The Redemption of General Butt Naked: or, Why South Park got it Right

A hulking man lumbers through a Ghanaian refugee camp, full of Liberians who have fled the internecine war that has ravaged their home, looking for victims. He finds a woman and her daughter, as if waiting, and stops. He removes his hat and demands of the woman, Lovetta, “Tell me what happened.”

His massive shoulders and thighs portend an intense physicality, but his gut betrays the passage of time. Whatever this man was, something has changed, but Lovetta and her daughter still cower in his presence. For the next five minutes, we and the man listen as Lovetta describes how, nearly a decade ago, General Butt Naked and his men stormed into her village. Fleeing with her baby girl in her arms, Lovetta is overtaken on the threshold of her home, a rifle smashing the eye of her baby, the man bursting into her home, shooting dead her sleeping husband.

“Forgive me, please forgive me,” the former General Butt Naked, Joshua Milton Blahyi, asks. And it is an ask, even a demand, surely not a request or a plea, for the General is here for redemption, and he’ll have it.

And Lovetta gives it. Both she and her daughter—now crying from both eyes, one of which will never see again, damaged those many years ago—stand and hug the perpetrator at their door. Those massive shoulders embrace them, and as viewers we feel . . . well, conflicted. Too quick? Insincere? Intimidation? What ever has happened, something doesn’t feel quite right.

Cut to the next scene: a simple church, chairs for maybe thirty worshippers, Lovetta and her daughter among them; on the dais, Joshua, now Minister Blahyi; the sermon, the saving grace of Jesus.

“Please come forward,” the Minister Butt Naked (for indeed, even clothed, how could he be other?) asks. Unwillingly, the two women rise and walk forward, still wary and afraid despite the apparent reconciliation. On the stage, Joshua praises Jesus for the power to forgive and to heal, and all this despite the many gruesome crimes he committed—despite his own claim of responsibility for more than 20,000 deaths—Joshua hugs the women and praises Jesus for forgiveness. Murderer and victim’s kin, reconciled, by the grace of God.

But now I’m looking at Lovetta, and I can think only one thing, something I think she too must be thinking: hasa diga eebowai.

To be clear, those aren’t my words, or even the words of any real language. They come from Matt Parker and Trey Stone’s The Book of Mormon, and they aren’t polite. But they are, I believe, the only reasonable response to this scene—God, if you’re out there, hasa diga eebowai.  Unless you’re a Christian. Or, especially if you’re a Christian. See, that’s the rub.

 

The Redemption of General Butt Naked follows Joshua Blahyi over the course of three years as he navigates his new life as a minister of God in a Liberia, slowly and fitfully trying to move beyond its bloody past. At times, Blahyi performs admirable acts: he voluntarily testifies at the Truth and Reconciliation Council (there claiming the disputed and likely exaggerated number of 20,000 victims); he plays the loving father, bringing gifts to his children; he locates former soldiers, not all of them his own, and takes them from the streets and their addictions, offering shelter, food, and the light of Jesus. General Butt Naked has, like Saul emerging from the epiphany on the road to Damascus, become Minister Joshua tending to this flock, the apostle Paul seeking to save the souls of the would-be faithful, if only to assuage his own.

But it’s all much too complicated, at least in the here and now. Preaching to those same former soldiers, Blahyi shreaks the name of Jesus over and over, a battle cry if I’ve ever heard one, and we see in the eyes of both preacher and congregant the old, not yet fully buried zeal and frenzy that leads to war. Discomfort isn’t the word; fear is closer to it. Here are men ready to fight. How close is energy of the righteous to the horror of the assured?

If you can, see this movie, but know that it is complicated beyond measure, and not everything is made clear on initial viewing. For example, in a Q&A with the director/producers after I first saw the film, it was explained that the General was not the one who killed Lovetta’s husband and maimed her daughter. One of his men, yes, but not the General himself. Those 20,000 victims? Joshua is laying claim to responsibility for all the dead conceivably the result of not only his own hand, but also by the hands of those under his command, those around him, or in those who may have been in the general vicinity. Is this exaggerated atonement the extraordinary act of a man willing to be the sacrificial and literal scapegoat of a whole nation? Or, is it bragging? Is it both?

And what of Lovetta? Who is she forgiving and why? In a universe so morally awry, how do we continue to live? Perhaps her willingness to forgive is simply personal catharsis, an opportunity to forgive someone—anyone—so that she and her daughter might begin another life.

But as a Christian, what is her obligation to Joshua? Is it to turn the other cheek? To forgive as Jesus did? When the man himself—the rapist, brutalizer, murderer—comes as a fellow Christian asking for redemption, is it not the moral instruction to forgive—neigh, even to love—one’s enemy? Does not the radical message of Christianity demand that we see in this man the necessity of redemption?

It cannot be so. But for some, those serious about their faith, it must be so. Perhaps there is a new life in all of this, but for me this is precisely the heaven of Ivan Karamozov brought to life, where the murderer and the victim must embrace. The child once impaled upon the lance reaches out and hugs in love he who ripped his entrails. As readers of Dostoyevsky, we realize that true redemption through Jesus necessitates this reconciliation.

And for that, Lovetta, staggering to her feet upon hearing the call, must only be thinking one thing: hasa diga eebowai. Even Alyosha must agree.

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