The images and stories coming out of Haiti are gut-wrenching and hard to endure. My family has a special connection to this poor, small Caribbean country. My in-laws were missionaries there, my wife lived there until she was in the fifth grade, and my brother-in-law returned there with the military during the U.S. mission under President Clinton. We’re seeing despairing emails from relief workers in Haiti. At the moment, probably the best response for Americans is to pray and donate to nonprofit organizations set up to offer immediate relief (we decided to go with Food for the Poor).
Of course the blogosphere and twittersphere are abuzz with an off-the-cuff comment by Pat Robertson on CBN. After the news broke of the Haitian earthquake, Robertson went on the air asking for donations for relief and made these comments:
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. 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. And so the devil said, “OK, it’s a deal.” They kicked the French out, the Haitians revolted and got themselves free. But ever since, they have been cursed by one thing after the other, desperately poor.
Robertson, of course, has a history of saying odd, poorly timed things that are easy to parody, such as blaming 9-11 and Katrina on America’s sins. And howls of indignation always follow. For this latest offense, Don Imus said Robertson should be “put to sleep”—that is, executed.
So many people love to hate Pat Robertson; so I figured I’d look into it.
Having watched the video several times, it’s clear that Robertson was not blaming the victims of the earthquake, saying that God brought on the earthquake to punish Haitians, or claiming to know the mind of God. Again, he made these comments in the course of appealing to listeners for help for Haitians.
So what was he saying? Well, first, he was expressing a belief that geographical locations can suffer from spiritual forces, including forces of darkness, brought on in part by the actions of leaders. This is a common belief especially among charismatic Christians, but it’s suggested in the Old Testament, and quite explicitly described in the book of Daniel. Normally, though, it’s applied to things humans do to each other. With earthquakes, we’re talking about what philosophers and theologians call “natural evil.”
Second, he was recounting, in urban legend form, a story that lots of people have heard about the founding of Haiti. And whether you believe any of the issues related to spiritual causality mentioned above, there’s still the question of history: Did the early Haitian revolutionaries make a pact with the devil?
Surprisingly few pundits, so busy shooting at an easy target, seemed to be curious about the historical provenance of the story. But Mathew Yglesias did a little digging, and came up with this:
But was there a pact with the devil? I would also note that the Haitian Revolution began in 1791, years before Napoleon took over France as Consul. Napoleon III didn’t come to power until 1848. So clearly Robertson is confused on the basic history. But I believe that Robertson is referring to the Bois Caïman Ceremony that in Haitian national mythology initiated the revolution. This was a Vodou ceremony and the following text is normally attributed to its leader, Boukman:
The god who created the earth; who created the sun that gives us light. The god who holds up the ocean; who makes the thunder roar. Our God who has ears to hear. You who are hidden in the clouds; who watch us from where you are. You see all that the white has made us suffer. The white man’s god asks him to commit crimes. But the god within us wants to do good. Our god, who is so good, so just, He orders us to revenge our wrongs. It’s He who will direct our arms and bring us the victory. It’s He who will assist us. We all should throw away the image of the white men’s god who is so pitiless. Listen to the voice for liberty that speaks in all our hearts.
If you were a white, Catholic French person or Haitian plantation owner, I can see why you would characterize this as a prayer offered “to the devil.” The black Haitians are postulating the existence of two Gods, one for the whites and one for the blacks. The whites regard the God they pray to as the one true God. So if the blacks are praying to some second god, and doing it with a Vodou ceremony, it stands to reason that they’re engaged in a satanic ritual of some sort.
But there’s no reason for 21st century Americans to accept this interpretation of the story. From the Haitian perspective, I think you’d say they were just praying to God for his assistance and asserting the justice of their cause. This is what pretty much everyone does before heading into battle.
Yglesias’ treatment of the Robertson Affair digs deeper than 95 percent of the other commentaries I’ve read. And, like Yglesias, I think this is the incident on which the “pact with the devil” story is based.
But I think he misses key points. He conflates the “Haitian perspective” (presumably the desire for freedom from oppressors) with the perspective of a voodoo practitioner, which isn’t quite the same thing. He thinks all “21st-century Americans” will think like good secularists, and reduce theological language of prayers to purely political acts. But theology has content. The Bois Caïman Prayer isn’t the Schema Israel or the Lord’s Prayer. Sure, voodoo is not Satanism but it is a syncretistic and, in my opinion, unsavory religion that blends elements of Catholicism with traditional animistic African religion. And it has been a significant part of Haitian culture from the beginning.
This may all seem like a detour for theology nerds, but it ties back to the burning question, which you can ask without answering the tough spiritual questions: why is Haiti so poor? (It is Haiti’s poverty, after all, that causes earthquakes to be not just national emergencies, but humanitarian disasters.) More pointedly, is there something about its cultural, political, and religious history, which differs from other much less poor Caribbean nations, that contributes to its poverty? The role of religion in development and economics is often ignored entirely, but I and many others have argued that the Judeo-Christian tradition, as it worked itself out in some Western countries, gave rise to wealth-producing institutions. Conversely, are there elements to Haitian voodoo that have helped keep the country in poverty? I don’t know the answer but surely that’s a serious, if uncomfortable and easily misconstrued question.
In any case, without the full answer to the question of why Haiti is so poor, we may never know how to help Haitians become prosperous, rather than simply helping them survive in times of dire need.