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Popular culture and dons' funerals


- File

The recent funeral procession for William "Willie Haggart" Moore.

Reverend Ernle Gordon, Contributor

IT IS my belief that all theological students should do a general degree course which includes sociology, anthropology, Caribbean history and modern political thought so as to understand how "the dialectic of popular culture" impacts upon the religious and political culture in the Jamaican society.

The reason is, that, the parson who works in particular areas where "dons", "area leaders" or "bosses" operate would be better prepared to carry out the "theology of engagement" in terms of spirituality, evangelism and mission.

First let me state that I appreciate the forthright and prophetic utterances of my brother and friend, the Reverend Dr. Howard Gregory, president of the Jamaica Council of Churches, and do agree that the attendance of political leaders (high or low) at particular funerals where the deceased has a questionable past (real or imagined), can and does create mixed perceptions (perceptions are difficult to erase) in the minds of some Jamaicans. I say some, because the thinking of the majority of those who function within the 'popular culture', especially the dance hall funerals, see things differently.

Funerals are not to eulogise the dead, but, to assist the relatives in understanding the hope in the resurrection. This has been happening for over 35 years or more and the church has been voicing her pastoral concerns consistently. But the politician is caught on a tightrope which involves his conscience and how he/she responds to crisis in the constituency. On numerous occasions, it is the politician who has to finance the funeral expenses, print the programme, and provide refreshment for the post-funeral bashment. This makes the moral high road more difficult when there is evidence that there are connections between crime and politics in Jamaica since 1944.

Second, Dr. Gregory spoke of the schizophrenic context of the attitude to violence in Jamaica which needs some elaboration, because I have worked in inner city areas for over 30 years as a priest, so I know "the runnings" very well.

Third, having read Shirley Gordon's book on "God Almighty Make Me Free ­ Christianity in Pre-emancipation Jamaica"; Orlando Patterson's works and many research findings with regard to indigenous funeral rituals (African, Indian, Chinese, etc.), I have been exposed to the evidence, which showed me that the elaborate and expensive caskets of "dons', "area leaders" etc., did not originate solely with crime and politics in the 1960s or 1970s. You have to read the works of anthropologists which indicate that the house slave who was the sweetheart of the white bukki massa and was very powerful, stole the gold and the silver from the "Great House", and gave these items to those who were building the coffin of the slaves.

There is proof that the adornment of the coffins pre-1838 were more ostentatious than those of the English bukki massa who died. It is also true that the funeral processions of the black slave were fantastic and colourful. This pre/post-emancipation culture has now become an integral part of the popular political dance hall funeral culture of "dons" etc., of the 21st century in Jamaica. It is impossible for the church to dismiss the reality.

What is my history re ­ politicians at funerals of certain area leaders, dons, etc.?

1. Copper's funeral

I conducted the funeral rites for the late "Copper" at Shooters Hill, and for the first time in my life, I learnt the sociological and anthropological complexities of the Jamaican popular culture. Many of the persons who attended the funeral service could finance the budget of Jamaica for the next 10 years. Some of the women that I saw (the mixed brownings) were so beautiful and incorporated the kaleidoscopic fragrance of Jamaican feminine graciousness, that they could replace easily the 10 finalists in the recently concluded Miss Universe contest held in Puerto Rico.

One woman, who had poise and the charm of "braughtupsy", confessed to me that she came to the funeral of "Copper" because when her car was stranded on Long Lane, in Upper St. Andrew, he assisted her and treated her with dignity and with proper decorum. There were also well known People's National Party persons at "Copper's" funeral.

2. A JLP area leader

Recently, I was approached to do the funeral service for a well known Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) area leader who helped me to see that whenever work was done on the church premises in Kingston 11, nothing was stolen. His last wishes were that the young men in the area should follow proper order. It reached a stage where PNP people from Kingston 20 could work on the church compound in Kingston 11 and JLP people from Kingston 11, could paint the wall at St. Mary's Church in Kingston 20.

On Tower Avenue you could see both PNP and JLP colours being worn. I can visit that constituency anytime in the night and not be afraid. At the funeral service, the JLP Member of Parliament, gave a wonderful three-minute remembrance in which he emphasised discipline and the right to life.

These two funerals also taught me that many of the dons and area leaders come from top upper class families in this country, and the family members were not ashamed to attend the funerals of these two men.

We also learn from the wisdom of Professor Rex Nettleford, that all of us are products of the canefield, but, it is also true that we have inherited ethnic features from the palace, in terms of class and race.

3. Role as priest

My role as a priest, whenever I am asked to conduct funerals of "area leaders", "dons" etc, is to follow the principles of Jesus, in that our Lord was very prophetic and sought to bring healing, redemption and reconciliation. He was crucified between two undesirable characters, but, He used his life to usher one into the Kingdom of God. Jesus did not enquire if they were "dons", "area leaders", or "bosses". All have sinned and as long as we repent, Jesus will cleanse us from all unrighteousness - 1 John 1:8/9.

This includes politicians, dons and all of us. My duty at these types of funerals is to employ the "spirituality of engagement". Do not be afraid to challenge the politicians, the citizens and the gunmen who are seated in the church. At a funeral held in Central Kingston recently, the Anglican priest was not afraid to be critical of the behaviour of some of our young men.

The schizophrenic behaviour of Jamaican people in relation to violent crime is not only due to the ambivalence of our politicians, but is intimately bound up with the present world capitalist system, that has lost its moral authority, and what is interesting is that we have now called the new philosophy which is to undergird the free morality as "post modernity".

One of the symptoms of schizophrenia is that many of the women who attend the funerals of "dons" and "area leaders", do not know the difference between the attire to be worn at a bashment session and how to dress for a funeral.

Trends

As early as 1975, Alvin Toffler, the author of "Future Shock" and the "Third Wave", wrote a book, called "The Eco-spasm Report" in which he alluded to the following new trends.

"What we are seeing is the general crisis of industrialisation ­ crisis that transcends the differences between capitalism and Soviet communism, a crisis that is simultaneously tearing up our energy base, our value systems, our communicative models, our sense of space and time, our epistemology as well as our economy. What is happening now, more or less is the breaking down of industrial civilization on the planet, and the first fragmentary appearance of a wholly new and dramatically different social order, a super-industrial civilization that will be technological but no longer industrial. This new economic technological atmosphere will be schizophrenic".

2) Globalization, has created schizophrenic behaviour patterns universally and has adversely affected politics, religion, the church, education, and every sector of human relations.

3) Michael Novak, author of "Democratic Capitalism", who was an advisor to a few United States Presidents, wrote in the book, that for capitalism to survive sin has to be an integral feature. So, the new trend with regard to morality is being relative.

4) We are not surprised therefore, that former U.S. President Bill Clinton pardoned Mark Rich, whose history is questionable. We also notice that current U.S. President George W. Bush is being embarrassed by the spying incident and the fact that the U.S. did not regain its seat on the Human Rights Council. It is not surprising that the FBI blunder in not delivering the tape to the defence lawyers, of a man who should be executed, is being used as a type of schizophrenic escape route. The U.S. is attempting to show that it is very saintly and righteous. Schizophrenia is an integral part of foreign policy today.

5) In one news item it is reported that the police have had to turn a blind eye to big business persons who are alleged to be involved in the cocaine trade, and yet these same people give wonderful speeches at dinners, purporting to be schizophrenic angels.

6) The church has to be very careful, because she could be deemed schizophrenic if church personnel are lured into receiving gifts from certain people that have devious character references.

I see the point that Dr. Gregory is trying to make in terms of the schizophrenic (crime and violence) reality that could be realised by the confused messages conveyed and echoed by the association of politicians with deviant social personnel. My philosophical thesis is that the Jamaican body politic inherited a deformed economy (Westminster model) that was intrinsically schizophrenic.

Therefore, according to Alvin Toffler (1975) the technologically driven global industrial world is basically schizophrenic and will not be transformed until we return to a political culture, which in the word of Gary Zukav, love of neighbour is the sign and symbol, of the mostly highly evolved person.

The time has come for us to reject the notion that the most advanced evolved person is one who genuflects to the ideology of the "survival of the fittest", and so, the use of power at all cost will ensure his/her dominance. A prophetic church in this type of climate has to employ in its evangelical approach, the theology of engagement and not of fall/redemption.

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