The crucible of a massive earthquake in Haiti

by Rob Tiller

Last week an earthquake hit Haiti with devastating force.  The destruction was so massive.  Airports, ports, roads, bridges, utilities, and communication networks were all shut down or disabled, and rescuers, aid workers, and journalists still cannot even see much of the area affected.  We know that the scale of death is huge, and the scale of suffering is enormous.  Reports yesterday said there had been 40,000 bodies recovered so far, and without food, water, or medical care, people will continue to die.

Disasters are natural crucibles.  They can reveal unexpected kindness and generosity.  At Red Hat, the population that insists on broadcasting company wide emails on their personal concerns is on an average day a minor but continual annoyance.  After the Haiti earthquake, though, there were many of those emails concerning how to contribute to charitable efforts effectively.  Many people everywhere pity the Haitians and wish they could help. For most Americans most of the time, if they think of Haiti at all, it is as a far away place of unfathomable poverty.  Some may be discovering, as I am, an unexpected feeling of solidarity, kinship, and shared sorrow with Haitians.

But disasters also expose character flaws and crazy ideas.  Pat Robertson, a well known religious TV personality, had this take on the Haitian earthquake:  that the Haitian people made a “pact with the devil.”  He was referring to Haitian slaves’ successful revolt at the end of the eighteenth century against their French rulers.  Robertson thus suggested that Haitian slavery was God’s will and that struggle against it was the work of Satin.  He implied that God personally gave the OK last week to kill tens of thousands of Haitians.  And God was justified in undertaking this slaughter based on the sins of ancestors several generations back.

To judge from press reports ridiculing Robertson, a great many people appreciate that such a view is morally demented.  But it does bring up in a starker-than-usual form difficult issue for religious people who are also concerned with ethics.  If  God is all knowing and all powerful, why would He trigger, or even permit, an earthquake to kill tens of thousands of innocent people?  Indeed, what possible justification could He have for the violent death of one innocent child?  Or for any of the other atrocities that we all see in the ordinary course of  life?  This line of questioning was really valuable to me in finding the courage to step off the path of conventional religious thinking.