I just finished “Sacred Hunger” by Barry Unsworth. Booker Prize, 1993. At the same time I’m reading “Becoming Human” by Jean Vanier.
I don’t suppose there could be a more arresting juxtaposition.
Sacred Hunger which details the voyage of a slave ship in the 1750s, is all dehumanization and excruciating specifics – a microcosm of what took place on a massive scale within the scope of “lawful” trade.
All this next to Vanier’s expressions of humanity at its best. “The Way of the Heart”. Our potential.
The contrast hasn’t been lost on me. And I suppose it’s timely and meaningful that I’ve been reading both side by side. Because in Sacred Hunger there is much to be depressed about. While Becoming Human is rooted in hope.
One bright spot in “Sacred Hunger” is Matthew Paris, the slave ship’s surgeon. He is so incredibly human. A man who served time in prison and the stocks. Who was trying to regain his life. Who understood self-defeat and failure and humiliation. His internal battle that wages on the ship represents my own battle with my inner life. Where we all have the capacity to engage evil.
At one point, Paris remembers his night in the stocks.
“I was led away crouching still, with back bent like some submissive animal. And yet I came here. I knew what it is to be shackled and derided and still I came. How can that be forgiven?” (Pg. 332)
I’m still processing it all. But something that continues to come to mind is that abuse and exploitation, and dehumanizing another, begins small. It starts in our thinking – that we are above and beyond others. Superior in some way.
And it doesn’t matter whether we’re talking about the transatlantic slave trade of the 18th century, or domestic violence, human rights abuse, and exploitation in the 21st, the roots are the same. We have to look at ourselves too. And our capacity, even as we are looking at and working towards the bigger picture issues of anti-trafficking and recovery and abolition, prevention and reconciliation, to dehumanize others.
Thankfully, I believe as Vanier does that we also carry with us the potential for love and transformation. Because the “way of the heart” as Vanier calls it, is all about choice. “We can choose this path and to treat people as people and not just as machines.” (86)
And so I hope that I can grow in this space. Grow into a life of justice and mercy and compassion that is both big and small.
“Justice means more than just following the law, not hurting people; it also means respecting and valuing each individual.” (Vanier, 93)