Tuesday, January 19, 2010

There's always a Job

It's been a week since the earthquake in Haiti, and one kind of horror has followed another. The terror of those trapped in buildings, the grief of those unable to save them, the threat of hunger and disease, the terrible smells, the looting and violent responses to it, the burning of unclaimed bodies, the ever-spreading, ever-deepening sorrow. In today's Times we learned about the bodies being buried in mass graves without any effort to identify them:

Along with everything else stolen by last week’s earthquake, Haitians must now add another loss: the ability to identify and bury the dead. Funeral rites are among the most sacred of all ceremonies to Haitians, who have been known to spend more money on their burial crypts than on their own homes.

It is the product in part of familiarity with death — the average life span of a Haitian is 44 — but also the widespread voodoo belief that the dead continue living and that families must stay connected forever to their ancestors.

The cover of the new New Yorker may express the particular awfulness of this, though I find myself troubled by it. Painted two years ago by Haitian Frantz Zephirin, the faces in its walls can't have meant anything like the bodies lost in the rubble today. They're the recently dead but properly buried. Haiti's religious world is more involved with the dead than ours, surely, but through myths about Vodun Haiti is always associated in American minds with death.

Why feed that myth? How different is it really from the idea that Haiti is cursed?

In the same New Yorker's "Talk of the Town" George Packer notes that Haitian history is a chronicle of suffering so Job-like that it inevitably inspires arguments with God, and about God. Job has been invoked already in Packer's reflection: A man named Lionel Gaedi went to the Port-au-Prince morgue in search of his brother, Josef, but was unable to find his body among the piles of corpses that had been left there. “I don’t see him—it’s a catastrophe,” Gaedi said. “God gives, God takes.” But Packer's Job story is that of an innocent man betrayed by his friends.

Packer brings together Pat Robertson's views on the curse with that of a housekeeper named Zed cited in an opinion piece in the Times by Pooja Bhatia entitled "Haiti's Angry God": If God exists, he’s really got it in for Haiti. Haitians think so, too. Zed, a housekeeper in my apartment complex, said God was angry at sinners around the world, but especially in Haiti. Zed said the quake had fortified her faith, and that she understood it as divine retribution.
Packer avoids taking a stand on the theodicy problem, instead commending the approach of President Obama: Obama’s answer was the opposite of Zed’s and Robertson’s: rather than claiming to know the mind of God, he vowed that America would not forsake Haiti, because its tragedy reminds us of “our common humanity.”
Choosing the humanistic approach to other people’s misery brings certain obligations. The first is humanitarian.

But of what is Obama's "humanistic approach" really "the opposite"? By using the word "humanistic" Packer implies it's the opposite of a religious view which "claim[s] to know the mind of God." A semi-conscious memory of another earthquake seems to be at work: the Lisbon earthquake of 1755, which is thought to have knocked the wind out of Christian moralizing interpretations of natural disasters. While Catholics conducted autos da fe and Protestants in London smirked in satisfaction at God's punishment of Catholic idolatry, who wouldn't side with the Marquês de Pombal who famously said the order of the day was not religious but to Bury the dead and feed the living?

But it's not as simple as religious vs humanistic. For one thing, Obama's understanding of "our common humanity" is surely religiously grounded and inspired: there are religious reasons to bury the dead and feed the living. More fundamentally, the opposition between humanistic engagement and judgmental religious fatalism is too simple. Humanists can be detached and fatalistic, too, while view's like Zed's aren't fatalistic but engaged in their way.

I applaud Packer's insistence that the US do more than bandage Haiti's wounds and abandon it again: to patch up a dying country and call it a rescue would leave Haiti forsaken indeed, and not by God. But can we make this argument without the humanistic imperialism which comes close to blaming Haiti's sufferings on its religiousness, on its pact not - as Robertson opined - with the devil but with God?

1 comment:

Mark Statman said...

Thanks for talking about the problems of an either or response to the earthquake--the simplification of cause, consequence, etc may have its uses some places and for some people but simplification does not bury, does not feed. It does not lead to greater understanding nor to greater action. Slows the pace, I guess, but I'm not sure how that helps in this present.