Tuesday, January 19, 2010
On Wednesday, Pat Robertson blamed the earthquake in Haiti on a supposed pact colonial Haitians had made with the devil. "They were under the heel of the French, uh, you know, Napoleon the third and whatever ... and they got together and swore a pact to the devil; they said, we will serve you, if you get us free from the Prince. True story."
Yes this is obnoxious because he seems to be blaming Haitians for a natural disaster they can't possibly have caused. But we need to put this statement in perspective. First of all, Robertson has a track record of saying controversial and hurtful things. Remember when he suggested that the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11 were caused by feminists and gays? Second of all, he did not make this stuff up. We have to understand he is part of a larger movement within evangelicalism that sees things through a biblical lens.
Robertson may not actually be blaming Haitians for their troubles, although he doesn't bother to spell that out. He is blaming the devil. Robertson is clumsily simplifying a more complicated story that some branches of evangelicalism have crafted--they might say discerned--in recent years. It's been making the rounds within spirit-filled evangelicalism both in the U.S. and in Haiti. According to this logic, the devil has built a stronghold in Haiti and controls much of the territory there. The people are the victims.
The logic goes like this: The reason some places are troubled or impoverished is that ancient people made pacts with un-Christian powers. These were "territorial spirits" living in rocks, trees or rivers. Why did they do this? They did it where people were coping with collective trauma, such as slavery. Since they were not Christian, in their desperation, groups had to enter into pacts with demon spirits. It turns out that this idea works to interpret one of the founding national myths of Haiti.
According to Haitian national history, the revolutionary war was launched on the eve of a religious ceremony at a place in the north called Bwa Kayiman (Bois Caiman in French). At that ceremony on Aug. 14, 1791, an African slave named Boukman sacrificed a pig, and both Kongo and Creole spirits descended to encourage the participants and fortify them for the upcoming battle. The spirits were aggressive, strong and mad at the injustice of the system. The revolution was on.
The evangelical storytellers put an additional spin on this Haitian national story: Satan got the ball rolling by instituting the French slave system. Slavery was the original sin in Haiti, so terrible it created "welcome mats" for more sin and for demonic infestation. The Haitian revolutionaries had no choice but to do business with the devil as a response to his demonic system. Haitians today are burdened with the legacy of spiritual problems that stem from the root spiritual sin of slavery. (But aren't most Haitians Catholic? Shouldn't that count as Christianization? For many evangelicals, Roman Catholicism is also a demonic stronghold.) The answer, of course, is to convert Haitians to be born again and "win territory" for Jesus.
Put this way, the story appeals to a lot of born-again Haitians who are trying to figure out why Haiti has suffered so much throughout its history. Maybe, they think, this is why the United States did not recognize its 1804 independence from France until 1863, and refused it as a trading partner all those years. Maybe this is why militarism and not democracy has been the rule. Or why the politics of neoliberal economic restructuring have failed so utterly, why Miami companies import rice to Haiti at prices that undercut Haitian-grown rice and why Haiti no longer produces its own food. Or even why people have flooded the capital, causing such overcrowding that the earthquake we see today can inflict this sort of exaggerated damage.
Robertson is in the religion business and he is just doing what religion does. Religion's most practical task is to make sense out of chaos. Religion is in the business of imagining a cosmic order that governs reality and discerns the unseen forces that cause things to be the way they are. Fundamentalists like Robertson see the devil causing mischief in a land where he has gained control. Social scientists cast the unseen forces as political and economic. A big difference in viewpoint hinges on what humans can do to make positive change. For evangelicals, God has a plan and we cannot intervene in it ultimately working out. For social scientists, we can make humane policies, fair trade deals, city planning and environmentally sustainable infrastructures.
Either way, the magnitude of this catastrophe lends itself to apocalyptics. Even Hilary Clinton said on Wednesday, "It is biblical, the tragedy that continues to stalk Haiti and the Haitian people." Evangelical Christians will appreciate her interpretation, since it corroborates their experience that the end times are at hand, that Jesus will soon return to bring in a new heaven and a new earth. Perhaps the national myth of Haiti will also be an inspiration again. The slaves gathered together 200 years ago and vowed that together they could throw off the brutal yoke of French colonial rule. A rag tag army of slaves defeated Napoleon's world-class military machine.
Now Haitians partnering with the global community may have a chance for a new, greener capital city, city planning, civil engineering, education, health care and dignity. Whatever story you subscribe to, though, let's spend as little time as possible giving media attention to Pat Robertson, and focus instead on supporting Haitians.
Elizabeth McAlister is an associate professor of Religion at Wesleyan University. She is the author of Rara! Vodou, Power and Performance in Haiti and its Diaspora and numerous articles on Haiti.
*W.E. A.L.L. B.E. Radio*On Haiti, King, Obama, Race, Religion & Other Matters: A Conversation With The Honorable Rev. C.T. Vivianhttp://www.blogtalkradio.com/weallbe/2010/01/21/Tha-Artivist-PresentsWE-ALL-BE-News-Radio
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