Of Mites and Zen
Why the heck not, I say? Taking a leaf from the books of Brangelina and Madonna, and any other celebrity currently baby shopping in the Continent Formerly Known as Dark. It’s quite the fashion accessory, I’m told: American stars of film and music, people so white they practically glow in the dark, adopting babies from poor and challenged African countries.
What’s wrong with this picture, and why am I so damn cynical about it? Aren’t they just selflessly trying to save a little life that might not make it if the great all-powerful Hollywood hand didn’t reach out to rip them away from their families and countries? Hmm. About this thing not so sure am I [/Yoda]…
So. Brad ’n’ Angie got dibs on the Namib, Madge has gone Malawi…where might I try my own luck? I like the sound of the name Senegal…Tanzania has a pretty gemstone named after it…the Berbers make gorgeous silver jewelry…oh, lawks, the possibilities are endless!
Let me tell you a parable. Here beginneth the reading of the day’s lesson from the Book of Patricia, verses i through as many as it takes…
When I was a tiny Catholic schoolgirl, back in the days when we wove our own food and rode dinosaurs to school, the fine educational establishment of Our Lady of Perpetual Help in the borough of Queens, scene of my daily crucifixion, held a little fund drive every Lent that involved “mite boxes.”
Nothing to do with the wee buggies that apparently (because I don’t believe it for a nanosecond, else I’d never be able to lay me down to sleep) live in one’s pillows and mattresses.
No, the “mite” of the title was the “widow’s mite” mentioned in the Christian Bible. At the start of Lent, the nuns would hand you a little yellow flat cardboard piece that you assembled into a box, and you were supposed to sacrifice for the forty days till Easter by filling your mite box with coins to ransom pagan African babies.
I swear to you I’m not making this up. That’s what it said on the side of the box, and there was also some heartrending photo of African children actually labeled PAGAN BABIES, whom you could save with your mite box money, which would go to Catholic missionaries working in the jungles and savannas and which would doubtless earn you big huge holy brownie points with God. (You don't see Zen Buddhists doing this sort of thing...)
I hated missionaries from the first moment I heard about them, what I saw even as a beady-eyed child was the staggering ARROGANCE of them, and when Sister would read to us (with an almost pornographic delight in the bloody details, it seemed) of the sufferings of missionaries like St. Isaac Jogues at the hands of the Iroquois, I would sit there happily and judgmentally reflecting that Isaac got EXACTLY what he was asking for and what he so very, very richly deserved.
As a kid myself, I didn’t for one instant begrudge the African children food or clothing or anything the box could legitimately buy them, but the idea that the missionaries would get my little mitepennies to convert these children from their own religion to Catholicism made me FURIOUS at the incorrectness and injustice. Why couldn’t these kids just have food without all the damn Catholic strings attached? Why did they have to starve and die in their own religion but be fed in someone’s else? Yes, even then: so young, so cynical, already so apostate…
In Asia, this despicable practice was known as rice Christianity, though I never heard it described so until much later in my life. Repudiate your ancient native faiths, sign up for Jesus Christ and we’ll give you missionary rice! Pray OUR way (the One True Right Way) and you’ll get to eat! And to starving people, maybe that didn’t seem to be the devil’s bargain it absolutely is. What angers me is that today it’s still going on, only now Hollywood has leaped in.
I think celebrities obviously have a certain social utility here, like George Clooney or Sting, lending their names and interest on a large scale to do good, and that’s fine. But Madonna suddenly deciding she needs to adopt a Malawian child (not even an orphan, either, the kid has family!) to make her life meaningful…well, no. Just…no.
Rescue services don't let you just adopt a kitty or a puppy on a whim; why should it be different with kids? Just because it's a poor foreign country, Malawi, it won't miss one poor infant more or less? That just seems like baby-selling wearing a respectable cloth coat.
I can’t do the mental gymnastics to make any of it seem a good thing, and maybe that’s me, not her, but it raises so many questions. What happens if she gets bored with the kid, when the current fashionability of the statement is long gone but the kid is still there, still plucked out of his life and maybe lost in a new one with a parent who could even have lost interest? Makes mite boxes look almost benign.
You were REQUIRED to get with the mite box program, by the way. Nobody was allowed to sit out. It was hard, sometimes, for a lot of kids, including me, to come by the pennies and nickels to fill that box. I never knew about it then, but I have wondered in the years since how many of those sincerely scraped-together coins went to pagan babies and how many went to feather the already and increasingly plush nests of priests and bishops and popes. (Nuns lived a no-frills life, usually as teachers or serfs to MEN of the cloth…but that’s another rant.)
And yet I was seduced by the rewards one could earn from the nuns by stuffing that damn maw of yellow cardboard until it burst, until it was so heavy with coin that it sagged at the seams: rosaries, holy cards, books of saints’ pictures like trading stamps, little statues of the Blessed Mother, stuff like that.
All of which I really, really coveted, because I love stuff like that, so I was saving pagan babies by committing at least four of the Seven Deadly Sins right there: greed, pride, envy and wrath. What a lesson for us all.
So when I read in magazines about modern-day pagan babies in Africa being acquired like human Manolo Blahniks by the mite boxes of celebrity, I have to wonder.
True and humble charity might do better to subsidize the villages, so the kids could stay with their parents and tribes and familiar environments, and other people, not just one fortunate child plucked up out of unimaginable poverty by a deus/dea ex machina, could be helped with a minimum of publicity. No covers of Vanity Fair and People and Vogue in it. Just humility helping need, out of caritas.
But of course it’s not about publicity at ALL, is it…so therefore I expect to see no pictures of the proud new adoptive parents with their uprooted new dependents infesting my magazines. Because it’s obscene, and we have laws about that, don’t we. And if we don’t, then we should. Here endeth the lesson. For now.