General Butt Naked and God in Der Spiegel

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Let me commend for your reading a story in last week’s Der Spiegel on the Liberian war lord General Butt Naked. The article in its English-language version entitled “The Penitant Warlord: Atoning for 20,000 War Crimes” recounts the war crimes of Joshua Milton Blahyi and his subsequent transformation into a priest.

But there is a chauvinism among many newspaper readers that when terms familiar to them are used in a story — “priest” being an example — the word means what they understand it to mean. Call someone a “priest” and many will assume that person is a Catholic, for example. What sort of priest is General Butt Naked?

The 3,600 word article focuses on the question whether Blahyi’s confession and conversion can be believed. It opens with the a summary of his crimes, and adds a hook to catch the reader’s attention.

Blahyi had a reputation for being more brutal than other military leaders. Everyone knows his nom de guerre, which he says he will never lose: General Butt Naked. He was a cannibal who preferred to sacrifice babies, because he believed that their death promised the greatest amount of protection. He went into battle naked, wearing only sneakers and carrying a machete, because he believed that it made him invulnerable — and he was in fact never hit by a bullet. His soldiers would make bets on whether a pregnant woman was carrying a boy or a girl, and then they would slit open her belly to see who was right.

Blahyi is now a priest who goes to chess club on Saturdays.

The article sets his crimes against his current life and beliefs, offering several exchanges between the reporter and Blahyi.

 ”Do you sleep well at night?”

“I am blessed with good sleep.”

“Are you happy?”

“Yes, very.”

“Will you go to heaven?”

“That’s what it says in the Bible. He who believes in Jesus shall not be condemned.”

As it works towards its finish the article states there is no way to measure the sincerity of Blahyi’s convictions, but notes that he does not have to play the penitent to avoid prison or reprisals — there has been a de facto amnesty for war crimes in Liberia.

And it closes with these observations:

On the next day, this is how he describes his purpose: “I believe that God wishes to use me as a sign. No matter how far a person goes, he has the potential to change.”

Perhaps there is a third possibility, one that does not involve Blahyi wearing a mask or being truly reformed. Perhaps Blahyi earnestly believes that he has changed. And the country in which he lives believes him, too. And if everyone believes it, isn’t it true? If Blahyi truly wears a mask every Sunday, the skin underneath has now conformed to the mask. In that case, Blahyi remains a criminal without a judge on earth.

Blahyi’s transformation is not new news. It was the subject of a 2011 documentary entitled “The Redemption of General Butt Naked” and has been covered in news and feature stories for several years. This piece in the Daily Mail entitled “Face to face with General Butt Naked, ‘the most evil man in the world’,” is typical of the reports I have seen.

How then does this article stack up compared to those that have gone before? Pretty well to my eyes. It takes Blahyi’s faith seriously and lets him explain himself — and his crimes. It speaks to victims and to the pastor who brought Blahyi to the Christian faith. I would give it high marks all round.

Where I would want to tighten the story is in the use of religious terminology. Part of the the confusion comes from the translation from German to English — but Blahyi is called a penitant (why not a penitent?) a priest and a pastor. Should not these words be fleshed out for Western readers?

In its 2010 story, the Daily Mail notes that Blahyi was a priest long before he engaged in his terrible rampage. Yet his priesthood was not of the Christian kind, but as an initiate into an African cult.

It is 1982 and as day breaks in Liberia, the Krahn tribe prepares for the initiation of its high priest. Against the sound of the drumbeat, he is taken to an isolated area, led by a man in a carved black mask. The priest stands before an altar, naked.

The elders bring a little girl, unclothe her and smear her body with clay. The priest slays the child.

In a ritual that spans three days, her heart and other body parts are removed and eaten. In the course of those days the priest has a vision: he meets the devil who tells him he will become a great warrior. The devil says to increase his power he must continue the rituals of child sacrifice and cannibalism.

The initiation is complete and the priest is now one of the most powerful leaders in West Africa. The priest is 11 years old. As prophesied, the boy priest grew up to become one of Liberia’s most notorious warlords: General Butt Naked.

Following his conversion to Christianity Blahyi becomes a different type of priest according to Der Spiegel. Some details on what sort of priest or pastor, Roman Catholic, Anglican, African Independent Church, would have put this into greater context and would have added a final gloss to a great story.

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  • Matt

    Blahyi’s Wikipedia page contains more information about his repentance and conversion, which appears to be to an independent Protestant church. The main source for the Wikipedia information appears to be Blahyi’s own autobiography.

  • Brian Westley

    I don’t consider it a “great story” until he’s punished for his horrific crimes.

    • sevines

      I sincerely hope his conversion is true. The Lake of Fire wasn’t made for mankind, even a horrible sinner like Blahyi. Having said that, he should be tried and probably executed for his crimes. If he’s a true Christian, he would agree to this and gain a better reward in Heaven. However, it sounds like he’s been given a reprieve, at least for now.