January 21, 2010
Reflections from Leading Haitian Theologian
CT recently spoke with prominent Haitian theologian Dieumeme Noelliste, currently professor of theological ethics at Denver Seminary and president of the Caribbean Evangelical Theological Association (bio).
His thoughts on the current crisis and its impact on the Haitian church (edited for clarity) are presented after the jump:
As a Haitian living outside the country, I’ve been very touched by the response of Haitian Christians. You hear people singing in the streets; people calling out to God and praying. I saw on TV a man in distress being encouraged in Creole by another man to accept Jesus in this dire situation. This tells me that these are people of strong faith in God; in the midst of calamities, they turn to God.
The untold story:
One story that hasn’t been told in the secular media is the number of Haitian pastors who died in the earthquake, leaving their parishioners without any shepherd. The American church should know about this and think about what can be done to help. Haiti was already struck with a paucity of pastors before the earthquake; many trained pastors have left for Canada, the U.S., and other places. And many pastors in Haiti are in charge of not just one church but many churches. This situation should be explored.
Regarding Pat Robertson’s comments:
I was concerned by the point raised by a leading figure in American conservative Christianity (Pat Robertson), this notion that Haiti is cursed due to an 18th century meeting. This is really simplistic, very facile, in fact very rude and crude. This is not the time to raise such a question. And it’s very simplistic: Haiti had not yet formed as a nation when this syncretistic practice took place. In fact, by the time Haiti had leaders who could speak on behalf of the country, these leaders spoke against voodoo. Anti-voodoo campaigns were led by the church with the support of the state. So that kind of statement makes a mockery of the God that we serve; is God so impotent that he can’t outdo Satan? Haiti is overwhelmingly Christian.
I am preparing a paper for the next meeting of the Lausanne 2010 Theology Working Group in which I ask the question: How can the gospel be good news to the poor? I focused it on my own country. How is it that a country which has so much Christianity also has so much poverty? How can the two coexist? My view: the gospel that has been preached in Haiti has left a vacuum—has left the political landscape untouched. The church doesn’t see its business as being a prophetic witness to those in power. The result has been a political sector left to its own devices; this is why the common people were the first responders to the crisis, not the government. This is the result of the gospel being truncated, emasculated, instead of confronting the powers that be to do what God intends for them to do: protect and enhance life.
Protestants in Haiti:
The Protestant church is strong in Haiti. There are 40 Protestant bodies, from traditional churches such as the Methodists and the Episcopalians to all kinds of Baptists and of course large independent bodies of Pentecostals. Credible statistics from leading Haitian sociologist and ethnographer Charles-Poisset Romain in 1985 put Protestants at between 18.5 and 33.2 percent of the population—and that was back in 1985! Growth of the Protestant church has been steady since then. Catholicism in Haiti is afflicted with syncretism, but the phenomenon is less prominent in the Protestant church. Haitian Christianity is not as hybrid or deformed as is commonly assumed.
On the theodicy question: I don’t believe people will turn from God. I don’t think there is the kind of approach to life in Haiti that would lead people to think this is proof that God doesn’t exist or think God is against us. If anything, believers in voodoo will think the voodoo god is angry or that things weren’t done to appease the voodoo god. They will be searching their souls for what it is that they didn’t do. As far as Christians are concerned, this is not the first time that disaster has come to us. This may be the most brutal, but two years ago we had four devastating hurricanes and even then the people didn’t turn against God. They’ve suffered many things at the hands of fellow Haitians and remained fast to God. Even during slavery, Haitians were treated brutally but open to the version of Christianity that the slave owners were preaching. The slaves were even asking for more! I see the church continuing to grow. In these situations people tend to turn to God. This is their only hope.