When I first read news yesterday of Pat Robertson’s remarks about Haiti, I couldn’t believe that he had done it again (e.g., here, here, and here). The news report that I read said that he attributed the earthquake to a divine “curse.” Reading further, I found that his “curse” remark actually had more context–a context which only seemed to amplify the offense not lessen it. Read his remarks for yourself below, or watch the video above.
“And you know, Kristi, 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, 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’ll get us free from the French.’ True story. And so the devil said, ‘O.K., it’s a deal.’ “
CBN later released a statement clarifying that Robertson didn’t mean to imply that it was a divine curse but a satanic one. His statement reads, “Dr. Robertson never stated that the earthquake was God’s wrath.”
I don’t know about you, but I was initially pretty perplexed by this narrative that Robertson invoked. The Haitians made a pact with the devil? Really? Where does he come up with this stuff?
I did some digging around and found that he is picking up on a Haitian legend about the founding of their nation. David Geggus wrote about the 18th century Haitian revolution in his book Haitian Revolutionary Studies (Indiana University Press, 2002). He writes about an event that allegedly took place on August 14, 1791 that has become known as “The Bois CaÃ¯man Ceremony” in which a group of Haitian revolutionaries participated in some sort of a Voodoo ceremony which ultimately led to a victorious revolution over imperial powers. Here is one account of what happened from Geggus’ book:
“During the night of 14 August 1791 in the midst of a forest called Bois CaÃ¯man [Alligator Wood], on the Morne Rouge in the northern plain, the slaves held a large meeting to draw up a final plan for a general revolt. They consisted of about two hundred slave drivers, sent from various plantations in the region. Presiding over the assembly was a black man named Boukman, whose fiery words exalted the conspirators. Before they separated, they held amidst a violent rainstorm an impressive ceremony, so as to solemnize the undertakings they made. While the storm raged and lightning shot across the sky, a tall black woman appeared suddenly in the center of the gathering. Armed with a long, pointed knife that she waved above her head, she performed a sinister dance singing an African song, which the others, face down against the ground, repeated as a chorus. A black pig was then dragged in front of her and she split it open with her knife. The animal’s blood was collected in a wooden bowl and served still foaming to each delegate. At a signal from the priestess, they all threw themselves on their knees and swore blindly to obey the orders of Boukman, who had been proclaimed the supreme chief of the rebellion.”
Historians dispute whether or not this event really took place. Nevertheless, Geggus says that “The event’s symbolic importance in the creation of Haitian identity has always been controversial but difficult to avoid even by those who vehemently reject any association between Haitian nationality and vodou” (Geggus, p. 81). In other words, the story is sort of like the legend of George Washington chopping down the cherry tree. It may be a national myth, but it nevertheless forms a part of how Americans think about themselves and their history.
Back to Pat Robertson. If this story is in fact a part of Haitian national identity, then why was it a mistake for Robertson to attribute this disaster to this legendary event? For me the answer is very simple. Not only are the remarks insensitive, but they are profoundly misguided from a Christian point of view. There is no excuse for a Christian to draw upon folklore as the basis for interpreting acts of Providence. God is His own interpreter, not Haitian myths. Robertson should know this by now.
Jesus himself warned against interpreting calamities in such a facile way. Jesus cited two events that would have been first century equivalents of 9-11 and hurricane Katrina, and in both cases he warned against the presumption that the victims were somehow worse sinners than others. Instead, he explains that all of us are sinners and in need of repentance (Luke 13:1-5). The appropriate response, therefore, to such tragedies is compassion for fellow travelers who share our fallen human condition.
There are things that Christians need to say about how God relates to evil and suffering in the world (think for example of Job or Romans 8), and we all need to prepare ourselves to have those kinds of conversations with friends and neighbors. It’s just a part of bearing witness to Christ’s sufficiency in times of tragedy. But I don’t think that’s the example that Robertson is setting here.
Looking forward, let’s pray for the people of Haitiâ€”not only for God to show them mercy in immediate relief from the devastation, but also that God would call forth more worshippers of Him from among the people there. May all of us have words and deeds that serve that end.