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Yesterday, I completed Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible and can’t write a review yet. I may need to read it again to see past my anger to the real importance of this outstanding novel. Now, I am simply angry.

Every patriotic American, and I am one, loves his country and the ideals it represents. Every patriot must guard his country and its ideals from the predations of greed and hubris. Unfortunately, no country in the world can match, even approach, the wealth and power of our country. Too often, the world’s greed and hubris involve American players.

The Poisonwood Bible is set in the Congo in 1959-60 (and later) and highlights that country’s painful move into independence. Well, into a simulacrum of independence. This novel, accurate in its historical detail, plays out its deeply personal story inside the chaos of the larger world, a world set on destroying the hope of a nation and murdering millions of its people.

After decades of exploitation by the Belgians, under the inspired leadership of Patrice Lumumba, the Congolese negotiated their independence. Lumumba was elected prime minister. Too bad Lumumba didn’t realize how serious Americans and Belgians were about controlling Congo’s resources. In less than two months, Katanga, the province with most of those resources, successfully seceded with the help of American money and personnel. Lumumba was arrested and eventually murdered, with the help of the American CIA. Twenty-six years of the murderous, puppet leadership of Joseph Mobutu followed, the Congo sunk deeper into poverty and ruin, and, to this day, is torn apart by greed and corruption.

Of course, the CIA knew how to do these things. In 1953, the American CIA engineered the overthrow of the elected prime minister of Iran, Mohammad Mossadeq, who had the temerity to claim Iran’s oil for Iranians. American is still paying in blood for foolishly crushing Mossadeq’s democratic and secular vision for Iran. America installed Reza Pahlavi, the Shah, to protect its oil and we’ve all seen how well that turned out.

But wait. There’s more. In 1970, Chile elected Salvador Allende to be its president. The unfortunate Allende used the magic get-yourself-killed-by-the-CIA word when he promised a transition to a socialist democracy. Within three years, America assured his assassination and the institution of decades of sadistic rule by Augusto Pinochet.

Then, there are Rafael Trujillo, Ngo Dinh Diem, Rene Schneider and who knows how many others, but, for fear of again killing the horse I beat, I'll stop here.

My country is a great country with a bad habit. These examples of bad behavior are not all of what America is about, of course, but they indicate a willingness to act ruthlessly when our national greed and hubris run wild and we lose our sense of fairness and decency. We have done better. Mostly, we have done better. But not always.

OK. I’m not so angry now. Now I am just little sad. Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible. It may not make you angry. But it may.

For documentation of many of the activities described above see the report of the Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Ope...

For a simpler version with links to many other resources go here.

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Tags: Allende, Barbara Kingsolver, CIA, Chile, Church Committee, Iran, Lumumba, Mossadeq, The Poisonwood Bible, congo


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Comment by Ray Turner on May 4, 2009 at 10:51am
Thanks for your sensitive, informed comment. I meant no slight to the brilliance of Ms Kingsolver's novel, of course. Unlike our wonderful new president, I can only do one thing at a time and sometimes not that. I agree wholeheartedly with your anger at Nathan's 'misplaced zeal.' My parents (Dad was a pastor) knew a missionary family in Congo during the same period covered by The Poisonwood Bible. Each year they returned to recoup and visit with tales of increasing unrest, the country's and their own. Over the years, after they left the Congo, the Mrs. took your reflective path and the Rev. clung to the absurdity you mention, though with less horrific consequences than Kingsolver's Nathan.

I wrote about the sad politics (before writing about the beautiful and disturbing novel) because I feel a personal responsibility for the evil my country may do. My anger came first. Next, I hope to find another voice to write a review or comment about The Poisonwood Bible.

I share your hope for our courageous, refreshingly sane president.
Comment by Louis Brossard on May 4, 2009 at 7:29am
While I share your understanding of the shameful actions our country has practiced in the past, Kingsolver's novel is a masterpiece on its own, without reference to its many historical references. I read it years ago and am still haunted by it. As a former missionary who long since awoke to the absurdity of what I was trying to teach I was angered more by the misplaced zeal of the husband than the historical treachery of my country. Perhaps the saddest of all is that our country is still engaged in just such greed and hubris. I have great hope that President Obama can lead us with more rectitude than his disastrous predecessor.
Comment by Ray Turner on May 2, 2009 at 10:49am
Thanks, Stephen. I'm sort of new here and thought perhaps no one would ever view any of my posts. I'm glad to know someone has.
Comment by Stephen Peters on May 2, 2009 at 10:27am
Thanks for sharing this, Ray. I look forward to reading more of your posts!

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