Haiti and God
THE MOST notorious religious response to the January earthquake in Haiti was Pat Robertson’s pronouncement that Haitians, having made a pact with the devil, are cursed by God. Sadism is one of the works of God. That notion has been properly dismissed. But there are two other religious responses that bear thinking about - one a reaction of piety, and the other of skepticism. With perhaps as many as 250,000 dead, Haiti, including its diaspora, is a nation of mourners. And with hundreds of thousands of others now at serious risk of disease, Haiti’s plight deepens, even as the rest of the world’s attention turns away. The catastrophe continues.
Many Haitians have no where to turn but to God. Their faith may combine elements of indigenous religion with traditions of Christianity, but it is easy to imagine that the suffering of Jesus has taken on paramount importance for a people defined by suffering. What can almighty God, lord of the universe, know of the ordeal of throngs who must otherwise feel utterly abandoned? The story of Jesus answers that question by saying simply, if astoundingly, that God is with them precisely in their agony. God, too, has been abandoned. Here is the core reason that the figure of Jesus has forever been so powerfully embraced by the dispossessed and the downtrodden, beginning with the movement’s first mass adherents, who were the slaves of the Roman empire. Jesus, beaten and powerless, was one of them. And to believe, then, that this ignominious Jesus is the son of God is to have a source of consolation that is available nowhere else. With that consolation comes strength and dignity. Those who believe otherwise make a large mistake in condescending to this faith.
But a world-historic disaster like the Haiti earthquake (the worst there in centuries) raises a more abstract question about God, the question of theodicy. If God is all-powerful, how can God permit the innocent to suffer so? Where does such an instance of what might be called natural evil come from? For many people, the experience of such suffering obliterates the faith by positing as contradictions the received notions of God’s goodness and power. Either God is all-good, or God is all-powerful - not both. In either case, God is not God. Therefore unbelief. Catastrophic interruptions in history - or in personal life - lead to the destruction of overly simple ideas of God, what Einstein called “the dross of anthropomorphism.’’ God is not an executioner. God is not a nanny, either. But, in truth, the challenge to faith goes deeper than that. Is there order in the universe? Is life meaningful? Every person ends up as dirt. What do transcendent impulses amount to then? Are there answers to such questions?
It may be presumptuous of me, from my place of privilege, to say so, but what the people of Haiti may be recognizing right now is that the suffering of Jesus with which they identify was not only physical. He underwent the assault on meaning. Indeed, Jesus was stripped not only of his health and life - but, as the Gospels tell the story, he was stripped of his faith in God. The theodicy question is embedded in the Passion narrative. At Golgotha, Jesus hurled an accusation at the one whom he called Father: “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?’’ These words are from Psalm 22, but that the Gospel of Mark, composed in Greek, puts them in the Aramaic - Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani - points to an actual moment of ferocious disillusionment felt by the historical Jesus. God was not there for him at the time of his greatest need. Christianity was born in the broken hopes not of the first followers of Jesus, but of Jesus himself. Christianity began, that is, without God.
Therefore, let humans do the works of salvation. In addition to sending money to Haiti, and insisting on unflagging US relief aid, the rest of us can at least keep the people in mind. In Lent, Christians retell the story of the abandoned Jesus, for the sake of its consolation, yes. But also to recall its deeper meaning. If a loving God acts in the world, it is through the loving acts of human beings.
James Carroll’s column appears regularly in the Globe.