Discerning Truth In Alligator Gallbladders
On the hunt for the higher things
Let’s take a look at truth. What is true, what is fake? How might these ideas be related to things sacred and things profane? How should we understand these terms as war rages on and human beings plug into all variations of media? And is it even possible for Light People, people of the Enlightenment, to come to grips with truth if in many ways we’ve neutered the sacred?
Re-reading that introduction just gave me anxiety. Talk about heavy things done heavily. If you are still reading this I love you, and to reward you let’s begin with something odd and interesting. Let’s talk about alligator gallbladders.
Here’s what happened in Liberia not too long ago. Liberia is a country in West Africa, and this story takes place in the Zorzor District in northwest Liberia, about three hours from where our First Things field workers live and work in neighboring Sierra Leone. In this part of the world, but by no means only in this part of the world, juju plays an important role in discerning truth.
In the Zorzor District, alligator gallbladders have particular properties, some of which are essential for making traditional juju poisons, poisons used by Old World juju doctors to, well, kill things, including people.
It seems there is a local law that says when an alligator is hunted and killed, at least three people from surrounding villages, official people, must be present to witness the destruction of the gallbladder, the scary part of the alligator. So dangerous are these gallbladder concoctions that only a single drop in a glass of wine can kill a man in 24 hours.
This story about Zorzor, which you can read about in a publication called Frontpage Africa, begins with 14 people on a fishing trip along the Lawror River. These fishermen kill an alligator but fail to notify local officials about the disposal of the gator gallbladder. In fact, as it goes, it seems the 14 people in question took the alligator to a secure location and purposely divvied up the gallbladder. These allegations spread like wildfire. When the local Zorzor City officials heard about the magic gallbladder mystery, the 14 fishermen were rounded up and questioned by local authorities.
When asked where the gallbladder was, the fishing party said they’d thrown said gallbladder into a toilet (a hole in the ground, outhouse style). The officials cracked open the toilet hole and found that there was no gallbladder. There were no signs of any alligator parts whatsoever.
That night, the home of the Zorzor City police chief was burned to the ground. The next day, two groups of local youths gathered and threatened to burn down more homes if the gallbladder did not show up. Still no one came forward, and as Frontpage Africa tells us, “tensions remain high,” and all parties remain diligent in their search for the missing gator gallbladder.
And then, right at the end of the article, there is a curious sentence that I think helps us investigate the notion of truth, the very idea we are wrestling with in this article: “Meanwhile, the office of the commissioner has commissioned a traditional oath taking ceremony for the 14 suspects.”
An oath taking ceremony, that’s the fate of the 14 suspects? Those suspected of concocting a deadly gallbladder poison are being forced to take an oath? What is this? Is this an Old World lie detector test?
The short answer is: Bingo. It sure is, and here’s how the Old World truth-o-meter works in today’s Liberia.
First, the 14 accused people must choose a sacred juju object upon which to swear an oath. Here are some of their options: Hair, shoes, blood, the body parts of animals, teeth and lots of other things we could have fun listing. The object being sworn upon is a type of spiritual conveyance, a consort, a manifestation of the powers that be. And what powers be? Well, there are various little gods and goddesses that for most West African traditional systems are associated with a bigger god, which in the West we might think of as the creator god. In short, the juju oath is to a fleshy thing that is manifesting a power that is coming from a greater power. It is that greater power that you are invoking in the oath. And every traditional oath involves calling down a curse. So, when the article ends by saying, “The sheriff’s office has commissioned a traditional oath taking ceremony for the 14 suspects,” what they mean to say is that the suspects have agreed to curse themselves if they are lying. The suspects have taken an oath and are now under the microscope. If they get hit by a car, that tells you something. If their child gets sick, that tells you something. If they go bankrupt, that tells you something. Take an oath and your life becomes the litmus test for truth. The spirit world will tell you what you need to know.
Check out the Koran, and what it says about oaths:
Verily, those who purchase a small gain at the cost of Allah’s Covenant and their oaths, they shall have no portion in the hereafter (Paradise). Neither will Allah speak to them, nor look at them on the Day of Resurrection, nor will He purify them, and they shall have a painful torment.
How about Jews in the Old Testament? Here’s just one example, from Exodus: “Yawheh will not hold guiltless one who swears falsely by His name.”
Every pre-enlightened culture put lots of importance on oaths and curses, and things like galling alligator bladders. Truth is wound up in oaths in the Old World.
What about today?
Do we even have oaths? Do we have words that we fear, words that get at the truth? It doesn’t feel like CNN and FOX News are in the oath business. I think Anderson Cooper would laugh at the alligator oath idea. New World bosses don’t seem nervous about curses as they set about the work of making payroll. What is Light People juju? What is transcendent, beyond me and beyond you, but equally essential to both you and I? What is the thing that we moderns swear by?
Here’s what Thomas Hobbes, the founding father of New World political philosophy, says in 1650; “There is no swearing by anything a person thinks not God.”
Wait. This is amazing. Thomas Hobbes is telling us that if there is no god there can be no oaths. This deistic, Christian-hating Light Person, is saying that a godless society is incapable of discerning truth.
John Locke, another holy man of the Enlightenment, the father of rational political thought and the author of the modern concept of individual rights, he too has some choice words about oaths and truths. In his letter “Concerning Toleration” (1689) he writes:
Those shall not be tolerated who deny the being of a God. Promises, covenants, and oaths, which are the bonds of human society, can have no hold upon an atheist. The taking away of God, though but even in thought, dissolves all.
Talk about anxiety! The quote above comes from a philosopher ready and willing to usher in a very new kind of god. In fact, it could be argued that Locke and Hobbes and their writings are the essential enzymes in the modern dissolution of the Christian God. Yet, they recognized something essential about the highest ideal, something essential about the notion of the greater good. They recognized exactly what the people of Zorzor District recognize: There is no truth if there is no highest thing.
Nonetheless, when these enlightened deists denied God as a person, god as a concept would soon meet its inevitable end.
The “highest thing” conversation is a dead thing now. Most Light People now believe truth is somewhere in a murky place called “the conscience.” Some demand that all truth must be tied to material reality, subject to objectivity and a method called scientific. Pious small-d democrats believe truth is found in a common law agreed upon by the will of the people. These Light People place truth in the bosom of the electorate, treating the common will like juju doctors understand the will of the daemons. And then there are those who trust the marketplace to show them the light. Lots of Light People philosophers like Ben Franklin and Adam Smith thought the marketplace would punish people when they went wrong, and do it far more efficiently than gallbladder juju. But how’s that going these days? The marketplace tells us to honor usurers and oligarchs, both of whom seem above and beyond the laws of the marketplace.
It seems we Light People have failed to find the thing on which to make an oath. We appear incapable of agreeing upon the highest thing, the thing of awe and, yes, the thing of fear.
Is my ego the only juju object left?
The 14 accused people in Liberia took their juju oaths, and we don’t know how the spirits treated them. There is no follow-up article detailing car crashes, illnesses or unexpected lottery gifts. But the truth is out there, everyone is aware that the spirits have spoken. The auguring is over. The people of Zorzor go to sleep at night confident that the next time an alligator gallbladder goes missing, the spirits will once again put things right. Some people of Zorzor will not like the answers the spirits give, but all of Zorzor will have a basic trust in them, at least until, as a society, they find a better juju. Maybe they’ll choose a Hindu high thing one day, or a Jesus high thing or maybe they’ll even go after the juju called human reason. Spiritual history tells us, however, the one high thing they absolutely cannot choose, the one juju that is terrifyingly toxic, is the human self. Unto itself, that high thing is fake news. It is a lie, and if we hold it up we won’t be able to believe in anything bigger than ourselves. We won’t be able to speak an oath aloud, one to the other, in communion. We will have succumbed, yet again, to the father of lies and the oldest cosmic juju around.