Friday, January 15, 2010

The Christian Right and Haiti

California Attorney General and gubernatorial candidate Jerry Brown encourages people to donate to help Haiti and be careful about fraud when doing so: Brown Encourages Californians to Donate to Haitian Relief Effort, but Warns Donors to Avoid Charity Scams 01/14/09. His article provides links to California State information resources on charities.

Just as a tragedy like that in Haiti touches the best impulses with most people, it brings out the worst in others. Scamming is one example. Blatant racial and religious bigotry is another. Below is a list of links providing information on the bizarre accusation by Pat Robertson and on similar hate-spewing incidents.

Robertson is a high-profile Christian Right leader still with real influence among fundamentalist and Pentecostal Christians (see Tristero's heated rant linked below). But it some ways it's more concerning to me to see our old friend Brother Al Mohler endorse this territorial demonology, which is normally more at home in Pentecostal congregations than in those of Brother Al's Southern Baptist Convention (SBC).

Brother Al doesn't have the TV presence or notoriety of Pat Robertson. But he is the president of the SBC's flagship Baptist Theological Seminary, and I've seen him called the leading theologian of today's SBC. The SBC remains the single largest Protestant denomination in the United States, counting at one time former Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton and elected President Al Gore among its members. I don't know about Clinton or Gore, but Carter has separated from the SBC over the hardline, dogmatic fundamentalism and political radicalism of their leadership.

Although the SBC likes to point to its traditional of the local autonomy of its churches, that doesn't mean that national Convention doesn't exercise considerable doctrinal discipline. On the contrary, deviations from fundamentalist positions are viewed with great suspicion in the SBC and its pastors and teachers know that much straying from the national positions can severely limit their careers in the denomination. All of this is a long-winded way of saying that Brother Al's position are taken very seriously by many people in the country's largest Protestant denomination.

Brother Al holds forth in Does God Hate Haiti? 01/14/09.
Here's Brother Al's explanation of why the Pact With The Devil myth is framed in a mealy-mouthed way so that he can deny he explicitly endorsed the notion. But it's hard to see how any reading of this passage could come to a conclusion other than that he's saying very clearly it's a legitimate interpretation. And he puts this one forward before his alibi explanation of how God works in mysterious ways and really does love all those awful demon-worshipping black people down yonder and so on.

In truth, it is hard not to describe the earthquake as a disaster of biblical proportions. It certainly looks as if the wrath of God has fallen upon the Caribbean nation. Add to this the fact that Haiti is well known for its history of religious syncretism -- mixing elements of various faiths, including occult practices. The nation is known for voodoo, sorcery, and a Catholic tradition that has been greatly influenced by the occult.

Haiti's history is a catalog of political disasters, one after the other. In one account of the nation's fight for independence from the French in the late 18th century, representatives of the nation are said to have made a pact with the Devil to throw off the French. According to this account, the Haitians considered the French as Catholics and wanted to side with whomever would oppose the French. Thus, some would use that tradition to explain all that has marked the tragedy of Haitian history -- including now the earthquake of January 12, 2010.

Does God hate Haiti? That is the conclusion reached by many, who point to the earthquake as a sign of God's direct and observable judgment.

God does judge the nations -- all of them -- and God will judge the nations. His judgment is perfect and his justice is sure. He rules over all the nations and his sovereign will is demonstrated in the rising and falling of nations and empires and peoples. Every molecule of matter obeys his command, and the earthquakes reveal his reign -- as do the tides of relief and assistance flowing into Haiti right now.

A faithful Christian cannot accept the claim that God is a bystander in world events. The Bible clearly claims the sovereign rule of God over all his creation, all of the time. We have no right to claim that God was surprised by the earthquake in Haiti, or to allow that God could not have prevented it from happening. [my emphasis in bold]
To me, the most striking part of that comment is, "Haiti is well known for its history of religious syncretism -- mixing elements of various faiths, including occult practices. The nation is known for voodoo, sorcery, and a Catholic tradition that has been greatly influenced by the occult."

Despite political alliances with conservative Catholics, it's still not unusual for cracks like this to show up from fundamentalists indicating they don't think Catholics are real Christians. But Brother Al's accepting of the occult as a real spiritual force capable of shaping the forces of nature is really striking. Without digging too much into the weeds of conservative Protestant doctrine, most Christian ministers in the US would presumably take some form of the position while occult/New Age/esoteric practices fall somewhere between harmless fun and a potential psychologically damaging obsession. Conservative but non-fundamentalist Christians would be inclined to take a harder line, i.e., only those who accept Jesus as their Savior (Christians, in other words) will spend eternity in Heaven and everyone else goes to Hell. In that scheme, any belief system including occultism that leads a person not to be a Christian has unpleasant consequences for one's soul.

But Christianity has also pretty much from the start distinguished between religion and superstition. And the idea that you can conjure the Devil to kill your enemies is just plain old superstition. Now, from Robertson's and Brother Al's versions, that old pact with the Devil back in the day didn't seem to deliver much positive for Satan's alleged Haitian pact-partners. But Brother Al says it's personally reasonable to believe that God decided to make an earthquake to punish those dirty black Satan-worshippers. After all, says Brother Al, "We have no right to claim that God was surprised by the earthquake in Haiti, or to allow that God could not have prevented it from happening."

For those of us cursed with an actual interest in theology, it can be endlessly fascinating to hash over issues like theodicy, the question of the origins of evil. But if your religious outlook excludes the laws of plate tectonics, something is really wrong. Brother Al would have us believe in something like an inverted Santa Claus theory of God, in which He tallies up whose been naughty and nice. And if he sees too many voodoo-loving black people walking around in a place like Haiti, he giggles the earth and kills off a few tens of thousands of them. In traditional religious terms, this is a magical rather than a religious conception, magic in this sense meaning the idea that human beings can conjure divine forces into doing certain things. In the context of the Haitian Pact With The Devil myth, it's kind of a reverse conjuring with God doing the opposite of what the people might want. But it's still literally childish, a little child's sense that if something bad happens, someone must have done something naughty.

In other words, Brother Al and his followers need to grow the hell up in their thinking about God.

A more sensible, and entirely orthodox, Christian view would be to say that in some fundamental sense, all of creation is grounded in God. And that in some way that we don't understand and don't need to understand, God set physical creation in motion. But he set in in motion with its own laws that work the way they work. Including plate tectonics that generate earthquakes. Divine interventions into those laws occurred during Biblical times for the purposes of revelation of God's presence. Official Catholic theology allows for the possibility of such interventions taking physical form, even now, but view the Age of Miracles as having closed with Biblical times. Theologians that embraced a more fully modern paradigm, like the great Protestant theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher, are willing to understand the physical miracles described in the Scriptures as essentially literary/mythological symbols. Symbols which convey important truths but cannot and should not be taken as equivalent to a present-day technical description of physical events.

And Jesus, Mary and Joseph! The point of the Exodus story is not that God made locusts attack Egypt and parted the waters of the Red Sea. The point is that the slaves escaped from their slavery and that God was on their side in doing so! The Haitian Pact With The Devil pseudohistory that Brother Al is defending was a propaganda story invented by defenders of slavery to smear slave revolting for their freedom. Slaves rejecting their master and seeking freedom, that would be the side God supports. According to the Christian Bible. So why is Brother Al defending an anti-God story like that?

Brother Al is a tad slicker in doing so than Pat Robertson. But the story he's defending is still a big, stinking, superstitious, white racist pile of horse manure. I'm just sayin'.

This article in the Christian Post, Robertson Chided for 'Arrogance,' 'Ignorance' Behind Haiti Curse Remark by Jennifer Riley 01/14/09, uses Brother Al's God-works-in-mysterious-ways comments in that article after the paragraphs quoted above to make it sound as though Brother Al was completely rejecting Robertson's statements. But, as I've just explained, that's not at all the case.

Links on the Pact With The Devil story and the religious bigots who are pushing that and other racist sleaze about Haiti:

Haitian Catastrophe: For Racists, a Good Laugh by Mark Potok SPLC Hatewatch 01/14/10

Pat Robertson Is Far More Important Than You Will Ever Be by tristero Hullabaloo

Pat Robertson Not Alone in Demonizing Haiti by Rachel Tabachnick TalktoAction 01/14/10

America and the Devil's (Robertson) Curse by Frank Schaffer Frank Schaffer Blog 01/14/09 (article also appears at the Huffington Post)

The Religion Dispatches site has a number of pieces on the fundamentalist/Pentacostalist demonology over Haiti, including one by the invaluable Sarah Posner:

Pat Robertson and the Curse of Unyielding Ignorance by Anthea Butler 01/13/09 (The term "militant ignorance" also works well for this phenemenon.)

The Theo-logic Behind Pat Robertson's Offense By Matt Recla 01/14/09

Judging Pat Robertson’s Influence by Sarah Posner 01/14/09

“Biblical” Disaster: Understanding Religion in Haiti by Michelle Gonzalez Maldonado 01/13/09

Pat Robertson: No Longer a Relevant Player by Becky Garrison 01/14/09. Good analysis of his message but she understates his continuing influence among conservative white Christians in America.

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