Essays & Images on Cities, Travel and Contemporary Culture. A web journal of James A. Clapp, Ph.D., an UrbisMedia Ltd. Production

Vol.77.7: SAINTS, SAVAGES and the CULT OF DEATH [BR]

V077-07_SaintsJesuit missionaries seeking eternal paradise in all the wrong places and all the worse ways. A review Saints of the American Wilderness by John A. O’Brien (2011)

Who hasn’t been preached the story about how he “Christ died on the cross for our sins.” Okay, maybe some lucky bastard in some remote (literally) “Godforsaken” valley in Borneo hasn’t heard it (yet). Right. Most everybody has heard it, with the occasional, and apt, response being “WHAT!?”

These days we hear a lot about religions such as Islam being obsessed with death, with suicide bombers, honor killings, fatwah executions, and remorseless murders of innocent people by religious fundamentalist terrorists. Perhaps rightly so, there’s way too much of this sort of thing; but it ought not give Western religions a pass when it comes to violence and an obsession with death. Indeed, this psychological affliction probably shares a common base with proto-religion and what might be called the Abrahamic hang-up.

The first of these derives from a notion of sacrifice that probably owes its origins to the propitiation of what were regarded as demons during historically misty pre-biblical times. It is quite plausible that the notion of sacrifice––especially given that ritualistic animal sacrifice appears in a number of religions––came into practice when early man was as much prey for carnivorous beasts as he was predator of them. One means of avoiding becoming a meal for large carnivores was to distract them with sacrifices of flesh and bone from other animals. It is not difficult to imagine for example, early humans cowering around their campfires in the dark night hearing threatening growls and roars, seeing reflections of frightening eyes, and making a wise decision to throw some haunches or other body parts of the results of their own hunting, out into the night. “Here, eat this, but don’t eat me.”

That seems to make reasonable anthropological sense, even though it might be somewhat counterintuitive in its results. But things get a lot weirder when we get up to biblical times. Once we humans decided to create gods responsible for our hunts and harvests, resulting in actions like sacrificing children or virgins or criminals to bloodthirsty deities in order to ensure their interests in our survival and prosperity, things take on a more symbolic than practical intent.

Then we get to Abraham, a rather weird dude in my opinion, who is the founding father of the three dominant faiths to come out of the Middle East. We should all know the story. God shows up as a burning bush and tells Abraham to take Isaac, his son, upon mount Sinai, and put a knife in his heart, or slit his throat. Abe was quite ready to go through with this little test from Yahweh to prove what? He loves Yahweh more than Issac? What kind of God is that? What kind of unresolved primal fear, or father versus son bullshit results in this sort of thing?

Because then we get to where we started; God the father puts his son Jesus on the cross to be sacrificed for “our sins.” Of course, Christianity decided to get really weird with this scenario because, as we are supposed to believe, the father and the son are one and the same (I realize that I am leaving out the holy bird), so in some sense God is committing suicide or, more likely, some early theologians had their heads up one another’s butts. In Catholicism, this gets ritualized in the “sacrifice” of the mass, which was created to get you into church and put some money in the collection basket.

So much for the historical part about the origins of sacrifice and religion and its underlying perverse and twisted psychological roots in fear, fear of animals, and fear of the withdrawal of patriarchal protection and love. Let’s get to those Jesuit missionaries who came to the area of eastern Canada and northern New York and New England back in the early 17th century. This is where the whole sacrificial death thing in Western religion comes full circle, when there still were a lot of people obsessed with repaying their debt to Christ’s “sacrificial death” with their own martyrdom.

Missionaries had plenty of company—and assistance—from Native Americans, who were no less vicious and violent when it came to propitiating him their gods. Forget Pocahantas; how about those Meso-American so-called “civilizations” that enjoyed capturing their enemies, and performing open-heart vivisection on them to make their weird gods happy. If you want to have a nice puke for yourself and can’t locate your CD of The Passion of the Christ, then try Mel Gibson’s other religious opus, Apocalypto, and treat yourself to another cinematic abattoir. Well, their northern brethren also appear to have had strong stomachs for this sort of thing.

Religious conversion, geographical conquest, and colonialism and economic exploitation, are all of a piece, and there is not much need to repeat that story here, except to say that the Jesuits in the area they called “New France” were the religious vanguard for this process.* The public-relations version of this was that (often literally) self-sacrificing Jesuits were engaging these wretched Stone Age people to rescue their souls for Christ.

The Indians––excuse me, “native Americans”––who, in their communications, the Jesuits never ceased referring to as “savages,” on several occasions blamed sicknesses such as smallpox and other communicable melodies on the “black robes” might well have been correct. Europeans happily brought their diseases to the new world along with their crucifixes that, often wiped out as many as 90% of aboriginal tribes, no doubt resulting in more deathbed conversions than mother Theresa could have wished for. One of the famous Jesuit martyrs, father Charles Garnier, refers in his writings to a sick young Huron girl he baptized. When he first approached her she thought baptism would be a “cure” for what ailed her. When Garnier explained it was something different, she refused the sacrament. He returned the next day when she was worse off and the girl relented. He baptized her and she died, the Jesuit referring to it as a “miracle.” This mother Theresa effect, where a “soul” is claimed for Christ to the arrogant satisfaction of the evangelist takes into no consideration at all that rather than a few drops of water and a sign of the cross the girl might have been better served by medical ministrations.

Eight Jesuit missionaries were martyred in the mid-1600s for being a nuisance to Indian nations of Upstate New York and Eastern Canada. In 1930 they were all canonized saints by Pope Pius XI: St. Rene Goupil, St. Isaac Jogues, St. John de Lalande, St. Anthony Daniel, St. John de Brébeuf, St. Gabriel Lalemant, St. Charles Garnier, St. Noel Chabanl. Their stories often make a Mel Gibson script sound like Beach Blanket Bingo.

Jogues was the first. He was captured by the Mohawks, who were the enemies of the Hurons with whom he was living, and tortured. They cut off several of his fingers and reputedly ate them in front of him and stuck some uncomfortable items in tender area of his body (this done by women and children). Jogues survived that little adventure in native-American “finger food,” but the zealous missionary later had the temerity to return to his mission and to be tomahawked to death and beheaded. He is sometimes represented in paintings with a huge gash on is bald, or tonsured, pate. The Jesuits revered Jogues, but it is also reasonable to regard him as a pathetic fool.

He had plenty of company. Here is Jean Brebeuf, another martyr-saint writing out his own death wish: “I am filled in ardent desire to suffer something for Jesus Christ. I fear I shall be refused, because our Lord has thus far treated me with kindness, whereas I have grievously offended His Divine Majesty. I shall be more confident of salvation when God will give me a chance to suffer.”

He got his wish, in spades. A band of Iroquois captured Brebeuf, Lalemont and some Huron converts they broke the bones of his hands, tore out his fingernails, and chewed on his fingers (fingers apparently being a delicacy in these parts), he was tied to a post and they put burning sticks around his feet and ran flaming to torches between his legs and in his armpits. He neither cried nor winced so they slashed his flesh with knives. All he said was “Jesus have mercy on us!” so they cut away his lower lip and thrust a red-hot iron down his throat. Lalemant’s naked body was smeared with pitch, they stuck some tar and him, tied him to a stake and set him afire. Around Brebeuf they hung a collar up six red-hot hatchets. In mockery of baptism they poured a couple of scalding water slowly over his head, saying “we baptize you that you may be happy in heaven.” Now nicely cooked up, they cuts drips of flesh from his legs and arms and ate them before his eyes. Had enough, Mel? OK, they cut off his upper lip and his nose, gouged out his eyes, hacked off his charred feet, tore off his scalp and finished him by cutting out his heart, ending over four hours of torture. [Whew! I bet you’re glad that’s over.]

And this guy all but wished this upon himself because he feels he owed it to Jesus. Moreover, these Jesuits seemed determined to outdo one another in martyrology, some getting themselves sent onward with (relatively) more merciful dispatch, but some getting it, if it can be imagined without regurgitation, worse.

The Jesuits managed to establish churches and religious communities among some native communities but they might also have contributed to the eventual extermination of the Hurons by the Iroquois by adding a reason for further enmity through religious conversion.** The further “extermination” of the Hurons came through intermarriage with French settlers.

I have to wonder, however, do these Jesuits get their body parts back when they are united with Jesus?
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© 2012, James A., Clapp (UrbisMedia Ltd. Pub. 6.6.2012)
*As they were in India, China, Japan, South America, and elsewhere. They certainly were not alone, and were indeed in competition with other religious organizations, such as the London missionary Society, as well as their fellow Roman Catholic religious orders.
**See, Bruce Beresford’s excellent film, Black Robe (1991)

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