Saturday 8 September 2012

The Poisonwood Bible

I've just finished reading 'The Poisonwood Bible' by Barbara Kingsolver.  It's a book I've been meaning to read for years, and so when I saw it on the second hand book stall by the station, I grabbed it.  It's the first time in a while I've read a book that I didn't want to put down.  It's so thoughtfully and cleverly written.  It's about an American family of four daughters, their mother and their baptist-minister father going to live as missionaries in the Congo in the 1950s.  Each chapter is written from the perspective of each of the four daughters, with retrospective accounts from the mother.  To be honest it's a pretty devastating tale of the pride and mistakes of men, and their consequences. (OK and a whole lot more but you'll have to read the book!)

It's brought up a whole lot of thoughts, memories, questions and feelings.  Partly because of a few similarities between my family (the Pikes) and the family in the book (the Prices).  In 1999 the Pikes - mum, dad, and four daughters (2 of them twins, as with Leah and Adah Price) - left Basingstoke, England, for Mkushi, Zambia.  Actually pretty near to the border with the DRC.  We were also in that place for about 18 months, like the Prices, and our experiences affected us all in different ways.  It was nowhere near as dramatic as in the book, for one we weren't in the jungle living in a rural village, but in the middle of a large farm block living on the campus of a boarding school.  And we weren't there during the country's fight for independence.  Zambia has never gone through a war.  Instead we learnt about the slave trade, colonialism and empire in our history lessons.  As one of just a sprinkling of white people in my class, aged 12, I sat at the back of the room, sinking lower and lower into my chair, wishing I could disappear, wishing my skin was a different colour, unable to express any of this in words that didn't sound empty and pathetic.

That's what reading this book reminded me of.  I still want to better formulate my thoughts, but here is my 'straight off the bat', unedited response:

I wish I’d read this before.  Years and years ago.  Now it’s brought everything back.  The guilt.  The inescapable fact of being white.  The ‘Sins of the Fathers’.  I’m sorry.  Forever sorry.  I carry this on my back but I don’t know if its my burden to carry.  Sometimes I forget, other times it nearly squashes me to the ground.  It is of no use to feel guilty, some say.  What does it achieve except to lock you up, silence you?  Sometimes silence is best, yes.  Be quiet and listen.  Let the children speak, let the mothers speak, let the trees speak, let the ground and the skies speak of what they have seen, of what they have lost. 

Do I carry the guilt to comfort myself?  Is silence a pretence, a wish to disappear, for the ground to swallow me?  Does my guilt simply become another burden for others to suffer?  I don’t know how to be.

Best to forget.  No I don’t think so.  How can someone ever forget being forgotten.  Being abandoned?  Being treated as though their life is worth nothing?  So we should not forget.  Can we at least be unified in remembering?  There are no words.  No comfort I can give.

Will the future be different?  I have not seen it yet.  Will equality ever be a reality?  Revenge solves nothing but I understand.  How do you turn the other cheek when there are no cheeks left to turn?  All of them whipped, burnt, starved to death.  Greed continues.  Corruption continues.  We are the products of our history.  We have a choice to do things differently but the choice is hard to see in the midst of the pain.  The consequences of others gain.

Man has made so many mistakes.  How could we ever unpick this mess?  And so many of these in the name of God.  God who puts the little children at the front of the queue.  God who became nothing in order to save.  God who had dinner with the lowest of society.  How dare you label your actions with His name.  That is the ultimate taking his name in vain.  I don’t care about you swearing, I don’t care about language except for the labels you use for the actions you do.  Blood taints the hands of the church, pride distorts the fervour of missionaries, it wasn’t supposed to be about black and white, wrong and right.  How did you read the stories of grace and mercy as an excuse to impose your Western ways.

Where was the loving people as you love yourself?  Where was the humility, the service? 
I don’t understand.  But then things are always clearer in retrospect.  It could have been me.  It hurts me to say it, and I hope with all my heart that I would have stood against the tide of greedy clutching, superior correcting.  But what do I know?  I could have been there too.  

*I realise that a lot of good has been done by missionaries, and people who follow God, etc.  But right now I'm kind of overwhelmed by the wrongdoing.

1 comment:

Circus Queen said...

Like you, I've always meant to read The Poisonwood Bible. I can't say whether or not you should feel guilt (one person shouldn't invalidate the feelings of another) but as a descendant of both slave and owner, I don't feel guilt for what my white ancestors did and should my daughter grow up in Trinidad, I wouldn't want her to carry that on her shoulders even though she looks white and her father's family owned slaves. I guess I do, as a Christian, though, feel a deep sadness for what the Church has done and responsibility not to put God's name on things that aren't His. Without missionaries I wouldn't know Christ though, so I have no hang ups about that.