So Let’s Talk About Pat Robertson, Vodou, and Haiti

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  January 14, 2010 — 24 Comments

Natural disasters, like the earthquake that struck Haiti, can often make us feel powerless. We send out money to the relief agencies, say our prayers for the afflicted, and hope for the best. When the cause of such suffering is our own planet, our Gaia, our home, we often feel like there is no outlet, no blame to assign. Into that breach steps folks like Pat Robertson (or Rush Limbaugh), who are more than willing to assume the villain role for us, so long as it means more attention and time in the spotlight. Mollie at Get Religion clued in to this phenomenon while looking at coverage of the Robertson controversy.

“Sometimes I wonder whether the whole Pat Robertson experience doesn’t fill some cosmic need that everyone has after a natural disaster or act of terror. We want to be angry, but in a safe way. Robertson provides this vehicle for anger that fits perfectly into the 24-hour-news cycle.”

Robertson, while certainly venal scum, is smart and media-savvy enough to know exactly what he’s doing when he says those outrageous things. Remember, when the late Jerry Falwell blamed 9/11 on “pagans” and “feminists”, Robertson was right there, nodding and agreeing. It’s a game. They poke our collective sadness and horror, and invoke our anger, a dangerous form of magic that makes the whole world talk about them.

So what about the comments? Here’s what Robertson said:

“Something happened a long time ago in Haiti … they were under the heel of the French, uh, you know, Napoleon the third and whatever … and they got together and swore a pact to the devil, they said, we will serve you, if you get us free from the Prince. True story.”

Is this even remotely true? A Christian distortion of Haiti’s African diasporic religion? speaks with Andrew Apter, professor of history and anthropology at UCLA, who provides some clarity on the matter.

“Part of the revolution mythology is that one of the revolution leaders sacrificed a pig in Bois Caïmin in a voodoo ceremony and made a contract with Petwo [Haitian voodoo spirits]. It may or may not be true, but to call that a pact with the devil is a gross misrepresentation of what voodoo is. It’s about anything but the devil. He’s imposing an evangelical religious order on a much more sophisticated practice, and he’s turning it into a cheap invocation of Satanism. This is hate speech. It’s saying these people are damned.”

The sacrifice at Bois Caimin is a popular Haitian creation myth, one that modern-day Vodou practitioners re-tell with pride.

“Bois Caiman (French, Alligator Woods, Bwa Kayiman in Haitian Creole), was the site of a historic meeting on the night of August 13-14, 1791, which culminated in a traditional religious ceremony led by Houngan Boukman Dutty and the sacrifice of a black pig by Mambo Marinette, possessed by the lwa Erzulie Dantor. (Marinette has now become a lwa in the Petro portion of the Vodou liturgy!) This ceremony provided the final impetus for the uprising of Africans which led to the only successful slave revolt in the Western Hemisphere, and to the Western Hemisphere’s first independant black republic. In 1991 then-President Jean-Bertrand Aristide held a re-enactment of the ceremony of Bois Caiman in the National Palace, provoking wide approval from the Vodouisant majority, and severe criticism from Protestant and Catholic Christian leaders, and members of the Haitian elite class.”

How much of it is actually true? Possibly very little of it, like all creation myths it is hard to prove, and the details change over the years. No doubt Robertson heard a vastly distorted version from a Christian missionary. The creation story, true or not, certainly has very little to do with Haiti’s many troubles over the years. Those who know and love Haiti, like former President Bill Clinton, know that Vodou enriches, not damns, that country’s culture.

“Why is Haiti so special to me? Haiti is completely unique in our hemisphere because of its history and culture. There are other French Caribbean islands, but none of them have Haiti’s particular Creole influence. None of them feature Haiti’s distinctive mix of West African religious and cultural influences, the most visible of which is the persistence of the voodoo faith, which is practiced alongside Christianity. Unfortunately, ever since the first slave revolt by Haitians in 1791, the country has been beset by abuses caused from within and without. It has never been able to fulfill its potential as a nation.”

If there is any silver lining to this terror, this destruction, it is that our religious communities, so long enchanted and fascinated by Haiti’s culture and indigenous faith, are galvanized into action to help it in this time of need. A moment of empathy and action that will perhaps grow into a deeper commitment and interaction. For now, if you can, donate to a reputable charity on the ground in Haiti (I’ll continue to update that post in the days to come), and pray for the wounded, the trapped, and the homeless.

Jason Pitzl-Waters