“That is what it means to betray Jesus: one no longer intervenes for him, one delivers him over to the mockery and power of the public, one lets the world do with him what it wants, one no longer stands by him.” -Dietrich Bonhoeffer
“There are so many experiences and disappointments that drive sensitive people toward nihilism and resignation. That is why it is good to learn early that suffering and God are not contradictions, but rather a necessary unity. For me, the idea that it is really God who suffers has always been one of the most persuasive teachings of Christianity. I believe that God is closer to suffering than to happiness, and that finding God in this way brings peace and repose and a strong, courageous heart.” -Dietrich Bonhoeffer
It’s been a quiet week in Freetown. Although that has something to do with the fact that this is Easter week, it has mostly to do with the runoff election that is happening today across Sierra Leone. Today, on Holy Saturday, Sierra Leone elects a new president.
This was not by design. The original election happened on March 7. By constitution, a candidate must win 55% of the vote in order to be victor. With 16 candidates, we all knew that this was unlikely. So a runoff was set for Tuesday, March 27, exactly two weeks after the original results were announced. Then an injunction was filed. And even though it was vacated last Monday, it meant that preparations had been halted over the weekend and there was no way to move the election forward with one day’s notice. So it was set for Saturday March 31. Holy Saturday.
Even though it was not by design, it brings a whole new layer of meaning to these the holiest of days in our Christian calendar. And the cross brings new meaning for me to all these faithful citizens who have traveled hours to their home provinces and gotten up early in the morning to wait in line to vote.
There is a lot at stake in this election. Most people would say that corruption has invaded the current government from the top all the way down. “We need change.” That is what I hear from most everyone I talk to. Magdaline, who cleans my house and makes sure I eat, has many times explained, “We have suffered for too long. Too much suffering. So much suffering.”
Even as an outsider, it’s not hard to see.
Ulcers are a real problem here among both the poor and low-income workers. Treating ulcers requires both medication and regular food. Not eating can exacerbate an ulcer, causing heavy pain and further damage. I’m not a doctor, but from what I understand it can cause permanent damage. Well here’s the problem. You need money to buy medication and food. Seventy percent of the population is unemployed or underemployed. A lot of people are lucky to even get one meal every day. The medication they take costs 30,000 Leones (less than $5). Cheap by US standards. But I have more than once paid for it when a member of my staff was quietly suffering the pain because he didn’t have the cash. The last time it happened, this person was doubled over in pain.
This is an everyday consequence of bad governance. Five years ago a big bag of rice cost 50,000 Leones. Now it costs 250,000 Loenes. Even since I’ve been here the leone has lost value. This is a resource-rich country but the profits on those resources never seem to reach to common people.
People throw their trash out windows and into ditches here. At least daily I see men urinating on the side of the road and into ditches. All of this gets washed down to where the poor dwell in the city. A few days ago I was sitting in traffic in one of these poor neighborhoods watching barefoot boys in nothing but their shorts rough house and wrestle on top of a river of waste. This is an everyday consequence of bad governance.
On Ash Wednesday, one of my staff got a call that his friend had died suddenly. I asked, “Was he young?” He said, “No. He was 53.” Here 53 is not young. I told him I was sorry for his friend and sorry for his grief. He said, “You live here long enough, you get used to it.”
So much suffering. Too much suffering.
And here I sit in a quiet house on Holy Saturday. As the people of this country take the hopeful stance of believing in a better future, I am meditating on the suffering Christ. Poverty brings a different perspective to his suffering. It means something that Jesus knows suffering. He knows it to his very core - physically, psychologically, spiritually. It means something that the betrayal these people know, he also knew. That he knows what it feels like when those who are supposed to care for you refuse to intervene. That he knows now even as they experience it. He hangs on that cross in solidarity with every person who waits in those lines across this country to call their new leader to a better way. I hope along with them that this leader will be true to his promises. Relentlessly, we hope.
I pray, maybe somewhat naively, that the resurrection that is sure to come will make it’s way to Sierra Leone sooner than later. For I too am learning what it means to long for his Kingdom of peace and joy and full bellies and clean streets and good jobs and healthy bodies and a love that covers it all. May it come to us, to Sierra Leone as it is in Heaven.
Until then we will look to the crucified Christ, who suffers with the suffering and meets us in our desperate need.