THE SELEDA CHALLENGE- Part 2
by: Fasil Yitbarek
Our dear friend Fasil, on the other hand, threw this back at us… and just in case there is any residue say b’l bankerebabit meqseft that finds its way to the SELEDA offices, we, er… tell Upper Management not to open the package we sent them last week… the one that’s, er… ticking.
An early memory I have of my encounter with the grim facade of the afterlife is a glimpse of heaven and hell that I got from the parched lips of a “man of God.” An ash-skinned hermit with eyes like the glowing embers of coal, an emaciated bahitawi with a tangled mass of beard that reached to his navel, and dreadlocks that tumbled down his back, clad in chafing sackcloth and a crudely made broad leather belt digging into his ribs, stood on top of a rock outside the church of St. Tekle-Haimanot, painting vivid images of gehannem and mengiste-semayat. Clinging to my mother, cowering behind her, I hearkened to his tale of God and Satan, angels and demons, doom and bliss, an eternity of perpetual adoration and torment in the lake of fire. His yarn about the joy in heaven was somewhat bland, not half as poignant and imaginative as his account of hell:
“He will come like a thief in the dark and take His chosen ones to His kingdom. The sinners who gorged themselves with meat and butter on Wednesdays and Fridays, He will throw to hell,” he bellowed at the “mTs MTsing faithful gathered before him. “Woe to him whose home of eternity will be in the lake of fire. The fire is an unquenchable inferno. It blazes day and night. The worms and maggots of hell are countless like the sands of the earth. They know neither slumber nor mercy. With their saw-like fangs, they gnaw on flesh and bones without respite. The Devil and his arch-demons crunch the heads of screaming men and women between their monstrous big teeth that are big as boulders and sharp as razor. Hell is a dark, bottomless pit of fire filled with screams of pain, the terrible stench of burning flesh, and the chatter of gnashing teeth…”
After getting my hefty dose of terror, as I followed mom home, I asked her:
“Is it true?”
“What is true?”
“All the things the man said about hell?”
“Yes, it is true. All true, my son. Hell is an awfully frightening place,” she answered.
Over a quarter century ago, a 3.5 million year old hominid fossil, later named Lucy by the excavators, was found in the Afar region of Ethiopia. Recently, scientists unearthed the oldest known human skulls…where else? In Ethiopia, again. Could it be that Ethiopia is the true birthplace of mankind? Could it be that this land of many tribes, this ancient yabesha midr in the Horn of Africa now meekly slumbering with its nose in the Red Sea, might have had a series of ancient civilizations whose remnants lie buried beneath the plethora of hills and valleys that clutter a large part of its face? The obelisks of Axum and the Sabean writings tell a tale of a later civilization that flourished when a good part of Europe was a sparsely inhabited chilly wilderness. Yes, Ethiopia has had its heydays and carnivals. We know that. What we need to find out is how, thousands of years later, the table is turned and the once glorious Abyssinia is now a denuded half-desert where hunger and diseases run amok.
Empires rise and fall. Many great civilization of the past have risen to giddying heights, and then crumbled owing to hostile forces without, sometimes aided by decadence and corruption within. Greek fell to Rome. The Spaniards crushed the Inca Empire. Babylon was conquered by Cyrus the Great of Persia. Our own Ethiopia too had its share of internal strife and foreign aggression. But of all the invaders, one was the mightiest; its power the most potent, and its legacy the most enduring. That foray was different from the rest in that it was NOT carried out by a host of bloodthirsty marauders who crossed the borders brandishing swords and stirring up clouds of dust with the thundering hooves of their horses . The invasion was a silent incursion, and the surrender was peaceful and bloodless. The army consisted of two warriors, a Syrian monk by the name of Frumentius and his brother, Aedisius, and their weapons were the Bible and the crucifix. The conquest took place sometime around the 4th century AD, and the idea that struck King Ezana and his subjects with awe and left them standing still in their tracks was “haimanot”, yekiristinna haimanot, to be exact. Not religion, mind you, for the English word “religion” basically means belief in a divine or superhuman power to be obeyed and worshipped. Our word for religion, “haimanot” seems to signify a lot more than that. If it comes from the Hebrew root “haim” which means “life” as in the common Hebrew toast pharase “le haim” meaning “to life”, and the common “ot” suffix that serves the same purpose as in “makber” – “akbrot”; “maqreb” – “aqribot”, “magelgel” – “agelgilot” and gives a subtle “the way something is done” sense to the word it is attached to, the word “haimanot” would mean, in common parlance, “the way life is lived” or “a way of life”, “anuanuar”. And true to its connotation, “haimanot” is a way of life to the traditional Christian folks of Ethiopia. A good Christian is he who embraces his haimanot wholeheartedly and to whom the precepts of his faith become an all-encompassing code of conduct that dictates every aspect of his life.
I don’t know much about the evolution of Christianity in Ethiopia, and I can’t say whether the religion was as despotic in its authority when it first found its way to Ethiopia as it is now. But I can see it at work now, in my time, and say where, in my view, it might have gone wrong.
A few disclaimers before I get into the heart of my take on the shortcomings of my own haimanot: One, I am not blaming our ills and perils on the fact of our worshipping the Christian deity. NO!! Personally, I find it comforting to believe in the existence of an all-seeing, all-knowing God that will someday set to rights all the things that have gone awry. There is nothing as disheartening as drifting faithlessly in this bewildering universe. My critique is aimed not at the object of our faith, but at some religious practices and Ethiopianesque interpretations of Christian teachings that just don’t hold water in the world we live in. Two, surely, there are several other culprits at which to point an accusing finger. A number of factors must have conspired to arrest our progress. And we can’t easily agree on which one of them the true arch-culprit is. Let others take their shots at the other foes. Three, Ethiopia is a country of many faiths, and Christianity is just one of the two major religions. However, since I am not very familiar with the other faiths, I cannot venture to say what their influence might have been.
One major handicap in the practice of Christianity in Ethiopia is the fact that Ge’ez has been its medium of communication. Church services are conducted in Geez. Religious literature is written in Ge’ez. Even sermons used to be given in Ge’ez until very recently, when the spreading wave of Protestantism compelled the church to finally make a partial use of the language of the “me’emenan” as a counter measure to abate the defection of Orthodox Christians to the new-fangled faith. Who knows why the religious authorities of yore chose to divorce the church from the language of the laity. Perhaps they thought that the words of God were too hallowed to be conveyed through the lingua franca of the hoi polloi. Or perhaps it was because they knew that shrouding the secrets of the scriptures in a language incomprehensible to the common man would add to the grandeur and mystery of the religion and secure their position as its sole authorities; bilingual mediators between monolingual God and men. Whatever the case, one immediate consequence of consecrating Ge’ez as the exclusive language of the church was that literacy became an exclusive privilege of the clergy. There was no incentive for the laity to try to learn to read and write a language they did not speak. As a result, illiteracy became the lot of the masses.
Having thus deprived the people of firsthand access to the words of the law, the clerics were at liberty to pick and choose what to teach and what to ignore, what to add to, what to detract from, what to twist, obfuscate, emphasize or exaggerate. And take liberties they surely did, either for the purpose of impressing, striking the fear of God into the hearts of sinners, or just to satisfy personal whims.
By establishing haimanot as a clear-cut system of rules that entailed fabulous rewards for obedience and terrible punishment for the lack thereof, by portraying hell in such gruesome details, the Ge’ez-versed servants of God were able to tell believers what to do and what not to do, and to wag the terrifying stick of hell whenever they faced disobedience.
So, to get to the point, when in 2015 Dinqinesh 12 takes off from Cape Gorgora on the banks of Lake Tana, I would like to see in its cargo bay not just one little gourd, but a big agelgil that has room for the following blemishes of our haimanot:
All bad things that befall a person, accidents, illnesses, failures, poverty and death occur as a result of the express wish of God, and there is nothing a mortal can do to reverse a fate preordained before he was born. Challenging one’s destiny, struggling to dodge vicious blows in the brutal game of life, seeking earthly remedy for divinely doled out hardship, are all forms of rebellion against His authority. When you suffer, suffer like a good Christian with that “I am suffering for His sake” aura about you. Don’t bother to lift a finger to try to change the course of your charmless life. Just trust in Him and say “esu yawqal” That will take care of things better than you ever will.
Questioning is sinful and unseemly in a meek believer. The mysterious ways of God can never be fathomed by the paltry minds of men. Asking questions is the precursor of rebellion. It is a symptom of lack of faith.
Don’t toil to build a castle on earth, for the world is nothing but a fleeting illusion; a transient chimera that will roll away and vanish like a mirage on doomsday. The riches and glitters of the world fatten the flesh, harden the heart and stunt the soul. Remember, it has been said that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter heaven, (quite a comforting notion to most of us dirt poor Ethiopiawi Christians) The most righteous way to live a life as an Orthodox Christian is therefore with the constant awareness that you are here on earth on transit to an infinitely better place; en route to the realm of immortals, i.e., by thumbing your nose at earthly prosperity, and with your sight focused on the hereafter.
To see this in action, look no further than Lasta, a region in Wollo province. The folks there have a reputation for being the most devout Christians. Inhabiting a dusty, rocky, utterly spent expanse of wasteland strewn with churches, they are probably the poorest, most malnourished people in the country. And yet, each has a mateb wound around his neck and is a fierce believer in the literal meaning of every word written in the many holy books. If you dare to question the veracity of one of the many fantastic miracles claimed to have been performed by one of the few dozen saints, he will first cut you to size with a fanatic glint of his eyes before severely admonishing you for your faithlessness. Chewed up by chronic hunger and disease as they are, the sinewy bags of bones of Lasta never miss a single fast. They are the quintessential embodiment of the patently Ethiopian brand of forbearance and meek acceptance of ones predicament.
Disregard for secular knowledge and wisdom. Looking down upon those who pride themselves on their mastery of worldly learning and the wonder-working craft of their hands. Disparaging and holding with contempt those ironsmiths and potters who forge the plows and axes and mould the miTads and water pots. Who else but the Devil can give a human being such skill and authority over the inflexible metal and the brittle clay.
Gloomy thoughts of death. Sheer obsession with death that clouds our psyche and pervades the begena hymns, the fairytales, the sayings and even the secular songs, a propensity that springs from the Orthodox truism that “hullum kentu new”, meaning you are gonna die and leave it all behind, a conviction that has spawned plenty of such morbid couplets as:
The many days dedicated to the observance of holidays named for the sundry saints and angels. If a good Christian is supposed to observe each of them, how is one to make ends meet in a country where small plot subsistence farming is the major means of livelihood?
The solution? Well, what the clergy has done the clergy must undo. An enlightened breed of qesawust need to repair the harm by preaching sermons about the glory of eternity in the heavenly kingdom and the joy of life right here on God’s earth. The importance of worldly learning and the true purposes of man’s existence on this planet, one of which is happiness. The value of hard work and the propriety of enjoying the fruits of one’s honest labor. And last but not least, that if the life of Christ is to serve as an example, a man who is loving, compassionate, fair and righteous in his dealings with his fellow men gladdens the heart of God better than a cold-hearted zealot who hopes to buy His favor with gifts of incense, candles, and brightly gilded umbrellas, or win His sympathy by mere acts of mechanical piety such as fasting and prayer.