An Interview with Jean Bertrand Aristide
by Michael F. Gallo
Jean Bertrand Aristide is a man of unassuming appearance. Small in stature, his voice is calm and gentle. But as soon as he begins to speak, he communicates an intensity of feeling and drive appropriate to a figure in the center of controversy. Born in poverty in the small town of Port-Salut, Aristide came to the capital to attend an academy run by the Roman Catholic order of Silesian priests. Eventually, he became a Silesian priest himself, and after two years of biblical studies in Jerusalem, he returned to St. Jean Bosco Church and began work with orphans and poor street children.
Aristide first came to international attention in 1985 when during a Mass he preached a landmark sermon severely criticizing the regime of President-for-life Jean-Claude (“Baby-Doc”) Duvalier. This was one of the sparks which set off the popular uprising ousting the tyrant Duvalier in February, 1986. Participating in marches and working with peasants throughout the country, he became perhaps the most popular priest in Haiti and leader of the “Little Church” movement (congregations inspired by liberation theology).
The expulsion of Duvalier, however, did not end the growing friction between Aristide and Haiti’s ruling military leaders. The conflict came to a head last year when, on September 11, about 100 Tonton Macoutes (former members of Duvalier terrorist secret police) with machetes and guns attacked Sunday morning worshippers at St. Jean Bosco Church. Aristide narrowly escaped, but thirty of his parishioners were killed, and approximately seventy wounded. The St. Jean Bosco massacre may be what triggered a rebellion one week later by lower to mid-ranking soldiers who ousted acting President General Henri Namphi, a former Duvalierist. Eight days after the coup, several thousand people marched seven miles from downtown Port-au-Prince to Aristide’s place of refuge in Petionville. The crowd shouted out his name until he stepped out on the balcony to address them.
However, the hero was not so well received by his superiors. Shortly thereafter, the Silesians expelled Aristide from their order because he defied instructions to leave Haiti by October 17. A communique by the Society stated, “The type of political commitment he has assumed is in serious contrast with the clear will of the founder [of the order],” and accused Aristide of inciting “hate and violence” among the people. The decree which was ratified by the Vatican, did not defrock him as a priest.
The following is an interview with Fr. Aristide, held last Pentecost, May 14, in Port-au-Prince, by Michael F. Gallo.
You present yourself as a Roman Catholic priest serving a people in great need. In such troubled times for Haiti, how do you describe your personal vocation?
As always, I try to discover Jesus in every man and woman. When I find they are in misery, I realize Jesus is in misery. He is not living in the sky far from man. According to the Gospel, Jesus said “I was hungry and you fed me, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, . . . and all you did for one of the least of these, you did for me.” If I don’t love you I can’t say I love him. If I don’t love my brother here on earth, how am I to say that I love God? Jesus tried to help people in difficulty. I try to do the same with poor people today.
I believe in a theology which meets an anthropology, and an anthropology which meets a theology. The mystery of the Incarnation shows how God becomes man, and if we want to meet God, we too have to try to meet him through men.
In Haiti, it’s difficult to say “Our Father” when we don’t treat each other as brothers. What I am involved with here is a work to build real relationships between men. Then, we’ll be happy to realize we have the same Father. If we are truly brothers and sisters, then it is necessary for there to be a social justice. When we achieve that, God will be happy.
Would you say then that your personal ministry is prophetic?
All Christians can develop the prophetic role, because when we are baptized, we receive the mission from God. God wants you to give your life to the world as Jesus did. When I go among the poor and see people without food, I feel I have no food. When I see people without a house, I feel I have no house. When I realize they have no chance to go to school, I feel that I am ignorant despite my many years of education. We can experience this communion in the celebration of the Mass, but it is only realized when it is put into practice. It is not enough just to pray, but we must pray to build the will of God where we live. My faith pushes me. But, when I ask why they are poor, why aren’t they schooled, people say I’m a Communist.
Religion is sometimes a refuge. I’m not trying to put people asleep with the Gospel. The Gospel is intended to awaken them. My vocation is to be a real Christian. Jesus was not a priest, he was a Christian. My first obligation is to be a Christian. In heaven God will not ask, “Were you a priest?” He will ask what did you do for your brother. The priesthood helps me to bring people together to build a Christian family.
Do you distinguish between a priestly vocation and another perhaps more political?
We need to become really human, a complete human. One cannot help being political. Everybody, like it or not, is doing politics. What matters is what kind of politics he is doing, whether he is doing the politics of the Gospel. As a priest, I try not to get too close to any political party. I have never done so, and I do not want to, because outside a political party, I can remain a priest and have the freedom to receive all people, to bring them together. Some prefer to keep silent when they see others being killed, but in a way, their silence supports the government. I have to say, “No. Stop the killing,” and they say I’m a Communist.
You have been described in some reports as holding a so-called liberation theology. Can you state simply and concisely what you understand liberation theology to be and whether you would place yourself in this camp?
Liberation theology means going to the roots of the Gospel. What do you find there? You find a community trying to share what they had, as it says, for example, in Acts chapter 2 and verse 4:22. They were taking care of one another and we are calling people to do the same. Liberation theology helps a Christian to look at the reality and to do something to change this reality when he realizes it is sinful. We are living in a structure where a small group is exploiting the majority. This is not the Gospel. We have to fight until we have what looks like they had in the New Testament. So, in liberation theology, we are not waiting for pie in the sky after death, we are trying to welcome the kingdom of God. Some say we are trying to produce merely a material change. There is no such dichotomy; we are soul and body. Liberation theology gives the total reality. You are human in all things which concern you. If at some point, you are sick or hungry, I am not going to say, “No, this is the body.” Jesus ministered first to the body. This is not a pursuit of the material, my faith pushes me. Only the Son of God could cause me to forget my life. They say I am a Communist, but the response we give to the violence against us is an active nonviolence. Their violence does not have to be killing. The first violence is the violence of exploitation.
Would you distance yourself from some of the more radical liberation theology?
I am not aware of any kind of radical liberation theology, and I have read a lot. For me, liberation theology is natural, normal, it is evangelical. It is not another theology, it is true theology, and it helps us to go to the roots of the Gospel.
You are also reported as being in rather stark conflict with the Roman Catholic hierarchy. Can you clarify this situation for us as you see it?
I am preparing a statement to send to Rome in which they will find the heart of the problem. So, I will say just a couple of words. What happened to me is not so strange. It is not fair, but it is not the first time this has happened in the Church. It began with Jesus Christ, he was expelled by the hierarchy of that time. Fortunately, I’m still alive. If you want to follow Jesus, of course this may happen to you.
As I understand it, you have been accused of in some way provoking the violence which broke out against you and claimed the lives of some 33 people. How do you respond to that?
We are living in a kind of structure, what I call an institution of violence. What should one do? Of course you try to change the situation, and when you do you can get killed. They will use violence. How can you say I am to blame when I’m saying Mass and others come and start shooting, and police standing nearby do nothing. Of course the [political] machine has to accuse me. I am happy when I hear this opinion of me because they are proving what kind of people they are—liars.
So you are saying even those in the Church are a part of what you call an “institution of violence”?
In the Church institution, many become hardened. When they bring someone into their ranks, they want to be sure he can defend the institution. Some Christians try to defend first of all the tradition or institution, instead of defending first of all man. In Haiti, you have the army and the Catholic Church, and they want to go hand in hand. Jesus did not want to use political power to realize his mission. Today, the Roman Catholic church tries to be supported by the army and vice versa. When both are together, of course, all who try to defend man first will be in opposition to those who try to defend the institution first. In Haiti we have a “Nunce Apostolique.” What is he doing? He is putting into practice the politics of Washington. He wants to give orders, and in fact, he controls the bishops.
In these apparently dreadful conditions, have you ever had the occasion to advocate the use of force?
Never! And I never will! They have made this accusation because they want to kill me, not only through an assassination—they tried several times—but they are trying to kill us with words. They do this because they are psychologically disturbed and feel ashamed. I need freedom to do what the Gospel tells me. I don’t ask everyone to do as I do, but only that they too respond to what the Spirit tells them.
How would you characterize the moral and spiritual condition of the Haitian people?
The poor have a very healthy spirituality. The way they share the small piece of bread they have is a sign of the Spirit of God. Eighty percent live in the mountains. They don’t own land to work, but they still share what they have. Because of their solidarity, they do not die of hunger. How can people in such misery laugh, but in the United States people commit suicide? It is because we have a kind of spirituality which goes far beyond the material. In church, we find opportunity to feed our faith and spirit, but it is only as good as far as we put it in practice. I do not believe we will ever have development in this country apart from the believers.
How do you feel about voodoo, which I understand is practiced widely among the Haitian people?
Those in voodoo also believe in God. I have to respect any kind of religion. In this voodoo religion I find something to love and something to throw away. Likewise, in the Catholic Church there is both bad and good. In this religion we find the roots of our culture. I’m proud to be Haitian and I’m not ashamed of voodoo, as long as you talk about voodoo as a religion.
So you do not see voodoo as necessarily in contradiction with Christianity?
No. They are two ways to understand God. You can find contradictions, but both believe in one God. Unfortunately, those who came from Europe imposed their religion instead of respecting the African religion. Jesus respected his culture. We too have to respect our culture. Not everything in voodoo is good, but we have to start to dialogue. If I love you, I will not condemn you without knowing who you are.
Do you believe in the traditional view of a supernatural religion, of a Christ which is both man and the Son of God in a literal sense, crucified for the sins of the world, risen from the dead?
Of course I believe in the Resurrection. Jesus had the Spirit of God. When they killed him, they thought they were finished with him. Despite his death, he is still living today every time I love my brother. They killed Jesus, but not the Spirit who was in Jesus. This Spirit is still alive. Our country needs a resurrection. Resurrection is a process from death to life.
But what of the bodily resurrection of Jesus himself?
My faith would be very small if all I believed in was the resurrection of one body. As Paul said, without the Resurrection, my faith means nothing. This implies something big. It goes further than one man, it transcends history. Just as I will not talk of a historical Jesus without transcendent meaning, it is not good to talk only of a bodily resurrection.
But do you deny the other?
If I denied that, then the rest has no meaning.
Yes, but do you believe that the physical body of Christ rose from the grave and ascended into heaven?
I am not a student. A student will answer yes or no questions, but I am not a student.
What do you see in your future from this point? What are your plans, hopes and dreams?
To be always following Jesus, and to continue following him. I’m not a pessimist, I’m very much an optimist. I’m not going to say that change will come tomorrow, but it will come, complete and whole change—not just for a small group, but for all of Haiti, even those eighty percent in the mountains. Only the poor can work this change with the help of God. This is why I hope in Haiti.
Michael F. Gallo is a volunteer staff member of Touchstone, and writes on special assignments. He teaches high-school physics in Chicago.
Not a subscriber? Subscribe to Touchstone today for full online access. Over 30 years of content!
Get a one-year full-access subscription to the Touchstone online archives for only $19.95. That's only $1.66 per month!
Get six issues (one year) of Touchstone PLUS full online access for only $29.95. That's only $2.50 per month!
Your subscription goes a long way to ensure that Touchstone is able to continue its mission of publishing quality Christian articles and commentary.
*Transactions will be processed on the secure server of The Fellowship of St. James website, the publisher of Touchstone.
from the touchstone online archives