Robertson’s comment on Haiti earthquake reveals bad manners, embellished history and poor theology
The ground had hardly stopped shaking in Haiti when Pat Robertson, the affable but loose-lipped founder of Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN) and President of Regent University, started a rumble of his own by saying that the stricken nation was “cursed” because of a 200-year-old “pact with the devil” supposedly made by rebellious slaves to obtain freedom from their occupying French masters.
Robertson’s off-the-cuff remarks, easily accessible in a video clip now gone viral on internet’s YouTube, came on January 13, 2010, one day after a 7.0 earthquake flattened Haiti’s capital city, wreaking a death toll Haitian officials now say may reach as high as 100,000.
Reaction to Robertson’s analysis was immediate, worldwide and almost entirely negative. Al Mohler, president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, called the comments “embarrassing” and the result of “theological arrogance matched to ignorance.”
Amply degreed and pedigreed
If the CBN founder spoke from “ignorance,” it had to overcome a blue-blood pedigree and an enviable education. Marion Gordon (Pat) Robertson is the son of a U.S. Congressman and Senator from Virginia, descendant of two U.S. Presidents and a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and a distant cousin of Winston Churchill.
A former presidential candidate, Robertson is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Washington and Lee University with a Yale University doctorate in law who served during the Korean Conflict as an officer in the United States Marines.
Such credentials, in part, cause Rice University sociologist Michael Lindsay, author of Faith in the Halls of Power, to regard Robertson’s words as intentionally provocative. Describing him as “American evangelicalism’s most flamboyant spokesperson,” Lindsay says Robertson’s controversial comments about Haiti reflect “his rhetorical flourish and skill as a ratings booster” as much “as they do his theology.”
But regardless of motives, are Robertson’s remarks true? It all depends on whom you ask, since the alleged historical event to which he referred is itself the subject of intense scholarly debate.
Within hours after Robertson’s statement during a chatty portion of CBN’s flagship program “The 700 Club,” network spokesperson Chris Roslan reacted to the vehement response with an explanatory statement. Robertson’s comments, said Roslan, “were based on the widely-discussed 1791 slave rebellion led by Boukman Dutty at Bois Caiman, where the slaves allegedly made a famous pact with the devil in exchange for victory over the French.”
The combination of this history and “the horrible state of the country,” Roslan continued, “has led countless scholars and religious figures” throughout Haiti’s troubled history “to believe the country is cursed.” Finally, Roslan observed, “Dr. Robertson never stated that the earthquake was God’s wrath.”
But did it actually happen?
The CBN explanation did little to mollify indignation. Instead, by attracting attention to Robertson’s original statement, it reinvigorated critics in their denunciation of this symbol of the Religious Right, whose well-known loquacity makes him a natural target for detractors across the board.
The next question we must ask is whether commentator Robertson had his facts straight about the man known in Haiti as “Boukman Dutty” and the slave rebellion of which he was a leader and a primary provocateur.
According to The National Library of Jamaica, Dutty was a native of Dahomey, a west African country now known as Benin, from which he was captured and sold as a slave in Jamaica. Because he could read, the Jamaicans nicknamed him “Bookman.” When his English owner sold him to a Frenchman in Haiti, his name became “Boukman.”
Tall in stature and charismatic in personality, Boukman Dutty was also a voodoo priest. His followers regarded him as a sorcerer and believed that he was invincible. All these factors converged when François Dominique Toussaint L’Ouverture (c.1744-1803), a former slave and the “George Washington” of Haiti, tapped Dutty as an early leader in the Haitian slave revolution against cruel French masters.
The timing of the slave uprising was decided at two secret meetings in August 1791, one of which was held in the woods near Bois Caiman with Boukman Dutty presided. Also participating was a voodoo priestess named Cecile Fatiman, wife of future Haitian president Louis Michel Pierrot.
According to an official Haitian government website and a scholarly online discussion group related to Webster University in suburban St. Louis, Missouri, the details of that meeting were as follows.
The meeting took the form of a voodoo ceremony, with voodoo priest Boukman Dutty presiding. The slaves took turns expressing their resentment. A woman believed to be spirit-possessed began dancing, then cut a pig’s throat and distributed its blood to those present. After denouncing “the white man’s god,” participants took a blood oath to kill all whites on the island.
The killing began on August 22, 1791, but the rebellion was temporarily stalled when the French captured and beheaded Boukman Dutty, then mounted his head on a pike in a public place. “This is the head of the man,” the displayed head silently screamed to Dutty’s erstwhile followers, “who claimed to be invincible.”
Issues being debated by historians
French historian Leon-Francois Hoffmann goes against the overwhelming weight of scholarship to argue that the Bois Caiman meeting never happened, except in the imagination of Haitians desperate for a story that gives meaning to their miserable existence.
However, a report commissioned by the Haitian Ministry of Culture and submitted in 1999 included evidence of such quantity and detail in support of the Bois Caiman meeting that its authenticity is well confirmed. The bottom line: while Robertson might have embellished the details in his storytelling, his statement apparently is historically correct.
Theological conclusion is inappropriate
Robertson’s spokesman noted that his boss never said that the earthquake resulted from God’s wrath or that God had put a curse on Haiti. However, to most people who heard or read Robertson’s comments, they clearly left that impression.
The idea that people reap what they sow is not unique to Robertson’s brand of Pentecostalism, to evangelicals or even to Christians. Judaism has always taught that doctrine, which also is a foundational principle of Islam, and which appears under other dress in the Hindu doctrine of karma.
What the Bible does not allow is for one human being to try to connect the dots between specific conduct by another person and good or bad things which come to that person. Although the Bible teaches that every human is accountable to God for conduct, it also makes very clear the fact that people do not necessarily receive their just dues during this life for either good or evil.
Numerous Psalms lament that reality and the Book of Job explicitly refutes it. Jesus himself says the same thing in John 9 about a blind man whom he then proceeds to heal, and he makes the same point in a teaching recorded in Luke 13:1-3.
Robertson also deserves fair treatment
It is indisputable that the near-universal practice of voodoo in Haiti ever since its freedom from the French has not contributed to its betterment; nor has the fact that Haitian rulers for many years appropriated all the country’s assets for themselves, leaving its citizenry in abject poverty and ignorance.
In April 2003, Haiti’s then-President, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, officially recognized voodoo as a religion, giving its marriages and other rituals equal standing with Christian ceremonies. In popular Haitian practice, the two religions have often been mixed, with a conglomeration of voodoo deities and Catholic saints.
Britain’s official BBC News quotes a saying commonly heard on the island that Haitians are 70% Catholic, 30% Protestant, and 100% voodoo. Even without earthquakes, hurricanes or other natural disasters, one does not need to suggest divine intervention to think that this pitiful country has almost always been “cursed by one thing after the other.”
Robertson makes his own mistakes, perhaps sometimes even intentionally. For that he must accept most of the responsibility for his status as national whipping boy. However, he deserves to be treated fairly and not to be overcharged for offenses beyond those he actually commits.
Pat, turn curses into blessing
It is only right also to credit Robertson with the good that he does, which most of the popular press and blogdom totally ignore. Who has heard, for instance, that Robertson’s relief organization Operation Blessing began last December to distribute new, portable, family-size, water filtration cans to villages throughout Haiti that had no clean water.
Where can one read that Operation Blessing has now begun delivering millions of dollars of food and medical supplies to Haitian earthquake victims? Who has reported that five water purification units are now en route to Haiti from the same organization, each one capable of purifying 10,000 gallons of clean drinking water every day?
It’s enough to make one wonder just what might happen if Robertson decided to chat more about blessing people and much less about people being cursed.