Culture At Large


Paul Vander Klay

The earthquake in Haiti and the visible response raise a lot of issues for me. I was a missionary in the Dominican Republic for 6 years working near the border mostly with Haitians. I visited Port on a couple of occasions.

When I went to the DR as a missionary I imagined that helping would be relatively easy. I come from a wealthy country and was sent by a generous denomination that worked hard to integrate word and deed ministry. We did church planting and development, relief and development, micro loans, health projects, lots of things. During the 90s when I was there going from the DR to Haiti was like going from Miami to the DR. Haiti is the poorest country in our hemisphere. It is probably on a per capita basis the most aided country in the world. By virtue of its poverty, its reputation and its proximity to the US there are probably more church missionaries and relief and development missionaries there on a per capita basis than anywhere else. Why then does it continue to be so poor? Why do the people suffer so?

During its colonial era Haiti generated more wealth for France than the 13 British colonies (now the US) combined. The island is a natural paradise with abundant natural resources, lots of water, a year round growing season, etc.

I don't think it is impossible to have an experiential understanding of why countries like Haiti (and frankly every other country in the world too) can't be "helped" as we imagine it should be. Just try "helping" someone who is in deep trouble for whatever reason. Our problems are due to a complex fabric of interdependent relationships the majority of which can't be easily remedied. If one form of suffering can be alleviated another level of incapacity or dysfunction emerges. Some of Haiti's wounds are self-inflicted. That's common to everywhere. Some of Haiti's problems are a result of generational brokenness. The sins of the colonial era weren't simply removed by nationalistic revolutionary movements, ownership just tends to change hands. The consequences of slavery aren't simply removed by abolition. Our power to address our dysfunction is limited.

Soon Haiti will be flooded with relief supplies, volunteers, work teams, money to rebuild, and a world of good intentions that say "we'll do it right this time." Most of Haiti's roads and bridges were built during waves of US interventions. This will continue. Will the new buildings built to replace the rubble be built to code? Once the immediate shock wears off will the deep patterns of paternalism and corruption that built the city now in rubble somehow disappear or will the cycle just take its next turn? Will this simply become the next chapter of teaching a nation that their most potent economic asset is some sort of disaster porn where they sell their suffering rather than their sex? The track record is grim.

I'm not saying we shouldn't give for the relief and development. I appreciated the long term perspective and commitment that Bill Clinton voiced in a Time Magazine piece. I trust the missionaries and development workers that labor sacrificially for the well being of Haiti. They need and deserve our prayer and support. From the reports coming out of the country the need is immediate and unquestionable, but we shouldn't be naive about the long term challenges.

CS Lewis notes that often the miracles of Jesus are miracles of time. The storm he stills would have ended, he just made it end at his word. The abundance miracles are multiplications of nature's created bounty. The redeemer is also the creator. Disasters are in fact the same way. We are horrified at what we see, but every life lost would be lost to old age or illness in time. In the disaster the potential for positive contribution and culture making by so many lives lost is staggering, but that loss occurs every day in a thousand ways and a thousand places. The disaster exposes is our denial to the "normal" state of the age of decay and our illusions of power over it.

This disaster in Haiti is worthy of a lament and the Bible is very clear on God's concern for the poor and the oppressed and our obligation to help. Sorrow and despair will quickly be joined by anger. The Bible is also clear on God's judgment against evil and his intent and means of ending the age of decay. Do we in this moment not feel angry about international structures that reward powerful nations and deprive the poor ones? Do we in this moment not recognize that judgment is due to those who steal development money or take bribes to subvert building codes or fail to establish social frameworks that could have moderated what we see taking place? Biblical writers were no strangers to the magnitude of suffering and disaster we see splashed across our TV screens. All of this is part of what Jesus came to conquer.

We ought to give. We ought to lament. We ought to know that we are part of the problem here too. We ought also to know that our sin and consequence are not dispelled by good intentions or redoubled commitment to do better next time. We stand before a beast of our own making the remedy of which is beyond us. When we come to recognize that we begin to take some first hopeful steps of confession, repentance, participation and rescue by another who is also one of us.

EDITORS NOTE: As Paul mentions sometimes the best thing we can do when a crisis is currently happening is to give, pray and lament.  Think Chrisitian is a ministry of the Christian Reformed Church.  He's a link with information about the work we do in Haiti and ways you can help our minitries with disaster relief.

Topics: Culture At Large, Theology & The Church, Faith, Evangelism, News & Politics, World