Tuesday, May 28, 2013

What can a reformed pirate can teach us about suffering?

"Near the beginning of A. S. Peterson's fictional novel, The Fiddler's Gun, a reformed pirate and two young orphans have an interesting discussion about pain and suffering. They open up a wooden case revealing three objects: a fiddle, a bow and a pistol. After examining each of the elegantly crafted items, the former pirate tells them,

'"Now, see here, you got to put that hurt someplace, and this is where old Bartimaeus learned to put his." He lifted the fiddle out of the case and caressed it. 

"It's beautiful," whispered Fin. 

"Aye," he said and crooked it into his neck. He drew the bow across the strings and the instrument moaned a forlorn note. "Beautiful, that's what you've got to do with that hurtin', you got to turn it beautiful." (p. 33)

... '"What's the gun for?" asked Peter.

Bartimaeus' face darkened. "That's where all that hurtful stuff ends up if you don't get rid of it. Got to get rid of it. You don't and it might just get rid of you, see here? I keeps it there to remind me. I put it down the day I got this fiddle. Swore I would never take it up again. Done too much hurtin', got to turn that hurt to beautiful, see? Otherwise the hurt turns hateful and the ole hand-cannon there like to wake up and do terrible things...terrible things." (p. 34)

This fictional conversation illustrates well the stakes involved in possessing an effective response to pain and suffering. We all end up doing something with our pain.  If we cannot frame suffering in an instructive or constructive way, it will become destructive - harming those around us as well as ourselves.

For close to ten years in northern Mozambique I’ve witnessed the effects of mis-appropriated pain: family members become isolated, people live in fear, neighbors are cursed, and there is no rest. Years ago, as we first began to learn the language and culture of the Makua-Metto people, there was one word that I was surprised to hear over and over again in conversation: 'uhuva'. It’s their word for suffering, and our friends talk about it  all the time.

The problem is that their folk religion does not give them tools to deal with suffering constructively. The majority of the Makua-Metto people would consider themselves Muslims, but at the core they are shaped by an animistic worldview. This folk religion binds them and their pain to a witchcraft system crammed full of curses, counter curses, spirit possession and divination. To borrow language from the fictional conversation above, they lack the ability to take their suffering and "turn it beautiful."

Coming from my American cultural framework, I slowly came to the realization that their primary question is not "why" this suffering happens. Instead, they consistently personalize the evil they experience. They want to know "who" did this to them. Their quest to determine the identity of the culprit leads them into divination, which, when indicating a human target, encourages them to reach for that "ole hand-cannon" - directing all that pain and anger at another. Human beings must do something with their suffering. If they are unable to do something constructive, or interpret their suffering in a way that is instructive, then they ultimately will do something destructive.

As an American I could see that there are different ways to pick up the “gun”. Generally those in my home culture tend to turn this destruction inwardly. We self-medicate with drugs, escape into television/film, experience depression or practice self-mutilation. This contrasts with my experience with Africans, who when unable to do something good with their suffering, generally tend to turn the 'gun' on each other. It seems that this orientation affects the way both cultures approach scripture as well. The American Christian will focus on texts about personal sin and forgiveness (internal), whereas the Africans I know are more likely to concentrate on texts about suffering, deliverance, and protection (external)."


The above quote is an excerpt - if you are interested in reading more about responding to suffering - and specifically how that plays out here in the context of northern Mozambique, please check out my recent article, "Turning it Beautiful: Divination, Discernment and a Theology of Suffering" in the International Journal of Frontier Missions here.

Grace and Peace,


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