I have observed that people go to great lengths to protect God in the face of human tragedy, small or large, never more so than in the face of natural disaster. Such is the case with Haiti. I hear many of us, especially among churchgoers, say to ourselves and to one another: Whatever is, is God’s will. Or, God’s reasons are inscrutable, though they will become clear to us, once we have joined God in the afterlife and see “face to face.” Or God is teaching us a lesson through this event; a greater good can come from this horrific moment. Or suffering is a blessing, an opportunity to live as Christ lived. Or suffering is a test that will temper us like the fires of steel, strengthening us in our faith. In any case, what is required of us in response is to submit to the will of God, however ambiguous, hidden, or unclear.
While for some of us, God simply can’t sustain the weight of such protective measures, nor does God deserve such privileged treatment, for many of us the idea of challenging traditional conceptions of God is particularly unbearable in the face of suffering. This is psychologically understandable. That there might be no God, that God is ultimately indifferent to human suffering, that God is less than all powerful, that the events themselves challenge all attempts to find meaning—such possibilities are less likely to be entertained, because the very idea of meaninglessness, on the face of it, an oxymoron, is too painful to bear. God, the source and center of all meaning for monotheists, must be protected at any cost. Nevertheless, such atheistic and agnostic struggles often historically take place precisely in the face of disaster.
A more typical alternative, however, is to look for human responsibility and deserts in order that God and God’s power might be secured. This is especially the case for those of us steeped in scriptural traditions that emphasize a highly anthropomorphized, personalistic, moody, and mighty God, those of us who approach these texts “literally.” So, for example, Pat Robertson, appearing on CBN, attributes the earthquake, along with a history of natural and social devastation in Haiti, to a slave revolt based on a “pact with the devil.” He calls the earthquake an event that could be a blessing in disguise for the Haitian people, as he calls for repentance among the survivors—all of this moralizing taking place while a ticker tape appeal runs across the bottom of the TV screen for contributions for earthquake relief. This tendency to blame the victims, however, is hardly restricted to the literalists among believers, be they Christian, Jewish, or Muslim. Nor is it necessarily restricted to monotheists. Where God or meaning per se is at stake, the point is in any case to protect.
These responses, whether protective or challenging, are hardly new. One need only consider the Lisbon earthquake to see them play out with a strange familiarity regarding present circumstances. Such a return to the past is sadly telling in relation to the present.
Lisbon: The End of Optimism?
The Lisbon earthquake struck the capital of Portugal on November 1, 1755, All Saints’ Day. Scientists today speculate that it probably registered as a nine on the Richter scale. It devastated the population. Estimates of the number of people killed range from 10,000 to 100,000. At the time the quake struck, worshipers filled the churches honoring their dead. The churches, the worshippers, and the city around them were effectively destroyed. Not long after the major quake hit, a tsunami followed that killed those who had rushed to the beaches in fear to avoid the havoc of the earthquake. The cataclysm haunted European literature, art, philosophy, and theology for decades. The economy of Europe was subsequently affected for some time to come.
The significance of the catastrophe, especially its cause, weighed heavily on Europeans’ minds. That the event took place on a religious holiday, that it took out a major European capital, that the city was devoutly Catholic, all these aspects troubled ordinary people, philosophers, and clergy alike. Issues of God’s goodness in relation to God’s power, as well as the ultimate goodness of this world as the best of all possible worlds because created, after all, by such a god, arose front and center. Some clergy saw the earthquake as a signal for the end of the world. A few philosophers asked for scientific causes. (Immanuel Kant, for example, attributed the earthquake to underground caves filling with gases.) Most folks found either of these approaches less than satisfactory. Today some historians see the Lisbon earthquake as signaling the end of the optimism of the European Enlightenment and the beginning of the anxiety and emotional excessiveness of Romanticism.
“If this is the best of all possible worlds, what are the others?”
Perhaps the best known response falls more into the category of challenging our very notions of God and God’s world as the best of all possible worlds. Voltaire’s Candide: or Optimism presents its reader with a merciless, satirical attack on German philosopher Leibniz’s notion that this world is the best possible world that God could have created, given that God is, after all, both benevolent and all powerful. The central figure Candide, a naïf of the first order, challenges theodicy with the ironclad logic of a child as he proceeds through an adolescent life riddled by personal disaster.
Given human suffering (particularly from natural disaster, and particularly the suffering of those who are not on the face of it evil), how can this possibly be the best of all worlds? And if this is the best of all worlds, what does this have to say about its creator? And if this is not the best of all possible worlds, and still God’s creation is good, what does this have to say about its creator? In other words, if God is benevolent or good, how can God be all powerful, given human suffering? If God is all powerful, how can God possibly be benevolent or good, given the same circumstances? Candide challenged all philosophical attempts at theodicy as feeble and idiotic. In the end, Candide, after much suffering himself and bereft of God, retires to cultivate his own garden. This “final resolution” leaves important issues unaddressed, a point to which I shall shortly return; needless to say, this non-theistic or atheistic view, however well known it may be, is not shared by most Americans.
“Repent, the end of the world is at hand.”
Less known are the clerical responses of the time, which were numerous. Charles and John Wesley (the latter considered the founder of the Methodist movement) preached many sermons on the earthquake. According to Methodist minister Ann Bracket, the Wesley brothers saw the Lisbon earthquake in terms of the biblically-preordained fate of the human race. Their sermons and hymns drew upon the rich resources of Revelation, Mark 13, and the earlier Hebrew prophets. That the Lisbon earthquake was followed by a series of lesser earthquakes in and around London, as well as in New England, was further evidence that God’s judgment was raining down on human sin and calling for a universal repentance, as the world drew to an end. In regard to Lisbon, both shared the anti-Catholic perspective typical of Protestantism at the time (and still lingering with us) that Lisbon, a center for the Inquisition, was a hotbed of idolatry precisely in the very devotion of its inhabitants. That it was a rich city surrounded by rural poverty only further confirmed the Wesley brothers’ views.
Blaming the Victims
In spite of all caution against drawing parallels between past and present events, the resonances between Lisbon and Haiti are irresistible. The idea that sin produces natural devastation reigns in the land of Pat Robertson. The move to blame the victims is just too tempting. Like the Wesleys before him, Robertson issues a call for repentance in the face of divine judgment. Like the Wesleys in their anti-Catholicism, Pat Robertson reads history through a lens of religious bias that interprets all practices and beliefs that he does not share as a pact with the devil, or in the case of the Wesleys, idolatry; in either case the result is the same—blame the victims.
The material conditions of real Haitians and their history as a slave colony never intervene in the face of bad theology. And here story of the two catastrophes differs drastically. In fact, between 1793 and 1801 the people we now call Haitian pulled off a successful slave revolt against nothing less than the armies of Napoleon Bonaparte. On an August evening in 1791, either before or during the revolution (depending on when you date the revolution’s beginning), slaves performed a voodoo rite, Robertson’s “pact with the devil.” That the dominant tradition existing alongside Voodoo is Catholicism implicitly buttresses Robertson’s case.
As for the actual events, however: though slave revolts occurred often throughout the colonies in both Americas, the one that liberated Haiti is the only one to have succeeded. Its success elicited terror among colonialists in Europe and the Americas alike. To forestall possible contact with their own slave populations, colonialists imposed embargoes on Haiti, some of which lasted well into the nineteenth century. The very success of the revolution produced a punishment by all surrounding colonies and territories worse and longer-lasting than the US embargo against Cuba. The unilateral and widespread embargo thwarted recovery and development for close to a century. Prior to the revolt French-ruled Saint-Domingue-now-Haiti was stripped of its natural resources by French occupation. Subsequent to the embargoes, in the early twentieth century, Haiti suffered invasion and occupation by this country at the expense of development on its own terms. All of these conditions—French plundering, colonial and European embargo, and US occupation—produced long-lasting and incomparable poverty and corruption. (The national media keep referring to the poverty but fail to address the history of its production.)
Self-Cultivation and the Ethical Imperative
Voltaire’s resolution to the issues posed by suffering, as manifested through the character of Candide, are as unsatisfactory as blaming the victims on theological grounds to my mind. It’s not the atheism—it is the egocentricity. Some of the most important struggling humans do takes place in a theological arena; so, I encourage all challenges and questions posed about and to God, especially in regard to human suffering. Whether one is atheist, agnostic, religiously affiliated, or self-declared spiritual, an existential struggle with the absurdity of suffering are critical to wisdom. Questions may be predictable and inevitable: “How could this happen?” “Why Haiti? It’s so poor already?” “How could a just God allow such a thing to happen?” “What does this event have to teach us?” But in the last analysis they don’t address the effects of the cataclysm on the dead, dying, and grieving—or the sick, starving, and miserable—from their place in the dramas we call life. What about those irrecoverable losses? Are they merely the collateral damage of our own inner struggles; occasions for testing, edifying, forming, and reforming ourselves?
No, cultivating our own individual gardens, whether performed atheistically or theologically, is not a sufficient response to my mind.
If the Lisbon earthquake has anything to tell us in the face of Haiti here and now, it would have less to do with edification through the contemplation of suffering and more to do with some very practical advice—something like “be careful or here we go again” with our rush to asking all the wrong questions first. I am reminded of Dr. Rieux in Camus’ The Plague. (Why is it the French who always capture such dilemmas so well?) For Rieux, disaster, in this case an outbreak of plague, might well bespeak meaninglessness, but this is irrelevant. The point is to respond, to do any and everything one can, corporately or alone, to minister to the dead, the dying, and the survivors quarantined with them. Ann Bracket concludes her piece on John and Charles Wesley on the occasion of the Lisbon earthquake by reminding her readers that we cannot even begin to know God’s justice unless and until we address injustice in the arena of material human suffering.
In both cases the focus is on the ethical response to the other. Whether atheist or practicing theist, if we are, as President Obama pledges, neither to forget nor to forsake the Haitian people, then we are called to address their misery on their terms and in regard to their needs, over and above whatever questions natural disasters force on us in the face of the suffering they inflict.