Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Religious intolerance and its effect on art and history

Several years ago, before September 11th put Afghanistan on the map and introduced the Taliban into our collective American consciousness, artists and historians and anthropologists and the like were all up in arms about the Taliban's destruction of ancient sculptures -- particularly Buddhas -- because they were contrary to Islam.

I vaguely remember signing some sort of petition that went nowhere. Go figure. I mean, it's not like the government really cared all that much about art or the destruction thereof. But then Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden attacked, and we fought back. And people started talking about the destruction of the art as one of a laundry list of sins committed by the Taliban.

Why am I thinking of this now? Because I was reminded of this not-too-distant history while reading this article. It describes the destruction of native religious artifacts in Nigeria by fundamentalist Christian evangelists who believe that the native traditions are linked to the devil and therefore urge their destruction:

Born to a family of traditional priests, Ibe Nwigwe converted to Christianity as a boy. Under the sway of born-again fervor as a man, he gathered the paraphernalia of ancestral worship _ a centuries-old stool, a metal staff with a wooden handle and the carved figure of a god _ and burned them as his pastor watched.

"I had experienced a series of misfortunes and my pastor told me it was because I had not completely broken the covenant with my ancestral idols," the 52-year-old Nwigwe said of the bonfire three years ago. "Now that I have done that, I hope I will be truly liberated."

Generations ago, European colonists and Christian missionaries looted Africa's ancient treasures. Now, Pentecostal Christian evangelists _ most of them Africans _ are helping wipe out remaining traces of how Africans once worked, played and prayed.


Ikechukwu Nzekwe, a 48-year-old farmer who belongs to a traditional masquerade cult, rues the action of his younger brother, a born-again Christian who destroyed the family's masquerade costume, including pieces dating back seven generations.

The masquerade cult was once part theater, appearing at festivals to perform songs and dances, and part traditional police _ its members helped enforce mores and customs. Now its role is largely restricted to theater, including performances and races by men in costumes depicting ancestral spirits.

Ukpai, the evangelist, tells followers the artifacts bear "curses and covenants" linked to the gods they represent.

According to the article, the lack of tolerance is comparatively new:

Early missionaries to Nigeria condemned most traditional practices as pagan. Roman Catholics and Anglicans later came to terms with most practices, even incorporating some traditional dances into church liturgy. But there was no room for local gods once their erstwhile worshippers became Christians.

Similarly, Muslim preachers in Nigeria's predominantly Islamic north forbade interaction with figures dedicated to local idols, although many cultural dances featuring traditional masks are still tolerated.

So let's get this straight: The native religious customs survived for hundreds of years and were, at a minimum, tolerated by Catholics and Muslims -- but can't survive the Pentecostals?


Joe Grossberg said...

Abraham, father of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, smashed his own father's idols, if my memories of Sunday School serve me well.

This kind of intolerance toward pagan icons goes way, way back.

dara said...

And Moses destroyed the golden calf, yadda yadda yadda. But that's ancient history.

This intolerance is happening here, now.

Bo, Shae and Brinson said...

People get filled with the spirit and do wild and crazy things - I mean if Benny Hinn can raise the dead . . .

Seriously, I think this is part of an overall issue of converting folks (mainly Africa) to Christianity and Islam - which is happening at incredibly fast rate. What people are seeing is that they these converts still can't shake completely free of their native religous beliefs, even upon conversion. Thus, those of us who feel grounded in our Judeo-Christian heritage (and who think as opposed to irrationally feel - see below) don't look at cultural antiquities as anything but that and having them to be preserved for historical purposes. However, when you have people who have different backgrounds steeped in differing beliefs, it is still hard to completely shake that even upon conversion, and so it therefore intertwines.

Of course, add that to Penecostal emotional irrationalism and you really compound the problem. IMO, Penecostals and thinking don't go hand in hand . . . .

dara said...

But they've been converting Africans to Christianity and Islam for hundreds of years without having to resort to the decimation of the underlying native customs and history.

When I went to Morocco in January, I was really impressed by how they somehow managed to embrace their traditional customs -- and keep them alive, all while practicing a very tolerant form of Islam. It was completely contrary to everything that we, as Americans, assume, based on what our media portrays of Muslim nations.

Yet what the Pentacostals are doing in Nigeria is the exact opposite. It's purposeful, prejudiced cultural annihilation. Where's the love and the tolerance that Jesus allegedly preached?