Haiti, Pat Robertson, and Our Need to Lament

I’ve been hesitant to write and post this, partly because I’ve been busy with other projects, and mostly because I didn’t want to take peoples thoughts and energies on Haiti away from the still-much-needed relief work. (See my earlier post for opportunities to give if you haven’t already.) That being said, I’ve been mulling a lot over the way people generally responded to Pat Robertson’s comments.

I first learned about Robertson’s comments about Haiti when signing on to Twitter and realizing that his name was a “trending topic.” (If you don’t speak Twitter, a ‘trending topic’ is a name, word or phrase that a lot of people are mentioning in their tweets at that moment.) When I first saw Robertson’s name on the list, my first thought was, “He must have died.” It’s not typical that televangelists “trend” in the world of Twitter. Then I started reading what people were ‘tweeting’ about him. To sum up the comments in one word, they were *angry.* It didn’t take long for me to realize he had said something about the earthquake in Haiti comparable to comments he and other fundamentalist Christians have made about the Sept. 11 attacks or Hurricane Katrina. I began to panic a bit inside, knowing how detrimental comments like these are for Christian witness.

Wanting to see things for myself, I went to YouTube and watched the video of Robertson’s comments. After watching it, my panic turned to confusion. I couldn’t understand why people were reacting as they were. Here are some of my thoughts about Robertson’s comments, and the response of the media and general public.

I think it’s interesting that as some people summarized his comments, they accused him of attributing the earthquake to God, who was supposedly responding wrathfully against devil-worshipping Haitians. If you listen carefully to Robertson’s comments, that’s not what he said. He explained this story about the Haitian deal with the devil during the slave rebellion, and said that since then Haiti has been a country marked by poverty and suffering. He never said that suffering was the work of God. As I heard him say this, I assumed he was implying that the devil was the cause of these things.

Regardless of whether or not the “pact with the devil” is historical, Robertson didn’t make the story up himself. I know a number of people who have served as missionaries in Haiti, and I’ve heard them tell some form of this story  on more than one occasion. The story circulates among a lot of Christian groups in Haiti. However, Robertson left out a detail of the story, and this omission is what I found most offensive about his comments. As the story goes, the Haitians made a deal with the devil because the devil was the enemy of the European Christians who were enslaving them and of their God. If there’s any accuracy to Robertson’s opinion, if it’s true that Haitians today are suffering because of a sin committed by their ancestors, then Robertson should have made the comments in a spirit of confession, because Haitians made this “pact” in response to the sinful acts of oppression made against them by Robertson’s, and our, ancestors.

I’m also fascinated by the fact that so many people responded toward Robertson with anger and not dismissiveness. Most people thought that his comments were stupid, laughable, and historically inaccurate. Why not just say, “O, silly Pat Robertson.” and move on? I couldn’t help but wonder if people, albeit subconsciously, wanted to be angry. Perhaps some of us even fear that Robertson was partly right, that God did cause the earthquake. I don’t think God did, but I also know that human suffering almost always leads to theodicy questions and fears in peoples hearts. I wonder if Pat’s comments verbalized what some people were fearing, but afraid to say.

Regardless of how accurate Robertson’s take on the earthquake in Haiti is, I think his comments do at least hint at something truthful that most of us have not talked about. I think that there is a spiritual reality behind the earthquake in Haiti, just as I think that there is a spiritual reality behind any human suffering, whether it be an earthquake in Haiti, genocide in Darfur, or a crucifixion on Golgotha 2000 years ago. However, having read the book of Job, I also know that this spiritual reality is a mystery that we can’t fully understand and certainly can’t reduce to pat answers (no pun intended).

I think this spiritual reality is the reason Scripture includes the Psalms of lament. The anger expressed toward Pat Robertson was appropriate anger, but I don’t think it was expressed in the right direction. The psalms of lament teach us that honest emotions – anger, fear, mourning, confusion – can be expressed toward God, and they provide words to articulate that. What if, rather than expressing anger toward another human being, it was taken to God through prayer, such as Psalm 60? The psalm begins:

O God, you have rejected us, broken our defenses; you have been angry; oh, restore us. You have made the land to quake; you have torn it open; repair its breaches, for it totters….

I think the Christian community needs to recover the use of Psalms such as this, especially in times of suffering. The psalms of lament don’t provide answers to the difficult questions that are inevitably in our minds when exposed to suffering, nor do they assuage the difficult emotions in our hearts. They do, however, give us a language to express these questions and emotions to our God, and it’s only in that context that we’ll find healing.

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3 thoughts on “Haiti, Pat Robertson, and Our Need to Lament

  1. Whether it is the Devil or the Wrath of God is immaterial. I think what elicits such ire is the notion that the Haitians did something in particular to deserve both their endemic poverty and the calamitous destruction of their whole culture. This isn’t, quite frankly, a theologically sound response from a Christian perspective.

    A far more sound response would be the one you suggest from the Psalms. I think the Psalm spoken by Christ from the cross wouldn’t be out of place in Haiti…so long as we remember that it ends with restoration.

    1. Thanks for the comment. I agree that Psalm 22 is a very appropriate lament to pray in this context. I also think that the restoration to which it leads is not only conditional to its use, but essential. The words of confident assurance which conclude most psalms of lament are a part of their value; they take us from grief, confusion and pain to promise, faith and assurance.

      As far as the soundness of Robertson’s theology, I agree that it’s just plain wrong to argue that any people group could bring such a disaster upon themselves. But I also think that saying that the devil is behind a natural disaster is very different than saying that it’s the wrath of God. God exercises his wrath in accordance with justice, and the suffering of the Haitians is anything but just. The devil on the other hand, has other motives, and I think the book of Job shows that the devil can be behind physical suffering, especially when that suffering is unjust. Again, though, speculating over the spiritual realities behind suffering is always a dealing with mystery, and really not the most compassionate response, so I’m going to stop there.

  2. Mike, thanks for this thoughtful reflection. I read his comments and agree that he has been mischaracterized somewhat. His statement was also made in the context of showing compassion for Haiti. However, when reading about this I thought of a quote from Mark the Monk, a 5th century ascetic, which really struck me recently:

    “When reading the Holy Scriptures, he who is humble and engaged in spiritual work will apply everything to himself and not to someone else.”

    Some of the anger at Pat Robertson might really be anger at God, as you suggest. However, it is also possible to be angry that he so easily pointed the finger at the sin of others as the cause of their problems. As Christians, we are prohibited from judging others. Of course, some misunderstand this to mean we can never make absolute statements about morality. We clearly are called to take stands on what is right and wrong. But what Robertson said appears to go beyond that. He makes a judgement about the spiritual standing of the Haitian people before God.

    This is what I find most problematic about his statement, not the specifics of his theodicy.

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