Why God Hates Haiti: The Frustrating Theology of Suffering

Newsweek columnist Lisa Miller discusses this topic below:

Haiti is surely a Job among nations. It is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere: half its population lives on less than a dollar a day. With 98 percent of its forests felled and burned for firewood, Haiti is uniquely vulnerable to flooding from hurricanes. In 2008 four storms in as many weeks left a million homeless. Haiti has an infant-mortality rate worse than that of many African nations, and its people are plagued by disease: diarrhea, hepatitis, typhoid fever, dengue fever, malaria, and leptospirosis are rampant there. This litany doesn't even touch on Haiti's disastrous political history, most notably the reign of François (Papa Doc) Duvalier, who assassinated and tortured more than 30,000 in the 1960s.

Now, with as many as 100,000 dead in last week's earthquake, a sensible person of faith has to grapple with the problem of what scholars call theodicy. If God is good and intervenes in the world, then why does he make innocents suffer? Why, as Job might have said, would God "crush an impoverished people with a tempest and multiply their wounds without cause? He will not let them get their breath."

For Pat Robertson, the TV evangelist, the answer is simple: it's the Haitians' own fault, presumably for practicing voodoo. On the Christian Broadcasting Network last week, Robertson alluded to events leading up to the Haitian Revolution of 1791, history's rare successful slave revolt. On the eve of the revolt, insurgents gathered in a forest called the Bois Caiman to swear a blood oath. "The wind was wailing," reads a passage from Revolutionary Freedoms, a history of the Haitian people. "Heavy drops of rain were falling from a dark and cloudy sky on the ragged leaves of the trees, on the group of men dancing slowly to the sounds of Vodou drum beats." Haitians cherish the story of the Bois Caiman as part of their liberation. Today, nearly all Haitians are Christian; about half also practice voodoo, an adaptation of their African ancestors' native religion.

In his narrow, malicious way, Robertson is making a First Commandment argument: when the God of Israel thunders from his mountaintop that "you shall have no other gods before me," he means it. This God rains down disaster—floods and so forth—on those who disobey.

But Robertson's is a fundamentalist view. It's so unkind and self-righteous—and deaf, dumb, and blind to centuries of theological discourse on suffering by thinkers from Augustine to Elie Wiesel—that one might easily call it backward. Every Western religious tradition teaches that mortals have no way of counting or weighing another's sin. "If that happened to the Haitians because they're so sinful, then why hasn't it happened to him?" retorts Bart Ehrman, a Bible scholar at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.


Theodicy remains the most powerful tool in the atheist's kit...and many a believer has turned away from God over the suffering of innocents. Ehrman did. After a lifetime as a Christian, "I just got to a point where I couldn't explain how something like this could happen, if there's a powerful and loving God in charge of the world. It's a very old problem, and there are a lot of answers, but I don't think any of them work."


HT: Joel Watts


busterggi said...

Still Pat isn't the only one. If Mother Teresa were still alive she'd be orgasming over all the suffering because she was big on that.

nazani said...

I think Bart Ehrman's book is the most insightful commentary on this topic: God's Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question--Why We Suffer

Erp said...

Apparently there is some question among historians about if, when, and what happened at Bois Caiman. To both the subset of Christians that Pat Robertson belongs to and to the Haitians it is a myth whose kernel is probably quite different from the story now.

David Geggus, Professor of History, University of Florida, gives what seems a good description of the evidence.

christophermencken said...

Nice link, Erp. Thank you.

John, great series of postings on Haiti and theology. Great mix of thoughtfulness and in-your-face debunking. All I can say is thank goodness I'm not a Christian so I don't need to explain this one to my buddies at Sunday service.

Let's all find our favorite relief organizations and send a couple more bucks to Haiti.

Ian Packer said...

You're right... Suffering especially on this magnitude calls forth powerful emotional responses and is exasperating to us who believe that there is an ultimately good and loving personal presence behind this universe... and the 'commentary' from the likes of Pat Robertson only add to 'the problem of stupid' (which can be found in the church and also among atheists). Any 'theodicy' that can accept suffering without that anguish and exasperation can't be worth the ink it is printed with.

Ehrman raises good (but of course not novel or unique) questions (raised in the Bible itself). He does remain with the problem that is difficult to answer satisfactorily philosophically - the 'problem' of good (at least from my reading of philosophy in my degree). At least he is honest enugh to admit that though. I appreciated that.

(John, am appreciating your 'How I Became an Atheist' book, even though I come from a different place... AND don't have to deal with the madness that is so much of American Christianity.)

God help us all! (You don't have to say 'amen'.) ;-)

Anonymous said...

Thanks Ian, let me know what you think when you're done with it. It is being used in some college classes by Christian professors. And you don't want to miss the one coming out in April titled The Christian Delusion advanced blurbs and site here. Thanks for your integrity to read what the other side has to say.


Ian Packer said...

Thanks, John.

BTW, as far as you, did James Sennett ever publish that work you refer to on a 'postmodern apologetic'?

Anonymous said...

Ian, no, not that I know of. The most recent communication from him to me can be found here.

I'm a friend of his on Facebook but he hardly ever comments on religion or faith.

Tom Bennett said...

@christophermencken: I'm not exactly sure that explaining things is the Christian's job. Or, at least, the one's who do really end up coming off stupid. I think we're really called more to respond faithfully.

Miles Rind said...

Erp, you are right to cite Geggus. I have been digging through what sources I can find on the internet, including the first two published accounts of the Bois Caïman ceremony (Dalmas 1814 and Gastine 1819, both available on Google Books), as well as Geggus's book, a doctoral dissertation, and a recently published article, and Geggus's account is clearly the most comprehensive and responsible evaluation of the evidence. I have not been able to read Hoffmann's article, but his attempt to deny that there was any meeting at Bois Caïman was most likely a gesture calculated to attract attention. Three of the published accounts of the meeting were based on interviews with the participants, including one case (that of Dalmas) in which the interviews were conducted a few days after the event. Whatever the errors and confusions in these accounts, it is not credible to suggest that they were wholly fictitious.

None of the historical sources, however, make any mention of a pact with the devil. The fundamental reason why Evangelical Christians repeat this canard as a "true story" (as Robertson casually called it) is that they refuse to recognize any difference between the Voodoo religion and the worship of the devil. They have been spreading their bogus version of the events at Bois Caïman at least since 2004, as I report in a piece in my blog called "The Right-Wing Evangelical Libel against Haiti."