A Theology of Earthquakes and Culture

After the Haiti earthquake, Pat Robertson declared that the earthquake was punishment for Haiti’s voodoo culture.  How does he know?  And is it any of his business?  Pronouncements of this sort, I believe, fall into the category of “taking the name of the Lord in vain,” a commandment often misunderstood to be about what you say when you hit your thumb with a hammer.  Actually, it means to speak for God when He has not authorized, or to use the name of God to get people to do what you want when it’s not clear that that’s what He wants.

Haiti’s problem is not that God singled it out for an earthquake (if I were He, and operated like that, I’d have a lot of other places higher on my list) but that its extreme poverty means that an earthquake is inherently more damaging and disruptive.  And why the extreme poverty?  Now there might be a connection between that and the voodoo culture. Lawrence Harrison wrote in the Wall Street Journal on why this might be so. Haiti, far from being the most oppressed, was the first to free itself from slavery and colonial oppression, in 1804, twenty-nine years before slavery was abolished in the British colonies, eighty-two years before it was in Cuba.  And France, driven out of Haiti, today still holds the Caribbean islands of Guadeloupe, Martinique, and part of St. Martin!  The other two thirds of the island on which Haiti is located is the Dominican Republic.  While the Dominican Republic is not in the first world, it looks almost like a first world country compared to Haiti!  And some say, “Well, the United States occupied Haiti in the 1910’s,” well, the United States also occupied the Dominican Republic about that time too!  As a matter of fact I remember U.S. forces intervening in the Dominican Republic in 1965.  So that excuse won’t fly either.  A culture where everything that happens is blamed on “the spirits” or someone else will get nowhere.  There is also an excellent longer paper on this subject by Darrow Miller of Disciple Nations Alliance.

We have had this before.  On November 1, 1755, a great earthquake leveled Lisbon, Portugal.  Some Jesuits saw the quake as punishment for Lisbon’s “wickedness.”  Some Protestants thought it was punishment for the Catholics – but on November 19 another earthquake badly damaged Boston, Massachusetts.  Voltaire wrote an emotional poem about the arbitrariness of these disasters, declaring that it was hard to see God in them. (Source: Will and Ariel Durant, The Age of Voltaire, pp. 720-24.)  All involved seemed to have overlooked that Jesus Himself gave us a theology for earthquakes and other natural disasters of this sort:

There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices.  And he answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way?  No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.  Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem?  No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” (Luke 13:1-5, ESV)

So, Mr. Robertson, stop taking the name of the Lord in vain!

Related: “Haiti and the Voodoo Curse” (Subscription Required) by Lawrence Harrison

Related: “In Haiti, some see the spirit world behind the quake” by Joe Mozingo

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