Could you have located Haiti on a map two weeks ago? No, neither could I. I knew where it was vaguely, but had no knowledge of it other than it being one of those desperately poor nations of which our world has an abundance: one of those places that comes to mind occasionally when I say or sing that familiar repeated line in the Jewish liturgy: Oseh shalom bimromav, hu ya’aseh shalom... – ‘May the One who makes peace/wholeness on high bring this peace/wholeness to us, to all of the community of Israel...’ – Then we sometimes add - in a spirit of all-embracing tolerance, optimism and naive hopefulness that allows us to feel good about ourselves as having a universalist dimension to our faith rather than a narrow ethnic particularism – ‘and to the whole world.’
Well there is no peace in Haiti. No wholeness. And no prayers of ours that can help (can they ever?). Of course the notion that these kind of natural events – like earthquakes and tsunamis - are so-called ‘acts of God’ is an absurd left-over from a pre-modern form of fear-based religious thinking. That ‘God’ is some kind of capricious external entity whose ‘hand’ intervenes wilfully in our history and in our natural world – like a child who builds a palace of toy bricks then sweeps them away with a tearful swipe of its angry hand – this image of ‘God’ is the one that Richard Dawkins so relentlessly and humourlessly dismisses. And in that respect I am with Dawkins – though I find that a sprinkling of humour as one demolishes the worn-out pieties of old usually does no harm. You can be an assassin with a smile on your face.
A smile not of mockery, or glee, but of camaraderie: ‘We are in this together – these questions of faith and doubt – let’s not pretend we believe when we don’t, let’s abandon worn-out thinking and what we are told we should believe, let’s grow up and explore these questions in a spirit of lightness of being, not heaviness of heart, let’s enjoy the adventure, the venturing into new ways of thinking, new ways of connecting to faith, new ways of exploring the profoundest questions about what we are doing here in the world, how it all hangs together, if it all hangs together in some way always beyond our comprehension: maybe there are ways we can glimpse the underlying mystery, maybe not – but it is the journey that counts, the journey wrestling with faith and doubt in a spirit of intoxicated gravity, good-humoured seriousness, where it matters infinitely, and it matters not a jot...’
So: no 'act of God' then. But a combination of how this planet is made – geology, and how it operates, neutrally, impersonally – and what we make in the human realm: economically, politically, socially. For what I have discovered in these last two weeks, between the tears at the torn-off limbs and my naive astonishment at the lack of basic resources – how could it be that Haiti had a grand total of just two fire stations in the whole island? – is that the island contains a people so poor (living on $2 a day on average), so lacking in leadership and basic infrastructure and material resources, that when a catastrophe like this occurs the society simply ceases to function - but that it needn’t have been like this.
I’ve learnt about – I’ve finally understood the context of – the decades of dictatorship (remember the Duvaliers, sponsored by the US?), the foreign-backed coups and American invasions to undermine leaders like the former Catholic priest Jean-Baptiste Aristide who, inspired by liberation theology, tried to bring in social justice and economic development that wasn’t beholden to the International Monetary Fund’s own dictatorial neo-liberalism.
I’ve learnt that in 1980 Haiti was self-sufficient in its staple crop, rice, but once America dumped its surplus on the island the rice-farmers had to move from the countryside to the flimsy slums of Port-au-Prince (we know, tragically, what that means for them now) and that in the last decade Haiti has been forced to import rice to feed itself.
It is surely a human outrage - a human-constructed tragedy of a different dimension – when we realise what has gone on over these last decades. As we send our money to help now - as we appreciate that whatever the history of the island, targeted donations are still vital - we can nevertheless still feel the outrage : that it need not have been as devastating as this, the earthquake. How many deaths there have been we will never know. How many deaths there would have been if different principles of economics and governance had been in place we will never know. But it would have been far less: in last year’s hurricane Haiti lost 800 people while neighbouring Cuba lost four. (Haiti’s infant mortality rate is around 80 per 1,000; Cuba’s is 5.8 – makes you think, doesn’t it?).
Anyway it makes me think that when one hears the old question ‘How could God allow such a tragedy?’ that the questioner is looking in the wrong place, and that the question itself is a symptom of a profound avoidance. Questioning ‘God’ is a child-like mistake. It is a category error. But questioning the greed and destructiveness immured in the human heart, questioning the way the human mind constructs abstract and inhuman theories of what is ‘best’ for other people, questioning the ways certain versions of the capitalist ethic can be destructive of human well-being, questioning our multiple collusions with the structures of Western geopolitics where they are false to the values of justice and compassion – this is where the questioning needs to be.
Compassion after the tragic event is all very well, but it's the easy option, sad to say. The response is wonderful, this generosity of the human heart - and yet, secretly, we know that the hypocrisy stinks to the heavens. We are our own worst enemies.