"Suffering and Haiti: A Quaker View" - Stephen Angell*

Steve Angell's Message
At Oxford Friends Meeting
January 17, 2010

The Holy Spirit gave me this message during the silence, which I then shared with Oxford Friends.  An after-meeting discussion on thoughts arising during worship helped me to focus and improve this message. This version of the message thus attempts to capture what I shared from the silence, as well as some of my subsequent thoughts on the issue.

"Some who were there at the time told him about the Galileans, about how Pilate had mixed their blood with their sacrifices. Jesus answered them, "Do you suppose that these Galileans were the worst sinners in Galilee, because they suffered this? Hardly. However, let me tell you, if you don't have a change of heart, you'll all meet your doom in the same way. Or how about those eighteen in Siloam, who were killed when the tower fell on them – do you suppose that they were any guiltier than the whole population of Jerusalem? Hardly. However, let me tell you, if you don't have a change of heart, all of you will meet your doom in a similar fashion." (Luke 13:1-4, Scholars Version)

On November 1, All Saint's Day, in 1755, a massive earthquake shook the country of Portugal, centered in the capital of Lisbon. The damage was immense, and tens of thousands of people were killed. This tragic event captured the attention of all of Europe.

One question that arose at that time was: Why did God permit this tragedy to happen? It is very difficult to come up with good answers to that kind of question.

The most common attempt to answer that question was to assert that God had caused the earthquake, because the inhabitants of Lisbon were great sinners. The implication was that they deserved the terrible suffering that they received. John Wesley was one contemporary theologian who came to this conclusion. When it came to specifying the sins for which they had received such dreadful punishment, however, Europeans were less certain. Protestants theologians tended to believe that the Portuguese were being punished for being Catholic. Catholic theologians, on the other hand, believed that God was judging the inhabitants of Lisbon for tolerating small numbers of Protestants and Jesuits (the wrong kind of Catholics!) in their midst. The skeptic and deist Voltaire made more sense than most of his contemporaries when he questioned this entire line of reasoning. He pointedly wondered whether the critics of the Portuguese really believed that the inhabitants of Lisbon were more sinful than the inhabitants of London or Paris, both unscathed by earthquakes. He later wrote his satirical novel Candide in order to pose searching questions about the easy piety and shallow reasoning about God that theologians engaged in at the time of this earthquake and other such mid-eighteenth century tragedies.

On the matter of speculating about the fate of souls of those who died in disasters, note that Voltaire was closer to the thinking of Jesus than was John Wesley, at least as recorded in the Gospel of Luke. The death toll of 18 at the collapse of Siloam's tower (a historical event that would be unknown to us except for this Biblical passage) was obviously a great deal less than the numbers killed during the Lisbon or Haiti earthquakes. Yet Jesus strongly cautioned his listeners against jumping to any such conclusion as thinking that God's wrath had been kindled against the victims of this disaster as a result of the victims' own sinfulness. If there is anyone's sinfulness that we ought to be concerned about, Jesus continued, it is our own, not that of victims of natural or manmade disasters that we have heard about. Our first and foremost concern must be to repent of our own sins.

There are some today, including televangelist Pat Robertson, who are quick to attribute the catastrophe in Haiti to the sinfulness, if not of today's Haitians, at least to that of their ancestors, who at the time of their rebellion against France a few decades after the Lisbon earthquake were alleged to have called about their ancestral gods of Vodun for the success of their rebellion. Robertson thus portrays today's Haitians as suffering, in the movement of these tectonic plates, the terrible consequences of God's wrath at a pact Robertson believes their ancestors have made with the devil centuries ago. Robertson's challengeable version of Haitian history aside, Haiti today is a deeply religious nation, with many Catholics, Protestants, and devotees of Vodun; the Catholic archbishop of Haiti is one of those who perished as a result of the earthquake. I and many others find Robertson's argument unconvincing at best and horribly callous at worst, and not in accord with such acute observers of the human condition as Jesus and Voltaire.

Unlike Robertson, I find much positive meaning in Vodun. The Vodun worshipers play with their gods seems to me to capture much deep truth about the human condition, and the spiritual healing practices involved with Vodun seem very sensitive and often effective. To my undergraduate and graduate students, I have often recommended Karen McCarthy Brown's fine book on a Vodun priestess born in Haiti but now living in Brooklyn: Mama Lola.

So, how should we understand these catastrophes that our fellow human beings have suffered at Port au Prince, Haiti, and previously at Lisbon?

When we meditate upon God, the Spirit of Love that pervades the universe, we would never find him wishing such horrible suffering on God's own children. As the people of Haiti suffer, God weeps with them and weeps with us.

In the faces of our suffering Haitian brothers and sisters, we see the Light of Christ, the same Light of Christ that enlightens all who have come into this world.

We ought to be skeptical of theories that place the greatest emphasis on the notion that God must be a supernatural power that can set aside natural laws determining the movement of tectonic plates, theories that posit that God sets these plates in motion out of vengeful, wrathful motives.

God wants us to have compassion on those who are suffering – to feed the hungry, to give water to the thirsty, to house the homeless. And God depends on us greatly. As the sixteenth-century mystic Teresa of Avila observed, God has no hands but ours, no feet but ours. Let us follow the example of Jesus in his ministry of healing and feeding the multitudes and engendering hope among even the most impoverished of the world's citizens. As was Jesus, let us be about our heavenly parent's business of love and compassion.

*Stephen Angell is the Geraldine Leatherock Professor of Quaker Studies at Earlham School of Religion.