Friday, February 09, 2007

original sin

Hi everyone,

So I don't think I've mentioned this on this blog before, but I've
been going to church in the campo a lot lately. This has given me a
reputation of being very religious. And in this way I am a contrast
to many other outsiders who come to visit in solidarity. There is an
NGO, a women's group, which has alienated both churches, and those
women who hold jobs in either church are not allowed to go to their
meetings. In one conversation, someone told me about some visiting
Cubans who encouraged people not to go to church and said that
religion was bad. Despite your political ideology, however, this is
not reality-based strategy.

People, and especially community leaders, spend a truly astonishing
amount of time in church and on church-related activities. In some
seasons of the year there are "visits", or prayer and song meetings,
in private homes every night of the week. But religion is anything
but the somber, serious, quiet event that my New England background
has led me to expect. Quiet is associated with sadness, not
reverence, and in Nicaragua people worship God by being joyful. Songs
are usually upbeat and often accompanied by clapping. Prayer is done
not by bowing the head solemnly but by looking ahead or up with both
palms to the sky. One hymn, accompanied by clapping, goes "In heaven
they hear what is sung on earth!" and "With lots of lot of happiness
and enjoyment, this is how we worship God". (En el cielo se oye, lo
que en la tierra se canta; Con mucho alegria y gozo, asi se alaba

In the community where I work, there are two religions: Catholic, and
Evangelical (Church of God). I have been alternating Sunday mornings
at each one. This has been a strategic move—I am now well-known among
church goers, so that even when I show up to do an interview in a
house where the people are unknown to me I am often recognized (Here
comes the tall white lady from church!). But listening to the sermons
has also sparked some meditations.

One of these has to do with the idea of original sin. In case you'd
like a refresher, the idea of original sin is that human mortal
existence is inherently sinful. This is traced back to Eve's sin of
eating the apple of knowledge in the garden of Eden, contrary to God's
instructions. Ever since that happened, people have been born into
sin, and in the Catholic version must be cleansed and forgiven by
church sacraments (baptism, confession and communion, marriage, last
rites). However, the condition of alive humans is that of constant
sin, and although sin must be fought against, nobody can avoid it. So
life is in perpetual tension, a constant dialectic, swinging between
sin, repentence, forgiveness, and more sin. In the Catholic church,
as part of the weekly service, people touch their breast bones and
say, "por mi culpa, por mi culpa, por mi pésima culpa" (because of my
fault, because of my fault, because of my terrible fault).

For many people who have become alienated from a Christian church,
this is a big part of the reason. Why is it my fault? What do I have
to repent for? I haven't done anything wrong. Being born into the
human condition, which I didn't have any choice in, shouldn't force me
to feel guilty.

What I've been thinking about, though, is that this is an
individualistic understanding of sin, and of responsibility. Is the
only unit that can be held accountable for something an individual
human being? This is certainly the way that most Westerners think
today, and it is the basis on which Western legal systems are built.
There is no provision for an act committed by a group of people apart
from the actions of any individual member of that group. You either
wielded the knife or you were an accomplice. Even corporations are
"legal people"— the root of the word "corporation" is in the Latin for

However, this causes plenty of paradoxes and problems, because in
reality people are not just individual agents, they are always members
of groups of various sizes, and those groups act. The whole of a
human group—whether it's a family, a stampeding crowd, the people who
send on an email forward, an ethnic group, or an audience—is more than
the sum of its parts. Let's take the extreme case of genocide. The
Nuremberg trials, where various Nazi officials were tried for the
crime of genocide after World War II, is a good illustration of the
complex problems posed by a purely individual understanding of crime.
Was a Nazi officer guilty of the crime of genocide? No, not as an
individual. He was a part of a human group, and that human group was
guilty of the crime. But the legal system didn't allow for putting a
human group on trial. So instead we had defenses arguing that an
individual officer was "just following orders", making him seem like a
particularly unintelligent robot. And we had prosecutions similarly
unrealistically inflating his freedom of action. Was the radio
broadcaster in Rwanda single-handedly responsible for the decimation
of the Hutus? Of course not. One Rush Limbaugh type cannot cause an
entire nation to rise up and slaughter another. But she was an
important part of the group which was responsible.

You might argue that groups can't be held responsible, because you
can't throw an ethnic group in jail, for example. And there are
always innocent members of the group who would be also punished. But
I would answer that recognition of the problem is the first step.
Finding an appropriate way to hold a group responsible would be

In fact, there have been some steps taken towards effectively holding
groups responsible for their crimes. In South Africa after the end of
apartheid and in Guatemala in the years after the worst of the
genocide was over (and in other places), there were Truth and
Reconciliation commissions. In these, people who had been victims, or
family members of victims, told their stories in a public forum. I
believe there were ways that the truth-tellers' identities were
protected. I see this as a way of holding a group responsible for its
action—a public denunciation and humiliation. It is a punishment
similar to the old method of exposing an individual in the stocks with
a sign on them proclaiming their crime.

The idea of original sin tackles this issue of collective
responsibility. Why are we all born into sin? Because a member of
the group which is humans sinned once. (More misogynistic
interpretations hold women especially responsible, but that's a
distortion of the main point, for me.) God didn't throw just Eve and
Adam out of Eden, but say that Cain and Abel would be allowed back,
since after all they hadn't even been born when the apple was eaten.
We were all held responsible. And I, personally, don't see Eve as an
individual actor, either. Humans are curious, that's how we're put
together. If Eve hadn't eaten the apple, somebody else would have.
The serpent was only acting like the Rwandan radio broadcaster—Eve was
not just a robot following orders, but acting on behalf of all humans.

For a humanist like me, the idea of original sin can be meaningful in
the way it tackles collective responsibility. I am a white
Unitedstatesean born in the late 20th century, and the group of which
I am a member has a hell of a lot to answer for. Is this my
individual fault? Of course not. I did not invent the atomic bomb,
or drop it on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I did not send Japanese and
Germans to detainment camps. I have never owned an SUV. I did not
use Agent Orange in Vietnam, or napalm in Korea. I did not come up
with the idea of the fast-food half-pound hamburger with super-sized
soda and french fries. I did not ignore global warming, although I
contribute to it every day (oxygen in, carbon dioxide out). I did not
squelch the hopes of the Guatemalan people in 1955. I have never
slashed-and-burned a rainforest, or directly given other people
incentives to do so. I did not fund the Contras, although my parents'
tax dollars did. I have never lynched a black person, or a gay
person, and it wasn't me who segregated schools or the inner cities.
I did not invade Haiti any of the times. I did not run the Exxon
Valdez aground. I did not support Pinochet, or Trujillo, or the
Somozas, or Duvalier, or Saddam Hussein. I didn't even vote for
George W. Bush, either time.

But the group of which I am a member is responsible. Por mi culpa,
por mi culpa, por mi pésima culpa.

What are the possible reactions of a person of conscience? She could
renounce citizenship, immerse herself in a totally different culture
and never come back, denying who she is and breaking ties with family
and friends (and thus making herself a part of the wrongs committed by
another group). She could retreat into individualism, telling
herself, "it's not MY fault" and trying to forget about it in order to
achieve peace of mind. Or she could buy in conditionally, agreeing to
be a member while working to promote change and improvement, or to at
least ameliorate things a little bit. In other words, she could
accept that she was born into sin, and that sin is inevitable, but
that she will nevertheless struggle against it and ask for

Life is lived in creative tension and dialectic, both for deists and
for humanists. The idea of original sin, of collective responsibility
and individual reaction to it, can help us to constructively work
through these struggles. What humanists don't have is a regular
ritual of absolution like the Catholic confession. Maybe we should
invent one!


Monday, February 05, 2007

Another rocky interview in the campo

Dear Readers,

I have been going back and forth in my mind about whether to tell the
story I am about to tell. There are a couple of reasons why I am
ambivalent. First, I don't want to give you a bad impression of the
people I work with or of Nicaraguans in general. And second, I don't
want anybody to be worried about my personal safety. But I would like
to emphasize ahead of time that I am not, nor was I at the time, in
danger. The matter seemed to have been caused by a long-term and
personal grudge, it was not random. Also, people have this sort of
problem everywhere, not just in Nicaragua. I am especially aware of
this having lived in New York City for five years. The big difference
that I see is the way people react, and the resources that are
available to them to deal with the problems. And that is why I've
decided to tell the story. That plus it's funny.

Have I got your interest yet? Well, first I want to describe the work
I've been doing lately. I took a list which the mayor's office gave
me of all the households in the community… there are about 200. I
picked 50 of these households and am currently engaged in trying to
make contact with every one of the 50 households to do rather lengthy
(sometimes 2 plus hours) ethnographic interviews. Of course,
household is a slightly complicated term. In rural Matagalpa, as soon
as a couple officially starts living together, or as soon as a woman
has a baby, the ideal is that they will live in their own house away
from either one's parents. However, poverty being what it is, this
ideal is seldom immediately realized. Sometimes a couple or a
mother-and-child will build a small house in the yard of their
parents' houses. Sometimes a couple will travel around working in
temporary jobs. And sometimes they will all crowd into one house, the
separation between the newly-created families marked only by cooking
arrangements. For example, they might use the kitchen fire in shifts,
cooking their own food, gathering their own firewood, and bringing
their own water from the well. So under these circumstances, it is
complicated for a researcher to try to pick a unit of analysis which
is "a household" for economic analysis. However, I've been doing my
best, focusing on either couples or women (men almost never live
without a woman—I've seen a couple of instances of single men who live
with their children, but also with their mother until a daughter is
old enough to cook.)

In these interviews I draw time-lines with people of their lives and
the economic changes they have lived. This is pretty complicated and
requires a ton of concentration from me. Just as an example, many
people, especially older people, don't know how old they are and we
have to calculate it based on a number of markers ("I was about
eighteen when my first child was born, and that child was born the
year of the earthquake that destroyed Managua"). This is even more
delicate when people don't really know but insist that they do,
despite some inconsistencies ("I was born in 1972. My first child was
born when I was 15, and was just a little baby during the war" [the
war was in 1979]). My policy is not to confront and embarrass people,
but to do my own calculations in the middle of the conversation while
still trying to listen and respond.

A couple of weeks ago I was in the middle of one of these interviews
when a man rushed into the house and launched himself on top of the
man I was interviewing. He didn't succeed in knocking my participant
to the ground, and they started wrestling. The man who had entered
was yelling about money, and was paying attention to absolutely nobody
but my participant. I just sat with my interview materials in my lap
for several seconds, surprised but not yet alarmed, until the
daughters of my participant beckoned to me to move away into the
kitchen. The attacker was evidently quite drunk and weakened as a
consequence, and my participant had no trouble in defending himself
once over his initial surprise. We watched around the corner as my
participant grappled with the drunk man, working him out of the house
again. He gave him a push and told him to leave. When the drunk man
continued to shout, my participant slashed at him with a horse whip,
and he ran stumbling away up the path to the road.

The house we were in is near the road, but down a steep slope from it,
so the tin roof is pretty much on a level with the road surface.
After this exciting interlude, we resumed the interview (at my
participant's suggestion—I was ready to call it a day). But at
intervals throughout the rest of my time there, the drunk man would
hurl a rock onto the roof. I would be in the middle of a question
("so can you tell me if you have any debt with any microcredit
organization…") when KABOOM a rock would make a sound like a cannon on
the metal over our heads. Not the best conditions for maintaining

The family of my participant was concerned that the rocks would do
damage to the roof, and of course the racket was annoying. My
expectation was that they would try to summon police and have the man
arrested. However, this was not suggested, and thinking about it
later I realized there were a couple of obstacles: first, that there
are no telephones or other ways of getting word out to any
authorities. Someone would have to go into the city, perhaps on a
horse or perhaps by paying someone to drive a pick-up truck. Either
way, it would be several hours at a minimum before the earliest time
in which the police could come in a car. And I have never seen a
police car outside of the city. During the coffee harvest (now), some
larger haciendas hire private security guards, or perhaps off-duty
army or police officers, to patrol, but they are always on foot. (And
I have never seen a car in the community, and I doubt one would make
it over the roads. It's always only pick-up trucks, motorcycles, or
large trucks.) So police assistance was out of the question, and
wasn't brought up.

The suggestion that was made was for the brother of the drunk man to
be summoned and asked to tie him up until he calmed down. I was a
little shocked by this, at first. Tied up?? It sounded a little
inhumane. But what else could have been suggested? If a person is
violent, and door don't have locks, how else could they be restrained?

The next week, I was at a religious celebration in the home of the
drunk man's brother. I had heard that the drunk man had sobered up
after having been on a bender for almost a month. But I was still a
little startled to see him show up for the singing and prayer. I
watched him closely to make sure he wasn't going to make any sudden
moves. But everyone else treated him normally. Nobody seemed nervous
or uneasy in his presence (except for me), and he sang along with

I guess there are two morals to this story, and they both have to do
with how a community (or at least THIS community) governs itself when
there aren't functioning law-enforcement structures. First, that in
the absence of formal authority, people appeal to less-formal
hierarchies. People are responsible for their family members. And
second, forgiveness is practiced far more often than in, for example,
cities in the U.S. If you have a little spat with someone, or you
think their behavior has been inappropriate, you don't really have the
option to avoid them. Ostracism, or running someone out of the
community, is a very drastic, permanent step. And so on the surface,
everybody gets along with everybody else, to a degree that almost
looks like passivity and placidity… until you get tapped into the
gossip and ill-will that simmers just below the surface.

As I've written before on this blog, this avoidance of open conflict
vastly complicates the operation of democracy in the town-hall meeting
format that many NGO workers feel so comfortable with. But that is
another story for another day.


P.S. About my personal safety: the man has since fallen off the
wagon again and even was drunk in church this Sunday, making loud
comments and talking back to the preacher during the sermon, much to
the embarassment of his family. However, having observed him drunk in
several contexts, I conclude that he seems to have particular enemies
towards whom he can be violent, and that he also has particular
friends towards whom he is always amiable. My friends agree with my
observation. He seems to like me—he shakes my hand warmly and tells
me he is my friend, without even asking me for money. So although I
am always very alert when he is around, I would like to assure
everyone that I am in no personal danger from him.