The Theo-logic Behind Pat Robertson’s Offense

In the wake of the tragic earthquake in Haiti, moderate Christians have been thoroughly embarrassed again by Pat Robertson. In like manner as after 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, Robertson implied that the Haitian disaster is a consequence of an age-old pact with the devil–God has called in his debts. His response has prompted a flurry of commentary on blogs and websites, so much so that the Christian Broadcasting Network issued a response clarifying that Robertson did not specifically call the earthquake ‘God’s wrath’, but simply joined in with “countless scholars and religious figures over the centuries to believe the country is cursed.” CBN further explained that their organization was sending “millions” in medical aid to the country.

This response will do little to abate the fury. Why? Because CBN’s response does not address a deeper issue. Christians are not offended simply because Robertson showed poor taste. Nor are they offended because Robertson is cold and callous–it is because he reveals a perfectly plausible interpretation of Christianity.

Shocked Christians respond with incredulity that Robertson could be audacious enough to ‘explain’ such a tragic situation. Yet in his judgment, Robertson shows a consistency of belief that the offended lack. American Christians are, explicitly or implicitly, inculcated with the belief that God functions as judge. People who believe the right things about Jesus benefit as a result, and people who experience misfortune must be in some way deserving of it. This reading of scripture provides a surprisingly effective way of coping with uncertainty. However, try to explain it to an individual who has just suffered the loss of a loved one—or a country that has just lost thousands. The lie of controlled divine uniformity is exposed by indiscriminate tragedy. The selfishness of an egotistical God is revealed.

What exactly is exposed? The fragility of our world views. The tenuous grasp we have on God and our doubts as to whether s/he exists. The fact that the majority of us will not respond in any tangible way to a tragedy in a far-away country. Embarrassment that we ask ourselves whether we ought to respond in the first place. And just then appears Pat Robertson–Robertson who, unfazed by tragic events, goes right on spouting the same platitudes that others spout on days when it does not matter. Today it matters, though, and Robertson seems oblivious to the fact that today the rules have changed.

Pat is undoubtedly bad public relations. But does Jesus need a PR firm? Shouldn’t He be able to take care of himself? Offended Christians should hold their existential crisis in check and act as they claim Jesus would. Hurting Haitian people don’t need a theological defense, be it one of judgment or love. They need food, shelter, medicine, money and people to help them through this crisis.

Philosopher Paul Ricoeur suggests that in the face of the worst historical tragedies any explanation, no matter how viable, threatens to commit additional violence. Yet we are surprised in the midst of tragedy in part because we ignore the innumerable daily acts of systematic violence that have rendered Haiti impoverished for decades. Natural disaster places an unbearable toll on an already weakened infrastructure. Christians have noted this, but have placed the blame on economic or political sources rather than allowing a place for the impetus that Christianity gives to ideas of manifest destiny and global capitalism. Instead of putting a bandage over Pat Robertson’s social faux pas, though, we should allow the wound to remain exposed a while, reminding us just how little we know, and how fragile we are.

mrecla@umail.ucsb.edu'

Matt Recla is an instructor in the Foundational Studies Program at Boise State University. He holds a PhD in Religious Studies from the University of California, Santa Barbara. He researches the genealogy of violence in the Christian tradition.