Vultures

“In vain, with lavish kindness,”
The gifts of God are strown ;
The heathen, in his blindness,
Bows down to wood and stone. “
Reginald Heber

“… I never had occasion to call a congregation together; for as soon as I seated myself under a tree, or if there was no tree, under a shield-house, the whole population, men, women, and children, would come out to me, and wait as usual in silence to hear me speak : and though some were disposed to cavil, and others at the name of God would rise up and go away, the greater part of the audience, which was usually as large as is now collected, remained with me for an hour or more. I directed their minds to the creation, and such other truths as I thought expedient at the time. They seldom either answered or put questions, saying that they were come to hear me, and that I was to speak. They generally pleaded ignorance concerning the creation ; but once, on my asking them who made the clouds that gave the rain? they answered, their “ doctors.” On replying that this was not the case, they said, “ Thou that speakest the truth, tell us who made them?” I learnt from Dingaan himself, a firm believer in witchcraft, what their ideas on that subject are. The creatures which the witch employs in this service, are the wolf, tiger, wild cat, jackal or owl. With one of these he goes in the dead of night to the victim of his malice, and sends the animal into the hut while the person is asleep, to bring out a piece of his hair, or a bit of his carcass, or something else belonging to the bewitched person, which is deposited in the witch’s own hut; the effect of this is, that sickness or death follows. The witch-doctors are persons who have the faculty of smelling out the witches, and doing other wonderful things. The persons whom they secure are sentenced to death ; and I have myself been present when information had been given of a supposed witch, who was instantly condemned to die without a hearing. Executions take place for the most trifling offences ; but, perhaps, oftener for alleged witchcraft than for any other crime. Death is inflicted on those who possess beads, or any clothing of a particular colour, or of the same description which the king wears about his own person. Having sometimes unconsciously offered them forbidden beads in barter, they hastily returned them, declaring they should be killed. I could not get the boys in my school to wear kilts, till Dingaan gave them permission. The hill of execution was nearly opposite my hut; hence we could not help seeing the vultures hovering over the bodies of those newly slain. I have sometimes been present at the trial of an induna. Dingaan was seated on a chair, the induna before him, nearly surrounded by the chiefs and principal men of the town; a body of executioners with huge sticks sitting behind waiting for orders. When about to pronounce the sentence, Dingaan has bidden me to retire; but on my walk home, I have seen the vultures devouring the carcass of the poor wretch whom I had shortly before seen alive.

The usual mode of execution is to make the culprit walk to the hill, the executioners following, and on arriving at the fatal spot, dispatch him with knobbed sticks. They then leave his body to be devoured by the birds by day, and wolves by night. When an induna is killed, all his people, by the custom of the country, share the same fate: Signabani, an induna, falling under the displeasure of Dingaan, fled, whilst I was in the country, to Port Natal.

Many of his people, who could not make their escape, were cruelly massacred, being pursued by the executioners even to the premises of the American missionary, where they were found, and were instantly hurried away to death. Notwithstanding the barbarity of Dingaan, which is to be traced not exclusively to personal character, but chiefly to the system established in his country, he was always very civil to me, except in one instance, when he suspected I had stolen something, and sent three men to search my hut, tents, and waggons, and to open every box, bag, and bundle, to discover, if possible, the lost article. My innocence being established, he made an ample apology, and sent me a present of some cows and calves — to wash, as he said, my heart.

Andrew  Bonar, “SUPERSTITIONS OF THE HEATHEN,” Incidents Of Missionary Enterprises

Andrew Bonar (1810-1892) was a minister of the Free Church of Scotland.

First of all, in this project, I am sharing with you inspirational quotes from famous preachers of prior centuries related to various words related to suffering. “Vultures” is a word that shows up in about 150 places in my collection of sermon books, but most of the uses were metaphorical. We can still learn much both in spirituality or ethics from the metaphorical use of a word, and the holy scriptures themselves use vultures in this fashion several times. Somehow I think it’s even more meaningful to study places where real people had to deal with real vultures. We can still take our spiritual metaphors from them, but the threat or disgust of having to deal with real problems can be of use. Here is a pitiful example.

Andrew Bonar writes about missionary experiences in what was then the Zulu Kingdom. He appears to have had direct dealings with their king, “Dingaan”, or Dingane kaSenzangakhona Zulu. Bonar observes the use of capital punishment, carried out often without a hearing, for offenses as trivial as possessing beads, wearing wrong color clothing, or clothing similar to the king. There’s a complete lack of dignity for the killed in that vultures allowed to feast on the bodies. Or wolves. There’s collective punishments where a whole tribe is massacred for the offenses of one.

Our purposes here are to pray, sympathize, help where we can, and cast ourselves and the suffering on the Lord. One might ask if there’s some cultural imperialism on the part of Bonar (or this blog!) by bringing up this story. As for this blog, we’ve already spoken on at least three cases (cf. Smallpox, Maiden, and Noose) of the suffering of black people in the US. But some degrees of suffering are so egregious as to be beyond any cultural norm. Tears are tears. We would pray that evangelization would alleviate social ills such as these.

Upon a second reading, maybe there was some imperialism in a Scottish minister getting African schoolboys to wear kilts!

PRAYER: Dear Lord, Forgive us when we act as kings who must exact beatings on those who offend us in any way. We pray for those who have been punished unjustly or cruelly at the hands of mobs or the state. We pray for those who have been desensitized by sights of or calls for mistreatment of human bodies in any criminal justice system. Let there be dignity for the dead, even those executed for the worst crimes. We remember your unjust suffering. Give us courage to help all remember and sympathize with these sufferings. Show us ways to help. We cast all the ugly facets of our souls, and all the suffering in history, upon You, O Lord.

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