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Commentary: Haiti and the metaphysics of calamity

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 21, 2010 - When bona fide catastrophe strikes, it’s become a tradition of sorts for TV evangelist Pat Robertson to say something stupid about it. He’s become to 21st century calamity what Bert Parks was to 20th century beauty pageants — not an actual participant but the event just doesn’t seem complete without his blathering commentary. Borrowing a moniker from the film, Rocky, we’ll dub him the “Master of Disaster.”

If memory serves, Robertson attributed the 9/11 terror attacks to legalized abortion and portrayed Hurricane Katrina as divine payback for tolerance of homosexuality. Now, confronted with unimaginable human suffering in the wake of last week’s devastating earthquake in Haiti, he sees the entire episode as the predictable outcome of an 18th century pact with the devil.

Legend has it that in 1791, rebel slaves under the leadership of Dutty Boukman cut a deal with the Dark One to rid Haiti of its French oppressors. Jean Jacques Dessalines’ subsequent revolution succeeded in running off the colonists but also doomed the fledgling nation to a legacy of constant sorrow due to the Faustian bargain that gave rise to its birth.

“…for He maketh His sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain upon the just and the unjust.” — Matthew 5:45

Oddly, 80 percent of modern Haitians identify themselves as Roman Catholics and an additional 16 percent claim various Protestant affiliations. Apparently, a population that is 96 percent Christian is insufficient to defray the consequences of an ancient satanic curse.

There’s a certain comfort in the notion of divine retribution as the explanation for incomprehensible tragedy because it unravels a Gordian knot for the true believer. Q: If the Deity is all-powerful and all-merciful, how can He permit the brutal devastation of innocents? A: He didn’t do it; we did.

Billy Graham’s daughter, Anne, takes a different — but related — tack on the subject. Appearing some while ago on The Early Show, she was asked by Jane Clayson how God could allow events like Katrina to occur. She responded:

“I believe God is deeply saddened by this, just as we are, but for years we’ve been telling God to get out of our schools, to get out of our government and to get out of our lives. And being the gentleman He is, I believe He has calmly backed out. How can we expect God to give us His blessing and His protection if we demand He leave us alone?”

Where Robertson’s deity is vengeful, Graham’s is polite and has simply stepped away to leave us to our own resources. In either case, He is blameless.

The underlying psychology here is typical of the response one hears when sharing news of an unexpected death. Tell someone that an acquaintance has suffered a fatal heart attack, and they will invariably ask if the victim smoked, was over-weight, exercised regularly or had his cholesterol checked.

By blaming the victim for his sudden demise, we reassure ourselves that we are not merely hapless mortals left to the inexplicable whims of fate but rather that we are in control of our own destinies. If only we play by the rules, everything will be OK…

While some debated the metaphysics of calamity, others got about the dirty work of genuine charity. The international community was galvanized by the plight of the 2 million plus residents of the stricken capital, Port-au-Prince.

The member states of the European Union, as well as Russia and China immediately dispatched rescue teams. U.N. personnel along with a legion of private charities — many with religious affiliations — sprang to action. As usual, the United States was at the vanguard of the effort.

The aircraft carrier Carl Vinson and a hospital ship were dispatched to join a flotilla of naval and Coast Guard vessels and aircraft to lend aid. The 22nd Marine Expeditionary Force and the 82nd Airborne were deployed to assist in the effort and President Obama pledged $100 million in aid. Private donations poured in from ordinary citizens who were touched by the plight of their fellow humans.

Perhaps lending credence to Robertson’s theory, what the rescuers found upon arrival may not have been hell on earth, but it would do until hell came along. The primitive infrastructure of the city had been destroyed and the government, such as it was, had all but ceased to function. The local clinics that had survived overflowed with people injured in the quake; corpses were stacked outside their walls beneath the tropical sun.

Absent any semblance of civil order, a population suffering extreme shortages of food, potable water, shelter and even the most primitive sanitation understandably grew restless. With the stench of death and decay permeating the atmosphere, the prospect of rampant disease grew imminent.

It was into this island paradise that the saviors marched, grimly resolved to ameliorate the human consequences of nature’s blind fury. These mundane angels may not have grasped the metaphysical justification for the situation, but they did understand the need for plumbing.

It would seem that rather than attempting to rationalize the inscrutable motives of the Almighty, our time is better spent trying to make His vision a reality in the world in which we live. As JFK so eloquently remarked at the conclusion of what sadly would be his only inaugural address, “…let us go forth…asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth God’s work must truly be our own.”

Amen to that, Pat, amen…

M.W. Guzy is a retired St. Louis cop who currently works for the city Sheriff's Department. His column appears weekly in the Beacon.