October 20, 2014 / Theology
Peter J. Leithart. Shining Glory: Theological Reflections on Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life. Eugene, …
February 28, 2010
On January 12, 2010, a magnitude 7 earthquake, the same strength quake that rocked San Francisco in 1989, brought the little island nation of Haiti to its knees. Some news outlets have reported that nearly one-third of the nation’s population, or somewhere in the neighborhood of about 3 million people, have been affected either by being killed, maimed, or left homeless. It is not an exaggeration to say that the devastation strains one’s abilities to describe.
And it is just this inability to fully capture and conceptualize the devastation that usually presses us, both individually and as a society, to turn to what I call the “God-and-suffering” (or theodicy) question. Why Lord? Where is God in this? Why has God allowed this devastation? These are all versions of the God-and-suffering question.
Now let me say directly and without equivocation that I don’t like these questions, and you shouldn’t either.
I don’t say this to dismiss out of hand the lived reality of pain and suffering that the Haitian people are enduring. Far, far be it from me to do that! And I don’t say this to dismiss the God-question or the question of God-and-suffering. I’m a theologian, so far be it from me to do that either!
Quite the contrary; I don’t like these questions precisely because of how seriously I want to take the lived reality of pain and suffering that the Haitian people are enduring now and precisely because of how seriously the God-question and the God-and-suffering question must be taken.
What’s Wrong with the God-and-Suffering Question?
In a nutshell, my problem here is not with the God-and-suffering or the theodicy question as such. My problem is with the way the God-and-suffering question is usually posed and with the presumptions that come with it. As a starting point, I will address how the God-and-suffering question, or the God-and-evil question, is often posed and how it works in the public imagination.
Often, the way the God-and-suffering question is posed prevents us from asking other important social, cultural, and political questions. By concentrating on the God-and-suffering question, we overlook questions about how the painful effects of natural disaster, such as the earthquake in Haiti, have been made worse due to certain social, cultural, and political factors. And I don’t mean social and political factors simply within Haiti itself—this isn’t about blaming the Haitians. I mean to call attention to how Haiti has come to be positioned internationally among the community of nations over a quite long period of time.
A Bit of History
Making sense of the Haiti disaster, not just as a natural disaster (where typical theodicy questions start and stop) but as a disaster whose effects are heightened by certain human and social realities, requires looking back to August 22, 1791, the day that marks the beginning of the Haitian revolution. This was the day when a people of African descent became the second people of the New World to resist old world, European rule. (The first was the United States of America in 1776.)
The Haitian rebels took Enlightenment ideals of freedom as applicable to themselves and not, as it were, “for white people only.” This was a wholly unexpected direction for modern discourses of freedom, for such discourses were built on the exclusion of slaves and colonial subjects. Indeed, such subjects were both needed and disavowed as the foil in the making of European ideals of freedom.
This point has been demonstrated by the political and critical theorist Susan Buck-Morss in her powerful analysis of the relationship between the Haitian revolution and the thought of Georg W. F. Hegel. She surfaces the ways in which this revolution gave Hegel empirical material for thinking through freedom, including the central metaphor of the master-slave dialectic, and the movement of history. This has become largely invisible to us because Haiti and the revolution is considerably repressed within Hegel’s (and by extension, modernity’s) thinking.1 Elsewhere, I document a similar phenomenon of repression as embrace and disavowal in Kant’s thought around Jewish existence, slavery, and colonial subjects, and what this has to do with Christianity and Christian theology in the modern world.2
What does such disavowal and repression mean? Let’s stick with Haiti for now. The repression of the relationship to Haiti and its revolution, but at the same time Hegel’s need for Haiti as the negative other to fill out ideals of freedom, are symptomatic of what might be termed the melancholia of modern racial formation and, more specifically, the melancholia of white racial formation.3
But Haiti’s long-term history requires looking even further back, all the way back to December 5, 1492, when a man by the name of Christopher Columbus happened upon this island, claiming it as a colony of Spain. Taking the Greek-Latinized version of his name with utmost seriousness (Christoferens, “the bringer of Christ”), Columbus understood himself as a missionary and messianic figure, a bringer of redemption to the Amerindians or the New World “savages.”
This moment of land appropriation and annexation for European interests marks the beginnings of a profound social crisis, one of seismic proportions in the land now called Haiti. I say “seismic” because this was a moment of genocide for the indigenous peoples of the land.
But I also say “seismic” because this history is a signal moment in modern racial formation, that is, in the making of whiteness with non-whites constellated around it, where race here indicates a hierarchy of value within the human. We glimpse one side of white racial formation, or of whiteness as a mode of being in the world, when the Spanish, the first to truly lay claim to being “white,” appropriated the land of Haiti, expropriated its natural resources and goods, and exterminated the indigenous peoples. All of this happened as a Christian operation. It assumed a logic of “redemption.” We glimpse the other side of white racial formation in the bringing in of African slaves to the island not too long after Columbus’s arrival to replace the waning indigenous populations. Here the will to whiteness functioned not as the ecological problem of appropriation and expropriation, but instead as the humanistic problem of the appropriation and expropriation not of land but of people. Various Africans embarked upon a false baptism through the Middle Passage to work the land in the Americas for the enrichment of Europe.
More recently, Haiti’s history is overshadowed by the complex relationship between Haiti and the United States throughout the twentieth century. Indeed, as late as 1947, the United States, arguably as part of its Cold War rise to global power, controlled Haiti’s finances. It thus exercised significant control in the country.
This complex and complicated longer- and shorter-term history has left an indelible mark on the social realities of Haiti. Its sovereignty as a country was not only troubled from within; it has also been troubled quite profoundly by interventions from other Western powers. These social and political realities, realities both internal to Haiti and external to it, have seriously marked Haiti as a country, including its ability, for example, to create the kinds of infrastructure that countries need to thrive.
However, Haiti was making significant progress, economically and politically, of late. By many accounts, Haiti has been turning the corner and was coming to be seen as an economic bright spot in the Caribbean.4 But now much of its recent progress has been thrown into jeopardy by this devastating earthquake.
Often because of the way the theodicy question gets raised and answered, social factors such as these go unremarked and uninterpreted—or worse still, badly interpreted.
An Example of Bad Theodicy: Pat Robertson’s Haiti Comments
Let’s take as an example of what I’m talking about the ridiculous—I know of no other adjective to use here—remarks of Pat Robertson, a Christian evangelical leader and the main voice of the Christian Broadcasting Network’s (CBN’s) The 700 Club, about Haiti.
“Something happened a long time ago in Haiti,” Robertson says, “And people might not want to talk about it. They were under the heel of the French. You know, Napoleon III, or whatever. 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.’” Robertson went on to say that “Ever since, they have been cursed by one thing after the other.”
The implication here seems to be that if Haiti had not left French colonial tutelage (with the assistance and support of the devil), the country would not be in its present straits. This is an interesting, if not troubling, rewriting of history. Robertson implicitly celebrates the colonial era as one that was halcyon and pre-Satanic, and thus one of supposed Christian (?) bliss for Haiti, and earmarks the revolutionary and post-revolutionary period, the period of the uprising of black people against the master class, as one of chaos and devastation.
Even the New York Times conservative writer David Brooks, much more circumspect to be sure than Robertson, opined in an op-ed a few weeks ago that the restoration of a kind of colonial rule over Haiti by the international community might be what’s needed to bring the country back from this devastation and to ensure that its “corruption” and “poverty,” its chaos (my term, not Brooks’s), is held in check.5
But to go back to Robertson, his remarks didn’t stop with Haiti’s so-called “deal with the devil.” In other remarks on the CBN, he went on to speak of the earthquake as “a blessing in disguise” for Haiti insofar as that with so many buildings now leveled, the country will have to be rebuilt from the ground up. Moreover, there is the “blessing,” as Robertson sees it, that the nation might turn from the devil, from voodoo and such, to God.
There is much else that I could comment upon about Robertson’s asinine remarks. But I won’t bother, for what I want to stress here is the theodicy question and the answer he poses to it inside of his comments. I want to stress how the theodicy question and its answer operates or functions for him as an interpretive grid in this situation.
His answer to the theodicy question or the God-and-suffering question is one that actually turns from the anguish of Haitian suffering at the very moment it purports to be looking at it and accounting for it. Looking away from that suffering, he positions himself as one who stands, metaphysically as it were, above it, above the fray of the corpses strewn throughout the streets of Port-au-Prince, above the fray of the mass graves on hillsides and under flattened buildings, above the fray of the cries of agony and the moans of grief coming from the living. Robertson’s theodical answer judges the Haitian people in order to justify God or to show God as right in unleashing this devastation, or if not in unleashing it, allowing it. This is his justification of God, which in reality, is not a justification of God at all. It’s a justification of Robertson, and more crucially, it’s a justification of the vision of the world his comments presuppose.
Two More Examples: Katrina and the Tsunami
But sadly, the Robertson posture and approach here isn’t new.
We saw a version of it in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. At that time, some said that the city was devastated because of religious and sexual licentiousness— “Voodoo and homosexuality are rampant,” they said. God therefore was just allowing Katrina; those people of New Orleans made there own version of a pact with the devil and the hurricane is their call to get right with God, for God, after all, is just. The people of New Orleans are wrong, so the thinking went.
But what do we see here? The theodicy question was again asked and answered in such a way as to abdicate responsibility, to mute social consciousness, or in short, to move toward a form of thinking that is “discarnate” from or not bound to suffering lives. Theodicy became a way of rising above or being disincarnate from (rather than incarnate with) the lived realities of the bloated bodies in the streets, hungry persons in the Superdome, and trapped people on roofs and housetops. It was a way of asking the God-and-suffering question so as to avoid asking what it meant that race and class distinctions—that is, if you were poor and non-white; which in economic terms meant, did you have a car or not?—more than anything else determined whether you were stuck in New Orleans and weeping for help.
And but a year before that, in 2004, we saw another version of the poorly framed theodicy question. This was when a massive tsunami, an ocean earthquake, struck the Asian rim of the Indian Ocean and the coast of Somalia on the second day of Christmas, leaving tens of thousand dead. At that time, there again were those who raised the theodicy question in such a way as to stand metaphysically above the fray of the devastation of strewn corpses along the beaches. Stepping over the bodies, so to speak, they said that all we can do is “hate death and waste and the imbecile forces of chance that shatter living souls, to believe that creation is in agony in its bonds, to see this world as divided between two kingdoms,” to quote theologian David Bentley Hart’s remarks as he put it in a Wall Street Journal op-ed and then later in a book that took the tsunami as the occasion for its reflections on theodicy, God, suffering, and evil.6 What was precisely not reflected upon either in the op-ed or in the book were the social conditions that could make a tsunami off the coast of the Asian rim more lethal than a similar tsunami off the coast, say, of California. Does it make a difference to how the effects of natural disasters are experienced that, for example, there is a difference in the quality of tsunami detection devices off the coasts of Thailand and California? And if there is a difference, what does this mean for reckoning with questions of God and suffering, God and evil, and theodicy?
At a minimum, coming to grips with this tragedy will require more than “[hating] death and waste and the imbecile forces of chance.” It will require hating—and changing!—the social factors that make for uneven development in the “shattering of living souls.” Moreover, it will require that we reckon with the spatial dimensions of the shattering of souls through uneven development. It will require investigating why this shattering tends to run along a North–South and an East–West divide. For the geo-spatial division is nothing less than division within the human. It is a split, as theorist Paul Gilroy has put it in his book Against Race, between the human and the infra-human.7 Christian leaders first drew these lines of spatial division and thus hierarchically divided up the human.
I’m thinking here particularly of the Treaty of Tordesillas of June 7, 1494, that was authored by Pope Alexander VI. The treaty settled disputes between Christian Spain and Portugal over trading and colonizing rights in the newly “discovered” Americas. It did this by establishing a line of demarcation between the Cape Verde Islands, which are off the coast of Northern Africa and which were already a holding of the Portuguese, and the islands discovered by Columbus on his first voyage, which Spain had claimed. Interestingly, in this “Christian” treaty, the islands named in the Americas to set the line of demarcation are Cipangu, or present-day Cuba, and Antillia, which includes present-day Haiti. Thinking within the arrangement set by Pope Alexander, Christian theologians, such as those of the prominent Thomist School of theologians in Salamanca, Spain, theorized this arrangement, thus laying the foundation for international law.8 In other words, they provided a theodicy, which was nothing less than a theological aesthetics of the True, the Good, and the Beautiful, for the new geo-spatial arrangement of the human.
Put differently, what I am pointing to is the centrality of the social question along with the anthropological question—who do we incorporate within the frame of our common humanity?—for the theological and religious question of God, suffering, and evil. My claim is that we must pass through social and anthropological questions as part of getting to the religious and theological question of suffering, the question, “Why, Lord?” But it is precisely these other questions that poorly framed theodicy questions hide from us.
And thus, just as we’ve been unable as a society to ask social questions in relationship to suffering and the tsunami of 2004 and in relationship to suffering and Hurricane Katrina in 2005, so too we are proving unable to ask social questions as part of the theodicy question in relationship to the 2010 earthquake in Haiti.
From Discarnation to Incarnation: Re-asking the Question of God and Suffering
But perhaps the real problem in what I have described to this point lay deeper still. Perhaps tragedies such as the earthquake in Haiti, Hurricane Katrina, and the tsunami in the first decade of the twenty-first century reveal a deeper failure. This is the failure, if not the collapse, of a Christian imagination, of a Christian social imagination committed to and lodged within the incarnation of God in the flesh. For at the heart of the badly posed God-and-suffering question or the theodicy question, on the part of Christians especially, is the refusal of the incarnation of God in the flesh and further still the inability to think inside of the incarnation.
For in Jesus, so we confess, God was manifest, not metaphysically above the fray, but in the flesh, in our condition (1 Tim. 3:16). In him, pain and suffering are taken up into God’s identity. Our economy of pain is received into the divine economy of life. The suffering and pain that marks the humanity of God, thus, includes the realities of physical and social death, as well as the conditions that perpetuate death and suffering. In the person of Jesus, these realities have been decisively dealt with and, indeed, dealt with not by a god who is above the fray but by one who is named Immanuel, God with Us, one who walks in the Valley of the Shadow of Death. Jesus’s resurrection from the dead by the Spirit of God points to that form of life within and ultimately beyond the conditions of death.
And yes, we must say both at the same time: within death but ultimately beyond the conditions of death. We must say “within death” to indicate how Jesus has absorbed death and its power within himself. From within his taking up of death and suffering, a social space is constituted beyond death and suffering. Thus, we also say “ultimately beyond the conditions of death.”
From here, we also glean the significance of the resurrection. Jesus’ resurrection, which we live into by the Holy Spirit, empowers us now to work within tight spaces—the tight space confronting the world community now, among other tight spaces, is the trauma of the Haitian earthquake—to bring life from death.
By coming at the issue of God and suffering, which this Haiti crisis compels us to do, from the vantage point of the God not above our pain but the God known in and who is identified from our pain, the classical theodicy question comes to an end. We step beyond theodicy and into a “Christ-odicy.” That is to say, we address suffering from Jesus Christ. And to approach suffering from him is to approach those who suffer, not as those merely needing our charity (which positions us above them), nor as those who trigger our intellectual and aesthetic capacities to glean the beautiful from the tragic (which also positions us as masters, above the fray), but as those who witness God to us, the God who is the Neighbor—the one and only Neighbor—who has come to us (cf. Luke 10:25–37). They are neighbors in whom God is known and is present to us. And thus, Haiti is the witness to our redemption. The script is Christologically flipped: they are the missionaries to us. To neglect them, to position ourselves above the fray and thus above them, to not work to change the social conditions that make natural disaster worse—these are all signs of the refusal of salvation.
And so, if I am calling here for a moratorium on the bad theodicy question, I’m also calling for a new kind of theodical engagement with the world—beginning right now, with Haiti—rooted in the incarnation of God in the flesh and in his resurrection from the dead.
1. Susan Buck-Morss, Hegel, Haiti, and Universal History (Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2009).
2. See J. Kameron Carter, Race: A Theological Account (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2008). My current research presses these issues further through a careful examination of what might be called the ideological uses of Jesus, or how the figure of Jesus has been made to function as a cultural icon of the West and of its project of civilization. See my forthcoming The Secular Jesus (Yale University Press).
3. My use of the psychoanalytic languages of melancholia, repression, and disavowal to interpret the social realities of race as they bear on this discussion of theodicy draws on Sigmund Freud’s famous essay “Mourning and Melancholia” and on the brilliant deployment of psychoanalysis to explain racial formation by literary theorist Anne Cheng, The Melancholy of Race: Psychoanalysis, Assimilation, and Hidden Grief (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2001).
4. See, for example, reporting done by the PBS Newshour and National Public Radio on 14 January 2010, a transcript of which can be found at http://topics.npr.org/article/012L1o4ax5d3o.
5. David Brooks, “The Underlying Tragedy,” New York Times, Opinion section, January 14, 2010, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/15/opinion/15brooks.html.
6. See David B. Hart, “Tremors of Doubt: What Kind of God Would Allow a Deadly Tsunami,” Wall Street Journal, Opinion section, December 31, 2004, http://www.opinionjournal.com/taste/?id=110006097, and The Doors of the Sea: Where was God in the Tsunami? (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2005).
7. See Paul Gilroy, Against Race: Imaging Political Culture Beyond the Color Line (Boston, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002).
8. A key intellectual in this regard was the Thomist philosopher, theologian, and jurist Francisco de Vitoria.
J. Kameron Carter
J. Kameron Carter is an associate professor in theology and black church studies at Duke Divinity School and a member of Duke University’s graduate faculty on religion. His first book, Race: A Theological Account (Oxford University Press), was received widely as a major contribution to modern theological discourse. He is currently working on a book titled The Secular Jesus: Political Theology from Columbus to the Age of Obama (Yale University Press).