Pat Robertson may have received a lot of negative attention for his statement that God is punishing Haiti, but there are ways in which churches, and not just Robertson’s, gain ground in the wake of disaster. His message is as common as our world history of power and domination. Geographic exploration, colonialism, and war have all traditionally been ways to convert “the heathens/savages/locals” to more “civilized” ways of living and seeing the world.
That misfortune, disease, poverty, injustice, inequality are all punishment for sin is as old as ideas of redemptive suffering. The more you hurt, the closer you are to God. Why work to end suffering when it will bring you converts, souls? And for the believer, why cry out against the suffering that injustice causes when you’re told that you deserve it?
Michelle Gonzalez Maldonado reminds us, at ReligionDispatches, that churches gain ground after disasters like the one in Haiti. She writes, citing Virginia Garrard-Burnett’s work:
She correlates the explosion of Pentecostalism in Guatemala, who like Haiti, is an epicenter of Pentecostalism in the Americas, in part as a response to the earthquake. An overwhelmingly high percentage of Guatemalans saw the earthquake as a form of divine punishment and a call for repentance. Arriving in the guise of aid and relief, Protestantism provided an alternative way of being Christian. Yet Pentecostalism primarily emerged in Guatemala, as it did in Haiti, disconnected from North American denominations. Indigenous Pentecostalism, with its apocalyptic theology, also gained momentum among Indigenous Guatemalans.
Haiti had barely recovered from the four devastating storms of 2008 prior to this earthquake. The Roman Catholic Cathedral in Port-au-Prince has collapsed, and Archbishop of Port-au-Prince, Monsignor Joseph Serge Miot’s lifeless body was pulled from the ruins of the diocesan offices. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has described the natural disasters that this nation has endured as “biblical” in nature. “It is biblical, the tragedy that continues to stalk Haiti and the Haitian people.” Clinton does not realize that her comments would strike a chord with many Haitians today. Haitian Pentecostals, with their biblical literalism and their certainty that the second coming of Jesus is imminent, could see this time of tribulation as a challenge where the faithful will be rewarded on judgment day. Religion will surely play a role in the manner in which Haitians make sense of this tragedy, and I suspect we will find growing numbers of Pentecostal converts as Haitians attempt to find meaning in what can only be described as senseless and inexplicable suffering.
After crisis, struggling to make sense of death and destruction is easier when you can ascribe reasons to an outside power. Instead of preaching theologically sound ideas of community, mutual aid, justice and compassion, the Pentecostal church has found a way to prey on the fears of those in crisis. Tell them they are being punished for their sins, that their suffering is given by God, and that hurting in shamed silence will save their soul.
Fighting the foreign and national causes of Haiti’s corrupt government, sub-standard buildings, poverty, and inability to care for its citizens, loses urgency when suffering makes you closer to God. If evil comes from God, how can you fight it? If salvation comes from suffering, why demand justice? Of course the government would prefer this type of theology to others – it’s more passive, safer. And it reminds me of how abusers treat their victims: you deserve this punishment; now be good and take it so I can love you again.
The Guardian today corroborates Gonzalez Maldonado’s conjecture with reports on how the Pentecostal church is working to expand in Haiti in the midst of crisis:
With the government’s presence all but invisible, and humanitarian agencies and the UN struggling to cope with the demand for aid, groups of preachers are moving in to fill the void.
“I’ve started a school and we are trying to give people food and clothes,” said Reverend Sauverne Apollon, 75, whose church – the Eglise Mission foi Caribéenne Independence d’Haiti – was one of the first to be constructed in the slum after its headquarters was destroyed in the quake.
“The people need hospital help, food and homes. I’m trying to do what I can,” Apollon added.
As he spoke, UN troops used pepper spray and rubber bullets to contain Pont-Rouge’s residents who were crushing together in their thousands in a queue for water and food. Peruvian soldiers from the UN stablisation force waved their shotguns about in an attempt to repel children who were trying to push into the seemingly endless queue.
Haiti has two official religions: Catholicism and voodoo, and the majority believe in some form of voodoo. But as in the rest of Latin America and the Caribbean, the number of born again Christians has risen sharply over the last 10 years. For Port-au-Prince’s Pentecostal leaders the earthquake is an opportunity further spread their word among the city’s homeless people.
“When God speaks we must listen,” said Apollon, known in Pont-Rouge as “le pasteur”. “The earthquake is God’s voice and He will do other things. The stars will crash down onto the earth.”
Later the article states:
“Whether you are a [Pentecostal] preacher, a Catholic priest or voodoo, it’s the same. Humanity needs to say: ‘Stop. Stop now. Stop the sinning’.”
I think it’s time for a little liberation theology – too an indigenous Latin American product – to revive to counter all that redemptive suffering.