- This Course is based mainly on Professor Max Paul's (Université Jean Price Mars) paper Is a Nonkilling Haitian Voodoo Religion Possible? prepared for the First Global Nonkilling Leadership Forum, Mu Ryang Sa Buddhist Temple, Honolulu, Hawai‛i, November 1-4, 2007. The Course is part of the Program on Nonkilling Spiritual Traditions at the School of Nonkilling Studies.
Nowadays, the problematic of religion, violence and killing is often agitated and discussed. One tends to affirm that some religions are more prone to violence and killing than others.
However, after examining the history of religions, one may come to the conclusion that followers of most of them have committed crimes in name of their God or doctrines, even crimes against humanity. In fact, the Haitian Voodoo religion has a bad reputation though it has not been involved in the persecution of followers of other religions. To the contrary, its followers have known many persecutions in the course of Haitian history.
Taking into account Voodoo’s bad reputation, one can ask the following questions:
- Where does this bad reputation come from?
- What is the doctrinal position of Voodoo regarding life, human life and respect for life?
- What is the practice of Voodoo regarding killing, destroying human life?
- What are the magical, supernatural killing capacities in Voodoo?
- Are there nonkilling capacities in Voodoo?
This Course will try to answer these questions and will rely upon Glenn D. Paige’s book, Nonkilling Global Political Science, to answer the fifth question.
Voodoo Religion in Haiti’s History and Culture
Regarding the question of violence and killing, Haitian Voodoo religion has a bad reputation in Western literature. In this literature Voodoo is reduced to fear, violence, sacri-fice of animals, even human beings and zombies. Books written in the 19th century on Voodoo and Wade Davis’ recent book and film, The Serpent and the Rainbow, written and produced in the 1980s, contributed to reinforce this Voodoo perception. This type of literature has commonly raised vehement reactions among Haitian intellectuals, espe-cially among ethnologists in the first half of the 20th century.
At that time, Haiti was occupied by American Marines (1915-1934) and the struggle for the recuperation of Haitian sovereignty was waged through culture. Jean Price Mars’ work Ainsi parla l’oncle (1922) constitutes a milestone in this process of national and cultural awareness. Intellectuals, writers, poets, artists, journalists, sociologists, and eth-nologists were mobilized against the occupiers and their national supporters.
Haitian ethnologists played a major role in this struggle through their studies on Haitian society and culture. They were practicing an engaged ethnology, “une ethnologie de guerre,’’ as Jacques Oriol, a long time Director of the Bureau of Ethnology, liked to express. They were concerned to demonstrate that there existed a specific Haitian culture in which the Voodoo religion was an overwhelming component. Other intellectuals, especially bourgeois Mulatto ones, denied the existence of Voodoo as such and consid-ered Haiti as a French province lost in the Caribbean Sea.
This Western literature, in which Voodoo is presented solely in a bad light, is the expression of Christian Euro-American-centric prejudices.
Voodoo played a significant and determining role during the struggle against slavery and colonialism in the French colony Saint-Domingue. In the period of the war for Independence (1791-1804) it galvanized and destroyed fear of death among African slaves. They considered death occurring during military battles as a short road to return to Africa. An example is the Voodoo ceremony of Bois-Caïman in August 1791 which was the starting point of the general revolt against the dominant slavery system.
Voodoo as a religion embedded in witchcraft and sorcery constituting a system of knowledge, was useful in all phases of the struggle on both individual and collective levels. The victory of the first revolt of slaves against the slave system was due to the intelligent utilization of the combination of the then most advanced arms, military techniques and strategy with the African traditional resources.
Voodoo Religion and the Principle of Respect for Life
The Voodoo religion, as all religions, monotheist or polytheist, poses as its fundamental principle respect for life. This principle is praised in different songs. Voodoo is an oral religion which is sung and danced. Rituals, fundamental principles and sacred secrets are transmitted orally from one generation to the other. The Lwa, Voodoo Gods, instruct, educate and even initiate the elected individuals during sleep time through dreams. Experienced Voodoo practitioners, Voodoo priesters, Houngan or female Voodoo priesters, Mambo, help young initiates to interpret their dreams and confirm the delivered knowledge.
The Lwa Gede, whom one celebrates with pomp at the beginning of November in various parts of Haiti, symbolizes alpha and omega, life and death. They tend to make fun out of men and women who are too pretentious. Wisdom and humbleness are advised to these men and women.
The Lwa of the Rite Ginen, coming from Dahomey, are reputed to be the ones who do not accept their servants (chwal) to be involved in wrong doings or killings. If Ginen servants break moral or mystical rules, they will be punished when they attend any Voodoo ceremony dedicated to the Lwa Ginen.
It is another question what followers or the clergy of these religions do with the principle of respect for life in their daily lives and its effect on the course of History. Nevertheless the universal existence of this respect for life constitutes a solid guideline for all peoples in all societies. One can consider it, along with universal prohibition of incest, as the first basic structuring step toward society and culture.
Voodoo Religion and Haitian Violent Deep Culture
Voodoo evolved in racist, segregated colonial Saint-Domingue and participated in all phases of the struggle against slavery and colonialism. It integrated all concepts of destruction in this struggle: marronnage (marooning), and koupe têt, boule kay (cut off heads, burn houses). After Haiti’s independence in 1804, the Haitian people, Haitian heroes, and Haitian leaders did not find or have the capabilities to create—in the context of ethno-class contradictions, international hostility, constantly growing poverty, deterioration of environment and rampant growth population—new constructive concepts to build the nation and wealth. Haiti’s violent deep culture fed by these viruses, like koupe têt, boule kay, and marronnage, prevailed and continues to prevail.
Male Voodoo priesters, the Houngan, female Voodoo priesters, the Mambo, and Voodoo followers in conflict situations use killing and harmful capabilities given by their belief systems, with supernatural and magic knowledge. Unexplainable diseases, deaths and the well known zombies, which remain unexplained through Western medicine, are part of daily conversations. In the census of murders, crimes and violent acts, these unexplained diseases and deaths are not counted. It is urgent to study this aspect of violence, crimes and murders in order to evaluate the true crime and murder rate.
One should underline that followers of other religions in conflict situation also employ killing and harmful capabilities of their religions to act and react. Catholics use pilgrimages and novenas in various churches, calling upon saint patrons. Protestants invoke specific psalms.
The propensity of Voodoo, Catholic, and Protestant followers to choose violence and harm in conflict situations shows that they are all participating in the Haitian violent deep culture. But only Voodoo followers tend to be stigmatized and considered as being prone to use violence and killing.
Our thesis is that Haiti, besides being visibly violent and murderous at certain moments of its history, continues to be in a permanent and latent civil war situation, which pervades every aspect of social, economic and political life. Politics are characterized by an infernal squaring of accounts which ends up in murder, exile, prison and defamation. Because of this, honest Haitians who are not violent-prone tend to avoid committing themselves to active politics.
Voodoo Religion and the Nonkilling Perspective
It is evident that there exist in Voodoo nonkilling, loving, and sharing capacities. There are moments of communitas as expressed in fifteen days to one month ceremonies organized by Voodoo participants, especially in Lwa Ginen ceremonies. It is also a fact that the Voodoo religion constitutes a wall against the process of Christian evangelization and westernization in Latin America and the Caribbean.
Haiti continues to be unique with its miseries, its historical and cultural particularities which make it incapable to take, thus far, successfully the road of the neo-liberal globalization process.
It is also a fact that until today, the context of emotions and confrontations, inward and outward, of ethno-class struggles surmounted by color prejudices, of struggle for socio-political and economic power, of existence of an aggressive Christian, Catholic, Protestant evangelization, and of the existence of a Voodoo religion evolving in a situation of social discrimination and semi-clandestinity, does not constitute a favorable climate for open and truthful discussions about violence, killing and human sacrifices in Voodoo.
Such discussions would be possible and fruitful if the violent war against Voodoo would cease in sermons in Catholic and Protestant churches. Furthermore, it is urgent for the Centre Caraïbéen pour la Non-Violence Globale et le Développement Durable (CCNGD) to engage Voodoo priesters, Catholic priests, and Protestant pastors in dialogues and discussions around ways and means to neutralize and transcend the violent Haitian deep culture and contribute to the emergence of a nonviolent, nonkilling, prosperous, sovereign Haiti. Paige’s suggestion in Nonkilling Global Political Science to create nonkilling spiritual councils could be the appropriate place for such discussions and affirmation of “unambiguous respect for life in all matters from birth to death.” Such councils, as alternatives to conventional religious and secular apologists for violence, provide inspirational support for all efforts—public, private, local, national, regional and global—to remove lethality from the human condition” (Paige, 2002: 136).
Furthermore, Voodoo priesters and followers like Catholic priests and followers, and Protestant pastors and followers should undergo a process of an individual and collective self-reeducation in order to neutralize and eradicate the viruses maroonning, cutting off heads, burning houses, the complexe tigre, and complexe marsouin. Then Haiti needs to liberate itself from these destructive concepts and create constructive, nonkilling, peaceful concepts. Voodoo will be the first beneficiary, free of killing threats and real killings!!