Jonathan Campbell, a Northern Irish minister, attributes the earthquake in Haiti to the practice of Voodoo. I've just come out of a discussion with him on BBC Radio Ulster.
We discussed this issue after hearing moving testimony about the unimaginable horror with which the country is faced, the numbers killed and starving and the groups of Haitians who have gathered to sing hymns in the midst of this devastation. Campbell expressed his sympathy with the Haitian people and encouraged financial donations to evangelical relief agencies, but insisted it was the practise of Voodoo – a “destructive religion” – that has caused the tragedy.
The US TV evangelist Pat Robertson had made similar comments a few days ago. I had expected Jonathan to say that the earthquake was God’s judgment on Voodoo, but instead he said the Devil had caused the disaster as a result of people worshipping him through Voodoo (why the Devil should attack the very people who are supposedly worshipping him was not explained).
This alarming interpretation ignores the far more tangible and visible consequences of human sin. While an earthquake on this scale would have caused devastation anywhere, the extreme poverty in Haiti means that poor building conditions and the lack of infrastructure made the tragedy far, far worse. In a world in which the means to end poverty are available, the economic structures that prevent this happening are surely sinful. While Jonathan Campbell quoted the Book of Revelation at me (somewhat selectively), he overlooked the reality that the oppression of the poor and vulnerable is the sin that the Bible condemns more than any other.
A small number of churches in the UK may hear references to Voodoo in sermons or prayers about Haiti this morning. However, I’m also worried about comments that may be heard, far more numerously, in more mainstream churches. Faced with tragedy on this scale, some preachers and priests feel a desire to explain it. Such a desire is understandable, but misguided. It easily leads to simplistic responses, such as those that suggest that the earthquake is part of God’s plan. It is not. To say such a thing is to ask us to worship a God who not only hurts people, but targets the poorest and most vulnerable in the infliction of suffering.
We need to get away from the notion of God “up there”, meting out punishment and reward on a whim. The God revealed in Jesus Christ is a God who suffers with us “down here”. From this perspective, the problem of suffering is not an academic question about God’s nature, but a practical one about how we allow the love of God to transform us so that we live differently and tackle injustice.
A God who inflicts suffering – for any reason – is an ogre. The God who in Jesus Christ was nailed to a cross as a political criminal is a God who suffers with us and allows us to glimpse the possibility of a better world.