World affairs:

Disaster, religion, and resilience

posted by Margarita A. Mooney

In addition to calling on the international community and the Haitian state to focus on rebuilding Haiti, many commentators on the earthquake (including myself, in a letter to the editor in the Miami Herald) have remarked on the resilience of the Haitian people. Most of us seem to know intuitively that resilience matters for post-disaster recovery, yet we also know that Haiti desperately needs the international community to create opportunity for advancement. In this essay, I try to answer two questions. First, what are some of the social sources of resilience? And second, how can the state and international organizations identify and acknowledge these sources of resilience, thus amplifying the positive effects of disaster relief and rebuilding efforts in Haiti?

Although some psychological and social theorists see humans as being primarily responsive to their environment, others, such as the social psychologist Albert Bandura, argue that people are self-organizing and proactive. Bandura demonstrated how humans use symbols to comprehend their environment, construct action guides, and plan for the future. Cultural sociologists like Michèle Lamont write about the power of cultural repertoires and cognitive maps to generate agency. Numerous scholars (myself included) have written about the power of religious beliefs and rituals to generate a vision of a better world that can translate into concrete actions.

This cognitive and social process of imagining and building a better world in the face of tremendous adversity generates feelings of self-efficacy, that is, the belief that hard work and persevering through difficulty will eventually bring about positive outcomes. Without some belief in self-efficacy, despair or depression can easily prevail among people who have experienced trauma or disaster, leaving opportunities for advancement untapped and increasing future vulnerability.

Sociologists such as Glen Elder emphasize that whether or not the belief in self-efficacy actually leads to triumphing over disadvantage depends on the opportunities available at any particular point in time. In other words, hard work doesn’t pay if there are no opportunities available to transform that work into sustained improvements. But the contrary is no less true. In Elder’s studies of children of the Great Depression and children who grew up in rural Iowa during the 1980s agricultural crisis, not all of those faced with adverse circumstances had the motivation and perseverance to seek out and capitalize on opportunities. For some, the early experiences of deprivation led to increasing vulnerability over the life course, whereas others advanced much further than one would have expected based on their social backgrounds. Thus, resilience occurs when persistent hard work meets opportunity, lifting the disadvantaged out of their precarious social situations. Our relief efforts in Haiti must build on this important insight: for resilience to occur, people must have both opportunity and belief in self-efficacy.

What are some of the sources of resilience? The psychologist Kenneth Pargament has written extensively about how religious beliefs and practices contribute greatly to resilience, and his findings have been supported by numerous other scholars. In my work among Haitian immigrants in Miami, Montreal, and Paris, I found that religious beliefs and participation in religious rituals gave people the strength to face down the tremendous barriers to their successful integration (see my book, Faith Makes Us Live: Surviving and Thriving in the Haitian Diaspora).

Social theorists have noted the various ways that religious beliefs provide meaning—in particular, a meaning for suffering. As Clifford Geertz wrote in his famous essay “Religion as a Cultural System,” “The strange opacity of certain empirical events, the dumb senselessness of intense or inexorable pain, and the enigmatic unaccountability of gross iniquity all raise the uncomfortable suspicion that perhaps the world, and hence man’s life in the world, has no genuine order at all—no empirical regularity, no emotional form, no moral coherence. And the religious response to this suspicion is in each case the same: the formulation, by means of symbols, of an image of such a genuine order of the world which will account for, and even celebrate, the perceived ambiguities, puzzles, and paradoxes in human experience. The effort is not to deny the undeniable—that there are unexplained events, that life hurts, or that rain falls upon the just—but to deny that there are inexplicable events, that life is unendurable, and that justice is a mirage.” One possible response to the catastrophe in Haiti—one that I have seen reflected in how some journalists perceive the suffering in Haiti—is to feel despondent about the apparently hellish situation. But other accounts of religious services held in Haiti since the earthquake show how religious beliefs and symbols help those suffering to see beyond the immediate destruction that surrounds them. Attendees at recent religious services in Haiti proclaimed loudly that, although the earthquake hurts, and even though the world can be very perplexing, there is still hope. Religious rituals and beliefs generate cognitive processes of self-efficacy and hope that even the worst tragedy can be endured if one believes firmly that justice and progress are not a mirage.

However, does it not sometimes work the other way? Do not religious beliefs lead people to be passive in the face of evil? In his Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, Karl Marx charged that “Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.” Many people today believe Marx’s charge that religious explanations of suffering stifle resistance to oppression. After examining numerous empirical studies of religion and suffering, Pargament found some instances of what he calls spiritual struggle—fearing God’s abandonment, or feeling anger at God for allowing tragedy to happen—are correlated with more severe depression and less satisfaction with medical care received. In other words, when disaster strikes, spiritual struggles can make matters worse. Yet, the bulk of the evidence he reviews shows that maladaptive religious responses to suffering are actually much rarer than adaptive, positive religious responses to suffering that emphasize hope and self-efficacy.

What are some examples of positive religious responses to suffering? Haitians frequently exclaim “Bondye bon!” (“God is good”) when something bad happens. The poorest Haitians affirm their dignity as children of God. As many Haitians have told me, when faced with seemingly insurmountable difficulties, and forced to acknowledge their own limited means for bettering their circumstances, they get down on their knees and call on a divine force to assist them. The emotional relief that derives from such prayers of supplication is often instantaneous, and reducing anxiety is crucial if one is to keep struggling to get ahead. Believing that God is good, affirming that one’s dignity cannot be taken away by material deprivation or tragedy, and trusting that God answers prayers are further religious sources of resilience.

Individual self-efficacy and resilience are certainly important, but what happens when an entire society undergoes a collective trauma, such as the recent earthquake in Haiti? How do groups of people work together to generate and reinforce shared beliefs about their capabilities and common aspirations to better their lives—that is, to develop what Bandura called collective efficacy?

Rebuilding requires risk-taking and long-term planning, but trauma can limit individual and collective cognitive abilities. For this reason, although we often tend to think of fixing broken communities in terms of providing rationally designed programs and technical solutions, John Paul Lederach—who has studied conflict transformation in Africa, Latin America, and Asia—notes that people who have suffered tragedy and destruction also need to reconstruct their collective imagination. It’s easy to talk of the need for solidarity and brotherhood; but in reality it is hard to build community bonds, especially among people who have suffered much.

Post-conflict and post-disaster societies engage in various forms of historical memorialization in order to interpret or understand past catastrophe. One source of collective memory that fosters agency among Haitians is recalling the valor of the Haitian Revolution and the pride of having established a black republic. Religious narratives and rituals further shape collective memory and collective efficacy. For example, the Catholic Mass memorializes Jesus’ passion and death and recalls his resurrection, generating a collective memory of triumphing over defeat. Coming together for worship generates a connection to a community and a connection to the sacred. In the Eucharist, for example, Catholics receive what they believe is the very body and blood of Christ (a vertical connection to the sacred) in order to receive grace so as to build the visible body of Christ here on earth (a horizontal connection to others). Although social connectedness in general helps people triumph over disadvantage, religious communities that integrate social connectedness and connections to the sacred create a demonstrably greater source of resilience than do communities that are only horizontally connected. Especially in times of disaster when physical communities have been destroyed and inter-personal connections have been broken by widespread death and displacement, connecting to the sacred can help rebuild shattered community bonds and build collective efficacy.

As Robert Fatton noted in the SSRC’s web forum “Haiti, Now and Next,” “The state must nurture and institutionalize the peaceful resilience and dignified strength that the overwhelming majority of the population has shown throughout this catastrophe.” Similarly, I ask: how can the state, NGOs, and the international community identify sources of self-efficacy and collective efficacy that will amplify the positive effects of their efforts? Successful post-disaster rebuilding requires not just planning and technical assistance, but knowledge of the moral landscape of a community, both its sources of vulnerability and its sources of resilience. Robert Schreiter, a Catholic theologian who studies post-conflict situations throughout the world, remarked that on a recent trip to Rwanda, it occurred to him that outsiders tend to perceive post-conflict or post-disaster societies as if everything were on a level plane. We develop linear paths of thinking and planning, and expect to achieve our goals in a straight line. But in reality, all communities, and especially ones that have undergone traumatic events, have many potholes and many wellsprings of strength—both of which outsiders can easily miss.

Haitians often use a proverb “dèyè mòn, gen mòn” (behind the mountain is another mountain) to express how when one problem is solved, another always comes along. Outsiders rushing into Haiti may be tempted to see Haiti as a level plane; after all, Port-au-Prince has been nearly destroyed and must be rebuilt practically from scratch. But the international community should also pay close attention to the moral landscape of Haiti. Too often, development programs are done with a secular worldview that can privatize or problematize religion, thereby overlooking the religious sources of resilience.

If we desire for Haitians to build something out of this destruction, to shape their environment and not just be shaped by it, we need productive interactions between material aid and symbolic webs of meaning; we need flexible encounters between linear technical plans and the cyclical, iterative process of community re-building. Although we can see where we want to go in Haiti, we should not be surprised if the path to get there is not linear.

If we know development is a system of trial and error even under circumstances of relative stability, then disaster recovery in Haiti will certainly be full of lessons to be learned. The international community, academics, and even representatives of the Haitian state need to be good listeners and good social observers. We need to be willing to let our plans and our worldviews be challenged and then adapt them accordingly. Because of events like September 11, Hurricane Katrina, and the tsunami in Indonesia, the field of disaster research is growing. The SSRC has contributed to this growing field through its Katrina Research Hub. Those of us who are knowledgeable about Haiti would do well to learn from research on other disasters, and to use our future work on disaster recovery in Haiti to prepare responses to future disasters. Indeed, we ought to ask, with Irwin Redlener, director of the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University, “What lessons will be taken from this megadisaster to make sure everything possible is done to help resource poor nations develop the infrastructure, economic stability and resiliency necessary to mitigate great disasters likely to strike anywhere in years to come?”

I would like to thank Glen Elder, Robert Schreiter, and Susan Crawford Sullivan for their assistance in conceptualizing resilience and religion.—MM.

Visit the SSRC’s essay forum “Haiti, Now and Next” here.—ed.

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