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Nov 12, 2021

Foreign affairs are a new beat for the Upstream podcast, and one with a complicated relationship to worldview. The idea that ideas can affect the fortunes of nations isn’t a new one, but it is a tricky one to trace out. As I talked with Pastor Jean-Lubin Beaucejour and Darrow Miller about the plight of Haiti, I was reminded of two equal but opposite errors we all need to guard against when we start asking why this nation—and others—seem stuck in perpetual failure.

The first mistake is to approach the question as materialists. A lack of resources, money, or manpower, or opportunity are the reason Haiti remains the poorest country in the Western hemisphere. This is how classical Marxists approach the world, seeing in economic disparities, political revolutions, and even religion itself nothing but the consequences of material conditions and motives.

But this approach falters in cases like Haiti, a land rich in natural resources, bordered by another nation (the Dominican Republic) with a per capita income six or seven times higher, and saturated in foreign assistance, both in the form of food and billions of dollars of aid—enough since 2010 to give every man, woman, and child in Haiti almost a year’s income.

It’s been over 200 years since Haitians were slaves to the French. Undoubtedly, that legacy lives on in a thousand types of brokenness and deprivation. But it is just too simplistic to attribute the country’s woes solely to an institution that ended centuries ago. In the same way, it’s simplistic to blame Haiti’s condition on the admittedly terrible natural disasters its people have endured. Other countries, including its immediate neighbor, have weathered similar disasters. Yet they recovered. They rallied. Haiti has not.

No, this impoverished country does not lack for material means to rise from its present condition. It has been the recipient of more intensive and sustained aid than just about any other nation. And despite all this, conditions in Haiti have measurably deteriorated in the last decade. Something beyond material goods is missing.

The second mistake is to approach Haiti’s plight—and the plight of similarly impoverished nations—as merely spiritual. After my conversation with Darrow Miller in particular, I received a message from a thoughtful acquaintance who added to my understanding of Haiti’s spiritual past, and reminded me that while worldviews certainly matter, their influence is subtle, complicated, and mediated by politics and culture. Miller brought up the Bwa Kayiman Vodou ceremony that many of the Haitian people themselves look back on as their nation’s declaration of independence. You can read the Wikipedia entry on this 1791 event and marvel, as I did, at the well-documented and eerie details, including the mysterious prophetess and the drinking of a pig’s blood. It’s easy to see why so many foreign missionaries over the years, and even a large percentage of the Haitian population, believe that their nation won its independence by making a pact with the Devil.

I’m not ready to dismiss this idea as bigotry or superstition, as many secular academics do. Even so, there’s an important caution, which I think came through in my interviews, but is worth reiterating:

Believing that Haiti is under some kind of national curse for an event that happened 240 years ago is not the same as accepting that the beliefs behind that event are still crippling Haiti today.

The friend I mentioned earlier sent me an essay published by the Social Science Research Council in 2010 that made exactly this point. The author, Bertin M. Louis, a cultural anthropologist at Washington University in Saint Louis, argues that it’s simplistic and dangerous to “scapegoat” a Vodou ceremony from so long ago for modern Haiti’s disorder. He’s not writing from a spiritual perspective, and I’m sure he and I wouldn’t agree on everything, but he makes the valid point that more recent events in Haiti’s history probably have far more to do with the country’s present condition. Events like “the multimillion frac indemnity Haiti paid to France, beginning in the nineteenth century, so that France wouldn’t invade Haiti after the Haitian Revolution…the period when the Duvalier dictatorship ruled Haiti through fear and violence, while siphoning millions of dollars of taxes and international aid for itself.” Because of such abuses, Louis notes that “the percentage of the Haitian population living in extreme poverty rose from 48 percent in 1976 to 81 percent in 1985.” It was under these corrupt dictatorships, not under the original ex-slave republic, that Haiti became “the poorest country in the Western hemisphere.” When John Stonestreet spoke on BreakPoint on Tuesday about Haiti’s “worldview problem,” he was less concerned with long ago religious devotion than he was with what Haitians believe today, and the kind of culture those beliefs reinforce. And Vodou inarguably plays a part in shaping the Haitian worldview, forming as The Guardian put it, “the soul of the Haitian people” even to this day. As John says, “These beliefs lead to ‘a culture of bribery and corruption,’ and ‘feed an attitude of hopelessness and despair.’ When fatalism reigns in a worldview, reinforced by a seemingly unpreventable string of national bad luck, people seek merely to survive the whims of droughts, earthquakes, and floods, rather than prepare for them.”

I think this insight is the key to navigating between the twin errors of materialism and superstition when it comes to grappling with the problems Haiti faces, and when it comes to praying for that nation in an informed and meaningful way. As that friend pointed out to me, the Devil is absolutely at work in this world, but he usually attacks countries through the means of political corruption, cultural stagnation, and institutional mistrust. If there is a curse on Haiti, it has much more to do with leaders who would rather line their pockets than help their people, with gangs who would rather claim their territory than bring order to their island, and with communities stuck in cycles of dependence, than it does with who drank pig’s blood in 1791.

For me, this is also a reminder that Satan has no legitimate claim on this world, and that Jesus is already Lord of Heaven and Earth, having received “all authority” from His father (Matthew 28:18) and commissioned His people to make disciples of all nations. Jesus Himself described His calling using the words of Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed…” (Luke 4:18).

As Christians reflect on how to help and intercede for Haiti, we should keep in mind what’s implicit in these passages, and what my guests this week on Upstream make clear: that both the tyranny of Satan and the rule of Christ come about through—and are exhibited in—material means. It’s true that “We struggle not against flesh and blood” (Ephesians 6:12), which means that materialist solutions aren’t enough. Ideas do have consequences. But if we fail to understand how spiritual causes work out through material means, we will be guilty of the over-spiritualized foolishness of the one in James 2:16 who says, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled” without caring for people’s physical needs.

God help Haiti. And God help us think wisely about how He can and will use us to answer that prayer.