Pat Robertson may be wrong, but so are academic and media elites
When I was a student at Christ for the Nations School of Missions, I learned about the so-called “pact with the devil” that the African slaves of Haiti made to free themselves from the French. Later I learned about the so-called “renewal of the covenant” presumably made by Aristide in 2003 where he officially recognized Voodooism as a state religion. When the earthquake struck Haiti, I knew that it was only a matter of time before a televangelist would say something that the media would pick up and allow themselves yet another opportunity to paint evangelicals in a negative light. While I agree that Pat Robertson’s comments were embarrassing and offensive (For the record: I don’t think that anyone should ever claim they have divine knowledge as to why a specific natural disaster occurs. Luke 13:2-5 speaks loudly against that), I also think that the reaction of the secular media and some in the progressive faith community has been—good intentions not withstanding—condescending.
Perhaps I’m overly sensitive about this. A couple of weeks ago my wife and I visited a peace-oriented church in Albuquerque. After the service I struck up a conversation with a guy that asked me what I do for a living. I told him that I’m a missionary that travels the world and that I lived in Africa for a period of time. When I told him about how missionaries view most African traditional religious practices as demonic, the reaction I got was “Um…oh…that’s nice. I’m sure you see some value in traditional African religious practices (aka withcraft)…don’t you?” I told him the truth. No I don’t.
Here’s the ironic part. While I’m sure that this man felt justified in his appreciation for traditional African culture over and against the supposed mentality of “culturally imperialistic” missionaries, the reality is that millions of African Christians—and I suspect Hatian Christians as well—would agree with me, not him. One of the reasons why Christianity has exploded in Africa, and countries of African descent like Haiti, is because African social systems are structured around fear of evil spirits. Unlike in the West, where the predominant salvation model centers around guilt/forgiveness, in African societies people place their faith in Christ because they view the message of the Resurrection as a cosmic defeat over the power of demonic forces. This is why when Africans (and/ or people of African descent) read their Bibles, most don’t read through the prism of Western liberalism. They take what the Bible says about the supernatural at face value.
Western liberal academia might scoff at the idea that idolatry leads to poverty, but for millions of African Christians, the dots were connected a long time ago. They themselves are fighting against sorcery and witchcraft in their spiritual warfare conferences—without the prodding of Western missionaries. And for good reason. Witchcraft is a poor moral base to build a prosperous society. When people are afraid to succeed in their jobs or businesses because they fear their neighbor will place a deadly curse on them, that’s bad news for the economy. Most African Christian leaders recognize this. This is why when Western media and religious elites treat witchcraft/voodooism as a harmless practice that may or may not be compatible with Christianity, what they’re really doing is trivializing the beliefs of millions of African Christians—a sort of paternalism in reverse if you will.
Lest I be misunderstood, I’m not saying that idolatry/witchcraft/voodooism is the only factor perpetuating poverty in African societies. Certainly the legacy of slavery and colonialism, unfair trade laws, Western interference in internal political affairs and—insert your political injustice here—have all played a role in keeping Africans and people of African descent in economic slavery. But if we in the West want to partner with African- background Christians to bring about social justice in their respective countries, then we need to take their worldview a bit more seriously. If you don’t believe me, read Philip Jenkin’s book The Next Christendom or, better yet, watch any film made in Nigeria. I can’t speak for every African and/or Hatian Christian, but my sense is that while many would be offended by Robertson’s comments, most would also tell us that if African societies are to progress into the 21st century, then both physical and spiritual issues will need to be addressed.