ESSAY- After Robertson: God and man in Haiti

Rising like a headland of hope out of a sea of heartbreak, one of the most touching scenes out of Haiti on the Sunday after the earthquake was a religious ceremony held in a makeshift church in the disaster zone that is now Port-au-Prince. Even as fate continues to pile tragedy upon disaster in that forsaken country, the Haitian people continue to find solace in their Christian faith.

Then there's the American televangelist Pat Robertson, who has a different take on things. In case you missed it, Robertson used his pulpit to suggest Haitians have no one but themselves to blame for the parade of horrors that afflicts their country.

Referring to a voodoo ceremony held in the Bois Caïman in 1791, Robertson said that Haitians "got together and swore a pact to the devil. They said, 'We will serve you if you get us free from the prince.'"

As Robertson goes on to tell the story, the devil said okay, 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."

A video clip of Robertson's comments became a viral hit on the Internet, circulated and reblogged by sneering (but secretly delighted) liberals. Writing in the National Post, Rex Murphy called Robertson an "obnoxious ignoramus" and described his mind as "an attic of obsolete and ugly demi-thoughts."

That's one way of looking at it. Another possibility is that Pat Robertson said what he did because he's one of the few people left who actually takes his religious beliefs seriously.

There was a time when Christians found the tragic events of life– human acts of deliberate cruelty, random illness, along with events we quaintly call "natural disasters"– extremely troubling. How, people wondered, can we reconcile our belief in a benevolent and omnipotent God with the existence of what appears to be genuine evil?

Theologians and philosophers have expended a heroic amount of intellectual energy trying to construct a coherent "theodicy," or solution to the problem of evil. The most famous solution is the doctrine of original sin, which means we all have it coming.

The problem is that it doesn't explain why some (e.g. Haitians) have it coming more than others (e.g. North Americans). The philosopher Leibniz argued that this is the best of all possible worlds because God could not improve the world in one way without making it worse in some other way.

This basically amounts to the claim that "God works in mysterious ways," and is not much of an intellectual improvement on original sin.

Leibniz published his Theodicy in 1710. In November 1755, a magnitude 9 earthquake struck Lisbon, and along with a subsequent tsunami and string of fires, killed as many as 100,000 people. The Lisbon earthquake was such a horror show that it became an important driving force in the Enlightenment, because it was so difficult to reconcile with any serious belief in a benevolent God.

The Haiti quake is even worse. Talk about kicking people when they're down. Yet how many Christians– in Haiti, America, Canada, or anywhere else– have we heard now questioning their faith? Almost without exception, God is being held up as a refuge from the suffering, not its cause.

But why is this? Why aren't believers taking to the streets and the airwaves to denounce God for His cruel treatment of the Haitian people? The short answer is that the sort of belief in God that people have now is like a fifth wheel, it simply doesn't do any work or play any role in shaping their behavior. Most believers don't act as if they believe in God; rather, they act as if they want to be seen as believing in God.

The only plausible conclusion we can draw from this is that the vast majority of Christians lack seriousness in their faith, in that they don't actually try to reconcile anything that they see going on in the world with their official belief in a benevolent deity.

Then there's Pat Robertson. He is of the old school, a man who actually believes that Christian belief has some relevance to the world. His "blame the victim" impulse is not personal vindictiveness; it's simply the template for Christian theodicy, handed down through the ages. How do you reconcile seemingly random suffering with divine benevolence?

By finding some moral fault in the seemingly innocent victims, so that it can be chalked up to divine retribution.

So here is the challenge, for all those Christians who were offended by Robertson's remarks: If God isn't punishing Haitians for their pact with the devil, what is He up to? What's your explanation?


Andrew Potter is co-author of The Rebel Sell: Why the Culture Can't be Jammed. This essay, distributed by the Featurewell Service, originally appeared in the Ottowa Times.