Women were raped. Children were disemboweled. Men fell prey to the invaders’ swords. Within a generation, the lives and culture of the indigenous people of the Caribbean came to a bloody end. Avarice for gold and glory took its course and decimated the population. The original inhabitants suffered cruelly at the hands of their conquerors.
In eastern Cuba, a cacique (a chieftain) named Hatuey created a loose confederation of aborigines to resist the invading colonizers. For three months, he carried out a style of guerrilla warfare against the Spaniards. Diego VelÃ¡squez, Cuba’s first Spanish governor, led an expedition in 1511 to capture the renegade chieftain and pacify the island.
Once apprehended, Hatuey was condemned to death. As Hatuey was about to be burned at the stake, a Franciscan friar attempted to convert him to the Christian faith with the promise of heaven and the threat of hell. Hatuey is reported to have asked if Christians went to heaven. The friar answered in the affirmative, to which the condemned Hatuey retorted that he did not want to go to heaven where he would see such cruel and heartless people.
As I listen to Pat Robertson interpret the recent events in Haiti as God’s punishment because several centuries ago their ancestors made a pact with the devil, I am reminded of Hatuey. If those who interpret God the way Pat Robertson does go to heaven, then I do not want to go to such a place where I would see such cruel and heartless people.
I find I have more in common with the so-called “heathens” like Hatuey than I do with the so-called “Christians” like Robertson who are quick to condemn in the name of God. A God who will kill God’s children out of a sense of being offended or out of hurt vanity is a God that might be feared, lest said God strikes you with a lightning bolt or your entire nation with an earthquake, but it is a God that can never be loved, let alone be called “abba” or daddy. I may bow my knees due to coercion, but can I really love a brutal dictator who demands adoration lest I suffer the consequences?
Robertson is forced to blame Satan, and the Haitian people, for if he doesn’t, faith becomes complicated. It forces him – and us – to wrestle with the theodicy question. How can an all-loving God allow such evil, like an earthquake, to occur?
Jesus asks, “What person among you, if asked by their child for a loaf would give a stone? Of if asked for a fish will give a snake? If then, you, who are evil, know to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in Heaven give good things to those that ask?” (Matthew 7:9-11). Yet reading about the tragedy of Haiti, one finds stories about good Christian families being wiped out, innocent children who perished, good decent individuals who die because they were in the wrong building when it collapsed.
When we consider the thousands of senseless deaths, it seems to deny more than confirm the paternal love or caring of God. One is forced to ask, where is God? Comparing Jesus’ words with the reality of natural disaster seems to indicate that earthly parents, rather than God, know better on how to care for their children. It is God who appears to be giving the thousands who die in Haiti a stone when they are begging for some bread, or a snake when they are praying for some fish.
Natural disasters like earthquakes illustrate the randomness by which nature strikes out and brings death and misery to believers and unbelievers alike. But if natural disasters were not enough to cause us to pause, we have a human history that has made inhumanity the moral norm. Mass murder, genocide, inquisitions, torture, terrorism, crusades, concentration camps, colonialism, child abuse and wars may convince us that radical evil is alive and well on planet earth, but may make us wonder about God and God’s goodness.
The earthquake in Haiti will certainly not be the first time that we look around us and wonder why evil triumphs. Psalm 73 notices that the “wicked” grow rich, having strong and healthy bodies (Psalm 73:3-4); while the “pure” are plagued all day long leading the psalmist to wonder “why should I keep my own heart pure?” (Psalm 73:13-14).
Maybe Billy Joel is right – “Only the good die young.” Even during the ministry of Jesus, his disciples asked for an explanation concerning both the randomness of natural disasters and the cruelty of humanity. They asked Jesus to explain moral evil (as demonstrated by the Governor Pontius Pilate who slaughtered Galilean worshipers, mixing their blood with that of their sacrifices) and natural evil (as demonstrated by the fall of the tower of Siloam crushing 18 people).
Jesus responds that they were no guiltier than all the people living in Jerusalem, and unless his hearers repent, they too would perish in like kind (Luke 13:1-5). If we are honest with ourselves, Jesus’ answer is unsatisfying. We are left wanting. We are no closer to understanding why evil happens.
I admit that the Haitian earthquake of 2010 is beyond my spiritual comprehension, for it conflicts with everything I know about the God of love and life I worship and follow.
Nevertheless, one thing I do know: The Christianity of Robertson and those who are quick to blame tragedy on some angry, vengeful God is a Christianity which I, following Hatuey’s lead, reject and want no part of whatsoever.
Miguel A. De La Torre is director of the Justice & Peace Institute and associate professor of social ethics at Iliff School of Theology in Denver.
Professor of Social Ethics and Latinx Studies at Iliff School of Theology in Denver, Colorado.