… but the world’s king. Haiti’s president. The U.S.’s president. The boss of my business (and yours). The head of my family (and yours). And his rule has made all under it equally important and valuable. Black, white, male female, Christian, atheist, rich, poor, parents, children, fat, skinny, sick, and well. Haitians notoriously blame their condition on oppressive and ineffective government,and they are right to do so. Turn on CNN or Fox and see the same thing in America. But Jesus said, “the Kingdom of God is within you”, not a matter of geography, but a matter of the allegiance of its citizens. To wait for a perfect system of government, a perfect leader, a perfect law, a perfect taxation, and an unseen Utopia to bring to light the end of needless poverty and suffering is idolatry. CNN and FOX and the Haitians debating on the radio are not covering the real political story: The Kingdom of God is at hand. Jesus has given us a perfect law and he is a perfect king and He gave us a whole lot of work to do in establishing that kingdom in our hearts first and then in our world around us. His Rule: love him first and Love your neighbor as yourself. His courts: All guilty citizens have already paid the death penalty via a surrogate. His enforcement: Do not use force to resist the evil doer. Love your enemy. Forgive everybody. His geography: within you and everywhere around you. His taxes: Everything you have for the poor. His healthcare: heal each other. His economic stimulus plan: six days a week work with your hands, mind your own affairs, and be dependent on nobody. If this isn’t being done in your neighborhood, it’s not the fault of citizens of other nations (like the U.S. or Haiti). It is the work of the Nation of God to expand his reign of justice and peace beginning “at home”. There are too many Haitian Kingdom of Godians and American Kingdom of Godians waiting for their secondary government to heal the world while their very citizenship in the Kingdom of God has mandated them to bring that very healing.
From my perspective, this king is not best represented in Haiti by a big “blan” hand in a Sigfried and Roy white robe selling imported eternal life insurance from a billboard. This is fine for selling soap, but the dirt in Haiti is deep, and the hope that is needed is not a matter of words but of presence and power.
I am reminded of Grunewald’s crucifixion image from the Isenheim Altarpiece… that gnarled hand taking on the pain of the world… If you look closely at the altarpiece painting you will see Jesus’ skin pocked and splitting. I always thought that was to suggest his whipping, but I learned later that these are the marks of “St. Anthony’s fire”, a disease better known today as ergotism, which comes from ingesting a fungus called “Claviceps purpurea“. In the middle ages poor people were the most frequently struck by this disease (because who else is hungry enough to eat rye flour that looks moldy?). The Antonite monks whose Medieval clinic treated this disease had this image of Christ in the front of their chapel, where the sick would gather. They would look at Jesus pictured as a fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy of a man despised, outcast, suffering, and carrying the shame and sickness of the world in his body and healing it all. If the alterpiece was opened there was another image of Christ. It is probably the world’s most famous painting of his resurrected, ascending body, shrouded in light… with perfect skin. But the patients at St. Anthony’s couldn’t see this without first seeing Christ identified with their sufferings, sharing their contortions, gangrene, nausea, and agony. If Christ IN us is the hope of glory, then Christ with us in our weakness and suffering and shame and mortality is what opens the possibility of him living in us. So declares a medieval masterpiece tucked away in a relief clinic for the poor. Put the words, “Ou nan dezolasyon? Jezi se espwa ou” to this image and I can begin to believe it. Amen. Yes. We are in desolation, and so has he been. And yes, he is our hope.
What Jesus do Haitians need to see now? I think maybe I can see him.
Like so many Haitian men, he is named Emanuel. He lays exhausted on his cross: a cholera bed, a cot with a hole cut out in the middle so that his never-ending diarrhea can go straight into a bucket below. His black body curves in an S, contorted and sore from heaving all the life and sustenance within him into another formerly white bucket on the dirt floor near his gaunt face. He has nobody to cover his naked, emaciated frame, for they fear his disease, and the nurses are preoccupied by patients whose chances are greater, or whose families have the rare privilege of being able to pay for their care. In his right hand he holds a voter card that was not counted in the presidential elections. On it an “X” is marked by a photograph of his father taped onto the card above the other candidates, since he wasn’t a candidate approved by the CEP. When he looks at the picture he smiles, as if into a mirror. He feels a spasm in his stomach and turns to his bedside bucket. As the pang of pain subsides he gazes at the slowly dripping bag of rehydration fluids trickling though an IV going into his arm, wondering if they can possibly be traveling fast enough to replace what he has been filling his buckets with. At his bedside lays his last will and testament scribbled on a shredded piece of tarpaulin he had hoped to use to patch his family’s tent. He had another patient, one who could read and write, record it for him as he spoke it softly in Creole a few days ago. “Le mwen mouri bay madam mwen tout bagay m gen, paske lap bezwen pou pran swen timoun nou.” He thinks of her, his wife, home now bathing the kids in a puddle and waiting for a friend to bring rice and beans from the distribution line. Does she know he’s still here? Where is the nurse? Why is everything so quiet? “M SWAF!” he yells into the void with a cracking voice. His IV has run dry. He looks at a well worn photograph he holds under the voter card: a picture of all the children he lost in the earthquake. He begins to tremble and and wonder if this is all worth it. His stomach seizes, but he hears nothing beneath his bed. He uses all his strength to turn and look to see what is going on. Trying to hold himself up with both hands he notices that the picture from the voter card has fallen off into the bucket below him. His arms buckle beneath him along with his hope for a new Haiti. His physical pain compounds with his sense of rejection and loneliness and comes out in a bitter cry:
“Papa, ki kote ou ye? Poukisa ou te kitem la?”
What seems like the last drop of fluid in his body comes to his eyes and he gasps for a painfully dry last breath. But it does not come.
… on Sunday morning, three days later, CNN begins to run stories of another Haitian earthquake.