The confluence of three cultural events this week has raised my awareness of the precious value of freedom. Two were just completed novels, and one was the repetition of an annual holiday. The books were Barbara Kingsolver’s “Poisonwood Bible” — a searing account of the life of an American missionary family in the Congo as that nation won its independence from Belgium, and Eric Flint’s historical novel “1824: the Arkansas War,” which posits an independent Arkansas territory in what is today the state of Arkansas plus most of Oklahoma. This territory is home to a number of Indian tribes as well as freed and escaped slaves who — in Flint’s fictional world — live at peace but are constantly preparing to defend their territory from pro-slavery and anti-Indian forces arrayed against them.
The holiday is Passover, the traditional celebration of the freeing of Hebrew slaves from Egyptian dominance through the leadership of Moses and divine guidance. The common thread in all of these events is the human imperative for freedom, and the counteracting tendency of the powerful to rationalize their right to mete out freedom as it best suits them.
In the case of the Congo (later to become Zaire), the foremost black voice for independence was Patrice Lumumba, who was elected the first Prime Minister of the new Democratic Republic. But it was feared by both Belgium and the United States that Lumumba had communist leanings. While evidence remains murky, it appears that the CIA was behind a successful plot to assassinate Lumumba and replace him with a pro-Western tyrant Joseph Mobutu.
Kingsolver’s novel points out how poorly western civilization understood the culture of the Congo when it rigidly applied its moral, religious and political code to a people with their own deep-seated belief systems. The stern missionary father could never see the possibility that Biblical rules written in the desert might not be applicable to a jungle environment, or might at least need a bit of interpretive shaping.
On the other hand, Flint’s novel and the Passover story provide much more uplifting examples of how a people can miraculously beat the odds to win their freedom. The Arkansans had the Iron Battalion — a nearly all-black defense force that stood toe-to-toe with the United States Army and held its own. This result came as a shock to the Washington politicians who had never spent a moment on the battlefield but were sure than an “inferior” race would dissolve in chaos when challenged.
Similar overconfidence was the downfall of the Pharoah who could not accept the end of his ultimate power in the face of the greater moral certainty of the Hebrews. In both cases, the “win” did not come easily. The Iron Battalion trained to exhaustion and fought without fear. The Hebrews’ greatest challenge lay ahead of them — after they had won their freedom. In the desert of Sinai, they would become the tempered force needed to carry forward Moses’ teachings.
The blossoming of freedom — independent of interference from those with better, albeit pre-packaged answers — is a precious event. Sometimes it’s difficult to stand back far enough to see that it’s best for us to do nothing at all.