Saturday, January 30, 2010

Human tragedy as ‘Divine Will’? – Wes Bishop refutes right-wing Evangelist Patrick Robertson

above: the body of a child in Haiti - is this God's will?

 Preface: The blog owner is a Christian himself – as well as a socialist and liberal – and would just like to preface this article by insisting that not all Christians seek to rationalize the suffering of innocents on account of ‘divine will’. The crucifixion of Christ was itself an injustice – and those who seek to ‘blame the victim’ should reflect upon such Christian dictums: “do unto others as you would have done to yourself”; “as you do unto the least of these, you do unto me”; and “as you judge so too shall you be judged”. In Christianity and Judaism the example of Job is also illustrative of the point that people should not rush in to judge others when the full context they do not understand.


Human tragedy as 'Divine Will'?

The Italian thinker and writer Ignazio Silone once said, “An earthquake achieves what the law promises, but does not in practice maintain-the equality of all men.” This month the world, and especially the people of Haiti, were reminded of how true that statement is. The stories, footage, and pictures that emerged from the rubble were at both times heartbreaking and a clear reminder of the destructive force the planet can unleash.

The news that once again Haiti had been dealt a heavy blow was especially heartbreaking because of the known suffering that the small island nation has been forced to endure over the centuries. Yet, as the dust settled and the aftershocks subsided, many in the international community came forth to try and rally support for the people of Haiti. This call to arms, led by the Red Cross and the White House came from a well established knowledge that the ills that befall a nation and a people are of two kinds, random events (earthquakes, hurricanes, floods) and man-made disasters (war, poverty, genocide).

However, there was another voice that emerged after the tragedy of the 2010 Haitian earthquake, a voice that needed to prescribe the event to a higher being.

On January 13th the Reverend Patrick Robertson said the following on his evangelical show The 700 Club, “Something happened a long time ago in Haiti, and people might not want to talk about it. They were under the heel of the French ... and they got together and swore a pact to the devil. They said, ‘We will serve you if you’ll get us free from the French.’ True story. And the devil said, ‘OK, it’s a deal.’ Ever since, they have been cursed by one thing after another.”

Robertson’s comments were quickly denounced by many as shockingly unsympathetic to the people of Haiti, and a clear case of blaming the victim for an uncontrollable disaster. Many in the media threw up their hands and shook their heads in disgust, unable to understand how someone could even hold such a thought.

What the controversial televangelist was referring to was the 1791 slave rebellion that occurred on the island of Haiti to overthrow the French colony, and the white slave masters that held the islands kidnapped African population in bondage. According to Robertson, and many other Christian thinkers, the islands slave population made a deal with the archangel Lucifer so as to have assistance in deposing their French masters. Robertson’s comments can best be understood if one accepts the fact that Robertson knows nothing of Haitian history, pluralistic theology, or the basic idea that a nation’s ills come about because of random events, and man-made disasters. Instead, Robertson is much more in tune with the playwright Euripides who said, “A God caused this fate, a God created this disaster.”

Although the Baptist evangelical would most likely disapprove of being compared to an ancient Greek pagan, the similarity in sentiment is striking. In both cases the thought that some vengeful God or an embittered angel is the source of humanities woes goes back to the idea that much of what befalls humanity is not only justified but largely out of the hands of the people on earth.

This mindset, once adopted by the masses, gives religious leaders a huge advantage over rational thought because it allows religious institutions to keep countless people hostage by the fear that they can never risk angering a supernatural creature, and that only through a certain religion will people be able to alleviate the suffering they currently face.

One sees this time and again with religion. The claim is made that all of suffering is somehow mans fault and that if one were to simply accept a God then it would not be so bad. What this does is deeply troubling. It sets up a culture of blaming the victim, slowing human progress, and eventually harming the beauty of faith.

For example let us take the case of Haiti. Anyone who spends even an iota of time paging through the history of the nation knows that the forces of imperialism, poverty, and military despotism are the causes of its ills. Even though the earthquake was beyond anyone’s control, the damage and loss of life could have been reduced. This could have occurred if Haiti had had access to a government that could afford and enforce stricter and safer construction practices for their buildings. As it has been made widely known in the media, a similar quake of nearly equal magnitude hit California a number of years ago resulting in only sixty people losing their lives. Compare this to the tens of thousands that have been killed in Haiti, and it becomes apparent that when governments, either because of poverty or negligence, cannot offer basic services to their people disaster is merely an incident removed.

Accompany this basic thought with the true history of Haiti and Robertson’s comments are not only absurd but a dangerous lesson in how many religious leaders recruit new followers. As it has been mentioned above Haiti was at one time a nation of African slaves. The native population had been wiped out by the white settlers and the plantation owners, in need of cheap labor, turned to exporting humans from Africa to work the various farms of Haiti. Haiti at the time was a highly profitable colony producing much of the sugar that the French Empire used and sold. The white slave owners worked the African slaves so much that mortality rates were so high that very few second generation African-Haitians ever entered the population. Instead, the French colonial plantation owners turned to continuous arrivals of Africans to fill the workforce. This led to a constant renewal of African beliefs and customs, one of which was Voodou. This commonality became a rallying point for many of the slaves. On August 14th 1791 this rallying point occurred with a Voodou ceremony being held at Bois Caiman. While there it was reported that the African slaves prayed to differing deities, known as Loa or Lwa, to help in overthrowing the white slave owners. A pig was then sacrificed and the whole ceremony served as an energizing catalyst to begin the revolution.

Obviously there was no Loa that helped in overthrowing the French, just as there was no Satan. Instead what occurred was much like what happened when the United States declared independence from Britain by meeting in Philadelphia. Finally the Haitians were able to meet, organize, find common ground, and launch a movement. There was no magic in the parchment of the Declaration, nor were there any sprits floating around Independence Hall, instead what the Congress was able to do was nearly exact to what the Africans did, and that is find common ground to start a political movement.

Yet, the Founding Fathers of the United States had one huge advantage over the people of Haiti, and that is they were educated, perceived as somewhat legitimate in Caucasian controlled Europe, and possessing of the knowledge in how to organize a government.

The fact that the soon to be leaders of Haiti were able to go as far as they did is quite impressive. But the lack of infrastructure coupled with the devastating economic penalties France was able to levy, damaged Haiti so much from the outset that it has never really been able to recover.

The sooner nations begin to become aware of this history, and ignore the ignorance of men like Robertson, the sooner the much needed debate on successful foreign aid can be made.

Earlier this month a very important story was overlooked, first for news that Sarah Palin was joining the cast at FOX News, then because of the release of a tabloid book on the 2008 Presidential campaign, followed by a “scandal” by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid when he said a racially insensitive remark in private, and then finally the earthquake in Haiti.

This important story was that a little old woman in Europe died. She was nearly a century old. She never held political office, never led an army into war, and never directed the world on how to pray or believe in God. Instead, she saved a diary for a thirteen year old girl. The diary would eventually be known as The Diary of Anne Frank and the woman was Miep Gies. Through her act of heroics, she and other Christians during World War Two hid Jews from the persecution of the Nazis. She was an extraordinary ordinary person, and one that deserved a hell of a lot more attention than she did when she passed away. The reason I bring her up now is because she said something once that still rings with profound truth, and that is that you do not need to be an extraordinary person to do good. You do not need to lead armies, congregations, or countries to help others. You need only to have a working moral compass, an idea of what is going on in the world, and a desire to help others in order to produce significant change.

One need not look to Gods and Devils, like Robertson and Euripides, to explain humanities troubles. One need not pray to Loas and Angels for extraordinary strength and guidance. One need simply remember the words of Silone and Gies, that in short we are all equal and all struggling together, and that any of us can help make the world a better place.

Wes Bishop
Kettering, Ohio

As this article is being put to bed, news continues to be heard that the people of Haiti are still in desperate need of relief. This is being further compounded with the knowledge that another earthquake hit Haiti just a few days after the devastating first, making it all the more important to donate whatever one can. In these economic times it is understandable that not all can give as much as they would like, but please be on the lookout for ways to help. Thank you.

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1 comment:

  1. I couldn't agree more! The problem, from my perspective (a young Christian socialist from rural Ohio), is that conservativism/Republicanism and Christianity must go hand-in-hand, because the right has a monopoly on religion. The right has done an excellent job of convincing the public that 'Christian politics' is simply the abolition of abortion and preventing same-sex unions. Nothing on humanitarian efforts, care of widows and orphans, or anything Jesus actually said.

    Even the right has somewhat abandoned Robertson on this one, as there are very few people who weren't shocked and disgusted. Later, people tried to say that the media took the quote out of context. Unfortunately, Robertson really did say that. Perhaps more unfortunately, people really do believe that.


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