On January 12, 2010, the morning after an earthquake leveled Port Au Prince, Haiti, eventually causing the deaths of 250,000 people, cable news networks reported large crowds of Haitians parading through the streets between the ruins of buildings, singing. I remember CNN reporter Wolf Blitzer interpreting the scene as a display of “resilience and a determined will to go on.” But the songs they sang that day (and into the night) were not all songs of resolve; they were songs of lament, prayer and hopeful expectation. “God have mercy” they sang as they marched. “Lord have mercy.”
As they walked past mounds of concrete and rebar where buildings had stood, that congregation of Haitians sang songs to God, the Creator. If you are like me, you find that scene both confounding and inspiring. A people beaten down by Creation appealing to the Creator. And yet where should I expect the unfulfilled desire for a better life to lead such a people? Where else should Haitians take their complaint? To the Nations? Which Nation? Haitians have a long history of being enslaved, trampled, used and abused by the Spanish, the French, the United States and others. After being treated unjustly by both Humanity and the Natural world, where does a people take their complaint? Does their desire for justice lead anywhere at all? And if not, then what are we to make of that desire in the first place? Is it only an absurdity?
I don’t believe so.
I believe the desire for Justice and Peace is as natural and common as the desire for food and shelter, even when that desire sets me at odds with the natural order of things. Among the poor, the wishful desire for Justice is perhaps more poignant because the poor have more intimately experienced the insufficiency of Nature and Humanity to satisfy it. For some of my friends who already consider faith something of an absurdity, the prevalence of religious faith among poor and oppressed people is the worst kind of absurdity. Why would people decimated by economic “progress,” caught up in political chess-playing, manipulated by get-rich religious schemes and even beaten down by natural elements continue to hope in a God whose world and people had been so cruel? And while I agree with friends who find such devotion somewhat absurd, I also think that wishing for things to be other than they are eventually leads to absurdity. And it is there where I find religious thinking to be incredibly appropriate.
They way I understand it, religious thinking doesn’t mean lazily settling for magical explanations when there are better, more reasonable and factual explanations. Sometimes it’s dissatisfaction with the facts themselves that leads me to a thought like “I know the facts but I wish it were not so.” Now, I know that I share those thoughts with friends who do not consider themselves religious, so maybe calling them “religious thoughts” isn’t helpful. Maybe it’s simply human to wish for, long for and even be driven by visions of a world without disease or hunger or natural disaster, in which people are not bought and sold by other people. And if it is simply human to desire justice, then maybe it is not so absurd to believe that desire can be satisfied. Maybe what is truly absurd is possessing a very natural desire for Peace and Justice when that desire cannot reasonably be satisfied.
I have believe that these unfulfilled (and perhaps unreasonable) dreams are clues that there is more to life than can be weighed and measured. I believe that when those Haitian women and men took to their broken streets singing songs of prayer and hopeful expectation, they were a living picture of what is best in humanity; the part of us that does not settle for what is simply because it is. The part of us that struggles, works, prays and hopes for better than there is. I believe their persistent, relentless faith is a clue that we are made of more than matter and therefore rightly long for more than the material world can offer.
*This is an excerpt from the the CMYK Book, due out this Spring.
**The featured image was shot by Jeremy Cowart as part of his brilliant “Voices of Haiti” project. The piece of debris this man is holding reads: “The Earth Can Shake But Haiti Remains In My Heart.”