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First Parish Universalist Church
790 Washington Street, P. O. Box 284, Stoughton, Massachusetts 02072 
(781) 344-6800
Worship: 10:30 AM
Church School: 10:45 AM

Why Haiti Suffers

Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, January 31, 2010

            The world changed—quite literally—two weeks ago. On Tuesday, January 12, at 4:53 PM local time, a catastrophic earthquake measuring 7.0 on the Richter scale hit the Caribbean island nation of Haiti. The quake’s epicenter was approximately 16 miles west of Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince, and by January 24, the United States Geological Survery had reported at least 52 aftershocks measuring 4.5 or greater. The International Red Cross estimated that three million people were affected  by the quake, and Haitian President Rene Preval stated just three days ago that, as of January 27, “nearly 170,000 bodies had been counted,” with many thousands more still unaccounted for, indicating a final death toll of somewhere around 200,000 people. In addition, hundreds of thousands have been injured. Nearly a quarter of a million residences have collapsed. Something over 1.2 million men, women, and children are now homeless.


            The earthquake and its aftershocks caused major damage to Port-au-Prince and neighboring communities. Many notable buildings were destroyed or severely damaged, including the Presidential Palace, the National Assembly, the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption, and the main prison. Among those killed were Monsignor Joseph Serge Miot, the Archbishop of Port-au-Prince; Micha Gaillard, leader of the political opposition; and more than 100 members of the United Nations mission in Haiti, including Special Envoy Hedi Annabi. (It was the worst single loss of life in UN. history.)


            No doubt, you have all heard many of these facts and figures already. You, too, have watched in sadness the horrific scenes beamed to us from Port-au-Prince: the devastation, the poverty, the unburied dead—a human tragedy of historic, even epic, proportions.


            The international response—while massive—can never hope to be enough in such circumstances. It can never arrive quickly enough. Many countries responded to appeals for humanitarian aid, pledging funds, dispatching rescue teams, medical personnel, teams of engineers, support staff. But there were the inevitable questions of who was in charge; the infrastructure needed to deliver aid had been almost completely wiped out; there was congestion in the air and on the ground at Port-au-Prince airport. Delays in aid distribution led to angry appeals from aid workers and survivors. “Wasn’t anyone there to help Haiti?” many asked.


            Yes, of course, many were there to help; thousands were.


            But there never seems enough we can do—enough the world can do—at awful times like this.


            Of course, human ignorance rears its head, too, at times like this. None of us, of course, is immune from a bit of human stupidity at times. We all have those times when we cling to our prejudices, our stereotypes, our partisanship. None of us is immune from having said, and done, some truly dumb things, at various points in our lives. But to use a horrible situation like the one in Haiti—perhaps 200,000 men, women, and children dead; human suffering of untold proportions—to use that situation to score a few political or theological points—that goes beyond stupid; it borders on evil to me.


            As Colin Benjamin has written:


            “Even as much of the world has been moved to embrace Haiti's victims, purveyors of toxic hate have emerged on the stage. Pat Robertson says last Tuesday’s devastating 7.0 earthquake, in Haiti, was the result of a ‘curse’ because Haitians ‘made a pact to the Devil,’ to free themselves from their former French slave-masters centuries ago.


            “This is the same Robertson,” Benjamin continues, “who made a pact with the genocidal Liberian warlord Charles Taylor, who massacred scores of African men, women and children in Liberia and, assisted in similar murders in Sierra Leone. The lucky ones only had their legs and arms sliced off.


            “Yet Robertson pocketed blood money and acted as Taylor's PR man in the U.S…


            “In his asinine statement, Robertson seems to suggest the Haitian slaves should have accepted their lot, presumably, because their French slave masters were white European Christians. Weren’t those ‘good’ Christian slave masters the ones who really ‘made a pact to the Devil,’ by enslaving other human beings?


            “Let’s be clear,” Benjamin concludes, “Robertson isn’t a man of god. He’s a religious hustler; peddling his perverted ideology of Christianity. And, this demagogue has blood on his hands.


            “In 1999, it was reported that Robertson had a deep business involvement with his friend the Liberian dictator Taylor. Taylor is currently on trial at The International Criminal Court at the Hague facing war crimes charges.


            Taylor's His son, Charles “Chucky” Taylor Jr. was sentenced, in October 2008, to 97 years in prison for his role in the genocidal torture and murder of Liberians. The younger Taylor oversaw a paramilitary force called the Demon Forces.


            “The Demon Forces, allegedly, engaged in the torture and murder of political critics.


            “Was Robertson outraged by the crimes committed under Taylor? On the contrary, Robertson was given rights to mine for diamonds in Liberia. But…  [i]n November 2003, the U.S. Congress passed a bill that provided a $2 million reward for the capture of Taylor, who was by then accused of crimes against humanity.


            “Robertson complained that President Bush was ‘undermining a Christian, Baptist president to bring in Muslim rebels to take over the country.’”


            As Colin Benjamin concludes: Pat Robertson “is a blasphemous, charlatan opportunist…  that in the midst of such an unfolding human tragedy in Haiti, a purported ‘man of the cloth,’ could spew such reprehensibly hateful ignorance is alarming…  Robertson could have shown some real Christian principles by imploring his congregation to help the Haitian people in their time of need. Instead, he has chosen to preach hatred…”


            Nor was he alone. Then there was Robertson’s kindred malevolent spirit, Rush Limbaugh, who went on the air to take the opportunity to claim that  the Haitian earthquake was a “godsend” to the Obama White House. Because of the earthquake, Windbag said, Obama and his aids can “use this to burnish their, shall we say, credibility with the Black community… both light-skinned and dark-skinned Black community in this country. It’s made to order for them.”

             Race-baiting xenophobia is what we’ve come to expect from Limbaugh. Such comments would be merely absurd, were they not made in the face of such an awful humanitarian tragedy. Such comments, too, would be unworthy of response were it not for the fact that people actually listen to such racist garbage, and that they feed into so many popular misconceptions—racist misconceptions, really—that people already had about Haiti, even before the earthquake struck.


            Of course, this was not the first humanitarian crisis to befall Haiti--/st1:country-region> just the most recent, and by far the most devastating. But Haiti has long been known as a poor country, a very poor country. This is nothing new. Indeed, just yesterday, my mother-in-law (who is 90 now) was saying that, even as a little girl in a Catholic grammar school she was being asked by the nuns to donate her pennies to help the poor children in Haiti. That was truly ages ago now.

            The question as to why Haiti/st1:country-region> is so poor, and so prone to suffering, is a valid one to ask, I think. The answer, as in most things, is complicated.

            As Bob Corbett, Director of People to People, an organization which seeks to further international understanding, writes: “The ultimate causes of Haiti/st1:country-region>’s misery are human. They are rooted in greed and power. Both the international community and Haiti’s rulers have continuously assured the destruction of Haiti’s colonial wealth and the creation and continuation of her misery.”

            Once upon a time, and not so far back in history, just a couple of hundred years ago, Haiti/st1:country-region> was called “the Jewel of the Antilles” and was the richest colony in the world. Economists estimate that in the 1750s, resources from Haiti—sugar, coffee, cocoa, tobacco, cotton, indigo, and so on—provided as much as 50% of the Gross National Product of France. Incredible fortunes were made there—by the French overlords. Because, you see, the entire economy of Haiti was founded on slave labor—and the most brutal and severe slave labor system in the entire Western Hemisphere. Indeed, the ultimate threat to a recalcitrant or rebellious or unproductive slave elsewhere (including the American South) was that he or she would be sold to a new owner in Haiti if they didn’t straighten out.

            Finally, in January 1804, after years of a long guerilla struggle, the people of Haiti/st1:country-region> threw off French domination and declared their independence—the second free nation in the New World, after the United States, and the first black republic in the history of the world. Slavery was abolished.

            But this historic event brought no great rejoicing beyond Haiti/st1:country-region>. Instead, there was only fear. France and other European nations still had slaves in their colonies in Africa and Asia. The United States was still half-slave. Fortunes were still being made on the slave trade. Haiti’s revolution threatened all that. Haiti’s model as a nation of freed slaves set a dangerous precedent. So, the world community decided to have nothing to do with this new black nation; an international boycott of the Republic of Haiti was established; with nowhere to export its good, the nation’s economy was plunged into chaos.

            The boycott lasted over thirty years. The Haitian government was desperate for recognition, at last, by France and other European countries (out of deference to the slave-owing South, the United States would not recognize Haiti until 1862, after the start of the American Civil War). Finally, in 1838, France/st1:country-region> agreed to recognize Haiti in exchange for payment of 150 million francs (plus interest) in indemnity, to “compensate” the Europeans for freeing the slaves in Haiti. It took the government of Haiti over 80 years—until 1922—finally to pay off its indemnity to France. In the meantime, the country’s economy continued to be bled dry.

            Then, in 1915, the United States Marines occupied Haiti/st1:country-region>. The U.S. government took control of the collection of revenues and the banking system. They also re-wrote the Haitian constitution, and repealed the ban on foreigners owning land and businesses in Haiti. Leading industries and enterprises fell into American hands. American business interests assumed completely control over the Haitian economy and government. When the “official” American occupation ended in 1934, American influence continued, now carried out by the internal Haitian “elites”—descendants of the same families who were free prior to independence in 1804. Over the years, these elites have run their country as a personal fiefdom. During the 30 years of rule by the Duvalier family between 1956 and 1986, thousands were murdered or disappeared; the economy was ruined. Disastrous land policies have led to wide-scale soil erosion. Little has been spent on developing a social or physical infrastructure. Education is mostly limited to the children of the most wealthy. Corruption in all aspects of life is rampant. The largest proportion of Haiti’s lands produce food intended for export alone (which further enriches the country’s economic elite and their foreign supporters)—and not for internal consumption, so that Haiti, an overwhelmingly agricultural nation, is a net importer of food. Even before this disastrous earthquake, it was estimated by within ten years, Haiti would face a food crisis of major proportions.

            In the present instance, Haiti/st1:country-region>’s suffering is due to a huge natural disaster. We may look for deeper reasons, but ultimately in a situation like this, there can only be humility.

            Sometimes, life just is a nightmare. For me, the basic question of why bad things happen resists all of the pat answers and neat theological packages people have developed to explain such things over the centuries. I just can’t accept the theological idea that puts God behind all the bad things human beings experience. Looking out at all the pain and suffering in the world, I just can’t accept that there always is a deeper, divinely-inspired reason for this pain-- a divine, holy, silver lining of a reason which we mortal ones simply do not discern or comprehend.


            We might identify at times like this with an old Yiddish proverb that tells us: “God is not nice. God is not your uncle. God is an earthquake/i>.” But if God’s very nature is Love—as some of us believe—then God is infinitely more loving than any human being can ever possibly be. But maybe God is not necessarily in control of everything that happens. As much as we might like an omnipotent God, God might not micromanage the ways of the natural world.

            The Infinite is ultimately a mystery, and there will always be so much we will never be able to understand, not in this mortal life.


            But instead of always having to have someone or something to “blame” when bad things happen-- ourselves, or other people, or our past lives, or the Devil, or Voodoo, or the Catholic Church, or the U.S. government, or the military-industrial complex, -- there is, I think, a healthier, more empowering way of looking at life when bad things come our world’s way.


            Pearl S. Buck's 1947 novel The Big Wave/em>, tells the story of two friends Kino and Jiya, and grew out of her memories of living near a volcano in a house on a hillside above the sea when "a big wave came up and washed away the fishing village on the beach."

            After the volcano erupts and causes the ocean floor to explode, a big wave rushes ashore. Jiya's family is swept away, and he must live with Kino and his family. While discussing the calamity with his father, Kino asks: "Father, are we not very unfortunate people to live in [this land]?"


            To which his father replies: "To live in the midst of danger is to know how good life is. . . . To live in the presence of death makes us brave and strong. That is why our people never fear death. We see it too often and we do not fear it. To die a little later or a little sooner does not matter. But to live bravely, to love life, to see how beautiful the trees are and the mountains, yes, and even the sea, to enjoy work because it produces food for life - in these things we… are a fortunate people. We love life because we live in danger. We do not fear death, because we understand that life and death are necessary to each other."


            It is the people of Haiti/st1:country-region> who are inspiring us now. A brave, resilient people, full of life in spite of the bad hand that history and nature has dealt them. A people who have been, since Tuesday two weeks ago, digging themselves out of the rubble. A people who have been using picks, shovels, and their own bare hands to save themselves. In the face of such heroism, can we do anything other than respond generously?

            The real question we need to ask at a time like this is not why such bad things happen, for that is a question to which, if we are honest, we will never have more than tentative, incomplete answers. The question that should engage our hearts and minds—and our hands and our wallets—is “How shall we respond humanely now that our help is needed?”


             To accept reality does not mean that we need to be defeated by it.


            This world tears us apart sometimes. And as human lives are torn asunder, so may our human hands join with others in putting them back together again. There are many names for God, the great Christian mystic Meister Eckhart reminds us: “You may call God father or mother. You may call God love. You may call God goodness. You may call God justice. But the best name for God is compassion.”


            Now, more than ever, in this holy work of compassion, we each have our own part to play.



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