Paradox before the Ruins
Jack Gilbert’s poem “A Brief for the Defense” is a haunting meditation on a central contradiction: that profound suffering and extraordinary joy—each apparently unaccountable in light of the other—so pervade a world ascribed to the work of God. In the poem (Job-like in its honesty of language), Gilbert sets the stark horrors of poverty, violence, and natural calamity side by side with portraits of beauty and laughter in the mundane habits of impoverished survival. Suffering, in other words, is not sovereign: “To make injustice the only / measure of our attention,” says Gilbert, “is to praise the Devil.”1 But if not the only measure, what of the enduring diabolic in an otherwise joy-filled world?
Gilbert’s words linger precisely because they name for us the marred realities of joy and suffering as concretely experienced in human life and without separating them and thus sanitizing the encounter of one in the absence of the other. In the face of unspeakable suffering, Gilbert places before us the incongruity between here and there, between laughter and sorrow, between our conception of the world (or God) before and after—a rift in the unity of human life that threatens, in barest acuity, to be final, impassable, irreparable.
Though now already replaced in the media by other news—including, tragically, other ecological disasters—more than five months ago an earthquake devastated the small nation of Haiti. Because the earthquake happened beneath land instead of beneath water, the tremors and aftershocks could be felt for one hundred miles in every direction, but Port-au-Prince took the brunt of the quake’s chaotic and terrorizing effects. Public buildings, schools, homes, hospitals—no structure was immune. The National Palace, by way of before-and-after pictures quickly transmitted around the world, became an immediate symbol for the desolation and swift consequences of this horrific event.
Nearly half a year later, the dead number in the hundreds of thousands, and at least a third of the country continues to find itself hungry, displaced, injured, untreated, mourning, divided from family, without shelter, or gripped by some nightmarish combination of these troubling aftereffects. This is a tragedy with few historical parallels, an event of catastrophic human suffering at the hands of an unpredictable—though not unexpected—occurrence in nature.2
Popular Diagnosis, Space for Thought
For those of us who are not on the ground suffering or acting swiftly to relieve it, the appropriate response to this kind of tragedy seems to involve—as I will explore below—a combination of solidarity briefly expressed, sacrificial giving toward relief, and a respectful rhythm of disciplined talk: prophetic speech naming injustices; intercessory prayer for the hurting; lament to God and to one another; and, before and beneath and between, faithful silence.3 But as those in the American context have come to expect, Christians, and particularly Christians with an audience, always have something to add—not to the liturgy of solidarity, but to the harsh litany of easy answers and privileged speculation.
The morning after the earthquake, well-known televangelist Pat Robertson wondered aloud, in conversation with a correspondent on CBN, whether so many collapsed buildings were not in fact “a blessing in disguise,” for in their wake “there might be a massive rebuilding of that country.” He went on to share the “true story” of the Haitian people, “under the heel of the French” at the turn of the nineteenth century, who “got together and swore a pact to the devil” to rid themselves of the French. Indeed, “the Haitians revolted and got themselves free, but ever since they have been cursed by one thing after the other.” Empirical evidence apparently substantiates Robertson’s claims, because the Dominican Republic is “prosperous, healthy, full of resorts” and “Haiti is in desperate poverty,” all on the “same island.” Fortunately for the Haitians, Robertson’s diagnosis does not prevent his being “optimistic something good may come” of all this.
Of course, these statements are only one instance in a long line of ugly and bizarre victim-blaming comments from Pat Robertson regarding significant tragedies. And the general response to Robertson, both Christian and otherwise, seems to have been disgust and rebuke.
Would that we could leave it there. Of course, we could take it as a healthy sign that publicly the only response to comments like Robertson’s is disdain. But in a broader sense, Robertson is as representative as he is singular; that is, he articulates (to be sure, in a foolish way, broadcasted to millions) the unsorted thoughts of innumerable Christians, theists, and agnostics unable or fearful to speak them aloud. Thus, instead of the quick and easy job of dismantling the theology of Pat Robertson, I suggest we see this opportunity as space in which to think and talk together as Christians about wider issues of suffering, providence, nature, and the relation of God to all of these matters.4 In particular, we must ask what it means to respond—in word and deed—in the name of Jesus, the crucified one.
Bad Theology as Syllogism
The following syllogism seems to be the internal logic of the theological shape of what many people speak or think in the wake of disasters like the earthquake in Haiti: (1) everything that happens is the direct result of God’s will; (2) everything that God wills is for a good reason, comprehensible to human understanding; (3) therefore, the earthquake and massive suffering in Haiti is the will of God, and we may and ought to seek and name the reason for its happening.
As has been noted in various other places, what is uniformly lamentable about these propositions is their untenable relation to, and categorical distance from, the God revealed in Jesus of Nazareth; instead, this deity bears more than a passing resemblance to the god envisioned (or, better, created) as acceptable within the bounds of a philosophical theism unrelated to exodus or resurrection. Indeed, what is distressing about these categories of thought is the way they capture the most representatively pro- and anti-God responses available in the American context.
Take, for example, the reaction of popular writer and pastor John Piper, whose poem composed in response to the earthquake comes across as simply a subtler form of his prior interpretations of 2009’s gay-denouncing tornado in Minneapolis and the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004.5 The basic idea: every natural catastrophe, without exception, is both divine retribution for sin and (therefore) a message for onlookers to repent, lest they too be justly wiped out. The harsh judgment of God spoken against Israel and the nations by certain Hebrew prophets in the waning centuries of Israel’s monarchy—judgment, to be sure, in no need of softening by embarrassed later generations6—is flattened out into a perpetual all-consuming fire of anger, violence, and retribution toward the entirety of humanity. Given the indiscriminately equal distribution of sin, and the concomitant guilt accompanying it, puny humanity is simply lucky the Lord lets it off the hook as much as he does.
This view of God is shared, though repudiated, by popular atheist Christopher Hitchens, who, in his own comments on Haiti’s crisis and Pat Robertson’s remarks, claims believers “want the gods to be blamed.” But for just that reason, “It’s idiotic to ask whose fault it is,” as “no educated person is going to ask their numerous gods ‘why’ such disasters occur.”7 Though we may forgive Hitchens his verifiably false conception of what “educated persons” ask in light of natural disasters, there lies before us a straightforward, though unsettling, observation: these two men, pastor and provocateur on opposing sides of divinity’s existence, apparently do have the same deity in view.
In his book The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami?, Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart offers us a sensitive and theologically astute response to natural disaster (though, given the direction he takes regarding the divine apatheia, perhaps his achievement is as a response to responses to natural disaster). His words concerning the perspective shared by Hitchens and Piper are especially apt:
To assert that every finite contingency is solely and unambiguously the effect of a single will working all things—without any deeper mystery of created freedom—is to assert nothing but that the world is what it is, for any meaningful distinction between the will of God and the simple totality of cosmic eventuality has collapsed. If all that occurs, in the minutest detail and in the entirety of its design, is only the expression of one infinite volition that makes no real room within its transcendent determinations for other, secondary, subsidiary but free agencies (and so for some element of chance and absurdity), then the world is both arbitrary and necessary, both meaningful in every part and meaningless in its totality, an expression of pure power and nothing else.8
More concretely: in a world whose God is sheer will to power, there can be no language of “victims,” for those who suffer and die have been judged by a God whose actions are as identifiable as they are just, and there are no victims of the vengeance of God. Perhaps a better word for survivors in Haiti today, then, would be the spared, ones who still have time to hear the message of repentance reverberating across Hispaniola’s mountains. These, at least, are worth tending to, for they have time left enough to believe—that the one God, who loves them, has deemed their poverty, destitution, oppression, and forgottenness worthy of cataclysmic punishment.
Repent—we are told—and believe the good news.
Cross and Resurrection: Hermeneutic and Solidarity
There are various faithful ways of attempting to articulate a truthful and compassionate response both to the absurdity of the suffering in Haiti and to those who claim knowledge of God’s involvement in or reasons for it. And the first such response, as pastor and author Kim Fabricius reminds us, ought truly to be no answer at all, but “only [. . .] the practice of the cross”—that is, only a cruciform praxis bound up with suffering, and never a denial or explanation thereof.9
Another strategy might be to turn precisely to those areas of scripture that contradict a simplistic determinism of God and world. Psalm 46, for example, praises and claims the God of Israel as “an ever-present help in trouble” (v. 1) whose presence quiets fear “though the earth give way and [. . .] the mountains quake with their surging” (vv. 2, 3). To the returning exiles, too, ones surely knowledgeable of the Lord’s fierce judgment, Yahweh proclaims in profound compassion: “Though the mountains be shaken and the hills be removed, yet my unfailing love for you will not be shaken, nor my covenant of peace be removed” (Isa. 54:10).10 God’s people knew by experience the threat of radical suffering, of the natural world’s chaotic forces, but without diminishing life’s vulnerable severity, they spoke aloud their trust that the Lord of creation was with them amid the danger.
Let us broaden the scope, then, and take up this task ourselves in the context of Haiti. For God’s people today, in times of seismic existential crisis and hardship—on the receiving or the observing end—we must remember the story that constitutes our identity, that the church is that people who worship a crucified God. This view is not merely conceptual jargon or the archaic consequence of compromised councils. This is the primal truth of what it means to speak in the name of Jesus, to call on him as Lord, to have a word, as a community, for those whose feet have slipped when the earth has given way beneath them—figuratively, of course, but in this dreadful case, quite literally.11
This Jesus of the church’s confession was in his time handed over to the religious and political authorities, rejected and spat upon, brutalized and mocked, tortured and crucified. He was considered rejected and scorned and cursed by God. The meaning-bearers of history, the generals and the politicos, the priestly class with God’s ear—every one to a man12 knew, saw with his own eyes, sighed in relief at the visibility, the undeniable clarity of the one God’s repudiation of this would-be Messiah. God had spoken loud and clear in the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth, and the people got the message.
But the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead is God’s own judgment on every hermeneutic and interpretation that identifies history’s course of events as synonymous with, or explicable as, the divine will—for the cross is not God’s verdict on a guilty criminal. The resurrection of the crucified Jesus is the one true God’s rebuke of all our idolatrous imputations of divine power, meaning, and finality both to finite human actions of violence, condemnation, and exclusion in the halls and killing fields of religiopolitical power and to natural events of calamity, calumny, suffering, and death. The triune God is relentlessly and eternally the enemy of all violence and death, and his apocalyptic intrusion into our world in the form of a humiliated and executed servant of others is both his radical solidarity with those who suffer and his judgment on all the powers of sin and death, through the rejection of any caste system that equates righteousness (or divine blessing) with wealth, safety, security, success, or health.13 The incarnate God knew none of these things, but died a young man, without home, family, or possessions, alone on a tree, disfigured and despised.
Any and every theory or discernment of the hand of God in history must, if it be Christian, account for that God—and no other.
Hope, Time, and Speaking in the Name of Jesus
There is more to the story. God’s judgment on our worship of power and on our diseased habit of ascribing disaster to deity ends neither with meaningful but ultimately impotent solidarity, nor in a guilty verdict and final sentencing. The judgment of the God revealed in Jesus Christ is always grace; moreover, in the cross and resurrection there is not only solidarity, nor merely something so intangible as a “hermeneutic”—rather, there is hope. And the hopeful word of the crucified and risen Lord is deliverance: from violence, from sin, from ourselves, from death.14 Not only us, but all of creation—“groaning as in the pains of childbirth,” “in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed” (Rom. 8:22, 19)—will be “liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God” (8:21). And we too will be freed from the oppressive chaos of nature’s violence, from the inexpressible pain and sadness rent in the tremors of the earth.
But part of knowing our story, where we have been and where we are going, is knowing also when we are. Creation continues to groan; people continue to die. In Christ, God has acted to rescue creation, but the final victory has yet to come. In the Spirit, God has promised never to abandon us and instead to groan with us in our sorrow, to comfort us in our trials, to give us words to speak when our voices fall flat. This enduring solidarity is both sign and promise that God at last will bring justice to the earth, will make all things new, will wipe away every tear.
But we live in this hope by faith and cannot yet see what will be. In this way, we have no easy answers for the reality of suffering, whether for those in its grip, for those truly questioning, or for those wanting to inform Haitian mothers of the eternally valid reasons why their children were crushed and suffocated to death. However, our lack of “answers” as commonly understood does not entail nothing to say or do—for our hope is fundamentally not passive—and in this sense let us conclude by articulating what it might mean to respond to Haiti’s suffering in the name of the crucified one.
It should be sufficiently clear by now what cannot be said or done: to answer why God “did” it; to explain why Haiti “deserved” it; to exploit or profit from the Haitians’ plight. Similarly, silence alone—though, as a general prescription for the temptation to answer or explain, a healthy step—is not enough. If the crucified is also the incarnate one, God’s own Word enfleshed among and for us, then the Spirit’s groans in us must, even here, become audible.
Let the church therefore say: this tragedy was not inevitable, but the wholly foreseeable fruit of centuries of oppression—explicit and implicit, cultural and economic, active and passive—by predominantly Christian imperialism and injustice, right up to the present time.
Let the church also say: we must and will and do repent of our sins against the Haitian people, and our repentance will take material form. Not only will we serve, give, help, advise, and heal, but we will also commit to not forgetting our intertwined histories, and in remembering, we will partner toward a safer future when the earth, invariably, trembles again.
Let the church say: Haiti is neither godless nor abandoned, for truly the same God who came near in Christ was there in Haiti before the earthquake and is there right now, suffering and weeping and facing death with the entire nation.
Let the church say: we lament with tears before God that death rattles and riddles this earth still, that Haiti’s mothers and fathers mourn without consolation, that Haiti’s children hunger and wander in search for healing, for safety, for refuge.
Let the church say: we cast ourselves and, with us, Haiti’s land and people before the one in whom has come the end of death’s reign, in the trust that, through pretense-stripped intercession to the God who suffers with those on whose behalf we pray, death will not have the final word.
Only when the church has spoken and meant and enacted these and other prayers—for justice, for alleviation, for a swift end to this terrible time—may the church then come into silence.
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1. Jack Gilbert, Refusing Heaven: Poems (New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005), 3.
2. I am thankful to thoughtful responses like that of J. Kameron Carter, who helped me to see that “predictability” is not synonymous with “expectability.” That is, the lack of human capability to predict each and every one of tomorrow’s geological events—a mythic idea bound up with imperial “man” conquering “nature”—does not equate to a deficit in human culpability for putting off the responsibility to plan, prepare, and establish infrastructure adequate to respond to an earthquake bound to happen at some point. See Carter, “Why Lord? Haiti and the God-Question,” The Other Journal 16.5 (2010), https://theotherjournal.com/article.php?id=932.
3. I might also suggest widespread communal fasting, but as it has been some time since the earthquake, I am not clear what shape that might take today. More to the point, given the disarray and disunity of our congregations, combined with the deeply sown autonomous assumptions marking our communities’ lives, I wonder with regret whether it would even be possible.
4. I take my lead here from Rowan Williams’s concise and compassionate reflections on September 11, 2001, in Williams, Writing in the Dust (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002).
5. The final lines of the poem have Jesus, as King, lifting his arms to America, “summon[ing] now to Haiti enemies / For my relief.” You can find Piper’s discernment of God’s intent in the tornado and his various ruminations on the tsunami on the website of his ministry, Desiring God, http://www.desiringgod.org/.
6. We ought to ask, however, what it was that so kindled the anger of Israel’s Lord. The answer, though certainly not simplistic, seems straightforward (and akin to Jesus’s own call for repentance): the rejection of Yahweh by way of economic injustice. Hence, the peculiar notion that economically depressed areas such as Haiti, New Orleans, or southeast Asia would incur divine judgment. See Dan O. Via, Divine Justice, Divine Judgment: Rethinking the Judgment of the Nations (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2007), 11-34.
7. See Christopher Hitchens, “A Fault Is Not a Sin: It’s Idiotic To Blame Anything Other than Geology for the Haitian Earthquake,” Slate, Fighting Words, January 17, 2010, http://www.slate.com/id/2241877/, italics in original. I should also note the bizarre irony of his choosing to open the piece by reference to the Lisbon earthquake, an apparently unaware mirroring of his ideological enemy, David Bentley Hart, who used the same event for opposite purposes in numerous theological responses to the tsunami five years ago.
8. David Bentley Hart, The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami? (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2005), 29-30. I find Robert W. Jenson’s essay, “Ipse Pater Non Est Impassibilis,” in Divine Impassibility and the Mystery of Human Suffering, ed. James F. Keating and Thomas Joseph White, O.P. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2009), 117-26, enormously helpful in articulating succinctly both the triune God’s “non-impassibility” (121) and the consequent meaning of prayer in the face of suffering (125-26). For example, “Prayer is involvement in Providence. If prayer is anything less, it is simply a pitiful delusion” (126, italics in original). This way of putting and conceiving the matter will be evident in what follows.
9. Kim Fabricius, Propositions on Christian Theology: A Pilgrim Walks the Plank (Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press, 2008), 41-48.
10. Every Sunday morning of 2009, my entire church stood up and recited Isaiah 54:10 together as part of the theme for the year’s worship. It was a strange experience, then, to hear Jon Stewart, of all people, recite this verse on the Daily Show, word for word, as part of a cavalcade of biblical quotations offered to Pat Robertson “from his own book” as better options than that “devil folk” business.
11. See Douglas John Hall, The Cross in Our Context (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2003), 122: “The theology of the cross [. . .] cannot be a wholly satisfactory, wholly integrated statement about our human brokenness in relation to God; it can only be a broken statement about our brokenness—and about God’s eschatological healing of our brokenness” (italics in original). See also Hall’s excellent God and Human Suffering (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1987).
12. And they were men, of course. When the women tending to the grave saw the risen Lord, they then went to find the apostles to tell them what had happened.
13. Thus, as John Howard Yoder notes, Jesus’s command in Matthew 5:48 has little to do with “perfection” but with the indiscriminate character—modeled after that of God—of the loving action his disciples must offer to all. See Yoder, The Politics of Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans,  1994), 116-17. See also Yoder, The Original Revolution (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1971), 47: “Jesus is saying that we should not love only our friends because God did not love only His friends. [ . . .W]e are asked to ‘resemble God’ just at this one point: not in His omnipotence or His eternity or His impeccability, but simply in the undiscriminating or unconditional character of His love.”
14. On the hope revealed in the event of the cross, see Arthur McGill, Suffering: A Test of Theological Method (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1982), 93-98. Alternatively, on the hope revealed in the resurrection even and especially for the guilty, see Rowan Williams, Resurrection: Interpreting the Easter Gospel (Cleveland, OH: Pilgrim Press, 1982, 2002), 32-44.