Virtue and its opposite
Author Philip Caputo explores Africa, jihad, fanaticism, and faith
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Philip Caputo was a Marine Corps lieutenant in Vietnam and then a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter. The most recent of his seven works of fiction, Acts of Faith (Knopf, 2005), grippingly tells of pilots, aid workers, missionaries, human-rights activists, and soldiers in war-ravaged Sudan. Mr. Caputo's first novel, Horn of Africa (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1980), also cannonballs strong characters into ethical whirlpools.
Mr. Caputo brings vividly to life many scenes-Arab jihadists killing or enslaving black Christians, soldiers of the Sudanese People's Liberation Army fighting the Khartoum regime-that WORLD has covered journalistically over the past decade. He lets us smell, as his characters do, "the acrid stink of sweating horseflesh and sweaty saddle leather," and he skeptically assesses the results.
WORLD: Acts of Faith includes a description of war in Sudan as "a condition of life, like drought. There is war in Sudan because there is war . . . a war whose beginning no one can remember, whose end no one can see, whose purpose no one can remember." What light at the end of this tunnel, if any, do you now see?
CAPUTO: A cease-fire has been in effect in southern Sudan for the past few months. It was brokered through the efforts of former Sen. John Danforth, President Bush's special envoy to Sudan, and the efforts of the Kenyan government. I have no way of determining how firmly it is holding or if it is likely to lead to a permanent settlement, though I hope it does. The conflict in Darfur [western Sudan] appears to be as severe as ever, with no end in sight.
WORLD: One of your main characters in Acts of Faith seems to be speaking for you when he describes two of the other characters as "so American in their narcissism, in their self-righteousness, in their blindness to their inner natures, in their impulse to remake the world and reinvent themselves." Do you see that as an American trait or as a human trait-and how do we guard against narcissism and self-righteousness?
CAPUTO: It is a human trait, but it seems more prevalent in Westerners, Americans especially. It would take a skilled psychologist to tell you how to guard against narcissism, a personality disorder. A knowledge of other cultures and beliefs, combined with a sensitivity to them, can be a powerful prophylaxis against self-righteousness.
WORLD: The life of your vividly depicted American evangelical character, Quinette Hardin, takes unexpected turns. In what ways should evangelicals take your description of her as a warning?
CAPUTO: In large part, the theme in Acts of Faith is how faith, whether it is religious or a belief in some secular ideology or cause, can curdle into fanaticism. I did not create Quinette to be a warning. I was interested in presenting a character whose lack of full self-awareness blinds her to the self-centeredness at the core of her personality. That trait, in turn, leads her to bend her beliefs toward fulfilling her own ends, satisfying her own desires. Someone involved in evangelical or missionary work needs periods of self-examination to insure that the needs of the people he or she is serving are being met rather than his or her personal needs. Quinette's laziness in this respect can serve as a warning if anyone chooses to see it that way.
WORLD: Bureaucrats of the UN and the relief organizations you describe in Acts of Faith seem largely to be making a living out of people dying. In what ways, if any, have humanitarian efforts-including the well-intentioned campaign to buy back slaves and set them free-helped, and in what ways have they hurt?
CAPUTO: There has been some strong evidence that slave-redemptions in Sudan actually perpetuated the trade because those doing the redeeming paid several times the cost a slave would have brought on the open market. Air drops I observed in southern Sudan sometimes delivered food to regions that were not remotely in danger of famine. This routine occurred so often that some southern Sudanese farmers had stopped farming and simply sat back and waited for the UN to bring supplies to them. In effect, they were on welfare and saw no need to work. That's how aid and humanitarian efforts hurt. They helped in the sense that many of the captives who were redeemed would not have been if human-rights organizations had not intervened. As for food deliveries, it is very difficult for aid organizations to determine if they are getting to the right people, but they often do and that's as good a reason as any to continue them.
WORLD: You don't seem to have much patience for images of the saintly poor. Your British character Moody in Horn of Africa says about one of his experiences, "First time in life I'd known real hunger, not some pleasant tummy-rumbling before dinner. Know what that does to you after a while? Makes you nasty." Why do many Westerners, looking from afar, tend to romanticize suffering and forget that it is more likely to make people nasty?
CAPUTO: It is natural, when we see misery and suffering, to want to alleviate it and to pity the victims. Westerners, because they are so prosperous, tend to feel guilty about their own good fortune and to make saints of the victims. One needs to remember that in many parts of the world, today's victims can be tomorrow's perpetrators. As one of my characters, Diana Briggs, observes, it is a mistake to equate poverty with virtue-"it's merely poverty." In so many words, compassion should be uncoupled from sentimentality.
WORLD: You seem to take seriously questions of good and evil. What religious beliefs of your own do you try to convey in your writing? Do you see God and the devil as real, as human projections, or as something else?
CAPUTO: I am the product of a Jesuit education. I take moral problems very seriously. Almost all of my work has been concerned with them. I do not try to convey any doctrinal beliefs of my own in my writing, but I do try to present people facing moral predicaments, choices between doing the right thing or the wrong thing in circumstances wherein it is often very hard to tell the difference between the two. I believe in God and the Devil as real beings. The one is the Divine intelligence who created and sustains the universe, the other is the destructive force. Think of them as two immeasurably powerful currents. Through our own free will, we can choose to tap into one or the other.
WORLD: Your ambivalent narrator in Horn of Africa says after reading the journals of a brutal man, "The picture would not have been so disturbing if it had not been so familiar. . . . The demons who dwelled in him dwelled in me, as they do in all men: the attraction to violence, the need to be free from all restrictions, the impulse to follow one's desires wherever they may lead and without regard for others." Do you see our human natures as inherently good or inherently sinful? If you have any hope for change, what is the basis of your hope?
CAPUTO: I believe in Original Sin, that is, in the fallen nature of man. He is inherently sinful, but he has the power to overcome his inherited demons. The first step in that conquest is to realize that they dwell in each one of us. In Acts of Faith, Fitzhugh Martin makes this observation about his partner, Douglas Braithwaite: "Anyone who does not acknowledge the darkness in his nature will succumb to it. He will not take precautions against its promptings, nor recognize it when it calls." Later in the narrative, he expresses this thought in conversation with Diana Briggs. Speaking of Douglas, he says, "He lacks a moral imagination when it comes to himself. . . . The man cannot imagine himself doing anything wrong. It's a blindness. He can't see his own demons because he doesn't think they exist, and so he's fallen prey to them." Although that sounds stern, there is hope in it. We can behave with virtue so long as we recognize how capable we are of doing the opposite.
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