By Martin Accad
This is a revised version of a post that was published by IMES in 2014
Earlier this month, during a conference I was attending in Ghana, I joined a group on a visit to one of the “Slave Castles” on the Southern coast. I expected it to be just another touristic experience. Ancient castles, fortresses and temples are no rare sight in my country, Lebanon. I am not known to be particularly emotional or to easily shed a tear. But even if my brain were to rationalize the information that was being delivered to us by our knowledgeable guide, nothing could have prepared my body for the violence of the experience.
On first sight, the castle interiors were not very different from any other ancient fortress. An internal courtyard surrounded by thick protective walls, flanked with a chapel at its center. Lovely stairways and narrow alleys led up to the top of the citadel with magnificent views of the small fishing port, beaches adorned with coconut trees and the Atlantic Ocean as far as the eye could see. But the engraved signs above the doors and memorial inscriptions revealed a different story. They told of dungeons and of segregated male and female slave cells. They told of amassed sweaty bodies of slaves, stacked together in the intolerable stench of the constant tropical heat and humidity. They told of intentional humiliation, starving and thirsting, designed to break the human spirit and deprive it of all dignity. They told of Portuguese, Dutch and British Governors and soldiers, away from their women over long months of military and commercial expeditions, servicing their lust by freely helping themselves to slave women forever separated from their men.
My mind wrestled and justified: “The slave trade was fed by fratricidal and inter-tribal African wars and slave traders…” “The men engaged in these disgusting activities were not true Christians…” “Muslims, too, were involved in the slave trade throughout Africa…” “This was the barbaric activity of degenerate men of a bygone era…” But none of these brain gymnastics were able to prevent the mounting throbbing pain in my head and the sinking gripping pain in my stomach. By the time our visit ended about two hours later, my physical state was a mess. The thought of riding back on a bus was intolerable.
It was not so much the fact that nations claiming to be “Christian” were engaged in such activity which was the most repulsive; for Christians, after all, still belonged to their particular time and culture. But the thought that a governor and his soldiers could engage in such acts of humiliating, breaking and raping, and then enter the courtyard chapel, engage in prayer, hear readings from the word of God, and remain untouched by the Spirit of God; that is what caused my body to feel so desperately sick. Physically, I felt that I had gone to hell and back, but my soul remained captive of the depth and darkness of human depravity. The words of our guide continued to ring in my head as the most profound statement of my journey to Ghana: “First the colonialists told us they had come to save our souls; and then the European slave traders began to convince us that we had no soul!” As my friend, Jesse Wheeler, once reflected, “Bad Theology Kills.” My journey to the “Slave Castle” convinced me that we do not merely behave in line with our theology, but rather that we develop our theology to serve our lustful sinful selves.
Thankfully, our Ghanaian host, Pastor Nana, offered me a seat in his car as an alternative to the bus. I sat beside him, and as I began sharing with him some of my thoughts, my body began to convulse and I wept with tears of bitterness and despair for what must have been more than an hour. His deep and peaceful intonation comforted me as he turned on some worshipful tunes on his radio and received my sorrow like a prayer. My soul, initially captive of my impulse to judge history and others, suddenly began to peer at itself as in a mirror. If the evil I had seen could once entrap generations and nations across centuries and vast geographies, to what personal depravity was I blind today? Were the children of plantation owners in the 18th-century New World aware of the hellish reality that others had to suffer in order to serve their own opulent lifestyle? Were my people in Lebanon aware of the subhuman practices taking place in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, the Philippines, Nepal, Ethiopia, or Beirut in order to service their need for cheap labor in their households? Was I aware of what children are going through in Vietnam, Cambodia, China, India, Côte d’Ivoire, or Nigeria in order to service my need for sports shoes, chocolate or a diamond ring for my engagement?
I wept and wept, and as Nana and I reached our destination, my bitter tears had washed away the excruciating pain in both my head and stomach, leaving behind a sorrowful awareness of my own sinful state. How we move through life unaware of the impact our so-called “private” life can have on a child, a woman, or a man across the world. How much more determined we need to be about living a life of awareness as we seek to bring healing and redemption to the world. Jesus lived a simple life, effectively a career of about 3 years. His sphere of direct geographical influence was probably no more than a few square kilometers. Yet he lived so much for the sake of others that the impact of his message and life reached eternal significance and affected the entirety of creation. None of us can retreat in the excuse that our life, what we do and say, has no significance. Many organizations today are making us aware that the choices we make every morning and every second of every day have an impact for the better or for the worse of someone else somewhere.
Martin is an associate professor of Islamic Studies at ABTS and directs the recently launched research group Action Research Associates.