Early interpretations of Haiti’s tragedy from the theological frontlines.

By Angela Zito

Listening to The Brian Lehrer Show on WNYC the day after the Haiti quake on Tuesday, January 12, his first local caller—a man named Gabriel from Brooklyn—called all Haitians to prayer: “I’m not going to open my mouth and say that God cast them off or the Vodou and all…” At that point, Lehrer did one of his famous, forceful “Thank yous!”. Gabriel was just the first, local voice I heard mobilizing a theological narrative of divine retribution.

In the wake of disaster, we have come to rely on Pat Robertson to drag in some form of “religion” that sinks the conversation to a puzzling new low from any non-evangelical point of view. We had him on September 11, excoriating feminists and gays for bringing the attack upon America. This time, he blames the Haitians’ “pact with the devil in the 1700s to overthrow slavery for their poverty and bad luck”.

The Devil’s Logic

The best counter thus far to Robertson’s narrative of divine intervention comes from Elizabeth McAlister, who teaches religious studies at Wesleyan. She wrote the wonderful Rara! Vodou, Power, and Performance in Haiti and Its Diaspora and has done fieldwork among Haitians there and in New York for over 25 years. In a short essay for Forbes, “Devil’s Logic,” she first kindly contextualizes Robertson’s remarks in terms of the current interest that evangelicals have in rescuing Haiti from Satan:

The logic goes like this: The reason some places are troubled or impoverished is that ancient people made pacts with un-Christian powers. These were “territorial spirits” living in rocks, trees or rivers. Why did they do this? They did it where people were coping with collective trauma, such as slavery. Since they were not Christian, in their desperation, groups had to enter into pacts with demon spirits. It turns out that this idea works to interpret one of the founding national myths of Haiti.

According to Haitian national history, the revolutionary war was launched on the eve of a religious ceremony at a place in the north called Bwa Kayiman (Bois Caiman in French). At that ceremony on Aug. 14, 1791, an African slave named Boukman sacrificed a pig, and both Kongo and Creole spirits descended to encourage the participants and fortify them for the upcoming battle. The spirits were aggressive, strong and mad at the injustice of the system. The revolution was on.

The evangelical storytellers put an additional spin on this Haitian national story: Satan got the ball rolling by instituting the French slave system. Slavery was the original sin in Haiti, so terrible it created “welcome mats” for more sin and for demonic infestation. The Haitian revolutionaries had no choice but to do business with the devil as a response to his demonic system. Haitians today are burdened with the legacy of spiritual problems that stem from the root spiritual sin of slavery. (But aren’t most Haitians Catholic? Shouldn’t that count as Christianization? For many evangelicals, Roman Catholicism is also a demonic stronghold.) The answer, of course, is to convert Haitians to be born again and “win territory” for Jesus.

McAlister then notes:

Robertson is in the religion business and he is just doing what religion does. Religion’s most practical task is to make sense out of chaos. Religion is in the business of imagining a cosmic order that governs reality and discerns the unseen forces that cause things to be the way they are. Fundamentalists like Robertson see the devil causing mischief in a land where he has gained control. Social scientists cast the unseen forces as political and economic. A big difference in viewpoint hinges on what humans can do to make positive change. For evangelicals, God has a plan and we cannot intervene in it ultimately working out. For social scientists, we can make humane policies, fair trade deals, city planning and environmentally sustainable infrastructures.

Voodoo’s View of the Quake

The next day, McAlister put up an essay for Newsweek laying out an explanation for the earthquake from a Vodou spiritualist perspective:

My friend and colleague, the artist, educator, and priest of the spirits, Erol Josué, has been praying and crying in Brooklyn. Through Twitter, Facebook, and his cell phone he has learned of at least twenty dead friends in several Port-au-Prince congregations…

For Erol Josué, the earthquake was mother nature, the land of Haiti, rising up to defend herself against the erosion, deforestation, and environmental devastation that have been ongoing for the last few decades. “Everybody was smashed to the ground,” said Erol. “Rich and poor. But look how symbolic this is. The Palace is smashed, the legislative building, the tax office, and the Cathedral. The country is crushed. We are all on our knees.” This Vodou priest is not speaking about divine retribution, as has Pat Robertson. God is not punishing us for disobedience. Erol is speaking about a giant natural rebalancing act, a reaction against human dealings with the ecosystem….

When you cut a tree, in Vodou, you are supposed to ask the tree first, and leave a small payment for the spirit of the tree. For years nobody has asked, or listened, or paid the land when making policies or laws in Haiti. Farmers have given up since imported rice undercut their local prices. Whole villages left the provinces, and migrated to the capital, leaving the land behind and swelling the capital city to bursting. The people running the country–from within and from without–have abused Our Mother. She is doing what is natural, like a horse throwing a rough rider.

This interpretation, this theology, is the poignant parable of an exhausted and grieving spiritualist. Others, who may read this and disagree with great force, will not necessarily share it. But Vodou works through spiritual revelation, and this is the revelation Erol gives me today. Vodou has no single spokesperson and no inerrant text. It has God, the angels, and the spirits in the unseen realm. And now there are thousands and thousands of souls, who are being carried, each by a spirit of the dead, into Guinea, the world of the ancestors…

Culture, Nature, God’s Plan and getting on your Avatar

What is the difference between these two cosmologies? Robertson’s reduces nature to something merely acted upon—it is only the object of God’s Plan, and we humans can either cooperate in that plan or not—with dire consequences. Not much room for human agency there, as McAlister points out in her first essay. But in Vodou the spirits are near and rely upon human initiative to fertilize and heal one another and the earth—which is thought of as a Mother. Gives us humans some room to make genuine contributions—along with an obligation of responsibility.

In Vodou, human politics and natural energies form a kind of hybrid mix: the situation in Haiti is another example of how closely a “culture” of greed and stupidity about resources enforced by a rapacious elite and offshore interests entwines itself with “nature.” You get a true creole of life and death. But this creole offers me great hope.

Some of the most interesting blogging on the film Avatar highlights it as a parable about ecosystem plunder and the possibilities of finding a new Eden. I feel that the film in fact has some deep debts to the intricate cosmology of Vodou (or “voodoo” a usage McAlister’s editors atNewsweek no doubt enforced). The best critique of the film I’ve seen so far was made by Mark Fisher, author of Capitalist Realism: Is there no alternative?, on his blog k-punk.

Fisher objects that the film suspends us between the deadness of a plundered Earth and a Pandora’s box of fancy fantasy that we really cannot actually aspire to. We humans really can’t do a thing except hope we can join some other team—an utter and impossible of our “culture” which, he points out, is all we can realistically rely on to help ourselves out of our own mess. He objects that if you separate Bad Culture and Good Nature so thoroughly, you are in big trouble because we have nowhere to go and nothing to do. (See audiences becoming depressed because real life is so unPandora-like!).

I think he’s right—and rebuilding Haiti is going to take a great deal of thoughtful human cultural initiative to make reparations to the earth and its suffering people.

Angela Zito is co-director of the Center for Religion and Media and a professor of anthropology and religious studies at NYU.