Sometimes in the midst of a tragedy like the one we have witnessed in Haiti we see acts of enormous compassion and sacrifice. Other times we hear words that are wholly inappropriate and offensive, not to mention just plain wacky. Such is the case (yet again) with the Reverend Pat Robertson. Yesterday, on The 700 Club, Robertson said this:
Something happened a long time ago in Haiti, and people might not want to talk about it. They were under the heel of the French . . . and they got together and swore a pact to the devil. They said, “We will serve you if you’ll get us free from the French.” True story. And so the devil said, “OK, it’s a deal.” . . . Ever since, they have been cursed by one thing after another, desperately poor. That island of Hispaniola is one island. It’s cut down the middle. On the one side is Haiti; on the other side is the Dominican Republic. Dominican Republic is, is prosperous, healthy, full of resorts, et cetera. Haiti is in desperate poverty. Same island.
In other words, the earthquake is God’s judgment on Haiti for its sinful 18th-century pact with the Devil.
Set aside the fact that this “true story” is based on a legend. Set aside, too, the arbitrary foolishness of Robertson’s statement (why would God lash out at Haiti but not at Saudi Arabia, Iran, North Korea, or secular Europe?). And set aside the hardness of heart that would lead a man, at this moment, to see human misery on such a mass scale and blame an impoverished nation for bringing upon itself the judgment of the Almighty.
There is another important issue involved here, which is a warped and confused theology Robertson has employed before. For example, Robertson agreed with Jerry Falwell that on 9/11 God lifted the “curtain” and allowed the enemies of America to give us “probably what we deserve”; and in 1998 he warned after Orlando city officials voted to fly rainbow flags from city lampposts during an annual Gay Day event at Disney World, “I don’t think I’d be waving those flags in God’s face if I were you. . . . [A] condition like this will bring about the destruction of your nation. It’ll bring about terrorist bombs, it’ll bring earthquakes, tornadoes, and possibly a meteor.”
Pat Robertson’s argument is as neat and clean as a mathematical equation: God grants blessings and curses on nations and people based on their allegiance and obedience to Him. If things are going well, you’re living right; if things are going badly, you’re living wrong. And it is Robertson himself who can divine the hierarchy of sins that most trouble God.
But this view simply does not correspond with any serious understanding of Christianity. After all, the most important symbol in Christianity is the Cross, which represents suffering, agony, and death. When Jesus spoke to Ananias, who was instrumental in the conversion of the Apostle Paul, Ananias was told, “I will show [Paul] how much he must suffer for my name.” Christ Himself warned His disciples that they would suffer for His sake; most of them were martyred for their faith. The Apostle Peter speaks about the suffering that Christians will endure for doing good. And in the book of Romans we read that we are to rejoice in our suffering because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance produces character; and character produces hope. On and on it goes.
Malcolm Muggeridge was once asked what he thought was going on at Calvary. Muggeridge answered this way:
I think that men had to be shown that the way to revelation was through suffering, not, as they may have been inclined to think, that the way was through happiness. A great image revelatory of this was absolutely essential. They had also to be shown that what they must worship is, in earthly terms, defeat, not, as they thought, victory; that they must worship what in earthly terms is weak, not what has hitherto been thought of as strength; that this image of a man dying because of the truth that he embodied, established forever what truth is — something you die for. . . .
All we can say is that [suffering] is part of the experience of living, and, like all other parts, it can shed light or it can shed darkness. Suffering is an essential element in the Christian religion, as it is in life. After all, the Cross itself is the supreme example.
Compare these wise and penetrating words with Robertson’s offensive and ignorant ones.
I fully realize that Robertson long ago ceased being a serious figure in the eyes of many people. Still, he remains a person of some influence, an individual who ran for president, whose words still garner attention, and whose views reflect a strand of thought within Christendom. So when he speaks out like he did yesterday, his words and theology need to be challenged.
Unlike Pat Robertson, I don’t pretend to understand how and why God acts in this world. Christians must reconcile their belief in the incarnation and their conviction that Jesus cares deeply for us and is involved in the affairs of man with suffering and tragedy writ small and writ large. It isn’t an easy thing to come to grips with; sloganeering and nice, tidy explanations melt when confronted with the pain of life. Even C. S. Lewis, a monumental figure in 20th-century Christianity, saw his faith buckle for a time after the death of his wife Joy (Lewis eventually recovered his faith, though he was clearly a different man).
What the Christian faith teaches us is that even in suffering there can be redemption; that this world, for all of its joys and sorrows, is not our home; and that at the end of our pilgrimage, beyond the sufferings of this world, there are streams of mercy, never ceasing. This may not be the gospel according to Robertson; it is, though, the story of faith according to Jesus.