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for Anglicans Online
and the Devil
On a recent visit to the Église Épiscopale d’Haïti, the Episcopal Church’s largest diocese, I heard a great deal about how many people are claiming — or at least thinking — that the people of Haiti have brought the greatest natural disaster in recorded history upon themselves. In a sermon preached under a tarp next to the rubble left from the collapsed Cathédrale Sainte-Trinité, on March 7, I explicitly repudiated this theology. During the sermon, I had the idea to repeat the text (in English) at St. Paul’s Cathedral, London, where I preached the following Sunday.
After the Eucharist at St. Paul’s, the large crowd passed through the west door of that great church, where I stood with the celebrant, the Reverend Canon Giles Fraser. While most gratified me with enthusiastic comments — rather than the polite and perfunctory thanks usually proffered to the preacher — several remonstrated with me, saying that Haiti had only got what it deserved for worshipping the Devil. It occurred to me that perhaps many more think this, but are too intimidated to speak it aloud.
Vaudou or “voodoo” has gotten a bad rap over the years. Remember George H. W. Bush qualifying Reaganomics as “voodoo economics”? Well before that, I can remember plenty of B-movies with “zombies,” “trances,” “voodoo dolls,” and other aspects, real or invented, of Haiti’s folk religion. It is a very complex subject, and there are plenty of online resources to help one understand it.
Vaudou is essnetially a blend of West African traditions from what is now Bénin and Congo, with features of Roman Catholicism. Slaves from those regions and sold to French growers in the island kept alive the memory of their traditions and found some aspects of Catholicism useful, first for hiding and then eventually for blending in those traditions into a new religion.
Like most native African religions, there is a strong component of ancestor veneration. Le Bon Dieu (in kreyol: Bondye) is the one true God who is benevolent but inaccessible save through mediating spirits called loas. Les anges (“angels”) are various spirits, including the human soul. The point of Haitian Vaudou is to learn Bondye’s purpose for one’s life and one’s family, living and dead, through ecstatic communication with the loas.
Most vaudou is benign in intent, focused on healing, and bringing good fortune, while averting evil influences. A small minority practise petro or “black magic.” One can think of the horrific practices current in some parts of Africa today: poachers who prey upon albinos and hunchbacks in order to sell their body parts to witch doctors for their rites. It is not surprising that similar practices occasionally found their way in the past to Haiti and elsewhere in the Caribbean.
In modern times, both Roman Catholics and Protestants have tried in separate campaigns to stamp out vaudou. To no avail. While its influence has apparently waned in recent years, it remains deeply rooted in Haitian culture. But is it the reason for the earthquake? Did God the Holy Trinity — the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, of Moses and Elijah, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ — cause the earthquake on January 12th in order to punish Haiti for its vaudou? The televangelist Pat Robertson apparently thought so. In remarks made on television the following day, he opined that the people of Haiti had made “a deal with the devil” in order to oust the French in 1804 and had suffered calamity after calamity since. And many Haitian preachers lately have been haranguing their congregations with a similar message.
Those who disagreed with my sermon in London argued that the Bible teaches that God does visit punishment on people for their sins, not only individuals but nations as well. I certainly believe, as St Paul says, that “sin pays a wage, and that wage is death.” But the rest of the verse (Romans 6:23) continues, “but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” There is the contrast between the “wages” (ta ὀψώνια) with “God’s free gift” (χάρισμα τοῦ θεοῦ), something deserved versus something clearly not merited. When God tells Adam and Eve what the consequences of their sin are, this is not a capricious deity making their lives miserable for a peccadillo. Rather, God spells out to them the inevitable consequences of their decision (Gen. 3: 16-19). The dreadful consequences that ensued for nation of Germany came about, by and large, from Germans choosing to follow Adolf Hitler, and were not the result of some divine whim.
Sin requires a decision. And there are the inevitable consequences of decisions we make, good or evil. The essence of sin is to choose the short-term good while aware of the long-term evil consequences, where the good chosen is of vastly lesser order than the evil. We can be forgiven, of course: that is the Good News. Yet some consequences, at least, remain unavoidable.
But are national sins punished by natural catastrophes? Certainly John and Charles Wesley, in their preaching on the dreadful Lisbon earthquake and tsunami on All Saints Day, 1755, thought so. Sin is the cause of God’s anger and the earthquake the result, so repent now and be watchful. The great sin of Portugal, in the Wesleys’ view, was the Inquisition.
This event confirmed their apparent conviction that the end-times, described in Mark 13, were upon them. What happened to Lisbon was to serve as a warning to Britain. Charles Wesley expressed this in a hymn:
Is what happened to Haiti a warning to, say, California? Other than that natural catastrophes will happen to everyone in one form or another, personal and corporate? I think the overall trajectory of the Wesleyan theology is still valid, though not in its specificity to Lisbon: We can and should place our trust in the future wrought by God through Jesus Christ. Human catastrophes are avoidable, yet evil people and evil acts continue, and we are both perpetrators and victims. Sin’s “wage” is great, but the “free gift of God” is greater still.
Furthermore, we also know that in this dynamic creation, including this earth, our island home, massive forces are in tension and mighty events take place when that tension shifts. It is not so much that natural catastrophes happen to us: this we know and can accept. Because of our alienation from God, we cannot find meaning in them. It is easy to interpret earthquakes as “acts of God.” And just as easy to interpret them as the absence of God, as Voltaire did in his 1756 Poème sur le désastre de Lisbonne. But there is a better way.
The text for March 7 this year (Lent III, Year C in the Episcopal Church) was from Luke 13, and these verses were tremendously à propos to my homiletical task: “Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them — do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.” Note well that an accident — eerily like what happened to hundred of thousands of Haitians — is not, in Jesus’ teaching, a means of divine punishment. Refusal to repent , i.e., an informed decision, will leave to “perishing,” however. But not by earthquake. Otherwise those Haitians who survived must logically be better people, more faithful and moral, than the nearly 500,000 who died. The absurdity of this proposition is clear.
I believe myself on solid biblical ground in refuting the Robertsonian theology. But there is a further consideration. If the Haitians brought this upon themselves, why should we help them? In this light, accusations of devil-worship look like self-justification for turning a blind eye to suffering. Over and over again, Jesus taught his disciples that people’s natural misfortunes were not due to divine disfavor and that they could not stand in judgment of such people. See John 9, for instance, the story of the man born blind. “Who sinned,” the disciples ask Jesus, “this man or his parents?” Standing in front of this man’s misery, they ask an abstract theological question, absolving themselves in the process of the need to experience his suffering. Jesus’ reply is that their question is ridiculous: healing is required so that God may be glorified, which he then proceeds to do. The disciples are in effect the blind ones, and he opens their eyes to the fact that God requires that we have compassion for others, just as he has compassion upon us.
Or to put it another way, “For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and the measure you use will be measured out to you.” (Matthew 7:2) Those terrifying words should truly rock our world.
Bishop Whalon welcomes comments or questions about this article. You can write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org