The mountains quake before him
and the hills melt away.
The earth trembles at his presence,
the world and all who live in it.
Now that Pat Robertson has weighed in on Haiti, relating the tragedy there to a pact the Haitians made with the devil, the media is weighing in on his pronouncement, often at the expense of any thoughtful theological response.
In the New Yorker, for example, George Parker says the earthquake’s “malignant design” reflects a history of suffering for the Haitian people “so Job-like that it inevitably inspires arguments with God, and about God.”
He contrasts Robertson’s response with a humanitarian one, and all the long-term international obligation that entails. “To patch up a dying country and call it a rescue would leave Haiti forsaken indeed, and not by God,” he concludes.
Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Kevin Rosario, author of The Culture of Calamity: Disaster and the Making of Modern America, takes a more comprehensive view. When Lisbon collapsed from an earthquake in 1775, the religious response was that it was a judgment from God, while more “fashionable thinkers” argued it was a blessing in disguise, part of God’s benevolent design, allowing new growth and prosperity by wiping away the old and making room for the new.
At the time, Voltaire rejected both views, insisting on a moral imperative whereby any civilized response would be to learn from the mistakes and weaknesses such disasters reveal and use human intelligence and sympathy to make a better world.
In fact, however, the outcome of the Lisbon disaster was a new city, a marvel of human ingenuity and imagination. Rosario believes since then it has been a cultural response in America to see such things as both a spiritual correction, calling us back to virtue, as well as the ultimate urban development project, as seen in both San Francisco in 1906 and Chicago in 1871. Creative destruction, as it were.
But Katrina’s devastation of New Orleans has shaken our optimism, revealing that the implications of any such calamity for the poor has been little understood and seldom accounted for. In the haste to rebuild Chicago, for example, more people died as a result of unsafe construction practices than died in the fire itself.
Something like this could easily happen in Haiti, and in the end Rosairo comes down on the side of Voltaire: a thoughtful, deliberate response by the nations is Haiti’s only hope.
For a Christian this is not sufficient. Haiti’s hope is in God, as is ours. But if the earth trembles at his presence, what is he doing in Haiti? While there is no completely satisfying answer, there are some very unsatisfying ones.
Consider a recent worship service at Hillsdale college where one of the musicians assured the audience that this was a natural disaster and God was not involved in any way. This is a God who is limited by his own creation, and who is not sovereign or purposeful at all.
I can only imagine one thing worse than presuming to understand the divine calculus and that would be to discount it altogether.
This much seems true. God is intentional in his dealing with Haiti as a nation. But he is also intentional in each individual life there. If he knows when a sparrow falls from a nest, he certainly knows when a child is trapped in the rubble. It’s humbling to trust him when we don’t understand him, but if I can do something and know how it will affect two or three people, God can certainly do something and know how it will affect everyone involved.
I think of a friend with cancer. I can see what God is doing in her life and in her faith. I can see what is happening in her husband’s life as well. I have some sense of how it is affecting her children and our congregation. And I have some sense of how it is affecting me. In all this I know God is working out his sovereign purpose. At times I’m not very happy about it, but ultimately I can rest in it.
Such a God is big enough to be at work in each citizen of Haiti. All I can do is believe this, and rest in it, while I continue to love him and love my neighbor as myself.
Someone died in Haiti last week because of their involvement in voodoo and its effect on others. And someone else died so their faith, and their family or friends’ faith, would bless many. And each individual who lived does so with responsibility to and mercy from a just and holy God.
So does each person who hears their cry and turns away.