Theology Thursdays: The Dead Sea Scrolls, Prophecy and Messiah XVI
How many of us think of our direct personal experience with pain and suffering in terms of theology and the scriptures? How many of us who believe in a Supreme Being, who has power and control over our lives and "all things" truly believe that such a One is wisely and intentionally permitting and at times directing our experience with pain and suffering in order to raise us to higher stages of development - mentally, emotionally and spiritually? These two questions bear on a third (and many more); which should be placed before those believers in a Supreme Being who are acquainted with what Blacks in Africa and the Western Hemisphere (and indigenous and aboriginal people all over the world) have lived through: Is the Supreme Being and even the laws of nature obligated to work on behalf of people who have been oppressed, enslaved and dehumanized?
Blacks endure pain and suffering disproportionately. BlackElectorate.com, on a weekly basis, links to a variety of articles from external websites that provide a witness of the quality of life for Black people all over the world. (I always hope and pray that the viewers will take the time to read as many of these articles as possible - whether they agree or disagree with the headline or subject). While there are many humorous, prosperous, positive, and favorable aspects of the Black experience captured on a weekly basis in the BlackElectorate.com news section, there is no reasonable way to deny that some of the most horrible experiences that any human beings have endured in recorded history, are a part of the current event and historical coverage of the lives of Blacks in the Western hemisphere and Africa. Today, many, many, many Black people are in great pain - emotionally, physically, and mentally - as a result of what they have lived through, witnessed and inherited. In most cases, the mental and emotional aspects of the pain and suffering of Black people is far more excruciating than the "physical" part. Of course, emotions and thoughts affect physiology and vice-versa.
About a decade ago, at a time in which I was undergoing a particularly painful experience, I read part of a book called, Pain: The Gift Nobody Wants written by Dr. Paul Brand and Philip Yancey. I first came into the knowledge of the book when reading a series of Farrakhan: The Traveler articles by Minister Jabril Muhammad. He wrote of the paradoxical power of pain and with great detail and care, commented on, and analyzed how the subject of pain is intimately related to and intertwined with the process of the deliverance of Black people from their horrible condition. It was very clear to me, and in a way that I had never realized that in a real sense the pain and suffering of Black people, experienced on a personal, interpersonal, national and international level was actually qualifying us for a leadership role, even that of rulership. This brings to mind a principle elucidated in the Holy Qur'an - in 7th Chapter, verses 128 and 129 (Maulana Muhammad Ali translation)[the bold and italics are mine]:
128 Moses said to his people : Ask help from Allah and be patient. Surely the land is Allah's - He gives it for an inheritance to such of His servants as He pleases.
129 They said: We were persecuted before thou camest to us and since thou hast come to us. He said: It may be that your Lord will destroy your enemy and make you rulers in the land, then He will see how you act.
In his commentary on these verses, Maulana Muhammad Ali (the translator of this version of the Holy Qur'an) writes, in part, "Their being made rulers in the land was conditional upon their doing good..."
Those powerful and beautiful writings mentioned earlier on pain, by Jabril Muhammad, are available to those individuals who join the WrittenTestimony.com mailing list. Those subscribing to the mailing list, will receive an e-mail containing information on where the series of writings are archived and can be accessed.
One of the most interesting things that I learned from reading Pain: The Gift Nobody Wants, was the nature of leprosy. I had a misconception about what exactly leprosy was, only considering it in its most superficial form and thinking only in terms of its symptoms and signs rather than the depth of the problem and vulnerability to injury that it permits and enables. In some ways, after I became more educated about leprosy I thought of it as similar to AIDS in that it is not necessarily leprosy or AIDS that do the most damage, but rather what they open one up to.
This was particularly important to me as leprosy is mentioned and described throughout the scriptures - in the Old and New Testament. It was after reading only one particularly poignant and touching passage in the first chapter of the book by Dr. Brand and Mr. Yancey, that it struck me powerfully that there is a deep relationship between what Black people, particularly in America, are experiencing and spiritual leprosy. Here is that passage of the book, that shows that pain can actually be a gift:
Tanya was a four-year old patient with dark, flashing eyes, curly hair, and an impish smile. I examined her at the national leprosy hospital in Carville, Louisiana, where her mother had brought her for a diagnosis. A cloud of tension hung in the air between the little girl and her mother, but I noticed that Tanya seemed eerily unafraid. She sat on the edge of the padded table and watched impassively as I began to remove blood-soiled bandages from her feet.
Testing her swollen left ankle, I found that the foot rotated freely, the sign of a fully dislocated ankle. I winced at the unnatural movement, but Tanya did not. I resumed unwrapping the bandages. "Are you sure you want these sores healed, young lady?" I said, trying to lighten the atmosphere in the room. "You might have to start wearing shoes again." Tanya laughed, and I thought it odd that she did not flinch or whimper as I removed the dressings next to her skin. She looked around the room with an expression of faint boredom.
When I unwrapped the last bandage, I found grossly infected ulcers on the soles of both feet. Ever so gently I probed the wounds, glancing at Tanya's face for some reaction. She showed none. The probe pushed easily through soft, necrotic tissue, and I could even see the white gleam of bare bone. Still no reaction from Tanya.
As I puzzled over the girl's injuries, her mother told me Tanya's story. "She seemed fine as an infant. A little high-spirited maybe, but perfectly normal. I'll never forget the first time I realized she had a serious problem. Tanya was seventeen or eighteen months old. Usually I kept her in the same room with me, but that day I left her alone in her playpen while I went to answer the phone. She stayed quiet, and so I decided to begin dinner. For a change she was playing happily by herself. I could hear her laughing and cooing. I smiled to myself, wondering what new mischief she had got into.
"A few minutes later I went into Tanya's room and found her sitting on the floor of the playpen, fingerpainting red swirls on the white plastic sheet. I didn't grasp the situation at first, but when I got closer I screamed. It was horrible. The tip of Tanya's finger was mangled and bleeding, and it was her own blood she was using to make those designs on the sheets.
"I yelled, 'Tanya, what happened!' She grinned at me, and that's when I saw streaks of blood on her teeth. She had bitten off the tip of her finger and was playing in the blood."
Over the next few months, Tanya's mother told me, she and her husband tried in vain to convince their daughter that fingers must not be bitten. The toddler laughed at spankings and other physical threats, and indeed seemed immune to all punishment. To get her way she merely had to lift a finger to her teeth and pretend to bite, and her parents capitulated at once. The parents' horror turned to despair as wounds mysteriously appeared on one of Tanya's fingers after another.
Tanya's mother recounted this story in a flat, unemotional tone, as if she had resigned herself to the perverse plight of rearing a child with no instincts of self-preservation. To complicate matters, she was now a single mother: after a year of trying to cope with Tanya, her husband had deserted the family. "If you insist on keeping Tanya home, then I quit," he had announced. "We've begotten a monster."
Tanya certainly didn't look like a monster. Apart from the sores on her feet and her shortened fingers she looked like a healthy four-year old child. I asked about the foot injuries. "They began as soon as she learned to walk," the mother replied. "She'd step on a nail or thumbtack and not bother to pull it out. Now I check her feet at the end of every day, and often I discover a new wound or open sore. If she twists an ankle, she doesn't limp, and so it twists again and again. If we wrap her feet for protection, sometimes in a fit of anger she'll tear off the bandages. Once she ripped open a plaster cast with her bare fingers."
Tanya's mother had come to me on the orthopedist's recommendation. "I've heard your leprosy patients have foot problems like this," she said. "Does my daughter have leprosy? Can you heal her hands and feet?" She wore the helpless, plaintive expression I had often seen on the parents of young patients, the expression that tugs at a doctor's heart. I sat down and gently tried to explain Tanya's condition.
Alas, I could offer little hope or comfort. I would do further tests, but it seemed apparent that Tanya suffered from a rare genetic defect known informally as "congenital indifference to pain". She was healthy in every respect but one: she did not feel pain. Nerves in her hands and feet transmitted messages about changes in pressure and temperature - she felt a kind of tingling when she burned herself or bit a finger - but these carried no hint of unpleasantness. Tanya lacked any mental construct of pain. She rather enjoyed the tingling sensations, especially when they produced such dramatic reactions in others.
"We can get these wounds healed," I said, "but Tanya has no built-in warning system to defend her from further injury. Nothing will improve until she understands the problem and consciously begins to protect herself."
Seven years later I received a telephone call from Tanya's mother in St. Louis. Tanya, now eleven, was living a pathetic existence in an institution. She had lost both her legs to amputation: she had refused to wear proper shoes and that, coupled with her failure to limp or to shift weight when standing (because she felt no discomfort), had eventually put intolerable pressure on her joints. Tanya had also lost most of her fingers. Her elbows were constantly dislocated. She suffered the effects of chronic sepsis from ulcers on her hands and amputation stumps. Her tongue was lacerated and badly scarred from her nervous habit of chewing it.
A monster, her father had called her. Tanya was no monster, only an extreme example - a human metaphor, really - of life without pain.
I will not, for the sake of this series go into a detailed account of how I see numerous analogies in this little account to the scenario that Black people in America find themselves today (I will say that for those interested there is relevance to this account of "Tanya"; the parable given by Jesus of the Good Samaritan; and the description of the condition and care of the "baby" in Ezekiel 16). I will not do that other than to say that Tanya's physical condition is typical of a spiritual condition that Blacks found (and still find) themselves in after slavery - having been stripped of the knowledge of self, and a clear standard of good and evil. As Tanya lacks a mental construct and a working nervous system for pain; Blacks lack a clear sense of identity and a defined moral and spiritual system that is complimentary to the soul (This is a very complicated subject that gets into exactly what the "heart", "mind", and "soul" of a human being are, and how they interact). This was made possible in large part by the diet, mis-education (or total lack thereof), divide-and-conquer tactics, and otherwise inhumane treatment that Blacks received in chattel slavery and in the Jim Crow-era. That legacy continues today. Any real discussion of "repair" of Black people up from slavery that only deals with issues of economics and justice is insufficient, in my view. The spiritual and moral damage done to Blacks as a result of slavery is essential to an honest dialogue regarding the subject of reparations.
Now, certainly Blacks experience a form of pain that is real on a very obvious level; but what is it about their condition that makes them vulnerable to hurting themselves or allowing others to - in ways that they (Blacks) do not fully seem to comprehend (although others seem to)?
Regardless to motivation, one of the benefits of President Bush's speech from Goree Island in Senegal is the effect it had of sensitizing people (who are ignorant, even arrogantly so, regarding the subject) to the depth of the pain and suffering that Blacks experienced as a result of the trans-atlantic slave trade. The physical, mental and emotional trauma that Blacks suffered as a result of slavery actually stripped them of the base of self-preservation. Without self-knowledge, one cannot produce self-respect; and certainly not pursue a self-enlightened interest; or act out of self-love. And without that, one does not value the process of self-examination, self-analysis, and self-correction that would quicken the self-accusing spirit in the individual. This is essentially a process of moral awakening. As a result of these "self-deficits", we, like the leprosy victim, Tanya, are quite often, in our condition, our own worse enemy - even, a danger to ourselves. Yes, this is very painful to accept, but it is the truth.
And in many verbal and non-verbal ways, Blacks admit this reality to themselves and one another - every single day - in public, in private, and in secret.
Did you know that as part of the process of raising the Children of Israel out of slavery in Egypt, Jehovah instructed Moses to use his spokesperson Aaron, to handle and treat those among the people who suffered from leprosy?
You can read about it in the book of Leviticus. Interestingly, this appears in Leviticus only a few chapters before Jehovah institutes the Day Of Atonement through Aaron.
Thursday, July 24, 2003