In what has now become a much-circulated clip, tele-evangelist Pat Robertson makes sense of the catastrophic Haitian earthquake as the latest in a string of curses delivered by God to Haiti’s people. Robertson’s interpretation of this catastrophe, whether we find it repellent or compelling, offers an excellent example of one of the ways religion functions: Robertson reiterates a reassuring framework of meaning in the face of experiences which call such frameworks into question.
The earthquake, rather than evidence of the random and senseless nature of human existence, provides for Robertson evidence of God’s existence and ongoing, partisan involvement in human history. Robertson’s theology provides comfort, too, in its categorisation of the victims of this tragedy as deserving of their fate, insulating Robertson from the agony of identifying too closely with these wounded, mourning, homeless, and hungry fellow humans.
Robertson may be moved by this suffering – his remarks were delivered as the Christian Broadcasting Network raised money for earthquake relief – but his religious anthropology renders this suffering, in his words, “unimaginable,” a stark contrast to anthropologies that urge empathetic relations.
For Robertson, the Haitian people are markedly 'other', a tone that carries through his version of the nation’s history: “They were under the heels of the French,” he says, “You know, Napoleon III, or 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, OK, it’s a deal. And they kicked the French out. You know, the Haitians revolted and got themselves free. But ever since, they have been cursed by one thing after the other.”
This story is, of course, far from true. Robertson offers here a typical demonisation of the Voodoo religion and a Christian distortion of the legend of the 1791 Bois Caiman ritual. Yet Robertson, one imagines, finds animal sacrifice and blood vows repellent, and he has no reason to be accepting of any religion other than his own, ruling them all false and therefore damnable.
In the clearly defined narrative Robertson insists upon, the followers of God can expect rewards while to the followers of the devil, come destruction, blood, and wailing. The troubling aspect of Robertson’s remarks, however, is not the myths he offers to make sense of the world, but what he leaves out of his thumbnail history of Haiti: Unmentioned in his summary is the word “slavery.”
The “true story” that Robertson occludes is that Haiti, the first country to be founded by former African slaves, owes its origin to armed uprising. What began as raids on plantations became full scale revolutionary war, with people who had been regarded as chattels claiming their liberty via the blood of their former 'masters.'
From Nat Turner to Fred Hampton, the armed, independent black person has remained a nightmare image to those who benefit from white privilege in America, an image, indeed, not unlike Cotton Mather’s description of Satan incarnate in New England, that “Black Man” with the power to destroy the social order.
Haitian Independence was an event interpreted by much of the white, slave-owning world of the time as catastrophic. That 'they' would dare – and be able – to seize power called into question pre-existing systems of meaning-making as surely as any earthquake.
The image of black slaves shedding their chains and taking up arms contributes far more than any hobgoblins of the evangelical imagination to the historical 'curses' that have kept Haiti poor and troubled. The history of American relations with Haiti has been indelibly tainted by America’s true devil – the lingering effects of our own schizophrenic founding as a nation insistent on liberty, yet practicing slavery.
Just as racist terror helped shape the stereotype of Voodoo as devil worship, so too, racist attitudes have dominated the history of American relations with Haiti, from the fearful to the patronising, from clandestine political machinations to occupation by military force. It is to be hoped that the current attention on Haiti (for those of us who reject dismissive metaphysical explanations such as Robertson’s) will prompt Americans to examine the racism embedded not just in foreign and domestic political history but, indeed, in our own minds.
Without honest confrontation of the legacies of our past as a slave society, some 'they' will always be demonised and some 'devil' will always be imagined as a mask for our earthly hatreds and fears.
(c) Spencer Dew is an instructor in the department of theology at Loyola University, Chicago, USA.
With grateful acknowledgements to Sightings, and the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School, Illinois, USA.