Dr. J. Kameron Carter
Associate Professor of Theology and Black Church Studies
Duke Divinity School
Last Tuesday a magnitude 7 earthquake, the same strength quake that rocked San Francisco in 1989, brought the little island nation of Haiti to its knees. It has been reported by some news outlets that nearly one-third of the nation’s population, or somewhere in the neighborhood of about 3 million people, have been affected either by being killed or personally injured or maimed or by being left homeless. It is not an exaggeration to say that the devastation strains one’s abilities to describe.
And it is just this inability to fully capture and conceptualize the devastation that usually presses us, both individually and as a society, to turn to what I call the “God-and-suffering” or theodicy question. Why Lord? Where is God in this? Why has God allowed this? These are all versions of the God-and-suffering question.
Now let me say directly and without equivocation: I don’t like these questions and you shouldn’t either.
I don’t say this to dismiss out of hand the lived reality of pain and suffering that the Haitian people are enduring. Far, far be it from me to do that! And I don’t say it to dismiss the God-question or the question of God-and-suffering. I’m a theologian, so far be it from me to do that either!
Quite the contrary; I don’t like these questions precisely because of how seriously I want to take the lived reality of pain and suffering that the Haitian people are enduring now, and precisely because of how seriously the God-question and the God-and-suffering question must be taken.
Let me explain why I say these are bad questions and that we must let them go.
The problem here is not with the God-and-suffering or the theodicy question as such. It is with the way the question is often posed and taken up, and in its deepest presupposition.
First, a consideration of how it is often posed and taken up in the public imagination:
Often the way the God-and-suffering question is posed prevents us from asking other important social, cultural and political questions. These other questions are those of how the painful effects of natural disaster (such as the earthquake in Haiti) are often made worse due to certain social, cultural and political factors. I don’t mean social factors just within Haiti itself: I mean how Haiti has come to be positioned internationally among the community of nations. This positioning has both a long and a short horizon. The long horizon partly goes back to the slave rebellion against the French that is at the origin of the Haitian nation. The key date here is 22 August 1791, the date that began the Haitian revolution, when a people of African descent became the second people of the New World to resist Old World, European rule. (The first was The United States of America in 1776).
But Haiti’s longer term history goes back further still to 5 December 1492 when Christopher Columbus happened upon this island, claiming it as a colony of Spain. Not too long afterwards African slaves were brought to the island to work the land for the enrichment of European interests.
The shorter horizon of Haitian history is the complex relationship between Haiti and the United States throughout the 20th century, which at one point saw the United States as late as 1947 retaining control of Haitian finances and thus exercising significant control in the country.
This complex and complicated long and short term history has left an indelible mark on the social realities of Haiti. It’s sovereignty as a country was not only troubled from within. It has also been troubled by interventions from other Western powers. These social and political realities, realities both internal to Haiti and external to it, have seriously marked Haiti as a country and its ability, for example, to create the kinds of infrastructure it has needed to thrive. However, the country was making significant progress, economically and politically, of late. Much of its recent progress has been thrown in jeopardy by this devastating earthquake.
Often the way the theodicy question is raised and answered, social factors such as these go unremarked and uninterpreted.
Let’s take as an example of what I’m talking about, the ridiculous (I know no other adjective for it) remarks of Pat Robertson, a Christian evangelical leader and main voice of the Christian Broadcasting Network’s “The 700 Club,” about Haiti.
“Something happened a long time ago in Haiti,” Robertson said, “and people might not want to talk about it. They were under the heel of the French. You know, Napoleon III, or whatever. And they got together and swore a pact to the devil. They said, we will serve you if you’ll get us free from the French. True story. And so, the devil said, okay it’s a deal.”
Robertson went on to say that “ever since, they have been cursed by one thing after the other.” The implication here seems to be that if Haiti had not left French colonial tutelage (with assistance and support from the devil), the country would not be in its present straits. This is an interesting, if not troubling, revision of history built into Robertson’s remarks, for in them he implicitly celebrates the colonial era as one that was pre-Satanic and thus one of supposed Christian (?) bliss for Haiti, with the revolutionary and post-revolutionary period being one of chaos and devastation. Even the New York Times conservative writer David Brooks, much more circumspect to be sure than Robertson, opined last Friday that the restoration of a kind of colonial rule over Haiti by the international community might be what’s needed to bring Haiti back from this devastation and to ensure that its “corruption” and “poverty,” its chaos (my term, not Brooks’s), is held in check.
But to go back to Robertson, his remarks didn’t stop with Haiti’s so-called “deal with the devil.” In other remarks on the Christian Broadcasting Network, he went on to speak of the earthquake as “a blessing in disguise” for Haiti insofar as with so many buildings now leveled, the country will basically have to be rebuilt from the ground up. Moreover, there is the “blessing” as Robertson sees it that the nation might turn from the devil, from voo-doo and such, to God.
There is much else that I could comment upon about Robertson’s asinine remarks. But I won’t, for what I want to stress is the theodicy question and the answer he poses to it inside of his comments. I want to stress how the theodicy question and its answer operates or functions for him as an interpretive grid in this situation. His answer to the theodicy or the God-and-suffering question is an one that actually turns from the anguish of Haitian suffering. Looking away from that suffering, he positions himself as one who stands, metaphysically as it were, above fray of the corpses strewn throughout the streets of Port-au-Prince, above the fray of the mass graves on hillsides and under flattened buildings, above the fray of the cries of agony and the moans of grief coming from the living. Robertson’s is a theodical answer, one that judges the Haitian people in order to justify God or show God to be right in unleashing this devastation, or if not unleashing it, allowing it. This is his justification of God, which in reality is not a justification of God at all. It’s a justification of Robertson and more crucially the vision of the world his comments presuppose.
But sadly, the Robertson posture and approach here is not new.
We saw a version of it in 2005 when hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. At that time, some said that the city was devastated because of religious and sexual licentiousness—“voo-doo and homosexuality are rampant,” some said. God therefore is just in allowing Katrina; those of New Orleans made their own version of a “pact with the devil.”
But what do we see here? The theodicy question was posed in such a way as to abdicate responsibility, to mute social consciousness. Theodicy became a way of rising above or to be disincarnate from (rather than incarnate with) the lived realities of bloated bodies in the streets, hungry persons in the Superdome, and trapped people on roofs and housetops. It was a way of asking the God-and-suffering question so as to never find a way to ask what it meant that race and class distinctions—that is, if you were poor and non-white—more than anything else determined if you were stuck in New Orleans and weeping for help.
But a year before that we saw another version of the poorly framed theodicy question in 2004. This was when a massive tsunami, an ocean earthquake, struck the Asian rim of the Indian Ocean and the coast of Somalia on the second day of Christmas leaving tens of thousand dead. At that time there again were those who raised the theodicy question in such a way as to stand metaphysically above the fray of the devastation of strewn corpses along the beaches. Stepping over the bodies, so to speak, they said that all we can do is “hate death and waste and the imbecile forces of chance that shatter living souls, to believe that creation is in agony in its bonds, to see this world as divided between two kingdoms . . . ,” to quote the remarks of one eminent theologian as he put it in a Wall Street Journal op-ed and then later in a book that took the tsuanmi as the occasion for its reflections on theodicy or God, suffering and evil. What was reflected upon neither in the op-ed nor in the book were the social conditions that could make a tsunami off the coast of the Asian rim more lethal than a similar tsunami off the coast, say, of California.
Put differently, what I am pointing to is the centrality of the social question along with the anthropological question framed in such a way as to doubt the humanity of certain persons (“they made a pact with the devil”; they are sexually licentious, etc.) for the theological and religious question of God, suffering, and evil. Perhaps the social and anthropological question are the real issues at the heart of the religious and theological question of suffering. But it is precisely these issues that poorly framed theodicy questions makes us blind to.
And so, just as we’ve been unable as a society to ask social questions in relationship to suffering and the tsunami of 2004 and in relationship to suffering and hurricane Katrina in 2005, so too we are proving unable to ask social questions as part of the theodicy question in relationship to the 2010 earthquake in Haiti.
But perhaps the real problem in what I have described to this point in this piece lies deeper still. Perhaps tragedies such as the earthquake in Haiti (and Katrina and tsunami in the first decade of the 21st century) reveal a deeper failure. This is the failure, if not the collapse, of a Christian imagination, indeed, of a Christian social imagination committed to and lodged within the incarnation of God in the flesh. For at the heart of the badly posed God-and-suffering question, on the part of Christians especially, is the refusal of the incarnation of God in the flesh and further still the inability to think inside of the incarnation.
For in Jesus, so we confess, God was manifest, not metaphysically above the fray, but in the flesh, in our condition (1 Tim. 3:16). In Jesus, pain and suffering are taken up into God’s identity. This suffering includes the realities of physical and social death, along with the conditions that perpetuate death and suffering. In the person of Jesus, these realities have been decisively dealt with not by a God who is above the fray but by one who is named Immanuel, God with Us, one who walks in the Valley of the Shadow of Death. Jesus’ resurrection from the dead by the Spirit of God points to that form of life within and ultimately beyond the conditions of death. Jesus’ resurrection, which we live into by the Holy Spirit, empowers us now to work within tight spaces—the tight space confronting the world community now is the trauma of the Haitian earthquake—to bring life from death.
If I have called for a moratorium on the bad theodicy question, I’m also calling for a new kind of theodical engagement with the world—beginning right now, with Haiti—rooted in the incarnation of God in the flesh and in his resurrection from the dead.