Haiti faces the best and worst of Christianity

Earthquake in Haiti, Flickr image by American Red CrossIn times of crisis, people seek to explain what is surely inexplicable. Scientific theories, explanations of why earthquakes and floods occur become less important than a punitive eye-for-an-eye response or indeed, a rush by organisations to feed, shelter and clothe those affected. Christianity is one faith that in times of crisis can be on both ends of this spectrum.

The most recent of world crises is the disastrous earthquake that has shattered the tiny Caribbean nation of Haiti, where 100,000 or more are feared dead, and three million are in need of urgent humanitarian assistance. The earthquake is considered by the UN to be one of the worst humanitarian emergencies ever.

It is in such times that we look to our leaders. For some, they are leaders of government. Others, leaders of religion. Our leaders can come up with a wide range of responses. Haiti has lost both leaders of government and of religion — its Archbishop and its President among others.

US Televangelist Reverend Pat Robertson last week sparked outrage across the world when he claimed Haitians made a pact with the devil to eliminate the French while under colonial rule. 'They've been being punished ever since,' he said. This is one image of Christianity, which is getting much airplay in the international media.

Another image of Christianity is presented in the aid agencies, including Christian agencies, who are already partaking in the massive relief effort in Haiti. While Robertson no doubt sits in air-conditioned comfort in his TV studio in the US, others are donating funds or providing hands-on assistance.

Even before the devastating earthquake, Catholic Relief Services (CRS) was present in 200 locations in Haiti. Jesuit organisations such as the Jesuit Refugee Service and Fe y Alegria have united to assist in the rebuilding.

These are two diametrically opposed images of Christianity — one of judgment and condemnation, the other of empathy and service. The media portrays both at different times. Often it depends on which media we subscribe to. In a nation which largely identifies as Christian, the Christian response becomes important and notable.

Haiti is one of the poorest nations in the world. Yet it is also an extremely religious country, though perhaps not in a conventional pious Catholic or Protestant mould. In this sense, Robertson's comments are particularly unhelpful, especially when Haitians themselves are wondering what went wrong to lead to this disaster.

Some Haitians see the earthquake as a message from God to the whiter-skinned elite. Citing the destruction of centres of power throughout the capital Port-au-Prince, they believe God wishes to challenge the elites to stop corruption and to distribute wealth among the majority who are, for the most part, impoverished and black.

Others see it as a sign that despite their deep religiosity, God has deserted them. The fact that every one of the capital's 81 Catholic Churches was destroyed has been taken as a sign that the Church has not done enough to challenge corruption. Such conclusions are counterproductive. They are less helpful than prayer and action.

A punitive reading of Christianity such as that profferred by Robertson, which pitches God against God's people, damages the reputation of the holy and thankless work of Christian agencies and people. On the other hand, those with a social justice focused reading of the Bible might say it is in the poverty of people in Haiti that God's love truly dwells.

Like in most environmental disasters, commentators and religious figures offer their contributions as to what they believe the Lord is saying by such events. Much talk and comment will come from within the protected borders of western nations, all with something to say about God's hand in the tragedy.

At the same time, hundreds of workers are amongst the rubble, pulling out bodies of people whose lives have been characterised by poverty and suffering. In Haiti, mothers have lost children, people have lost spouses, their country is without governance or resources.

There seems no prayer great enough to justify the bloodshed and suffering. In the aid efforts, in the love of neighbour, and the recovery process, Christianity at its best will be what it truly is: a light in extreme darkness.

Beth DohertyBeth Doherty is Communications Officer, Australian Catholic Bishops Conference and Office for the Participation of Women. 

Topic tags: beth doherty, haiti, earthquake, port-au-prince, pat robertson, pact with the devil, caritas, aid agencies



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I would not dignify Pat Robertson's comments with the name of Christianity. Rather than Satan, Haiti's woes have more to do with American policy in the region and the shoring up of cruel and corrupt regimes. The adage 'he may be a son of a bitch but he's our son of a bitch', attributed to Kissinger of a dictator in Central America, applies here. By the way, CRS is a member of Caritas Internationalis which includes Caritas Haiti, the Caritas of the local Church, as well as many other members of the Confederation - from Mexico to Austria - who have joined their Haitian colleagues to show compassion and solidarity in a coordinated way - unlike many other aid agencies who seem to put sound bytes before people. Caritas Australia is part of the Confederation and is channelling funds to the operational Caritas members.Now that is Christianity!

Duncan MacLaren | 20 January 2010  

Many thanks for your comments Duncan! I recognise your name from Caritas days. In the initial edit I had mentioned that CRS was an agency of Caritas Internationalis but for word length it was taken out.

Just as a post script to this, the President of Haiti himself was not killed, but the presidential palace destroyed, and many members of government lost their lives.

Beth Doherty | 20 January 2010  

Duncan may not wish to 'dignify' Robertson's comments, but others will see them as examples of Christian beliefs unless mainstream Christianity unequivocally denounces them. Silence merely lends support to the arguments of Hitchens and others that mainstream religion tolerates the rat-bag fringe.

And congratulations to CRS for the work that it is doing.

Ginger Meggs | 20 January 2010  

Great article. It's interesting to see Robertson and others interpret tragedy as a punishment from God. There are two stories of creation at the beginning of the Bible. The second, Adam and Eve and snakes and tree fruit off limits, is much older and more mythological in tone. The first, on the other hand, comes much later, when Israel has been cast into exile. And its point, much as in the book of Revelations, is that God will win out, and all shall be well, no matter the challenges of the current situation. Rather than condemnation it bespeaks a remarkable statement of faith. A message we could all surely use at this time.

Cheers as ever to Eureka Street for its good work!

Jim McDermott, SJ | 20 January 2010  

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In 2006 while living in Haiti I wrote about the plight of human trafficking victims. But the same issue of justice doesn't enter the picture when talking about an earthquake. What light could I shed on the enormity of suffering and destruction with my slight contribution?



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