The Common Good

More Haitian History and Perspective on Pat Robertson and the 'Pact with the Devil'

Like many of you, my first reaction when hearing Pat Robertson's assertion that Haiti had been cursed for making a "pact with the devil" was, well, not appropriate to write on a Christian blog. But once I got over the shock of his blaming the victims, I'll be honest -- my next impulse was curiosity: What tattered shred of historical truth could he possibly be twisting? My colleague Elizabeth Palmberg has already provided some excellent historical perspective, but at the risk of lending any credence whatsoever to Robertson's claims and perpetuating a distraction from what should be our main concern: RESPONDING TO THE OVERWHELMING NEED OF SURVIVING HAITIANS (click here for for Sojourners' readers' recommended ways to help), I did some additional research, and here's what I found.

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CBN released a statement explaining -- not apologizing for -- Robertson, saying, "His comments were based on the widely-discussed 1791 slave rebellion led by Boukman Dutty at Bois Caiman, where the slaves allegedly made a famous pact with the devil in exchange for victory over the French." "Widely discussed" is an understatement. Here's a passage from a Haitian history site:

In many senses the revolution was already under way by August 1791, but that month's vodou ceremony has become a convenient landmark to date the "official" start of the uprising ... The details of the Bois Caïman ceremony have been retold and embellished over the years into a dramatic tale of epic proportions. The actual story of what happened that August may not be as dramatic as the popular retelling, yet it is as charged with the electricity of a historic turning point.

As with much history, the facts of this ceremony are disputed and shrouded in legend. The first and only contemporary account of it was written by a French doctor who was the medical attendant when Haitian slaves were being tortured for their role in the rebellion. But even the legendary version reveals some compelling context. Here is one version of the prayer that Haitian revolutionary Boukman Dutty is said to have uttered at the ceremony:

The god who created the sun which gives us light, who rouses the waves and rules the storm, though hidden in the clouds, he watches us. He sees all that the white man does. The god of the white man inspires him with crime, but our god calls upon us to do good works. Our god who is good to us orders us to revenge our wrongs. He will direct our arms and aid us. Throw away the symbol of the god of the whites who has so often caused us to weep, and listen to the voice of liberty, which speaks in the hearts of us all.

Does that sound like a pact with Satan? Are there not echoes of the psalms? Of course for Robertson, like many evangelical Christians, Vodou = Satanism (or for that matter, any non-Christian religious belief = Satanism). But if that is your belief, can you at least hold it in tension with what the Bible says about God's concern for the poor and oppressed, and "Christian" colonialism's legacy of slavery, terror, violence, and torture? Do you find it easier to identify with Boukman's legendary prayer, or with a system of colonial slavery that twisted the witness of Christ to the point that African slaves clung to their traditional beliefs in defense against the whites' version of god? Who are God's children: Those who take God's name (in vain?) or those who do justice (Matthew 5, Matthew 7:21-23)?

Two more passages that seem relevant. The first is from author Don Miller, who's written the most helpful thing I've read on this controversy. Do yourself a favor and read his full post, but here's a snippet:

Another truth that gives me a more grounded perspective on Pat Robertson is that he really doesn't represent most conservatives. I come from a politically and religiously conservative family, and many, many of my friends are very conservative, and all of them would be in shock at Robertson's statements. The media would have Robertson represent all Christians, or perhaps all conservatives, but the idea is absurd. It's also important to let people know we think it's absurd. So here is what the Devil is really going to try to get you to do: Hate other people. Those conservatives, those Christians, those whoever

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