Gods of Death and...Sex?

It's been a hell of a season for the gods of death. Carnage committed in the name of the Abrahamic Father, whose surrogates have been busy on jihads and crusades all over the place: In the inferno of the ISIS caliphate (soi disant), where a group of Yazidi maidens were recently immolated in a cage for rejecting marriage to their jihadi captors, to Boko Haram's abduction of school girls in Northern Nigeria, to the massacre of worshippers by a demented teenage racist at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston; to sports fans and cafe diners mowed down in Paris; to office workers shot at a Christmas party in San Berdoo; and now to Orlando, home to the Magic Kingdom and the massacre of late night revelers at The Pulse Dance Club.

The wounds of the last are still open and bleeding, the terrorist's narrative being at once so bizarre and so familiar. A lone gunman proclaiming allegiance to both Sunni ISIS and Shia Hezbollah (which are at war with each other) opens fire with legally bought automatic weapons at a Gay club where he'd been seen hanging out, killing at least 49 mostly brown and black patrons, some of whom he may have been texting on Tinder. And to add a post-modern touch: the revolting web-posted selfies of Omar the Mass-Murderer making smirky faces, looking as merry as John Wayne Gacy, rapist and murderer of at least 33 boys and young men, in his self-portraits as Pogo the Clown.

The Orlando massacre suggests an unholy equation straight out of Quentin Tarantino: Eroticism+Violence=Religion. But it also begs a question philosophers call theodicy: why does a benevolent divinity allow the existence of evil? The philosopher most associated with that question is Wilhelm Gottfried Leibniz (1646-1716), whose rationalization for God's tolerance of evil, "we live in the best of all possible worlds" was savagely mocked by Voltaire (1694-1778), savant of the Enlightenment and author of Candide, who advised against such idle speculation in favor of "cultivating our gardens."

It remained for two 20th century philosophers, Georges Bataille and Sigmund Freud, to expand the arguments of their Enlightenment predecessors, casting new light on recent events in Orlando and other sites of mayhem. In Erotism: Death and Sensuality, Bataille argues that erotics are primarily a religious matter, which, seen from the confines of every day life, may both be understood as something monstrous. Sex and Religion seek transcendence in death, the "little death" of orgasm, or the grand sacrifice of martyrs to a divinity who must be placated with bloody victims. Freud further defined this argument by locating the problem not in the existence of an illusory God, but in the psyche of human beings, simultaneously driven by eros, the life instinct which includes sexual drives vs. thanatos, the desire for death. For Freud, a lifelong atheist, religion creates a community and then exacts an enormous psychic toll by making humans perpetually subordinate to an angry father in the sky.

I am sympathetic to Freud's arguments, but only as they adumbrate the logic of monotheism. In Abrahamic religions, the creator must have his anti-force. God must have the Devil, and the Devil must be destroyed. But what of religions without jealous gods, devils, or damned souls? I have spent much of my life working in the Black Atlantic world, in West Africa where pantheons of pre-colonial gods persist under the veneer of Christianity and Islam; and in Haiti, where the national religion of Vodou (aka Voodoo) incorporates Catholic saints, Chinese sages and NBA stars with creative abandon. Although specific gods and rituals differ, Black Atlantic attitudes towards the divine were neatly encapsulated by the great Igbo writer Chinua Achebe, in his novel, Things Fall Apart. When Okonkwo, his hot headed protagonist, suggests burning down an abusive Christian missionary church, a village sage responds, "we are not in the habit to fighting our gods battles for them."

Those same tolerant gods rode through the middle passage in the minds and bodies of African captives, both humans and spirits adapting themselves to the new circumstances they confronted in slavery. Many traditional African societies are multi-religious (just as they are multi-lingual). Old gods make space for new ones, but they do not disappear. Thus Nzambi Mpungu, high god of Kongo, was easily syncretized with Christ crucified as master of life and death (the universal dialectic of eros vs thanatos). A version of his name (zombie) was eventually ascribed to the walking dead, reflecting the complicated cycle of death and rebirth which define most African eschatologies (and illustrate the enormity of their unacknowledged influence on Euro-American thought and culture).

In Haiti, where I've worked for many years, Baron Samedi, lwa (god) of death, plays an even more complicated role in Vodou's Divine Comedy. When he reveals himself through spirit possession, the Baron dons the top hat and morning coat of an undertaker (think of Geoff Holder in Live and Let Die), but wait---isn't that a tent in his stripped trousers? He's definitely happy to see you! If one of his symbols is the cross, then the other is the phallus. Baron Samedi does the tango with thanatos and eros, dipping the scales decidedly in favor of the latter. He's a dick in the graveyard: his incongruous linkage of the two making Vodouisants laugh. This is the kind of god for whom no one would shoot up revelers at The Pulse. Hell no, Baron Samedi would be hitting the dance floor himself. He's a god who can take care of himself, just as he takes care of us living and us dead. Is it not ironic that Vodou, a religion so mocked and vilified by outsiders, should have devised a theology so much more attuned to the way people want to live and die than that of the jihadis and crusaders?