Psychology of Fanaticism

The recent US elections confronted me with the reality of political and religious fanaticism as I’ve never been confronted before. Even family members and friends seemed to blindly believe the slogans and online propaganda, to the point of getting upset and defensive when I tried to challenge their beliefs. I found it hard to comprehend that people could reject facts, reason, common sense to defend Trump or the conservative and narrow Catholic view of who Catholics should all vote for and support. As a result, now the dust has settled a little, I thought I’d try to explore in this blog article something of the psychology behind fanaticism.

Fanaticism is defined as an emotion of being filled with excessive, uncritical zeal, particularly for an extreme religious or political cause. According to Winston Churchill, “A fanatic is one who can’t change his mind and won’t change the subject.” Until the US elections, I’d certainly come across Christian or Catholic fundamentalists, but I associated religious/political fanatics with the likes of the Taliban and Al Qaeda. Certainly not with a democratic election process.

Donald Trump clearly had the power to create fanatic following, and what I would define to be blind uncritical zeal. Not to say that the United States didn’t have its share of fanatical groups prior to Trump, but what has given me increasing worry has been the way they, through him, felt legitimized from the White House. 

Not being a US citizen, I can’t say that I am single minded about the democrats. I don’t think I would have had strong feelings, for instance, if Mike Pence had been president. But what I saw in Donald Trump’s leadership – the manipulation of the emotions of his followers, and complete disregard for the facts of science and the election process when it did not go his way – filled me with a deep dread for the future of our world. But more disturbing for me was the way people actually bought into it and truly believed what he was saying was true!

Professor Andre Haynal, a world’s expert on fanaticism, has been a close observer of fanaticism for 80 years. He vividly remembers Hitler’s terrifying speech exulting in Germany’s takeover of Austria and lived under three different fanatic regimes in Hungary (the Nazis, the Communists, the Hungarian Fascists). He has studied with concern the Trump phenomena in the U.S. and the growth of fanatic nationalism in many European countries.

Professor Haynal is the former Chair of the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Geneva; former President of the Swiss Psychoanalytic Association; and the author of “Encounters with The Irrational”. He is assisted by his wife Veronique Haynal, a psychotherapist in Geneva, who shares fully in all his work.

The Haynals write: “The dictionary defines a fanatic as someone with excessive and single minded zeal. Synonyms include extremist, radical, chauvinist, militant, bigot, sectarian, diehard, and dogmatist. ‘Fanatic’ is derived from a Latin word that described possession by a god or demon. In current usage, it more often describes possession by a cause or belief system- religious, nationalist, racist, political, or ideological.” 

Prof. Haynal observes that many factors promote fanaticism:

  • Rapid societal change- in technology, economic opportunity, living arrangements, traditions, ideals, values, expectations leaving people feeling disconnected from the past, frightened in the present, not in control of the future.
  • Fierce job competition from computers and multinational outsourcing
  • Feeling that others (especially minorities and immigrants) are stealing status and resources.
  • Comfort in belonging to a closed community of like-minded believers.
  • Socio-economic deprivation and inequality.
  • And a charismatic leader who confidently comes forth with grand promises offering prosperity, security, and stability.

In terms of why is fanaticism on the rise now, Prof. Haynal suggests:

  • Crushing overpopulation – the world census, 1 billion in 1800, is now 7.6 billion and growing at the astounding rate 1 billion people every 12 years;
  • War, famine, and drought- resulting in massive migrations;
  • Political turmoil and societal instability;
  • Weakening of previous consensus cultural norms;
  • Dissolution of family ties;
  • Increasing concentration of wealth;
  • Religious tensions;
  • And an economic philosophy where humans are less necessary as producers and consumers in a world increasingly dominated by computers.

To this list we can add the COVID-19 pandemic, which has increased instability, insecurity, and economic hardship. People want certainty. Because our present reality is a bitter pill to swallow, people prefer the felt security that comes from black and white beliefs.

What are the characteristics of fanatic leaders? Haynal’s answer is that they may differ widely in intelligence, personality and goals – but all use similar methods to turn followers into fanatics; they convey a simple message with powerful conviction and constant propaganda; they deny truth, manipulate objective reality, distort facts, and create fake news; they are intolerant of contradiction and destroy opposition; they delegitimize and censor alternative views; they divide issues and people sharply into good and bad; and they create scapegoats and targets of anger.

So it is a combination of the tactics employed by a fanatic leader striking when people are most vulnerable that brings about the situation we’ve experienced. I guess when things are going well, people are not so readily taken in by black and white slogans. It is when they feel scared, insecure, and uncertain about the future that they are more susceptible to a charismatic leader promising them an easy answer for all their ills.

I will be watching the impeachment trial of Donald Trump, and public reaction to it, with great interest, because we are not out of the woods yet. The pandemic is far from over, and the longer it takes to roll out the vaccines world wide, the greater the chances of further virus mutations to which the current vaccines are less effective. I would imagine that the increasing effects of climate change on food production, combined with the economic impact of COVID lockdowns and border shutdowns, will serve to increase the level of insecurity and uncertainty, only increasing people’s vulnerability to the manipulations of a fanatical leader.

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Protect Humanity from Self Destruction

“She (the Church) must above all protect mankind from self-destruction.” This remarkable statement caught my attention on re-reading Pope Francis’ encyclical, Laudato Si. He was quoting Pope Benedict (XVI)’s encyclical, Caritas in Veritate. It is remarkable to me because I had never considered this to be ‘the’ primary mission of the Church – to save humanity from itself. Wow!

I mean, I do recognise that it is what I have been engaged in from the beginning of my vocation, though I couldn’t have named it in these terms. In my teenage years, when I first took my faith seriously thanks to a profound religious experience, I would have understood the Church’s primary task as that of saving souls from eternal damnation. From this perspective, the self-destruction I understood myself fighting against was the human tendency to sin and so put his or her eternal life at risk. I would have understood things from the point of view of personal morality and our weakness that leads us to sin, despite the eternal consequences.

The context of the statement in both encyclicals, however, is concerned with the destruction of humanity via the destruction of the natural environment. Considering our current understanding of the social dimension of sin, of course the statement applies. The logical extension is that it is the Church’s business to be engaged in any activity that aims to save humanity from self-destruction, be it through sin, nuclear war or damage to the environment leading to a world that no longer can sustain human life. Any human action that causes harm to human life is the target of the primary concern of the Church. In this article I want to share my reflections on considering this statement. 

Self-destructive tendencies

To consider the Church’s primary concern to be to protect humanity from self-destruction suggests that there is a capacity and even tendency in human nature for self-destructive behaviour. Why would we, as living beings, enter into behaviour that was potentially life threatening to ourselves? 

Sigmund Freud described the concept of Thanatos, the death instinct, as a drive within human beings that went contrary to our instinct for survival as a way of explaining this tendency in human behaviour. He based this concept on the fact that the goal of all life is death. In other words, our time of life moves in one direction and the end of that journey for all of us is death. Freud believed that people typically channel their death instinct outwards in behaviours like aggression and violence. Freud explained that sometimes these instincts towards destruction can be directed inwards, resulting in self-harm or suicide. Freud concluded that people hold an unconscious desire to die but that the life instincts largely temper this wish. Death instincts were an extension of that compulsion wherein all living organisms have an instinctive “pressure towards death” that stands in stark contrast to the instinct to survive, procreate and satisfy desires.

But there are other factors as well. Some of our risk taking behaviour comes from our short sightedness in terms of short or long-term consequences to our actions, especially in our desire to seek pleasure or obtain what we need immediately. As well, because we live in a death denying society, we don’t consciously think of such behaviour as really life threatening. The younger we are the more indestructible we see ourselves. Even when we know we are taking a risk, we don’t conceive of ourselves dying, until it confronts us in a clear and undeniable way, like having a heart attack. Some people are more fearful of dying and less inclined to take risks, but others do not consider the risk real enough and so live their lives with the breaks are off. 

With the exploitation of the environment, those who are in a position to exploit it often consider the consequences so far into the future that it wont personally affect them. They deny the science of climate change because it is an ‘inconvenient truth.’ They do not see any immediate risk, or even significant life threatening risks to be encountered in their lifetime, and clearly don’t feel any responsibility for the rest of humankind. But all of us play a part in the degradation of the planet be it though carbon emissions by using personal or public transport, energy consumption, use of plastics, etc. Again, we don’t see that our small contribution could have any real impact on the destruction of humanity and so we justify or excuse the behaviour. 

If we take the Pope’s statement as our mission statement, then we are called to a radical stance, personally and publicly, against any action that contributes to humanity’s self-destruction. To do otherwise is to sin.

The Environmental Threat from Christianity

In his encyclical, Laudato Si, Pope Francis acknowledges the criticism levelled at the Christian scriptures, which blames the Genesis text of justifying the unbridled exploitation of the natural world by the mandate given by God to humanity to subdue all that Earth (Gen 1:28). But Pope Francis refutes the claim by arguing that this is a misunderstanding of the scripture’s true intent which is God’s imparting of the responsibility of stewardship on humanity to look after creation and not exploit it. 

In my opinion, however, the greater threat imposed on the environment from Christianity is the Gnostic influenced view that anything to do with the material world is corrupt and only the soul has value because it is eternal. In simple terms, this view considers any efforts to save the planet or protect humanity from nuclear war, etc., as so much wasted energy as the soul is all the matters and its true home is heaven. As such, all efforts should be focused on saving the soul, not the body. 

This mentality was criticised by Karl Marx when he called religion the ‘Opium of the People.’ He considered that Christians were being anaesthetized against social action, allowing the capitalist system to exploit workers unapologetically, by preachers who encouraged them to offer their sufferings up to God so that their reward would be great in the next life. Why invest effort in making this world better when it will all fade away and was, after all, a valley of tears. Better to do all you can to ensure entrance into paradise after your death, which was an entrance by no means guaranteed given our sinful and corrupt physical body that was determined to drag our soul into hell with its unholy bodily urges and passions.

This view, with its focus on mortification of the flesh, is contrary to the biblical account of Creation that affirms God saw all that He had made and found it very good (Gen 1:31), or as the prophet Isaiah puts it, “the God who made earth and shaped it, he who made it firm. He did not create it in vain, he made it to be lived in.” (Is 45:18). 

This negative view of humanity has its foundation not in scripture, as such, but on Augustine’s doctrine of Original sin. This doctrine states that human beings inherit a tainted nature and a proclivity to sin through the fact of birth. Augustine developed his doctrine on a passage of St. Paul’s letter to the Romans, chapter 5, verse 12. Augustine’s primary formulation of original sin, however, was based on a Latin commentary on Paul’s letter in which there was a mistranslation of Rm 5:12. The mistranslation gave Augustine the impression that Paul was saying that through Adam’s sin, all have sinned, in the sense that Adam’s original sin was passed on through birth to every human being. A correct translation of Paul makes clear that what Paul was saying is that just as Adam sinned, we all have sinned and therefore death has come to all people.

Such views are understandable when taken in the context of the difficult lives of peasants throughout most of the Church’s history, full of uncertainty as a result of endless wars, poverty, plague, etc. Life was a valley of tears and relief was seen as only coming when you reached heaven. It cannot be justified today and negates the importance of the journey of life in terms of the spiritual growth of the individual through the experiences, both positive and negative, that life throws at us. It treats God’s creation as a joke on humanity, which needs to be ignored as a distraction from the only thing that matters, which is the next life. How’s that for encouraging Thanotos?

Such views, which still are ingrained in the minds of Catholics with a traditional upbringing, robs any inertia towards improving life for the rest of humanity on this planet and engenders an isolationist spirituality where the only thing I should focus on is my personal moral life in the glare of a judgmental God.

The Primary Motivation

The reason why our primary purpose as Church is to protect humanity from self-destruction, according to Pope Benedict (XVI), is love. “Love is an extraordinary force which leads people to opt for courageous and generous engagement in the field of justice and peace.” (Caritas in Veritate par 1) 

The focus on personal morality, of getting my soul into heaven, has nothing to do with love, and everything to do with fear and self-preservation. Love, on the other hand, focuses on the good of the other and has its “origins in God, Eternal Love and Truth.” (ibid) Those who primarily are concerned with defending Church doctrine show a high concern for ‘truth,’ but no love. Charity/love for them is an optional extra and even a distraction from the unwavering and fanatical loyalty to truth. Indeed, those who have nothing but judgment and condemnation for their fellow human beings will never be ‘fishers of men.’ They are not interested in humanity but in upholding the authority of their own egos as defenders of the truth. 

To the contrary, “Charity is at the heart of the Church’s social doctrine. Every responsibility and every commitment spelt out by that doctrine is derived from charity which, according to the teaching of Jesus, is the synthesis of the entire law.” (ibid par 2)

So the primary reason we, as members of the Church, must engage in protecting humanity from self-destruction is our love for humanity, based on God’s love for humanity. Love is a commitment to the other person’s growth. It is a commitment to do all we can to help the other person grow into the person God calls them to be – their true self/their best self. If we allow the natural environment to be destroyed such that it cannot sustain life, then such an act prevents human beings from growing into their true/best self. If we allow people to live as if they can carelessly exploit the natural world then we are not encouraging them to become their true/best self. We encourage selfish behaviour rather than growth in taking responsibility and love. If we allow conditions to exist where by human life is taken, be it through war, hunger, capital punishment or abortion, we are preventing those people from growing into their true/best self and fail to act with love. If we fail to try to conscientise people so that they recognise that such behaviour is less than who God calls them to be, then we fail to act with love.

An important corrective

“God is intimately present to each being, without impinging on the autonomy of his creature, and this gives rise to the rightful autonomy of earthly affairs.” (Laudato Si par 80) 

There is a danger in misinterpreting what it means that the Church’s primary responsibility as protecting humanity from self-destruction. This misinterpretation relates to how far and in what direction you take that responsibility? In order to save humanity from itself, do you take away people’s free will to choose? For some, this would seem the only way to guarantee a successful result. How many reformers and revolutionaries have justified killing or imposing control in order to save humanity from itself? The argument could be made from a belief that one is acting out of love for humanity. Human beings are like children that don’t see the danger, but must be forcibly restrained to protect them from the danger you, as the parent, see. Such a view posits a God like knowledge in the mind of the one who would subject humanity to his or her will believing they know best. This is, in fact, the highest arrogance and megalomania. After all, God does not impose His will in such a way. “Creating a world in need of development, God in some way sought to limit Himself in such a way that many of the things we think of as evils, dangers or sources of suffering, are in reality part of the pains of childbirth which He uses to draw us into the act of cooperation with the Creator.” (ibid)

Pope Francis has confidence that the “God, who wishes to work with us and who counts on our cooperation, can also bring good out of the evil we have done.” (ibid) Even though it may be painful to watch people make the wrong choices, as no doubt it deeply saddens our Creator, we cannot overstep the boundary of freedom of conscience. “The traditional belief that individual conscience is the final arbiter of moral life has been forgotten here. The Church has been called to form consciences, not replace them.” (Amoris Laetitia par 37) An excellent way, then, that the Church can realise it’s primary mission is to form consciences to see that above all we must do all they can, in love, to protect humanity from self destruction.

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Murder, Mayhem, and Mercy

In this month’s Blog article, I share a reflection by Brian Gleeson, CP, on the East Timorese struggle for independence.

Lest we forget!

Timor-Leste (East Timor), an island nation north of Darwin, Australia, is one of the world’s newest countries. It has a long history with the Catholic Church, beginning with its colonization by the Portuguese Dominican mission in 1556. Timor-Leste was under Portuguese rule until it joined other Portuguese colonies in declaring its independence on November 28, 1975. Nine days later, it was invaded by Indonesia and struggled for independence until the international community finally responded in 1999. During the occupation, much of Timor-Leste’s already fragile infrastructure was destroyed, and even today the country is still recovering.

Thanks to the international news media, in 1999 the world became aware as never before, of the people of East Timor. Many people cheered at the good news that 78.5% of the East Timorese had voted for their independence from Indonesia, whose armies had invaded and annexed their territory in 1975.  Their hopes were shared across the world, that at long last they would be free to decide their own future, to choose their own leaders, and to govern themselves.

Within days, however, the hopes of the world’s newest nation turned sour. A local minority, made up mainly of murderous militias, armed to the teeth by the recently occupying Indonesian army, would not accept the people’s vote. They therefore turned against the majority of their fellow-citizens with a ferocity equal to anything that has ever been perpetrated against innocent people anywhere. In Dili, the capital, and in other cities and towns throughout the territory, these militias maimed and murdered thousands of pro-independence supporters, drove thousands from their homes, and forced thousands more to leave their own country as refugees. Once the people were gone from their homes, these militias systematically looted and plundered the people’s possessions, before finally burning their houses, their shops, and many of their public buildings to the ground.

What the world witnessed, thanks to the extensive news coverage, was nothing less than the implementation of a ‘scorched earth’ policy. It was as horrific as the sending of six million Jews to the gas chambers during World War II, the mysterious ‘disappearances’ of hundreds of citizens in Argentina and Chile during the military dictatorships there, and the more recent campaigns of so-called ‘ethnic cleansing’ in Bosnia and Kosovo.

It has been as totally baffling and unexpected that in our own time, human beings could treat one another with such hatred and violence. Perhaps as baffling and unexpected as the way Jesus was treated by the Jewish leaders of his time. God, the owner of the vineyard, expected his tenants to yield a harvest of ripe grapes, but it was sour grapes (vinegar) only, that they produced. 

In Timor-Leste, the torture, the suffering, and the crucifixion of Jesus happened all over again. Night after night, television screens displayed scenes of undiminished horror that left viewers wondering: Is there any hope for these poor broken people? Does anyone care?’ Perhaps some even wondered: ‘Does God care?’

It was just then, when all seemed lost, and after both the humanitarian agencies of the International Committee of the Red Cross and that of the United Nations were thrown out of the country, that the world became aware of two marvellous initiatives and developments. In the midst of the carnage and destruction, the first powerful ray of hope came from the leaders of the Church. Priests, nuns, and other church workers, had constantly supported the people, 98% of whom were Catholic, in their quest for human rights, democracy, and self-determination. (Church support and protection for freedom and justice, in fact, went back to the days when Timor-Leste had been a colony of Portugal). During this time, for that love and loyalty towards their people, many church persons paid the ultimate price. They too were expelled from their homes. They too were mutilated. They too were murdered. They too saw their own houses, and the church buildings of their people, ransacked, robbed, and burnt to cinders. But their great witness of faith during that darkest period of their history, was not in vain. Put to the test, they yielded an abundant harvest for God and for God’s people.

The second ray of hope, which arrived later, was the preparation and deployment of the Interfet (the International Force for East Timor), led by Australian troops. At enormous personal risk, this Interfet force went in to protect the surviving East Timorese from further murder and mayhem, and to prepare for the re-building of their country almost from zero. Viewers became amazed at the integrity, the decency, the humanity, the generosity and the restraint of the troops, who, under mandate of the United Nations, entered East Timor not as aggressors but as peace-keepers and Good Samaritans, indeed as agents of divine mercy and compassion.

Finally, the fruits of Timor-Leste’s struggle for independence were firmly established on May 20, 2002. Further good news is that, bit-by-bit, its relationship with its former enemy has steadily improved. Today the relationship is quite peaceful and harmonious, and Indonesia is Timor-Leste’s main trading partner, and regularly contributes to its development.

Let us pray that God will continue to bless and protect the government of Timor-Leste, its peace-keeping forces, its Church leaders and workers, and the people of God entrusted to their care.

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Peter’s Rubbish School

In this month’s blog, I’d like to tell you about the ‘Rubbish School’ in Cambodia and the work one of our Australian Passionists, Peter Gardiner CP, is doing with them.

Late last year, Tom McDonough CP, the provincial of our province, asked Peter Gardiner CP, who is part of our JPIC committee, if he would be willing to spend some time in our PASPAC region, teaching some of our students English. Peter very quickly and happily agreed to this proposal.

So Peter enrolled in a CELTA course (Cambridge English Language Assessment) to teach English to speakers of Other Languages. This is an internationally recognised qualification. Halfway through the course, the pandemic blew up here in Australia, like the rest of the world. Peter managed, however, to complete the rest of the course online.

Because of the current travel restrictions, due to the pandemic, there is no hope at present of teaching face to face, as Peter had hoped to. He has, however, undertaken to do some teaching online, through our newly discovered best friend, Zoom.

Peter acquired one student in Vietnam and spent July and August teaching our Indonesian students. For Peter, it was wonderful to be able to be part of the formation of our future brothers, and see their passion for learning, and ministering to the Crucified.

But typical of Peter’s JPIC interests, he has also taken to bringing the fruits of these studies to some volunteer work in teaching English online.

It was through one of our other fellows, Br. Jim Coucher CP, that his attention was brought to a video that Jim had seen online on the BBC news site concerning Cambodia’s ‘Rubbish School’ where kids pay their tuition with plastic.

Here we are introduced to Kimleng Sang, who is a tour/photography guide in Angkor Wat and Siem Reap in Cambodia. Because of the pandemic, his work dried up, there being no tourists there at the moment. Also their schools are in lockdown. So Kimleng Sang decided to use his free time to start up a little school in his home. He is offering English lessons to local children. They pay their fees by collecting plastic. There is no recycling facility in the country, so what this set up does is that it has two benefits: the kids learn English, and the village gets cleaned up. They clean, recycle and repurpose the plastic into various bits and pieces.

Peter was intrigued and so tracked Kimleng Sang down on Facebook and added him as a friend. At first, he was running classes for older children, then decided to run some classes for the younger children. He advertised for someone to help, so Peter contacted him, and now teaches the children three days a week, for one hour each day.

Peter did check with his friends in Siem Reap (where we have had some pilgrimages building houses for poor rural families) that everything was above board, and okay, which it was.

Each day, Peter prepares a class on various topics, mostly basic words and phrases. He shows some video and then explains the concepts further. Kimleng then takes over, and using the slides and drills the kids in English.

“To be honest, it’s an absolute hoot,” says Peter. “The students are incredibly enthusiastic and willing to learn. The number of students varies, but we have had up to 26 students.”

Peter has found it a tremendous privilege to be involved with the Rubbish School. They are doing great work in improving their environment. And it gives the children an opportunity to learn for the future.

The future for many children, especially rural kids, is pretty bleak in Cambodia. With Siem Reap’s proximity to Angkor Wat, there are opportunities for employment as tour guides, restaurant workers, hotel employees, shop assistants and so on. It gives them an opportunity to enhance their future and their children’s children’s future.

Public education is free by law, in Cambodia, but ‘supplemental’ lessons for English or other extracurricular subjects cost extra ranging from US$5 a class to hundreds of dollars, depending on the school and its location. This could be a steep investment in a country where the average person earns under $1,400.00 a year.

For poor families in remote areas, the children are sent to beg for money to increase their family income, making it difficult for them to justify paying for extra classes.

But not only are the children gaining tools that will afford them a future in terms of work, the payment method is making, of these young minds, the environmental ambassadors for the future. It helps them to understand the use, management and recycling of waste products.

Tourist sites in countries like Cambodia are often clogged with garbage. Plastic bags and bottles are tossed out without a second thought, many of which end up in garbage-choked cities or smothering once idyllic beaches. Cambodia accumulated 3.6 million tonnes of waste last year, according to the country’s environment minister. A mere 11% of this is recycled, while almost half of it is burned or thrown into rivers causing widespread pollution. The rest is trucked to ever-growing landfills and dump sites, where the piles of garbage emitting methane gas can lead to unexpected and dangerous fires as well as add to climate change.

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A History of Slavery

For this month’s blog article, I thought I’d offer you this ‘History of Slavery’ by Ron Davoran CP, who is community leader of our Sydney based community at Marrickville. Ron took a trip to Ghana in 1999 and to New Orleans in 2018, where he visited sites connected with the slave trade. His writing this history was motivated by the recent wave of ‘Black Lives Matter’ protests that have swept through the USA and have spread throughout the world.

At the International Congress on Pastoral care and Counselling held in Accra, Ghana in the August of 1999 we had the opportunity of going on a day trip. We left at 7.30 am and I chose the tour to the Cape Coast. This was the region that was originally the capitol and the former government centre of the Gold Coast until 1877. This coastland is famous for its ancient forts and castles built by the early European traders and armed forces to keep invaders away.

This destination took over two hours to reach. We used three buses and firstly went to a National Park, where we went on a tree top walk over the forest. We then went on to the South Coast where we saw the Cape Coast Castle Museum.  The photo shows the inside courtyard of the Elmina castle which was only one of these places of infamy where in the 1700’s the slave trade was the main export from this country, as the need for overseas labour increased in the new world. It was from castles like this along the coast that thousands of slaves were exported, in horrible conditions, not only by the Spanish, Portuguese, and the British, but also by the Africans.  The history is not a pleasant one as, prior to the European invasion, the slave trade was run by the Arabs. We had a guide who took us through the museum and then took us into the inner workings of this grotesque place.  We entered a door which the sign above the lintel that explained the whole story, and it was through this door the captives entered the dungeons, which were separate for men and women. The African men and women who participated at the conference were in tears at this point and needed a lot of support on hearing these stories about their ancestors. This really churned my guts that people could be so cruel to people of different races and languages.

Over 60% of slaves came from Africa. These people were made up from different tribal groups, also different religions, and different shades of pigment in their skin, for fear of mutiny once under way on the high seas. The traders applied a one drop rule, “one drop of African blood and you were no longer human.”

I couldn’t help but feel that we are all responsible for this blot in our human history which we, the people from the ‘first world’ have to reconcile with the people of the ‘third world’ that we exploited, and used for our benefit over the many years of this trade. The day we visited this fort was a beautiful sunny day as this photograph above shows, but we were stunned by the brutality and exploitation of people for economic benefit.

I had put this trip into the back of my mind until I was in the USA conducting the Mission appeal in 2018. I was in New Orleans for six weeks. One morning I travelled 50 miles up the Mississippi River from New Orleans to a location called the Whitney Plantation, to a landmark built by enslaved Africans and their descendants. An estimated 354 enslaved men, women and children worked indigo, rice, and sugar fields on this plantation from 1752-1867. Today, it is the only plantation museum in Louisiana that is exclusively dedicated to telling the story of slavery.  As a site of memory and consciousness, the Whitney Plantation pays homage to all enslaved people on the plantation and across the U.S. South.

In 2014 this plantation opened its doors to the public for the first time in its 262-year history as the only plantation museum in Louisiana with a focus on slavery. It began when the current owner, John Cummings who was a prominent trail attorney with offices in New York, Houston and New Orleans, bought this plantation as an investment and in part of the sale was a file that had some history on the past records. When he opened this, he found out about a German couple by the name of Ambrose Haydel. He and his wife who had 9 children by 1790 and started the plantation in 1752 on what was called the German coast of the Mississippi.

This experience of visiting the Whitney plantation was overwhelming. I felt like the slaves’ spirits were present, watching over us. There was a beautiful church, the trees were very big and tall, and there were beautiful sculptures. But amidst all this beauty were the slave houses that they lived in.

The new owner of this plantation has spent a lot of his money on research and it took 15 years before this museum could be opened. In the restored church we saw these replicas of

Sculptures by Woodrow Nash haunt the church on the plantation property.

the slaves from mature adults to children. On entry we were given a name tag and mine said ‘Shack Wilson.’ The information on this tag read “… trying to forget all those horrible days of slavery and way back yonder I was born in Clinton, Louisiana and belonged to Marse B Robbins. They used to whip slaves if they did not pick enough cotton. They put four pegs in the ground and tied one leg to one peg, the other to the other and the arms were tied together. They were stripped of all clothing and whipped with a raw-hide… then they’d be put to picking cotton with all that suffering.”

Our tour guide was Cheryl and there would have been about 16 in our party. We started off in the Baptist Church, when entering we saw models of slaves, and I saw a stature of Shack Wilson, then we saw a brief video that told the history and the cruelty that the slaves had to endure from their masters and owners.

After viewing the video and being enlightened by these facts we began our journey. We walked to the “Six Memorial Walls” instead of gravestones, that told the story of hundreds of slaves, who had died. The engravings on these walls of memories represented the slaves’ perspectives on their lives. Some of the passages were long and others just had their slave name. I read some of these stories. The narratives were the hardest to cope with; reading about somebody’s life as a slave was beyond depressing. The passages were filled with horror and terror beyond belief, yet it was a beautiful honour to hear the stories from the slave’s perspective. One woman had 15 children, all from different men, and she never saw one of them, for as soon as they were born, they were whisked away to be eventually sold as slaves on the market block. She was classified as a breeder. On reading some of the slave’s stories you could not help but feel revulsion in the pit of your stomach.

From there we walked to the “Field of Angels,” This was a statue of an angel with a sheet wrapped around her waist and looking down on a baby in her arms. Around this statue was a circular brick wall, on which were the names of the slaves and their ages at the time they died. Little did I know that on the walls around this enclosure were the names of over 2200 children who died and the stories of some of these children are on these walls. Many of these children did not have names. Grotesque is the word that I have been trying to find.

We walked down a shaded path where I saw the name of Gwendolyn Midlo Hall on a plaque. This woman was a prominent historian who focused on the history of slavery in the Caribbean, Latin America, Louisiana, Africa, and the African diaspora, who studied the ethnic origins of those who came to Louisiana. She created a database of records identifying and describing more than 100,000 enslaved Africans. It became a primary resource for historical and genealogical research. She earned recognition in academia, and her contributions to scholarship, genealogy, and the critical re-evaluation of the history of slavery have been valued.

As we walked down this roadway, we saw these basic houses which was where the slaves lived. These four slave houses were in a row and only one of the four houses were open for inspection. They were basic houses with four rooms one of which had an open fire in the middle of the room which would have been used for cooking of their food. We were told that the slaves who worked the fields left in the dark mornings and it was dark when they returned at night. The major cash crop was Sugar Cane and Maze and the fields were up to 3 miles from these quarters. The cane would grow to a height of 16 feet, and they used machetes to harvest the crop. Many slaves harmed themselves deliberately by cutting their leg or arms to prevent them from working as a slave again. Today we would call this PTSD, [post-traumatic stress syndrome} and many people died from infection caused by this method of refusing to go to work in the fields. These cabins could hold up from 20-25 slaves. Of these slaves 10% of them worked near the master’s house, mainly women and the other 90% were sent into the fields. Slaves were not seen to be human, and they were not allowed to learn to read or write or even to congregate apart from church on a Sunday as this gathering could lead to a fear of riots and uprisings.

After walking past these houses on the right could be seen a rectangle steel box with bars and we wondered what this could be? This was the slaves’ jail where the slaves were placed if the master felt that a slave was disobedient or as a slaves’ punishment if he or she had run away. This steel cage had three rooms and each cell had four bunks. It was about two metres from the floor to the ceiling and was made of steel. Wall to wall was the size of the width of a person’s arm span. Each cell was closed with heavy metal padlocked doors. These cells had a small window on the front of each door. The doors, windows and the sides and the backside of this cage was crisscrossed with flat steel metal bars. The metal felt hard and it had turned burgundy after the sun had cooked the paint. It would have been extremely hot in these cages. The heat emanating from this torture chamber would have been unsettling, apart from the torture that would have been inflicted by the master for any indiscretion. The only cool air would have been at night when the wind blew. I started to feel claustrophobic as I imagined fellow slaves locked in this cage with me. On the day of this visit it was extremely hot with a high humidity level.

We then went to the master’s house which was built from 1790-1810. This consisted of a white painted two-story large house with 6 bedrooms upstairs as well as a dining room, as in the downstairs portion of the building were kept cattle and other exotic animals that were kept for the Master’s family food. Outside there was a blacksmith and two buildings that held pigeons as a delicacy for the master and his family to eat. These houses were in far better condition than the houses that we had previously seen where the slaves lived.

On return to the starting point of the tour, I bought a few books on the story and history and then saw on a map of the journey of slaves around the world. The first showed the maritime routes which were the Atlantic slave trade; Indian Ocean slave trade; the Mediterranean slave route and the Trans-Saharan slave route and most of these people came mainly from the continent of Africa.  On this map could be seen the Atlantic route where the slave ships would have travelled from the African port to New Orleans. To the side of this picture was an insert that I have added below so as to explain where the slaves had been captured as their place of origin. Slaves did not only come from Africa, of course, although the huge majority had come from this country. Who had traded these people? Where was the destination that they were transported in these horrible conditions?

The International Slave Trade commenced in 1612 and ran until the year of 1807. There are prominent dates like in 1612 when the Dutch arrived in West Africa and settled on Gorde island; then 1664 when the French Company of the West Indies was founded; in 1672 the British Royal African company was founded; In 1685 the French passes the Code Noir into law in the West Indies; in 1781 the Haitian Revolution begins with a slave uprising near the city of Le Cop; in 1807 the British parliament bans the African Slave Trade; in 1808 the US ban on the foreign slave trade took effect on the 1st January, 1815; in 1819 the British station a naval squadron on the West African coast to intercept slave ships.

Slavery went on until its abolishment in England thanks to a bill that was introduced in parliament by William Wilberforce. In the British House of Commons it was discussed and passed, but it did not come into force until 1833, abolishing this trade in the British Empire. Abolishment in the USA was not ratified until December of 1865 when Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on 1 January 1863 that abolished slavery officially freeing more than 50,000 people still enslaved in Kentucky and Delaware.

The guide on our tour recommended to us a book called “The Half Has Never Been Told” by Edward E Baptist on this issue of slavery in the deep south. Baptist’s work is a valuable addition to the growing literature on slavery and American development … Baptist has a knack for explaining complex financial matters in lucid prose….. This is an ambitious new economic and social history of antebellum America. … The overwhelming power of the stories that Baptist recounts and the plantation level statistics he has compiled give to this book the power of truth and revelation.

When I stayed at St Augustine’s presbytery, during the week that I had in downtown New Orleans, I observed a cross made from chains, handcuffs, and torture instruments, as I used to walk to the transport routes in New Orleans. The plaque read: “On this October 30, 2004, we the faith community of St Augustine’s Catholic Church, dedicate this shrine consisting of crosses, chains and shackles to the memory the nameless, faceless, turfless Africans who met an untimely death in Faubourg, Treme. The tomb of the unknown slave is commemorated here in this garden plot of St Augustine’s Church, the only parish in the United States whose free people of colour bought two outer rows of pews exclusively for slaves to use for worship. This St Augustine’s/Treme shrine honours all slaves buried throughout the United States and those slaves in particular who lie beneath the ground of Theme in unmarked, unknown graves, There is no doubt that the St Augustine’s sits astride the blood, sweat, tears and some of the mortal remains of unknown slaves from Africa and local American Indian slaves who either met with fatal treachery and were therefore buried quickly and secretly or were buried hastily and at random because of yellow fever and other plagues. Even now, some Treme locals have childhood memories of salvage/restoration workers unearthing various human bones, sometimes in concentrated areas such as wells. In other words, the tomb of the unknown salve is a constant reminder that we are walking on holy ground. Thus, we cannot consecrate this tomb, because it is already consecrated by many slaves’ inglorious deaths bereft of any acknowledgement, dignity or respect, but ultimately glorious by their blood, sweat, tears, faith, prayers and deep worship of our creator.” [Donated by Sylvia Barker of the Danny Barker Estate.]

In the early days of New Orleans, the Catholic Church was extremely prominent as the people who settled in this area were mainly from France and Germany.
This time in New Orleans has really stirred up my feelings over slavery, especially with the attitudes of President Trump over the immigration issues and how he is taking children from their parents as they cross the Mexican border as illegals or as refugees. This is a hot topic in the states of Texas and Louisiana currently in 2018.

It also raised issues in myself that we in Australia must approach the question of Aboriginal Reconciliation with honesty. This arose after my period in Port Augusta when I was parish priest from 2000-2004 and as part of this role visiting the Port Augusta Prison weekly.

The Australian Indigenous situation by numbers from an article in “The Conversation” titled ‘When it comes to deaths in custody, we need to look in the mirror’. By the numbers.

99 the number of deaths in custody documented by the 1991 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.

432 the number of Indigenous Australians who have died in custody since (according to Guardian Australia’s Deaths Inside project.

2,481 the number of First Nation adults in prison for every 100,000 people.

164 the number of non-indigenous adults in prison for every 100,000 people.

3% the percentage of Australian’s adult population who are First Nations Australians.

28% the percentage of Australian’s prison population who are First Nations Australians.

2015 the year David Dungay Jr was killed when prison officers restrained him, including with handcuffs, and pushed him face down on his bed and on the floor. One officer pushed a knee into his back. All along, Dungay was screaming that he could not breathe and could be heard gasping for air.

ZERO the number of successful homicide prosecutions of a death in Australian criminal courts.

With the unrest in our world today and especially in the USA over the death of George Floyd, a black man by the police in Minneapolis, this issue has raised for me that “BLACK LIVES DO MATTER”


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COVID and the Survival Instinct

For all our success, we obviously aren’t out of the woods yet. A new outbreak of COVID-19 in Melbourne has meant that the state of Victoria has been put into lockdown for 6 weeks. That is 6 weeks without social interaction – of social distancing (no handshakes or hugging, touch or togetherness) along with the closing of businesses, the loss of civil liberties and personal freedoms. Again we will comply as this is the price to be paid, a sacrifice to save lives. After all, we are the lucky ones in Australia.

A friend of mine, and immigrant from South Africa, told me how impressed he was by Australia’s response to COVID-19 in comparison to the USA or other parts of the world. His analysis is that Australians tend to be compliant. On the whole we do what our government asks us to do and so have, for the most part, brought the pandemic under control in this country, while other cultures who tend to ignore government guidelines or rail against the loss of civil liberties are paying for it.

The question is for how long do we comply. Because this could be the new normal, and will probably repeat itself in other states at other times, until a vaccine is produced and is readily available (if in fact a vaccine can be produced against this virus. After all, there is no vaccine for HIV).

We hear that the way we have tackled the pandemic is the envy of the world. Other nations are in much greater strife, and yet they are still less ready to comply. Why don’t they see the necessity for such sacrifice in the face of this threat? In his article, Charles Eisenstien debates these hard questions:

“The relevant question for me is, would I ask all the nation’s children to forego play for a season, if it would reduce my mother’s risk of dying, or for that matter, my own risk? Or I might ask, would I decree the end of human hugging and handshakes, if it would save my own life? This is not to devalue Mom’s life or my own, both of which are precious. I am grateful for every day she is still with us. But these questions bring up deep issues. What is the right way to live? What is the right way to die?”

The questions Eisenstien asks boils down to where our values lie. How much are we prepared to give up for the sake of survival, and have our values gradually and even exaggeratedly shifted to a place where survival outweighs all other values?

“Over my lifetime I’ve seen society place more and more emphasis on safety, security, and risk reduction. It has especially impacted childhood: as a young boy it was normal for us to roam a mile from home unsupervised – behaviour that would earn parents a visit from Child Protective Services today. It also manifests in the form of latex gloves for more and more professions; hand sanitizer everywhere; locked, guarded, and surveillanced school buildings; intensified airport and border security; heightened awareness of legal liability and liability insurance; metal detectors and searches before entering many sports arenas and public buildings, and so on. Writ large, it takes the form of the security state. The mantra “safety first” comes from a value system that makes survival top priority, and that depreciates other values like fun, adventure, play, and the challenging of limits.

“The ultimate fulfilment of civilization’s program of control would be to triumph over death itself. Failing that, modern society settles for a facsimile of that triumph: denial rather than conquest. Ours is a society of death denial, from its hiding away of corpses, to its fetish for youthfulness, to its warehousing of old people in nursing homes. Even its obsession with money and property – extensions of the self, as the word “mine” indicates – expresses the delusion that the impermanent self can be made permanent through its attachments. All this is inevitable given the story-of-self that modernity offers: the separate individual in a world of Other. Surrounded by genetic, social, and economic competitors, that self must protect and dominate in order to thrive. It must do everything it can to forestall death, which (in the story of separation) is total annihilation. Biological science has even taught us that our very nature is to maximize our chances of surviving and reproducing.”

For me the question is, how much am I personally willing to give up in terms of a ‘normal’ way of life for the sake of my own survival? I think the answer I would give is that it depends for how long I would have to live that way. The instinct to survive is basic to who we are as members of the animal kingdom. If not for that instinct we would have died out as a species a long time ago. As long as I still feel a certain freedom in my choice to comply, such that I believe that it is a necessary sacrifice with a time limit on it, then my natural inclination is to comply – if not for myself then for others. The worst-case scenario for me would be to be responsible for another’s death by passing on the virus to them.

“The assumption that public policy should seek to minimize the number of deaths is nearly beyond question, a goal to which other values like play, freedom, etc. are subordinate. Covid-19 offers occasion to broaden that view. Yes, let us hold life sacred, more sacred than ever. Death teaches us that. Let us hold each person, young or old, sick or well, as the sacred, precious, beloved being that they are. And in the circle of our hearts, let us make room for other sacred values too. To hold life sacred is not just to live long, it is to live well and right and fully.

“Like all fear, the fear around the coronavirus hints at what might lie beyond it. Anyone who has experienced the passing of someone close knows that death is a portal to love. Covid-19 has elevated death to prominence in the consciousness of a society that denies it. On the other side of the fear, we can see the love that death liberates. Let it pour forth. Let it saturate the soil of our culture and fill its aquifers so that it seeps up through the cracks of our crusted institutions, our systems, and our habits. Some of these may die too.”

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The COVID-19 Conspiracy

In last week’s blog article, I quoted Charles Eisenstien’s prophetic words, when reflecting on the current crisis over the COVID-19 pandemic, “COVID-19 is like a rehab intervention that breaks the addictive hold of normality. To interrupt a habit is to make it visible; it is to turn it from a compulsion to a choice. When the crisis subsides, we might have occasion to ask whether we want to return to normal, or whether there might be something we’ve seen during this break in the routines that we want to bring into the future.”

The Black Lives Matter movement’s response to the death of George Floyd, an African-American man, at the hands of Minneapolis police officers, and the world wide show of solidarity, suggests that we don’t want to return to the pre-Corona ‘normal,’ but rather that we want to bring something new forward. Of the hundred paths that radiate out in front of us, the BLM protest, that has caught on around the world, demonstrates again the power of our collective will when we agree on what is important.

The movement and mass demonstrations have flown in the face of the Corona virus threat, and the proof of the pudding will be if in 2 weeks time if we see a second wave manifest itself with devastating consequence. A month after writing the last blog post, the numbers of those who have died from COVID 19 have risen from 282,709 to 401,564. As stated in my article last month, world governments have had the problem of racial inequality in their countries for a long time and don’t know how to deal with it. Currently their moves are to go back to doing what they know best and that is to try to reboot the economy so as to prevent a global or local depression, and bring us back to the stable societal/economic model that prevailed prior to the pandemic.

Here is Australia, we are experiencing a backlash from China for canvasing support from other nations for an independent and transparent investigation of the origins of COVID-19 in China. The Chinese government has called Australia the lapdog of the USA, doing the will of the US government in blaming China for covering up the real source of the pandemic, that it came from a lab in Wuhan province that was experimenting on this virus and either deliberately or accidentally released it into the public. China has retaliated by placing a ban on the import of Australian barley, a $1.5 billion blow to our economy, as well as a ban on some Australian meat exports. The latest move has been to warn its citizens against travel to Australia for holiday or study as it claims racist violence has increased against Chinese people in Australia due to COVID-19. A blame game of conspiracy theories has developed around this crisis, again showing the human propensity to look for a scapegoat so as to feel some sense of control in face of a serious threat.

Conspiracy theories have also abounded in terms of the government response to the pandemic with imposed isolation and restrictions. After all, COVID-19 does seem to justify many items on the totalitarian wish list in terms of imposed societal controls. As Eisenstein writes in his article, “these conspiracy theories observe that the infrastructure, technology, and legislative framework for martial law has been in preparation for many years. All that was needed, they say, was a way to make the public embrace it, and now that has come. Whether or not current controls are permanent, a precedent is being set for:

  • The tracking of people’s movements at all times (because coronavirus)
  • The suspension of freedom of assembly (because coronavirus)
  • The military policing of civilians (because coronavirus)
  • Extrajudicial, indefinite detention (quarantine, because coronavirus)
  • The banning of cash (because coronavirus)
  • Censorship of the Internet (to combat disinformation, because coronavirus)
  • Compulsory vaccination and other medical treatment, establishing the state’s sovereignty over our bodies (because coronavirus)
  • The classification of all activities and destinations into the expressly permitted and the expressly forbidden (you can leave your house for this, but not that), eliminating the un-policed, non-juridical gray zone. That totality is the very essence of totalitarianism. Necessary now though, because, well, coronavirus.”

It certainly appears that China is taking advantage of the shift in world attention to use these pandemic-fuelled restrictions as a way to exert more control over Hong Kong. Some theories suggest that China released the virus so as to damage the economies of other nations by forcing them into lockdowns, allowing Chinese economic power to grow. The limited spread of the infection in China itself is held up as proof.

Whether any of these theories are true, Eisenstein’s article continues, “the same progression of events could unfold from an unconscious systemic tilt toward ever-increasing control. Where does this tilt come from? It is woven into civilization’s DNA. For millennia, civilization (as opposed to small-scale traditional cultures) has understood progress as a matter of extending control onto the world: domesticating the wild, conquering the barbarians, mastering the forces of nature, and ordering society according to law and reason. The ascent of control accelerated with the Scientific Revolution, which launched “progress” to new heights: the ordering of reality into objective categories and quantities, and the mastering of materiality with technology. Finally, the social sciences promised to use the same means and methods to fulfil the ambition (which goes back to Plato and Confucius) to engineer a perfect society.

Those who administer civilization will therefore welcome any opportunity to strengthen their control, for after all, it is in service to a grand vision of human destiny: the perfectly ordered world, in which disease, crime, poverty, and perhaps suffering itself can be engineered out of existence. No nefarious motives are necessary. Of course they would like to keep track of everyone – all the better to ensure the common good. For them, Covid-19 shows how necessary that is. “Can we afford democratic freedoms in light of the coronavirus?” they ask. “Must we now, out of necessity, sacrifice those for our own safety?”

If so, then the defiance of COVID restrictions on mass gatherings worldwide, shown in the rallies for BLM, could not have come at a better time to short circuit any such aspirations on the part of world leaders. If anything, it has thrown China’s move on Hong Kong into the human right’s spotlight more starkly than before.

“True or false,” Eisenstien explains, “the idea that the epidemic is some monstrous plot perpetrated by evildoers upon the public is not so far from the mindset of find-the-pathogen. It is a crusading mentality, a war mentality. It locates the source of a socio-political illness in a pathogen against which we may then fight, a victimizer separate from ourselves. It risks ignoring the conditions that make society fertile ground for the plot to take hold. Whether that ground was sown deliberately or by the wind is, for me, a secondary question.

What I will say next is relevant whether or not SARS-CoV2 is a genetically engineered bioweapon, is related to 5G rollout, is being used to prevent “disclosure,” is a Trojan horse for totalitarian world government, is more deadly than we’ve been told, is less deadly than we’ve been told, originated in a Wuhan biolab, or originated at Fort Detrick, or is exactly as the CDC and WHO have been telling us. It applies even if everyone is totally wrong about the role of the SARS-CoV-2 virus in the current epidemic. I have my opinions, but if there is one thing I have learned through the course of this emergency is that I don’t really know what is happening. I don’t see how anyone can, amidst the seething farrago of news, fake news, rumours, suppressed information, conspiracy theories, propaganda, and politicized narratives that fill the internet. I wish a lot more people would embrace not knowing. I say that both to those who embrace the dominant narrative, as well as those who hew to dissenting ones. What information might we be blocking out, in order to maintain the integrity of our viewpoints? Let’s be humble in our beliefs: it is a matter of life and death.”

(To be continued in next month’s blog article)


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