‘How could He do this to us?’

Journalists in the mainstream press often talk about covering both sides of a story fairly and accurately. I can say “Amen” to that, even while acknowledging that it is rare to cover a major story that only has two sides. Nevertheless, the key is for journalists to keep seeking multiple points of view, especially when covering a subject as complicated as religion.

So far, journalists covering the hellish scenes in Haiti have done a good job of showing the degree to which religion — or religions — color life in that haunted, yet intensely spiritual nation. This must be incredibly hard work, when surrounded by so much chaos.

As I mentioned the other day, we are now moving into the “theodicy” (How could God do this? How could God allow this to happen?) stage of this disaster story. I stand by my earlier statements that the best coverage is focusing on the voices of believers and doubters in Haiti, as opposed to rounding up the usual suspects in America.

Consider, for a moment, this Washington Post headline on a weekend Associated Press report: “Religious Haitians see hand of God in earthquake.”

Do tell. I have been wondering when someone would write about this angle of the story, in the wake of the media storm around the Rev. Pat Robertson. To cut to the chase: Are there Haitians who believe that the earthquake is, in some mysterious way, an “act of God,” even a form of divine judgment?

That depends. For starters, you will be glad to know that reporter Michelle Faul quickly establishes that Haitians are not of one mind when it comes to answering that question.

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – Deeply religious Haitians see the hand of God in the destruction of Biblical proportions visited on their benighted country. The quake, religious leaders said Sunday, is evidence that He wants change.

Exactly what change He wants depends on the faith: Some Christians say it’s a sign that Haitians must deepen their faith, while some Voodoo followers see God’s judgment on corruption among the country’s mostly light-skinned elite.

Jumping down, there is more content on that second point:

Some followers of Voodoo, practiced alongside Roman Catholicism by the vast majority of Haitians, said the devastation of key symbols of power was punishment for corrupt leaders who have allowed the mostly light-skinned elite to enrich themselves while the black majority suffers.

“If all of a sudden, in 15 seconds, 20 seconds, all the physical representations of corruption are destroyed, it gives you pause for thought,” said Richard Morse, a renowned Haitian-American musician whose mother was a singer and revered Voodoo priestess. “The Justice Ministry: down. The National Palace: down. The United Nations headquarters: down.” …

The destruction of every major Catholic church in the capital, including the 81-year-old cathedral, also was a sign, he said: “When there is all this corruption going on, whose role is it in society to speak out? Isn’t the Church supposed to say something?”

There is an old saying in the region that Haiti is 80 percent Roman Catholic and 100 percent Voodoo. However, that simply isn’t true, these days. The government does recognize two official state religions, which are Catholicism and Voodoo. Media reports have emphasized, accurately, that most Haitians practice both of these faiths and believe they are compatible.

However, the nation also includes a growing number of Protestants, especially Baptists and Pentecostal Christians — who reject Voodoo, as a rule. You have to ask: What are these groups saying? Are these some of the people whose street sermons have — vaguely — been mentioned in some media reports? What is their stance on the “divine judgment” issue? I predict that the answer to that question is more complex than you might imagine.

It would also be good to know if Catholics are united in the belief that Voodoo rites and beliefs can be fused, as they often are in Haiti. Is this topic debated? And what about the Voodoo community itself? It is hard to imagine that there would be only one point of view on the question of who is being judged and by what Deity. How does Voodoo address the “theodicy” question?

What about unbelievers? What about the people who have lost so much, including their faith or faiths?

Clearly, there is much ground still left to cover. But for now, try to forget the final image from this AP report:

“How could He do this to us?,” cried Remi Polevard, who said his five children lie beneath in the rubble of a home near St. Gerard University. “There is no God.”

Sunday night, as downtown residents began burning some of the bodies that have been rotting on the streets for five days, a woman walking by in an orange dress pulled out a copy of the Bible.

She flung it into the fire.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Jerry

    I appreciate the story covering not only how Christians approach theodicy but how in this case people who follow Vodou (Is that the preferred spelling?) It rounds out our understanding when we can hear and read different perspectives.

  • antropovni

    Some glimpses into the Vodun context–at least one courtesy of a member of my tribe, the anthropologists:

    New York Times and Reuters on mass burials

    Times of London religion correspondent’s editorial on potential impact of Vodun on recovery

  • michael


    I think further qualification is needed when you write that “we are now moving into the theodicy stage of this disaster story.” If you say this because Haitians on the ground in the midst of their horrible suffering are spontaneously asking the very human question ‘why?’ and demanding an accounting of God, as it were, then by all means that question should be heard as the Haitians give voice to their own anguish. So if by ‘theodicy’ you simply mean the attempt of those who suffer to give account of their suffering (and if this is what Jerry means by ‘how Christians approach theodicy’), then I have no problem with that. This is what you seem to be suggesting when you say that “the best coverage is focusing on the voices of believers and doubters in Haiti.” I agree.

    But the term ‘theodicy stage‘ would seem to imply more than that, either a)that ‘theodicy’ is the proper response of Christian theology to this sort of suffering (as if any theological argument could be an adequate response) or b) that journalists have come to approach tsunamis, earthquakes and other natural and human disasters through the template of theodicy, calling on believers to ‘justify the ways of God to men’ in the court of skeptical public opinion. In which case ‘theodicy stage’ signifies the preoccupations of secular journalists more than the spontaneous cries of the suffering. A journalist who approached the scene with that template in mind would then go in search of people who made sense of their suffering in ‘theodical’ ways, or fit the sense people try to make of it into the theodicy grid, perhaps passing over those who, for instance, saw themselves as partaking in the sufferings of Christ.

    Either sense of the ‘theodicy stage’ is problematic.

    After the tsunami, the Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart wrote a powerful little book called The Doors of the Sea: Where was God in the Tsunami?. While human suffering on such a vast scale may naturally give rise to questions of theodicy, Hart explains why the Church does not ‘answer’ them–again, how do you ‘answer’ suffering but with love?–with the sort of ‘theodicy arguments’ so important in the court of secular public opinion. Hart shows why such arguments are the very antithesis of Christianity. Not only do they make God a tyrant (and circumvent Christ), they deny the people undergoing such immense suffering the integrity of their protest against it and any real hope or comfort. I recommend this book for anyone about to enter the ‘theodicy stage’ of this story.

  • dalea

    My understanding of Voodou comes from having known several active practitioners and shared rituals with them. There are many ways in which Voodou and NeoPaganism are a similar path; other ways in which they are not. Voodou is a religion prone to being sensationalized in the press, which is at least partly due to Voodouns own publicity. They really really like being part of a mysterious and somewhat sinister religion. Misdirection is a major part of magick. Which the press falls for.

    By and large, the religious press does not cover either Voodou or NeoPaganism often enough to have an understanding of the religions. Both religions have no central authority, have no generally agreed upon tradition and exist quite comfortably with huge amounts of ambiguity. Discussions of central religious issues sound like trading household hints or recipies. One discussion I recall centered on the magical use of goat urine: does the gender of the goat matter, how fresh does it need to be, how much to mix with other ingrediants, what to watch for, common problems with the practice. These discussions would not really be reported on, but go to the heart of both religions. Neither has much theory but both have a whole lot of practice. Which is difficult to report on.

    I suspect that for Voodoun, as for NeoPagans, when something unusual occurs it is a message from the spirits. The issue is not so much the earthquake, which is a way for the spirits to say loudly pay attention, but the messages that come through afterwards. Just my take.