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Elizabeth McAlister on hope and tragedy in Haiti

posted by Charles Gelman

Elizabeth McAlister is an Associate Professor of Religion at Wesleyan University and a member of the SSRC’s working group on Spirituality, Political Engagement, and Public Life. She is also a leading scholar of Afro-Carribean religions and the author of Rara! Vodou, Power, and Performance in Haiti and its Diaspora (2002). Following the catastrophic earthquake that struck Haiti on January 12, Professor McAlister’s words have appeared in numerous publications, and she has been interviewed on a variety of radio programs. Contributing to CNN.com, McAlister compares the reactions of Christians, Vodouists, and social scientists, respectively, to the recent tragedy:

The suffering Haitians are enduring is a natural disaster worsened by human-made conditions. It is a spiritual crucible. But it is also a crisis of meaning. For Christians it is to have faith, hope, and charity. For fundamentalist Protestants, it is to convert all souls, give aid, and wait for Jesus’ return. For Vodouists, it is to regain balance with the land and the unseen spiritual world.

For many social scientists, it is to strengthen Haitians’ capacity for self-government, to relieve the debt Haiti owes, to reforest the land, and to figure out how to divorce aid from dependence.

How we interpret the suffering of the good people of Haiti will lay the groundwork for how we walk forward.

Vodou religiosity, notes McAlister on the Washington Post‘s “On Faith” page, is marked by a deep ecological embeddedness; and while Pat Robertson and his ilk may view Haiti’s crisis as the work of the devil, Vodouists are more apt to interpret it as the sign of environmental disequilibrium:

For Erol Josué [an artist, educator, and Vodou priest], the earthquake was mother nature, the land of Haiti, rising up to defend herself against the erosion, deforestation, and environmental devastation that have been ongoing for the last few decades. “Everybody was smashed to the ground,” said Erol. “Rich and poor. But look how symbolic this is. The Palace is smashed, the legislative building, the tax office, and the Cathedral. The country is crushed. We are all on our knees.” This Vodou priest is not speaking about divine retribution, as has Pat Robertson. God is not punishing us for disobedience. Erol is speaking about a giant natural rebalancing act, a reaction against human dealings with the ecosystem.

[...]

When you cut a tree, in Vodou, you are supposed to ask the tree first, and leave a small payment for the spirit of the tree. For years nobody has asked, or listened, or paid the land when making policies or laws in Haiti. Farmers have given up since imported rice undercut their local prices. Whole villages left the provinces, and migrated to the capital, leaving the land behind and swelling the capital city to bursting. The people running the country–from within and from without–have abused Our Mother. She is doing what is natural, like a horse throwing a rough rider.

Ultimately, though it is hard to conceive in the midst of such immiseration, the earthquake may prove to be a turning point in Haiti’s history, an opportunity to revitalize Haitian civil society and restore a salutary balance to its natural environment. Writes McAlister at Forbes.com:

Now Haitians partnering with the global community may have a chance for a new, greener capital city, city planning, civil engineering, education, health care and dignity. Whatever story you subscribe to, though, let’s spend as little time as possible giving media attention to Pat Robertson, and focus instead on supporting Haitians.

McAlister was also interviewed on Fox News Radio’s Colorado affiliate KCOL (mp3) and on WNYC’s The Takeaway.

Our thoughts are with Professor McAlister, her friends, colleagues, and all those whose lives have been affected by the recent earthquake and who are working courageously for a better future in Haiti.

Late update: Additional interviews with Elizabeth McAlister are available from The New York Times and Interfaith Voices.

Late late update: Professor McAlister discusses Vodou as a source of solace with NPR’s Barbara Bradley Hagerty. Also, be sure to read her recent Immanent Frame essay, “Haiti and the unseen world.”ed.

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