Yes, I was raised Catholic. Thankfully, I was spared many of the horrors of that experience because my parents were, for Catholics, extraordinarily liberal, especially about other religions. I remember being in elementary school and asking my father, who was reading Arthur C. Clarke’s The Nine Billion Names of God, how such a thing could be possible. After all, in my catechism classes, wasn’t it emphasized repeatedly that there was only one God? My father patiently tried to explain to a mind far too simple at the time for such concepts that there were really an almost infinite number of ways to see God, and that our Catholic church was no more right or wrong than the synagogue of our Jewish friends. I didn’t get it at the time, but it stuck with me.
Another thing that stuck with me was when, while in college, a Catholic church I was attending, a church which was constantly asking the parishioners to give money—frequently and in great quantities—to ease the suffering of the poor, miraculously installed an air conditioning system in the church and all the attached buildings early the next year.
These are oversimplifications, I know. One cannot simply take a few anecdotal experiences and use them to justify a broad condemnation of religion. The problem, it has always seemed to me, is not religion or lack of it, nor is it God or the lack of existence of a God. The problem, as is almost always the case, is people. Whether zealots or crusaders or testifiers or missionaries, it’s never God doing the murdering. It’s people. It’s us. And this has almost always been an integral element of colonialism. At some point in the cultural rape that colonialism always brings, the missionaries arrive, the “religious arm” of the invading powers. Or, to borrow a phrase from Edward Andrews, “ideological shock troops.” While there seems to be some evidence that some missionary work in Africa was actually beneficial in terms of providing health care, improved living conditions, and more egalitarian cultural values, there is enough evidence of atrocities to leaven this positive impact a great deal.
While Conrad does not spend a great deal of time in Heart of Darkness exploring the impact of Christian missionaries in Africa, he alludes to it enough, particularly through metaphors like the text quoted above, that his ideas are clear. Africa is a great, bloated, fecund and powerless body, ripe with riches, and from that, it is no stretch to see these Europeans, missionaries and explorers and ivory men, as maggots under the banner of God and country devouring the corpse and stripping it to the bone.
Matt Kish was born in 1969 and lives in the middle of Ohio. After stints as a cafeteria cook, a hospital registrar, a bookstore manager, and an English teacher, he ended up as a librarian. He draws as often as he can, often with whatever he can find. He has tried his hand at 35mm black-and-white photography (with real film and real chemicals), making comics and zines, a bit of collage, and lots of pen and ink.