Pat Robertson created something of an uproar last year when he seemed to attribute the earthquake in Haiti to a supposed pact between Haiti and the devil. By now outrageous statements by Pat Robertson have become so common that most of us have become accustomed to just shaking our heads and writing it off to his weird theology and his tendency to speak before thinking. But in this case the saddest thing about an otherwise preposterous statement is that what he said is in fact commonly believed in Haiti. Many Haitians believe God has put some kind of curse on the country. The Haitian willingness to believe something like that probably derives from pre-modern thinking, mixed with voodoo. Honestly, however, I can’t figure out what would cause educated people like Mr. Robertson to think such a thing.
The origin of this myth lies with Dutty Boukman. Boukman was an Haitian hougan (voodoo priest) who led a ceremony on the night of August 22, 1791, which kicked off a bloody slave rebellion in Haiti. Legend has it that Boukman made a deal with the devil that night, “dedicating” Haiti to Satan in exchange for victory in the revolt.
Leaving aside the rather ridiculous notion that Dutty Boukman had the authority to negotiate away the lives and welfare of Haitians for the next couple of centuries, or that Boukman could somehow strike such a deal presumably on God’s behalf (which would certainly call into question the character of a God who would permit that), if there was such a deal, then Satan reneged. The rebellion Boukman started failed, although only after thousands of people died. Boukman ended up with his head on a French stake and most of the slaves who joined his uprising were killed, often after being first tortured.
Tradition has preserved Boukman’s prayer, which he supposedly made during the ceremony (which according to legend was a tumultous affair, occuring outside in the middle of the night during a tropical storm). Here it is (in English):
“”The God who created the earth; who created the sun that gives us light. The God who holds up the ocean; who makes the thunder roar. Our God who has ears to hear. You who are hidden in the clouds; who watch us from where you are. You see all that the white has made us suffer. The white man’s god asks him to commit crimes. But the god within us wants to do good. Our God, who is so good, so just, He orders us to revenge our wrongs. It’s He who will direct our arms and bring us the victory. It’s He who will assist us. We all should throw away the image of the white men’s god who is so pitiless. Listen to the voice for liberty that sings in all our hearts.”
Note the absence of any reference to Satan.
And even the information we have about Boukman’s ceremony may not be true. There was certainly a brutal and bloody slave uprising, and Boukman was one of its leaders. But the details of the ceremony he supposedly led come from an account written by Frenchman Antoine Dalmas decades later. Maybe the revolt really was kicked off by a midnight voodoo ceremony during a tropical storm. Or maybe Dalmas jazzed up the story.
But regardless of the historical evidence, what of the idea that Haiti belongs to Satan? Does the misery of Haitians indicate that they are evil? That they are in league with the devil? Can it be true that the poorer you are, the more evil you are? Are places that are desperately poor “dedicated to Satan”? I think the answers to those questions are obvious.
But this talk of a country “dedicated to Satan” causes me to wonder: if such a thing were possible, what might a country dedicated to Satan look like? I suppose such a country would probably be violent and militaristic, devoting a substantial percentage of its resources to making weapons and supporting armies. It would probably be filled with greedy, overconsuming gluttons, indifferent to the plight of the poor and hungry outside its borders. The citizens of such a country would probably amuse themselves by watching images of violence and immorality, for which they would pay grand sums that might otherwise be spent doing good. And I suppose such a country might be filled with idols–such as patriotism, materialism and consumerism– which serve to divert the minds of its citizens from God.
I’ll close with a letter some clever person wrote to the editor of a newpaper in St. Paul after the Robertson controversy broke out:
Dear Pat Robertson:
I know that you know that all press is good press, so I appreciate the shout-out. And you make God look like a big mean bully who kicks people when they’re down, so I’m all over that action. But when you say that Haiti has made a pact with me, it is totally humiliating. I may be evil incarnate, but I’m not a welcher.
The way you put it, making a deal with me leaves folks desperate and impoverished. Sure, in the afterlife, but when I strike bargains with people, they get something here on earth–glamour, beauty, talent, fame, glory, a golden fiddle. Those Haitians have nothing, and I mean nothing, and that was before the earthquake.
Haven’t you seen “Crossroads” or “Damn Yankees”? If I had a thing going with Haiti, there’d be lots of banks, skyscapers, SUVs, exclusive nightclubs, botox, that kind of thing. An 80% poverty rate is so not my style. Nothing against it–I’m just saying: Not how I roll.
You’re doing great work Pat and I don’t want to clip your wings, just come on, you’re making me look bad. And not the good kind of bad. Keep blaming God. That’s working. But leave me out of it please.
In all seriousness, I can’t imagine how awful it would be to genuinely believe that God hates me and is inflicting pain and misery on me, because of something some hougan supposedly said over 200 years ago. I’ve written before about the defeatism that seems to pervade Haitian thinking, and to the extent this nonsense is believed, it is a further sad reflection of that. But for a person outside of Haiti to look at the Haitians suffering there and say they’re in league with the devil is just unconscionable, in my humble opinion.