Friday, January 15, 2010

Did the devil pact include earthquakes?

My electronic relationship with Pat Robertson, founder and emeritus leader of the Christian Broadcasting Network and the 700 Club, has had its ups and downs over the years. Quite a while back, Pat, Terry, Lee, and other staff members were regular visitors at our house, via cable transmission from Virginia. We were in periods of theological flux that also involved changing denominational and congregational relationships, and being introduced to a person whose denominational background was the same as ours but who had experienced enhanced depth in his personal relationship with God through the presence of the Holy Spirit in his life was remarkably inspiring to us.
From time to time, we would stop watching the 700 Club for extended periods. This isn't the situation in which to discuss the reasons. But while we might have disagreed, from time to time, with some statements Pat made, on subjects theological and otherwise (one could argue that nearly every public statement Pat makes is theological in one way or another), we have never doubted that Pat's heart is to know God better, speak God's truth more clearly, and bring God's love to a hurting world, wrapped in food, clothes, medical care, and any other possible material form. Since his God is our God, we get it. We haven't watched the 700 Club in a long time, but we still get it.
Since we have "known" (in a long-distance, impersonal, electronic sense) Pat for years, it was not too surprising to hear that Pat had something to say about the Haitian earthquake. It was not surprising, either, to hear that his remarks became controversial pretty much as soon as they left his mouth. I wonder, sometimes, if there are people out there with nothing better to do with their time than monitor Christians with public ministries, waiting to catch them in a real or possible faux pas. Perhaps they're paid to do so. In either case, I wonder if they realize that they are spending a lot of time being exposed to the gospel, and that they are responsible for what they learn. Anyway . . .
So, what did Pat say? He said: "Something happened a long time ago in Haiti, and people might not want to talk about it. They were under the heel of the French . . . and they got together and swore a pact to the devil. They said, 'We will serve you if you'll get us free from the French.' True story. And the devil said, 'OK, it's a deal.' Ever since, they have been cursed by one thing after another."
As a theological putterer with a historical bent, I hunted for some information on the historicity of the story. It seems not to have any verifiable historical basis. I found the following statement from Jean Gelin, a native Haitian, a Christian pastor, and an agronomist with a PhD in plant sciences, posted back in October 2005 on the website

"Have you ever heard how some preachers or theologians try to explain the unspeakable misery that is crippling most of Haiti’s population of 8 million? Everywhere you go, from your television screen to the Internet, what you are most likely to find is a reference to a spiritual pact that the fathers of the nation supposedly made with the devil to help them win their freedom from France. As a result of that satanic alliance, as they put it, God has placed a curse on the country some time around its birth, and that divine burden has made it virtually impossible for the vast majority of Haitians to live in peace and prosperity in their land. Surprising, right?
The satanic pact allegedly took place at Bois-Caïman near Cap-Haïtien on August 14, 1791 during a meeting organized by several slave leaders, under [Dutty] Boukman’s leadership, before launching what would become Haiti’s Independence War. This brutal period lasted 13 years until the last survivors of the French expeditionary forces, dispatched to Saint-Domingue with the sole purpose to re-establish slavery, were allowed by Dessalines to leave the island and return to Napoleon. Those who made it safely to France wrote and reported about the utmost bravery and supreme courage of Haiti’s indigenous army.
Obviously, the idea that Haiti was dedicated to Satan prior to its independence is a very serious and profound statement with potentially grave consequences for its people in terms of how they are perceived by others or how the whole nation is understood outside its borders. One would agree that such a strong affirmation should be based on solid historical and scriptural ground. But, although the satanic pact idea is by far the most popular explanation for Haiti’s birth as a free nation, especially among Christian missionaries and some Haitian Church leaders, it is nothing more than a fantasist opinion that ultimately dissipates upon close examination.
I was born and raised in Haiti, and I am a graduate of the State University in Port-au-Prince. I am also a believer in the Lord Jesus-Christ in accordance with the Bible. In all of my studies of Haitian history, however, I have yet to find a good evidence of even the idea of Satan’s assistance in the Independence War, let alone a satanic pact.
For quite some time now, several articles on the Internet have mentioned the existence of an iron pig statue in Port-au-Prince as a monument to commemorate Haiti’s so-called pact with the devil through Vodou. The statue would be in remembrance of a pig that was killed during the gathering by the African slaves. In an effort to know more about that rumor, I contacted several authors about the exact location of the pig statue that’s incidentally nowhere to be found in the country. Their answer was complete silence, a simple apology, or just the removal of the reference from their texts." 

He goes on to say:

"It’s hard to know where the idea of a divine curse on Haiti following the purported satanic pact actually originated, whether from foreign missionaries or from local church leaders. In his book Ripe Now - A Haitian congregation responds to the Great Commission, Haitian pastor Frantz Lacombe identified a ‘dependence mentality’ in the leadership of the Haitian church, which resulted from the way the Christian faith was brought to the country, historically and through various denominations. Apparently, this unfortunate manner of thinking, which tends to emulate the worldview and culture of North American and European Christian missionaries, has permeated the general philosophy of the Haitian church on many levels, including church planting, church management, music and even missionary activities.
In that context, I would not be surprised if the satanic pact idea (followed by the divine curse message) was put together first by foreign missionaries and later on picked up by local leaders. On the other hand, it is equally possible that some Haitian church leaders developed the idea on their own using a theological framework borrowed from those same missionaries who subsequently propagated the message around the world. Either way, because of this message, Haiti has been portrayed as the country born out of Satan’s benevolence and goodwill toward mankind. Shouldn’t such a fantastic idea be tested for its historic validity and theological soundness?"

(The interested reader should know that I removed references to footnotes from the quotes, and should go to the website to see the footnotes. I did not do a lot of extra looking, so I can't vouch for the historical accuracy of Pastor Gelin's statements, although I noticed several similar notions.)
My first thoughts are two-fold:
1. Pat's statements seem to reflect a common but false notion about the history of Haiti. In a situation in which he felt compelled to say something about the tragedy in Haiti, he should have checked the facts if he was going to discuss that tragedy in light of overarching spiritual conditions. As it is, his statement was irrelevant, which makes any spiritual connections that he thinks he can observe at best meaningless and at worst so false as to be dangerously misleading. That makes them and him irresponsible.
2. The possibility that this situation is related to the history of the introduction of Christianity to Haiti is tragic. If Pastor Gelin's thoughts are at all accurate -- and I cannot evaluate them -- they reflect the Church's frequent insistence that the gospel be brought to people embedded in the culture of those who bring it. That is, evangelists have often -- and I suspect often still do -- attempted to conflate the gospel and their own culture, as if both are needed for salvation. (I am working on my thoughts on whether there can be such as thing as a Christian culture, and the issue of how the apparently false notion of a Haitian deal with Satan came to be is related to that.) That is simply demeaning to native people. Period. So, Pat's remarks take on another aspect: they seem to reflect opinions about Haitian history and culture that degrade the Haitian people relative to European and Euroamerican cultures and missionaries.
Knowing that CBN's Operation Blessing is raising money for ministry in Haiti, and that Operation Blessing has a long history of such ministry in situations where people, of whatever background and culture, are suffering, I am not concerned that it is the position of CBN or Pat Robertson that Haitians had it coming when the earthquake decimated their country.
That said, however, a lesson evangelical Christians should take from the controversy is that we cannot afford to express compassion within the hubris of cultural superiority. Doing so means that our compassion is not real, nor will it be helpful in alleviating human suffering. To the extent that there is an overarching culture characterizing the United States, and I, for one, am not sure there is, it is certainly not superior to others around the world just because we say it is. The gospel of Jesus Christ does not, explicitly or implicitly, endorse our culture and anyone else's. The gospel does, though, explicitly endorse compassion and action to care about and for anyone whose life is traumatized by natural and other events and circumstances.
If you cannot go to Haiti to help, give money to the Red Cross or even to CBN's Operation Blessing. Give generously. Whatever you give will go much farther in Haiti than you might expect.
Pray for the Haitian people. Their lives were, by and large, not easy before the earthquake. Not only have many people -- people who did not deserve this tragedy -- been killed, injured, and made homeless by the earthquake, but many, many more will suffer the same fates. The government was not prepared for anything like this and will probably be very ineffective in caring for its people. And the social unrest that pervaded Haiti before the earthquake is likely to be greatly exacerbated in coming days, weeks, and months, particularly now that the United Nations peacekeeping efforts have been shut down by the earthquake. 
Pray that, in the midst of the current and on-going tragedy and the efforts just beginning to bring help to Haiti, Christians will have many opportunities to assure Haitians that God's love for Haitians is boundless, that God grieves for the suffereing, and that His love has compelled Christians to give their lives for Haitians, following the example of Jesus who gave His life for all of us.
And it might be a good idea to pray that all Christians, maybe especially our leaders, will follow my Granny's wisdom: "Better to keep your mouth shut and be thought a fool than to open it and remove all doubt."

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