When I heard the news of the Haitian disaster, I naturally thought of Voltaire's poem on the Lisbon earthquake of 1755, in which he so powerfully challenged the antiquated view that natural disasters were a sign of divine punishment.
More than 250 years later, the Rev. Pat Robertson, however, knows better. According to CNN:
To me, killing a paltry 1800 to avenge 40 million seems a very weak deterrent indeed. And why Catholic New Orleans? I'd guess there are a lot more sinners per capita in godless New York or Los Angeles—both coastal cities, after all—so shouldn't we have expected their destruction by water first? Perhaps God just has bad aim. But I digress, so back to Haiti.
The Haitians "were under the heel of the French. You know, Napoleon III and whatever," Robertson said on his broadcast Wednesday. "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 French.' True story. And so, the devil said, 'OK, it's a deal.' "
Native Haitians defeated French colonists in 1804 and declared independence.
"You know, the Haitians revolted and got themselves free. But ever since, they have been cursed by one thing after the other." Robertson has previously linked natural disasters and terrorist attacks to legalized abortion in the United States. Soon after Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast, killing more than 1,800 and wreaking unprecedented devastation on New Orleans, Louisiana, Robertson weighed in with his own theory.
"We have killed over 40 million unborn babies in America," Robertson said on his September 12, 2005, broadcast of "700 Club."
"I was reading, yesterday, a book that was very interesting about what God has to say in the Old Testament about those who shed innocent blood. And he [the author] used the term that those who do this, 'the land will vomit you out.' ... But have we found we are unable somehow to defend ourselves against some of the attacks that are coming against us, either by terrorists or now by natural disaster? Could they be connected in some way?"
Where to begin (aside from the turgid prose and the fact that the devil does not exist)? Well, perhaps with the fact that Napoleon III (Napoléon le Petit) did not come to power until 1851 whereas the great Napoleon I—the intended subject here—became emperor in 1804. (can it be that Robertson ripped this off from and misunderstood the typography on the site of a term paper mill: note what looks like "III" there) Yeah: "whatever." Whoops. But what's a half-century (or one or two Napoleons) when you have the ear of God and the mind of Elmer Gantry?
Roberston is presumably referring to the voudou ceremony of the rebels of 1791, led by the high priest Boukman:
The god who created the sun which gives us light, who rouses the waves and rules the storm, though hidden in the clouds, he watches us. He sees all that the white man does. The god of the white man inspires him with crime, but our god calls upon us to do good works. Our god who is good to us orders us to avenge our wrongs. He will direct our arms and aid us. Throw away the symbol of the god of the whites who has so often caused us to weep, and listen to the voice of liberty, which speaks in the heart of us all.The real point, of course, is that Robertson's vaporings are as stupid as they are vicious. How ironic that the man who (as I seem to recall) used to boast that he was related to Thomas Jefferson utterly failed to absorb the ideals of Enlightenment so dear to the "Sage of Monticello." On the other hand, he seems to retain the third president's hostility to the Haitian Revolution. Still, at least Jefferson was a slave-holder and had a clear material interest in the matter. What's Robertson's excuse?
—C. L. R. James, The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L'Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution, second ed. (NY: Vintage Books, 1963), 87
He's not alone in his derangement, of course, for inhumane superstition knows no theological or national boundaries. We are all too familiar with the idiocy that welled up (if I were popular novelist and atrocious writer Damn Brown, I would say: "burgeoned") following the 2005 tsunami: from the usual blanket condemnations by Muslim fundamentalists to the more bizarre assertion that the word, "Allah," appeared in the waves at the time of the disaster. The Jews are not immune. Stretching credulity still further, the Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel suggested that Hurricane Katrina was God's punishment for George W. Bush's support (got that?) for Israel's pullout from Gaza and the Northern West Bank. Again, I may be as thick as a whale omelet (to cite "Blackadder," for rest assured, I know full well that a cetacean is a mammal), but wouldn't it be a lot more efficient to punish Israel (again, another region with an ocean coastline) directly rather than to attack those poor Cajuns? Does God want to increase antisemitism and make Americans (like the Germans of yore) say: "The Jews are our misfortune"?
What is at work here is a distortion of true theology. The original biblical notions of divine collective reward and punishment were in fact a recognition of humanity and humility, and a call to communal repentance and reform. All traditional western religions incorporated some notion of this sort. Sadly, today it is only the fundamentalists (who, as any serious historian will tell you, represent a very modern rather than traditional doctrine and temperament) who uphold this belief in such distorted form.
Over 250 years ago, Voltaire already furnished a reply to Robertson and his ilk. I'll repeat a portion of the passage I cited earlier and add another:
Say, will you then eternal laws maintain,To conclude, though: Among the various theological responses to recent disasters, I have always found most congenial that of the Chief Rabbi of England, in a broadcast following the tsunami of 2005. Judaism, as the scholars say, has always been about "dugma"—right living—rather than dogma—abstract right thinking. Confronted with the human tragedy of the tidal wave, and a nagging interviewer who sought to elicit either profundities or missteps ("Some might suggest that that's a cop-out, that we need to find an answer to 'Why?'"), he insisted:
Which God to cruelties like these constrain?
Whilst you these facts replete with horror view,
Will you maintain death to their crimes was due?
And can you then impute a sinful deed
To babes who on their mothers' bosoms bleed?
Was then more vice in fallen Lisbon found,
Than Paris, where voluptuous joys abound?
. . . .
No comfort could such shocking words impart,
But deeper wound the sad, afflicted heart.
When I lament my present wretched state,
Allege not the unchanging laws of fate;
Urge not the links of thy eternal chain,
'Tis false philosophy and wisdom vain.
In a certain sense Judaism is a refusal to make sense of this kind of disaster because although we believe profoundly in God's involvement in history, if we stopped to ask “Why did this happen?” we might come to accept tragedy instead of fighting against it and therefore Judaism is always an attempt not to ask “Why did this happen?” but “What then shall I do? How can I help the work of aid and relief?”If that's the old-time religion, it's good enough for me.