Friday, January 15, 2010
Devil's advocate: Pat Robertson and Haiti's curse
There's really no better term for Pat Robertson than "Christian extremist" - there's not much point in going over his long history of public outbursts of intolerance, racism, and hatred, except in noting that ordinary Christians (and evangelicals in particular) bear as much responsibility for his ravings as ordinary muslims do for the sermons of Anwar al-Awlaki. That is to say, none.
But Robertson's recent comments about Haiti were particularly cruel and (if I may offer my opinion) un-Christian, even by his standards. During his televised 700 Club program, he said,
"Something happened a long time ago in Haiti and people might not want to talk about. They were under the heel of the French, you know Napoleon the third and whatever. And they got together and swore a pact to the devil. They said 'We will serve you if you will get us free from the prince.' True story. And so the devil said, 'Ok it's a deal.' And they kicked the French out. The Haitians revolted and got something themselves free. But ever since they have been cursed by one thing after another."
Here's video of Robertson making the remarks:
There's pretty righteous outrage from the Christian sphere about this - for example, see Burke's Corner - so I'll leave the theological remonstrations to them. And for what it's worth (YMMV) Robertson did urge his millions of listeners to donate to Haitian relief - unlike the utterly reprehensible Rush Limbaugh.
But it also is worth noting that Robertson makes a historical libel against Haiti as well, one rooted in a colonialist mindset. A spokesman for Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network attempted to do damage control by releasing a statement which actually served to emphasize the historical libel all the more:
On today's The 700 Club ... Dr. Robertson also spoke about Haiti's history. His comments were based on the widely-discussed 1791 slave rebellion led by Boukman Dutty at Bois Caiman, where the slaves allegedly made a famous pact with the devil in exchange for victory over the French. This history, combined with the horrible state of the country, has led countless scholars and religious figures over the centuries to believe the country is cursed. Dr. Robertson never stated that the earthquake was God's wrath.
This is a common theme in the post-colonial narrative about Haiti, which is always described as a "broken nation" or "failed state" in a historical vacuum, as if the woes of this island nation were entirely of its own making. But if you look at the actual history of Haiti, a different picture emerges. In many ways, Haiti is the living proof of the universality of human rights and the true birthplace of freedom in the Western hemisphere.
This history of Haiti is a long one, and so deserves serious scholarship instead of a blog summary. There's in fact a brilliant three-part series published 5 years ago by licensed minister Jean R. Gelin, Ph.D., who was born in Haiti and makes a passionate and inspiring case for his homeland's true history, not as some land of devil-worshipping savages but as a Christian nation, founded in Enlightenment values, and then ravaged and exploited by the imperial powers of the 19th century - especially France and the United States. The three part series, entitled God, Satan, and the Birth of Haiti, is reprinted on BlackAndChristian.com: part I, part II, part III. I can't possibly excerpt enough of it to do it justice, just read the whole thing - but I will note some of main points that Gelin makes:
- Haiti is the only nation in the history of the world where African slaves successfully led a revolution and threw off the yoke of slavery, to win both emancipation and independence from France in 1804. This predated the Emancipation Proclamation by almost 60 years.
- Many of Haiti's first leaders were Catholic christians and invoked their faith's long theological heritage against oppression and tyranny as te basis for their struggle. Haiti remains 80% Christian today.
- There supposed "pact with the Devil" made by leader Boukman Dutty was actually a prayer to the "God of Heaven", not to the Devil or to voodoo pagan gods. The idea that a black savage could be so devout is incomprehensible to those who insist on the devil's pact reading of the events, and they insist that even if Bookman invoked god that day, he must have meant the Devil, because how could a savage understand God?
- the very logic of the "devil pact" libel is nonsensical. Why would the devil want to help them achieve freedom? Why would God be on the side of the slavers? In the Bible, God is always freeing slaves - like the Israelites in Egypt. Does the devil pact libel really make any theologic sense? (Robertson and his apologists are making a theological argument after all, so this is a valid counter argument within that context).
- Even after Haiti's birth, it remained the plaything of imperial powers. One of the major burdens and contributors to Haiti's descent into poverty was a vast sum of blood money it was forced to pay to France as recompense for its own independence. Think about the logic of this for a moment. It is akin to demanding that the descendants of slavery in the United States pay reparations to the US government! And it wasn't just the French who demanded protection money from Haiti either - at various times in its history, Haiti has had to make payments to forces from the US, Germany and Britain.
The United States has remained active in Haiti's affairs in the 20th century, particularly from 1994 to 2004. Even with the best of intentions in recent decades, continued interference has left Haiti utterly dysfunctional and corrupt. Mr. Robertson would have us believe this is all the work of the Devil; maybe in one sense he's correct. But Haiti has never willingly signed any pact with the powers that have dictated it's existence - it's always been on the recieving end. I hope that the aftermath of the earthquake gives Haiti a chance to rebuild itself, in more ways than one - and this time perhaps we can actually help rather than hinder.
Related - Talk Islam's posts on Robertson. Also there's an interesting story about the Polish-Haitian connection. And finally, here's a list of easy ways to donate to Haitian relief, either online, by phone, or via text message/SMS.
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Obama 2008 - I want my country back
Nation-Building was founded by Aziz Poonawalla in August 2002 under the name Dean Nation. Dean Nation was the very first weblog devoted to a presidential candidate, Howard Dean, and became the vanguard of the Dean netroot phenomenon, raising over $40,000 for the Dean campaign, pioneering the use of Meetup, and enjoying the attention of the campaign itself, with Joe Trippi a regular reader (and sometime commentor). Howard Dean himself even left a comment once. Dean Nation was a group weblog effort and counts among its alumni many of the progressive blogsphere's leading talent including Jerome Armstrong, Matthew Yglesias, and Ezra Klein. After the election in 2004, the blog refocused onto the theme of "purple politics", formally changing its name to Nation-Building in June 2006. The primary focus of the blog is on articulating purple-state policy at home and pragmatic liberal interventionism abroad.