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Exploring History and Finding Serenity

May 30, 2011

I find the accounts of Haiti’s past fascinating.  They help me make some sense of the present.  However, something I have encountered in pursuing this passion is a great deal of disagreement over who are the heroes and who are the villains in this story.  For me this begged a question, “Just what is history anyway? ”  I used to believe it was a fairy accurate factual account of the past, but I am no longer of that opinion.  We have lost our grip on historical truth.  Napoleon said, “History is a myth that men agree to believe.”  Like him I have come to see history as largely myth, but from what I see, men do not very often agree to believe a singular version of the myth.  I think Goethe came closer to veracity: “Not all that is presented to us as history has really happened; and what really happened did not actually happen the way it is presented to us; moreover, what really happened is only a small part of all that happened. Everything in history remains uncertain, the largest events as well as the smallest occurrence.”  Voltaire was more succinct when he wrote, “There is no history, only fictions of varying degrees of plausibility.”

So what is one to believe?  Which version of a country’s history one chooses very much colours one’s attitude and beliefs, and therefore one’s approach to that country.  So it is with Haiti.  I recognize that my personal choice is deeply influenced by whom I am.  A quick look at my “About Me” page will enlighten you to my leanings.  I have long been known for my highly developed (overly acute some say) sense of justice, and my opinion that very little real justice exists in this world.  Even the brightest clouds often have a black lining.  As a consequence, I admit, I have become jaded and cynical.  But I refuse to reconcile with injustice.  And I see a great deal of injustice here in Haiti.

This country maintains a unique place as the outsider in the Caribbean.  France has never forgiven Haitians for the slave revolt of the late 18th century that deprived it of the richest colony in the world.  The United States, frightened by what the implications of that revolt might be for their own slave-based economy, refused to recognize the “rogue nation’s” sovereignty and placed a series of embargoes on trade with Haiti.  The US has long maintained that they have a “self-evident” right to intervene in cases of “flagrant and chronic wrongdoing by a Latin American Nation” (as defined by Americans) according to the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine.  Latin American countries feel little affinity for Haiti since its ethnic and cultural roots are French rather than Spanish and its people speak a different language.  Neither does it have any commonality with the English speaking islands of the Caribbean.  As Panama’s president once put it, “Haiti is the neighbour that nobody wants, truly a country without relatives.“

Most contemporary descriptions of Haiti focus on its dire poverty.  The picture most often painted is one of a nation incapable of caring for itself.  Haiti’s detractors state that Haiti was born of violence and continues to live by it, that the country has never been able to get its act together.  The Haitian government is severely criticized for not taking care of the needs of its people without reference to some of the reasons that has not been possible.  Haiti, they claim, is a failed nation in need of a saviour, and the US-led international community has appointed itself to that role.

But there is a very different historical perspective espoused by some Haitians, one that focuses on a great national success story.  Haiti, the first site in the New World to which Europeans transported captive Africans to serve as labour, and the stage for the most barbaric slave economy in the New World, was only the second nation in the New World to gain independence, preceded only by the United States.  Founded upon the principles of liberty, equality and fraternity fostered by the French Revolution, it became the first black-ruled republic in the world.  Haitians were pioneers in the human rights struggle for life with dignity, the first nation in the Western Hemisphere to completely abolish slavery.  But in wrenching free of its colonial oppressors Haiti deeply offended and frightened the powerful countries of the world, especially those that had been built upon the sweat and blood of slaves.  For that affront Haiti was immediately punished and humiliated and continues to be so by the international community.

Those who espouse this version of Haiti’s history want self-determination, self-respect, self-defense and national sovereignty for their country and their people.  Their dream is a peaceful, economically just Haiti with education, medical care and employment opportunities for all.  They don’t want charity.  They want economic justice.  They want a chance to provide for their families without outside assistance, to rebuild their country themselves and to become self-sufficient.  It seems to me that all they are really asking for is the implementation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights proclaimed by the United Nations more than 60 years ago.  But their voices are seldom heard in the Western media.

But nothing in Haiti is clear cut with the exception of the forests.  The waters are constantly muddied and re-muddied.  I will close this subject (for now) by appropriating a truism often heard here–the more I learn about Haiti, the less I know.  But I will keep listening to voices little heard. ______________________________________________________________________________

Our community suffered a tragedy Friday evening.  The wife of the owner of a tiny store just down the road from us was killed by a hit-and-run driver.  To me, the incident points out a few things about Haiti.  First and foremost is the apparent lack of value for life here.  The second is the absence of a justice system that can effectively deal with tragedies like this one.  The third is the lack of respect shown by most here for the danger involved in being on Haiti’s highways.

______________________________________________________________________________

I know that there are many things that are what they are regardless of my opinion of them.  Success in ministry, as in life, depends, I believe, in large part on our ability and willingness to internalize the message of the Serenity Prayer:

God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.

Living one day at a time;
Enjoying one moment at a time;
Accepting hardships as the pathway to peace;
Taking, as He did, this sinful world
as it is, not as I would have it;
Trusting that He will make all things right
if I surrender to His Will;
That I may be reasonably happy in this life
and supremely happy with Him
Forever in the next.
Amen.

                                                                                                –Reinhold Niebuhr

At my first social gathering with native Haitians I observed some things that led me to do a bit of research into cultural etiquette.  It is extremely important to me to be respectful of the people I am here to serve, and I do not want to inadvertently do things that cause offense.  I may be more educated than most Haitians but they certainly know a great deal more about living here than I do.  Consequently I regard my relationship with Haitians as one of mutual gain; they have much to teach me about this country and their way of doing things, and God willing they can benefit from some of the things that I know.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. May 31, 2011 12:05 am

    Barry, my wife Bev is enjoying your blogs so very much! You not only discovered 2 strengths that are a part of you but they are active in your day to day life … a compassion for the less fortunate and a clear ability to communicate in your blogs as you share your experiences. No wonder you seem much happier since deciding to go to Haiti. Are you sure God didn’t send you to Haiti to write a book as well as help provide clean water?

    • May 31, 2011 9:16 pm

      Dan

      I can do everything through him who gives me strength. Phil. 4:13

      I’m glad Bev is enjoying my blog.

      Barry

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