Today's commentary from Brian Pitts will possibly come as an "eye-opener" or "mind-opener" to many of you. As you'll find at the end it is also likely to be perceived as a tease. You're probably going to want Brian to explain a lot, lot more of what he means in this final paragraph. Hopefully we can twist his arm to provide us with that "more". The essay is a rendering of a testimony Brian gave last Wednesday to a small group of Catholica readers who had gathering in Perth, Western Australia for a social get-together. It's partly a story that relates his experience as a missionary over ten years to the Zulu people of Southern Africa and, more so, a story of his own search for an understanding of the Christian story of Jesus. Brian contributes to our forum under the pen name "Beehive".
A Priest among the Zulus
The most rewarding time of my 74 years was when I worked among the Zulus in Natal South Africa from 1963 to 1974.
In 1963 I was sent I to work at Mapumulo Mission that had been started by a dedicated Frenchman about 1930. I was no Doctor Livingstone. I was fresh from seminary. I was about to step into a culture that was to change the rest of my life.
Mapumulo Mission nestled in the valleys near the confluence of two rivers, the Umvoti and the Hlambitwa. These two river systems had carved deep gorges through mountains a thousand metres above. The terrain was rocky, with patches of rich soil here and there, small trees with strange pungent smells and thornbushes. The traditional round, mud walled thatch roofed huts were scattered and cut into the hillsides. Each had an allotted plot for planting and some had round enclosures with a rough stockade of branches for cattle and goats at night. Cattle were the currency, ten were the traditional bride price.
The people were still living with the traditional tribal mindset. Men ruled the family roost, polygamy, and respect for elders and tribal rules were firmly in place. Women were servants, expected to carry everything. I was often to watch as two strong men would lift a heavy 3m pole onto a woman's head to be carried up a mountain to be used as the central pole for a new hut. The women accepted silently and stoically. It was part of their job. A man would never do that. From early childhood girls became water carriers, everything they carried on the head. The traditional religion was animist, the spirit of a dead father was of single importance. The existence of an afterlife and a single God who made everything was automatically accepted by all.
I was privileged to be within an ancient tribal culture.
The Catechism translated into Zulu had arrived long before me. Before mass on Sunday they sang the Ten Commandments. They had been nourished on rules, hell and heaven, God and devil, mortal sin, guilt and confession. I had already dumped all that from my own life and had no intention of continuing it. I turned to the Gospel and told them stories about Yeshua. Their interest was something that affected me. The Zulu language did not have the words to translate abstract ideas of theology or philosophy. It was a highly developed language with a large vocabulary and very complicated grammar. But it had very few abstract words. This was a blessing in disguise, because the high flying platitudes and speculation of theology meant absolutely nothing to them. Their language, as I discovered many years later, was Mythopeist. [References: Wikipedia | Google]
They clapped and sang and I danced...
They taught me Zulu, and soon unbeknown, they were beginning to teach me scripture. I had to rethink much of it in their terms. The teacher had become the pupil. They clapped and sang and I danced.
They survived through subsistence farming. Water, fire, wood, food, cloth, thongs, cooking pots, wine, flour, meat all had to be made at home from what was available. The women made sleeping mats, beer strainers from the long native grass, meticulously made with coloured patterns. Men thatched the huts with the same grass with exceptional skill.
I found here the life of Nazareth. This was the kind of environment where Yeshua grew up. There he assumed the beliefs of the locals about sickness, wind, lightening, light and darkness, how to make fire, and baked clay pots. No doubt he believed in a fixed earth and a moving sun.
There is no Zulu word for redemption or salvation. The closest you can get is the Zulu word for "healer". So Yeshua became the healer. His death had to be an act of healing. This language was teaching me something different from theology.
After being there for about six months, I developed a roaring fever and had to be taken to a Durban hospital for a week with a thumping headache. They told me I had scrub tysus caused by a tick that burrowed itself into my leg.
I returned to the mission ten days later and wanted to share my adventures during the Sunday sermon. Instead of sympathy I got lots of giggles and laughter from the pews. How could a little tick make anyone sick? I was the joke of the week.
This made me think. They didn't see sickness the way we do. It took time eventually I found that they believed sickness was caused by several things like an enemy's curse, a witchdoctor's spell, a neglected father spirit, or a bad luck charm planted in the garden. Tribal beliefs are deeply ingrained, there is no way you can shift them.
There was a clinic at the mission that served many hundreds of sick people each month. Malnutrition took a heavy toll on children. But the clinic was just one stop on the path to healing.
For sickness there were healers, witchcraft and medicine men: the isangoma who threw the bones to diagnose, the umthakathi who cast dangerous spells, and at the home, the sacrifice of a goat to invoke the help of a dead father's spirit. There was no separation of a spirit world and a material world. The two just blended into one reality. Healing was as mysterious as was the sickness itself. Healing was just a marvellous event. All those involved in the process were marvellous people. Miracles as we define them didn't come into it.
I began to see Yeshua was a healer in the way they did. Two thousand years ago people saw sickness and its healing as a mystery. A word, or a touch from him was all it took to end the curse, or chase out the devil, or cure the flu. People came in their droves to a man like him. This still happens in Africa.
Josephus wrote "Yeshua, a wise man was the doer of wonderous works." This is how the Zulus thought of him.
Restoration of a man's hand or making a paraplegic walk, curing a man born blind, were all marvellous events, not different from the others, just more marvellous.
Raising Lazarus to life though, maybe was beyond the pale. Only God's breath gave life. Death was when breath was no longer there. Zulu has no word for soul. One word meant "breath, wind, spirit, and soul." All were the same idea, and all on the same plane of reality. They figured that Yeshua must have had a special relationship with God that's all. Man's breath was what made him alive. It was no miracle, It was from God who lived up in the sky where the lightening came from. Zulu means sky and heaven, all the same place. Curiously they only had one word to cover blue and green. Something was either blue like the grass, or blue like the sky.
How we have complicated things? It is our penchant for definition, precision and categorisation that has woven a web of entanglement that has trapped us.
After twelve years the Apartheid system brought me to a standstill. I was far from the Church, its theology and structure. Vatican II was history. Celibacy was set in stone. I left South Africa, and married a Zulu and returned reluctantly to Australia. There was nowhere in Africa for us to go. In newly independent African states, there were no job permits for whites. In South Africa there was the "Immorality Act" making it illegal for whites to marry or associate with blacks. We are still happy together, (and share a laugh if someone mentions a blue tree!).
My search for the Messiah/Servant...
About eight years ago, I was confronted by serious doubt about Yeshua/Messiah King/Servant/who died for our sins. Yeshua has been very close to me on my journey.
If he was neither of these, he was nothing but a human model. I had believed him to be something much more. If he was not then my life had been some kind of deluded make believe.
I decided to investigate this messiah thing for myself, from scratch, without any biblical commentators or theologians trying to hand me their answers. I had to find it myself like a forensic scientist. I had to be critical and objective. Every tool I needed, I would get. I didn't know where it was going to lead, but I was prepared to accept whatever the outcome. My greatest asset was my Zulu understanding of the world.
I had to find an English Bible that accurately tracked the Hebrew and Greek originals. I had to get Hebrew and Greek dictionaries, look into every archaeological and historical source available, develop timelines, write and computerise as much of it as possible. I had never done anything like this before. I became engrossed, and spent every spare minute on it. There was much to learn. This has taken all my spare time since. Maybe I became obsessed — I don't know. This investigation developed a life of its own, and took a very long time.
Early in the piece I realised that Hebrew and Zulu were Mythopoeist, as neither language had words to describe abstract ideas, and I was pleased to discover another Zulu speaking scripture man who had also come to the same conclusion.
The Jews and Zulus could not separate the material from the spiritual. They were just one reality. Lightening was fire from heaven. Aramaic, the language of Jesus, was similar to Hebrew. All three are mythopoeist.
All three languages for example use a single word to mean air, wind, breath, soul and spirit. When you think about it you can see why.
Isaiah took me deeply into the archaeology and ancient history of Ashur and Babylon. I was looking at Mesopotamia between 720 and 538 BC. I looked into global politics, military technology, expanding empires, and their effect on Isaiah's Israel.
It was the introduction of the iron weaponry that gave Assyria the edge. This was the time of Isaiah. He was politically aware of the implications. Surprisingly there is a lot of information in cuneiform on baked clay cylinders, and alabaster wall reliefs that connect directly with Isaiah. Most of the prophets connect with these times.
About five years later, I was satisfied that the OT prophecies about an "Anointed king of David" and about a "Servant of Yahweh", did connect with the historical life and person of Yeshua of Nazareth. I also discovered that Yahweh's rescue of the Daughter of Zion from Babylon, was the paradigm set to explain more fully Isaiah Ch 53, and the crucifixion.
These two beliefs were the stuff of apostolic teaching, and the Christianity of the first century AD. There can be no Christianity without them. This is what I believe. This is the Yeshua I love.
Brian Pitts. Submitted to Catholica 19 Mar 2012
What are your thoughts on this commentary?