S&R Fiction

Scholars and Rogues Fiction: Rural Re-Education by Joao Cerquiera

Rural Re-education 

Magdalene introduced Jesus to her colleagues as a friend, one who shared the same concerns for the future of the planet and the fate of mankind. Here was a man sensitive to contemporary problems—a defender of the weak and oppressed, yet unafraid of the powerful. In short, here was a comrade whom they could count on in the coming green battles.

Jesus’s presence made Judas restless. “I’ve already met this guy somewhere,” Judas said. Where had it been? Not required to kiss him, Judas didn’t shake his hand either. He greeted Jesus from a distance and stood watching him. “I’ve seen his face before.” But, unable to remember where he’d met him, Judas stopped paying him any attention and wrote him off as being just some idiot. He had more important things to think about. He called to his colleagues and continued to explain the plan.

Convinced that the influence of the clergy in rural environments had changed very little since olden days, Judas proposed to make use of the priest of St. Martin to pass on the environmental message to the farmers during his sermons. It was therefore important to get to know the shepherd of this flock of snotty sheep in order to involve him in the transhumance against modified genes. The priest would be the intermediary between the environmentalists and the country folk, the bridge that would unite civilization to rusticity, and the beginning of the rural re-education program. In the end, something good would come from this evil GM business.

“Picture the scene,” Judas said. “The bells are ringing and the church is packed with people—the men with caps in their hands, the women with scarves on their heads, each of them fearing divine punishment. Their heads are bowed, but they have hopes of receiving some form of blessing from above. So they repeat prayers without understanding the meaning; they repent the same sins as usual. And then—in a dramatic tone of voice verging on the threatening—the priest begins to warn them that the new corn they have planted is the work of the devil. He tells them anyone who continues to sow it will go to hell, and will roast there with the corn. He’ll say that it is a Christian’s duty to use only plants that God has created and to destroy the others.”

James was  skeptical. “You’re wacko, bro. How many joints have you smoked today?”

“I may have exaggerated a touch,” Judas replied. “But everyone understands the idea. Only the priest will be able to convince them to abandon GM crops. Or would you prefer to go and talk to them?”

“I agree with the plan,” Mary added. “The priest is one of them; he listens to their confessions and he knows them better than anyone else. He’ll be able to persuade them to abandon GM corn. And at worst, he will take a beating.”

John spoke. “I don’t trust priests, though. The church has always been on the wrong side of history. It’s becoming richer and richer, and I’m not surprised that it invests in shares of Monsanto, in oil companies, and in loggers that destroy the rainforests. Why should we place the solution of such a serious problem in the hands of this guy?”

“Judas, didn’t you just ask about the gasoline?” James said. “I have more faith in a can of gasoline than in the entire clergy.”

“Let’s set light to the corn; it’s what they deserve!” cried John.

“They burn the land themselves to clear the soil of weeds and scrub. It’s the environmental method preferable to pesticides. Fire is one of the traditional practices of agriculture,” added Simon.

“Do you want to burn down the whole village?” Judassaid. “Destroy the houses, kill animals, and even kill people? In this case, you can put on your skeleton disguises, which would ensure the appropriate fantasy.”

Before the silence of his colleagues, Judas imposed his plan on them. “To re-educate the peasants and put an end to modified corn, we need neither fire nor scientific reports. Look at the example of liberation theology in Latin America. If the priests can pass on progressive messages to the people, they can also pass on environmental messages.”

James tried to thwart him again, confronting him on the same religious grounds. “Yes, but the majority of dietary prohibitions are imposed on meat and alcohol. Nobody is saying you shouldn’t eat cereals. Millions of people have been taught that they couldn’t eat pork, beef, and animal blood; but nobody has been told that it was a sin to plant and eat corn.”

“Genetically modified corn,” Judas corrected. “If the faithful accept abstaining from eating meat during Easter, then they’ll also accept the ban on planting GM corn for the same reasons—faith in and fear of God. Doesn’t the Pope condemn cloning and artificial insemination? Then he should also condemn GM corn.”

With this statement, any combustible outbursts were extinguished.

Nevertheless, Simon found a spark. “The Vatican has already changed its views. The Pontifical Academy of Science—which, as you should know, expresses its opinion on questions of ethics—approves the use of GM crops in farming.”

Judas wasn’t buying it. “And you think the priest of this parish is that well informed? As soon as he hears talk of genetic modification, he’ll immediately think that these experiments offend the sacred character of life. We just have to direct the reasoning in this direction. This time we will be the ones undercover.”

“Yes,” Simon warned, “you could be right. But we still need to define how we are going to approach this. Are we all going to talk to him? Or should only one of us go? The plan’s success depends on his first impressions of us, and we don’t know what kind of person we’re dealing with.”

Magdalene raised her hand. “I’ll speak with the priest. I went to Sunday school, I was forced to go to mass, I took moral classes, and so I know my way around them. They’re all the same. It might be that these creatures will finally be of some use.  None of you would be against that, would you?”

While Judas had been talking, Magdalene had anticipated the opportunity to introduce new themes in the transformation of the rural mentality; after making the priest aware of the threat of GM crops, she would broach the problems of child labor, children’s rights, and animal rights.

“Take a bottle of wine with you,” Mary suggested.

*     *     *     *     *

Hours later, Magdalene and Jesus found Father Justin outside the church sweeping the yard. The priest didn’t like the expressions on their faces; he continued cleaning, sweeping the dirt in their direction as if he wanted to sweep them far from the church too. A sudden gust of wind lifted the dust and caused it to fly back into Father Justin’s face. Closing his eyes, he coughed and swore. As the sweeping had stopped, Magdalene took the opportunity to approach him.

“Good afternoon, Father. We would like to talk to you.”

Father Justin held his broom in front of him to ensure they kept their distance. “If it’s money you’re after, you can leave!”

“We’ve come to ask for your help, nothing more,” she said. “Help us to protect nature.”

“Protect nature? I’m a priest, not a forest ranger! Nature knows how to protect itself; men are the ones who need to be protected from temptation.”

Magdalene ventured to show him the link between ecology and religion. “If God created nature, is it not a Christian duty to take care of His garden? And wouldn’t it be a great sin to try to correct His work, altering the genes in plants? Would this not be an offense to the Creator?”

Justin was surprised by Magdalene’s logic and was at a loss for words. To gain some time, he retorted with a quotation from the Bible. “God spake unto Noah and to his sons: every moving thing that liveth shall be meat for you; even as the green herb have I given you all things.”[1]

Magdalene used the priest’s statement to reinforce her argument. “Ah, so you agree with us after all. Because if you are saying that it was God who gave life to the animals and plants, you also believe that man has no right to try to imitate Him.”

Father Justin felt as if he was caught in a trap of his own making. He dropped the broom, tightened his grip on the rosary he had in the pocket of his cassock, and looked dispiritedly up to the heavens in search of an angel to help him.

“One step at a time, young lady. It would be better if we continue this conversation inside the church.”

For varying reasons, Father Justin, Magdalene, and Jesus came to a halt as soon as they crossed the door of the temple. For Justin, he took no pleasure in bringing into the house of God two badly dressed strangers with hidden intentions. For Magdalene, entering a church always left her upset, powerless to deal with feelings such as guilt and fear of death. And for Jesus, the discovery of a place where his tragic fate was celebrated, filled with the iconography of suffering, brought disturbing memories to the surface.

In the shadows of the nave, far from the collection box, the conversation continued.

“If you don’t want money, what the devil do you want?” Justin asked.

“As I was saying, nature is being destroyed by irresponsible people,” Magdalene said, “and it is our duty to warn people.”

“Oh, so is this about the Amazon—”

Magdalene interrupted. “You should know, Father, that in this blessed land the hand of God has already been amended by man. The farmers have been duped into planting seeds created by genetic engineering.”

As a country man, born and bred, Father Justin thought perhaps Magdelene wasn’t right in the head. Maybe she was on drugs; that sparkle in her eyes seemed suspicious. “Genetic engineering?” he said.

“Yes, modified plants.”

“Modified plants?” he said. “Do you know what a graft is?”

“This isn’t the same thing; this is done in laboratories and it’s harmful to life.”

“And has anyone died?”

“It’s unknown if there have been any human victims yet, but GM crops are a threat to mankind.”

“Then just where are these modified plants?” Justin asked.

“In the cornfields. There is at least one farm nearby where they have planted GM corn.”

Justin took a deep breath, closed his eyes, and ran his fingers through his bushy eyebrows. “So it’s because of the corn that you’ve come to talk to me?”

“Yes, we’re really worried.”

“Worried about corn?”

Jesus remained quiet, so Magdalene kept talking. “About the corn and about people, because, as I explained to you—”

“Now I see. Now I understand that you really do need help—”

“Yes, we need your support to explain the situation to the farmers and persuade them to go back to traditional farming. As you know, Saint Francis of Assisi and Father António Vieira defended nature, too.”

Justin looked at her with pity. They wanted to teach the Lord’s Prayer to a priest. “You want me to explain to the farmers, to tell them to go back to traditional farming?”

“Before it’s too late, Father.”

“Very well. I’ll prepare a homily that will help you. Come to the midday mass on Sunday,” Father Justin said.

*

That night Father Justin understood it all. Confused by the culture of materialism and without any moral guidance, these young people had lost their way. And after having been at loggerheads in the city, they had come to the country, like dazed cockroaches. The story of threats to nature they wanted to palm off was another of these modern ideas. Today they would defend nature, tomorrow drugs, and next homosexuality. So much misery in the world, and nothing else seemed to matter to them!

If the wolf that he had once killed appeared in front of them one dark night, they would certainly change their opinion about nature. It was earthquakes, floods, droughts, and sometimes wolves that were threatening mankind. And even though they tried to confuse him with talk of the Garden of Eden and the saints—placing plants and animals on the same level as people—it was written in the Bible that God had said, “be fruitful and multiply, and replenish the earth and subdue it.”[2] Venerating nature was no more than a form of paganism, worshiping the creature instead of the Creator.

Those young people without judgment just needed some good advice.

*     *     *     *     *

On the day of Father Justin’s sermon against GM crops and in favor of traditional farming, the environmentalists had turned up to witness in triumph the defeat of the multinationals by a provincial priest. Thus, with the city folk adding to the congregation of country folk, it was now the church of St. Martin itself that was pregnant.

The environmentalists were expecting a reaction of fear and revolt from the hillbillies, as the dread of hell was transformed into the penance of destroying corn—like a GM witch-hunt that would turn every farmer into an environmental grand inquisitor, with the blazing finale a field of crops in flames. Nothing short of a green auto-da-fé, an environmental act of faith. Filmed with their cell phones and posted on YouTube. Even James and John were almost convinced that the priest would be able to conquer Monsanto.

But even in the atrium, this packed rush-hour subway, Judas had to put up with people stepping on his feet and Magdalene had to suffer the protruding paunch of a farmer resting on her rear. And the physical contact was joined by the chemical experience of blended human and animal odors. However, the discomfort of the journey would be compensated by the wonders of the end station the automatic doors would open, and agriculture would be immune to genetic manipulation. Jesus was spared similar unpleasantnesses because, as though he knew what would happen, he had chosen to wait outside the temple—closer to the sky, where there was no new thing under the sun.

As for Father Justin, he was rejoicing. Seeing as his church could neither house all the people of the earth, nor could he speak every language of men, there was at least hope for these young people. In the present as in the past, the prodigal sons would always return to their father’s house. Some in rags, others in modern clothing. Inside the sacristy, having partaken of an extra glass of altar wine, and putting on the lilac cassock that he wore only at Easter, he felt rewarded for never having erred from defending morals and good customs. Just as rain and snow fell from the sky to fertilize the seeds in the earth, his word would also fulfil the fertilizing mission—echoing far away, there in modern Babylonia, to bring the lost sheep back to the fold. And these lost sheep, which he had believed to be just two, were in fact close to a dozen.

Young people reacted like this when they were disoriented. They came to ask for help without really knowing what evil they were suffering from; and the first symptom of being confused was arrogance. It happened to those on the verge of the abyss; they wanted to measure themselves by the depths of the cliff. They were, therefore, delivered to his hands.

Spying on them from the sacristy, out of the corner of his eye, Justin confirmed that the group of young people really did need spiritual help. “Drugs, homosexuality, and defending nature, of course,” he said to himself. In a sudden rush of compassion, he was almost moved by these victims of progress. However, as these poor in spirit were so concerned about plants, he would invite them to help in the grape harvest and then to take part in the local religious festival—perhaps allow them to carry the litter of St. Martin up to the top of the mountain. Maybe they would then better understand nature and its mysteries. Of course, the work would help to re-educate these rascals; penance and atonement would have to wait for later. They had found their road to Damascus, but they still needed to be flung from their horses.

However, prudence recommended that it was not time to change the usual sermon that day—though the church was filled with an influx of believers. Thus Father Justin changed very little in his preaching, with the main difference consisting of raising his voice so that everyone could hear.

And so, to the stupefaction of the environmentalists and to the indifference of the parishioners, the priest read out part of the Apocalypse: “…and the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent called the Devil, and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world: he was cast out into the earth, and his angels were cast out with him.”[3] He addressed his words to the young people:  “And ye, the youngest, are the greatest victims of demonic temptations, but it is your duty to resist them with all your strength…”

Then he quoted the Pope: “And as the holy father Benedict XVI said, debauchery does not mean freedom, but rather slavery and suffering. Freedom that goes against truth is not freedom; it is in serving others through charity that we become free.” Then he moved on to family advice: “Women should obey their husbands, and children should respect their parents.” He expounded on how to achieve harmony in the home: “A slap at the right moment never hurt anyone, and an affectionate punch can save a marriage.” Suddenly furious, he condemned theft: “And as the seventh commandment says, thou shall not steal…” And then he went on to denounce popular beliefs: “And let me warn you again that anyone practicing acts of paganism and idolatry is denying Christian doctrine and has no place in this house.”

He then urged everyone to find a new direction. “Examine your conscience, meditate on your faults, don’t think yourself superior to others, and repent of your sins.” And finally, in the apotheosis of the homily, he once again addressed the young people: “And remember that God gave you free will to choose between good and evil, and that you may be able to escape the justice of men, but you will not escape divine justice!”

Not a word about GM corn and organic farming.

The rural re-education had failed.

*     *     *     *     *

An hour later, a heated meeting took place at the environmentalist camp, during which Judas, with gasoline in his veins, accused Jesus and Magdalene of committing an environmental crime.

“These two traitors sabotaged the plan against GM corn! They are undercover agents working for Monsanto, and have joined forces with the priest to keep farmers in the dark. All the doom that befalls this rural community is their fault. There can be no forgiveness for these people!”

The meeting soon devolved into a summary trial in which the examiner paced around the defendants, those two venomous snakes, and hurled accusations at them. For its part, the crowd howled insults, demanding justice.

There was no council for the defense. No reptile deserved one. So Mary had already grabbed a stone and John the nunchucks.

It all became even more complicated when Magdalene denied the accusation and tried to explain her own surprise about the priest’s preaching.

“You know me, and know this isn’t true! I don’t understand what happened. He promised that he would help us to put an end to GM crops. He said that he was going to prepare a sermon to explain this to the farmers. It’s true that at first he was suspicious; but afterwards he understood the seriousness of the problem. I explained to him the difference between improvements to plants made by the farmers, and the work of genetic engineering produced in laboratories.”

“You’re lying,” Simon interjected. “These provincial priests are horrified by genetic manipulation, by the fact that man can change the work of God. If you had used these arguments, as Judas had explained, he wouldn’t have failed to warn the faithful.”

“But that’s what I said—”

“Liar!” Simon reiterated.

“You’ve fooled us all,” said Mary, before spitting at her.

“Enough talk. Let’s go and set the cornfield alight!” cried James.

At that moment, in which calls to destroy the crop abounded, Jesus tried to dissuade them from turning to violence.

“Wait! Resorting to brute force will end up destroying your cause. After all, it’s not even certain that the corn is genetically modified, or that it can cause so much harm. And even it were true, you still don’t have the right to destroy the work of farmers, to cause them so much damage and a desolation that only someone who works the land can feel.”

But Jesus’s request for peace among men was doomed to fail. And it did nothing to water this dry plant, but only stirred up yet another group that Greenpeace would never support.

“Be quiet, traitor! I hope you hang yourself with remorse!” screamed Judas, shoving Jesus against his comrades, and then slapping Magdalene.

And so it was that instead of ears of corn, it was Jesus and Magdalene who were subjected to a kind of husking, who almost had the linen torn from their bodies.

If the first auto-da-fé had been frustrated, a second had almost been fulfilled. When it doesn’t move mountains or corn, faith lets out tongues of fire.

[1] Genesis 9:1–3.

[2] Genesis 1:28.

[3] Revelation 12:9