Sunday, April 18, 2010

Mob Night

I will tell you what happened to me with the hope that in relating the events, I will move from one simply acted upon to one who seeks reconciliation. In writing this, I act not only as a witness but also as judge over the events which transpired. This is not simply a retelling, but also a repenting, for the hate which was so terribly displayed that night lurks within me and within every person in the world, binding us together in chaos. 

       We were four white boys ambling back to our hotel after a tiring day at the local orphanage. The nightly calm had descended as the air grew thick with humidity. A recently risen white moon illuminated the Yao nomads walking home from harvesting the maize fields. The rakes and spades on their shoulders bore signs of age and over-use. An assortment of oversized torn slacks and stained longees hung off their lean bodies like clothes on a makeshift scarecrow. 

       It was these 30 odd men who dragged the screaming man from the bushes and began beating him. He had stolen something, making the one mistake which must never be made – being caught by one’s neighbors. When I questioned people later about that night, they smiled and said, “That is the way here, it is African justice.” 

       The spade could only be seen at the peak of its ascent before crashing onto the helpless man in the middle of the crowd. The field workers swarmed the bowed thief, each trying to land a kick or punch. They seemed to have lost all restraint. We were white and ignorant and sure such madness could not continue. As the four of us broke into the tumult of bodies, I think we all knew we had crossed a threshold where our sense of justice was no longer accepted. 

The tall Dutchman, Coen, picked up the crumpled, bleeding man while the rest of us began pushing the mob away. They were fiends, demons in disguise come to wreak their distorted sense of justice upon the thief. Their black souls were filled with suppressed malice, a malice born of poverty and desperation. Surrounded by injustice, they echoed and manifested that reality in brutal acts against each other, not realizing that they only added to the cycle of violence which they hated. Perhaps that is why we become the things we hate. Men choose hate because it’s easier than love and more comforting than emptiness.

       I pushed a man to the ground, continuing to scream my frustration. All I wanted to do was collapse in their midst and let them pass me by. I saw confusion and anger in their dark faces. The white man, with his high sense of justice, had entered a place he knew nothing about. I gathered all this from the eyes of an old coffee-colored Yao man with a puff of white hair on his chin. He knew I was acting out of ignorance, that I couldn’t reconcile this “African justice” with what I considered to be right. So, when he went to land another blow on the thief, he went around me instead of through me. His puff of white hair blew by me as quickly as a wisp of smoke in a strong breeze. His fist fell twice before he backed off, breathing heavily from exertion and gratification. His desire for justice slaked, the old man disappeared into the mob, swallowed by the frenzy of bodies that pushed forward with death in their eyes.

       They call it “African justice.” These clashes are parochial, obscure, subjective, yet part of an overarching quarrel: the eternal struggle of man against his condition. Devoid of the gospel, injustice has free reign. Viewed this way, Africa represents the oldest, largest killing field in human history. The deep-seated evil revealed on that night cannot be met by development strategies or sanitation, but only by the gospel of Jesus Christ. I have witnessed corruption in the face of a screaming man and seen it mirrored in the dark rage of my own soul. Neither can be excused or ignored. I cannot deny my responsibility to live in His likeness, to bear His image.
       Some say that something under the black skin drives them to violence, a thing “untamable.” If this is true, it is a condition, a disease which infects all humanity. That vein of anger runs through each human community, touching all ages and affecting every soul in the world. The victims become the perpetrators, like an abused son who in blind anger becomes the image of the hated father. One becomes tired of passivity and being acted upon. Eventually, the beleaguered soul awakes and reveals the character of the man as he manifests the tumult inside him. We are what we choose to be, there is no divorce between self and its image, no disjunction of being and action. Actions are glimpses of the soul, and the soul is formed by the circumstances it undergoes. Ellie Wiesel says, “Anyone who describes the future as virgin is mistaken; for it is mortgaged from the first day, from the first cry.”

       Passivity is crushing. The soul must respond in rage, reconciliation, or ignorance. I am a witness of rage, an advocate of reconciliation, and a fighter against ignorance. As we exited the police station we glanced at the silent, bloody thief heaped like a sack of rice on a dirty plastic chair. We had received no thanks for saving his life. Perhaps he wanted to die, perhaps we only saved him to live another day under a hot sun he despised. The cycle of violence will invariably continue, because in Africa, Cain is still trading blows with Abel.