Taking Pat Robertson’s words very seriously: a brief theological analysis

January 16, 2010

Another disaster, another dumb Pat Robertson quote.

Maybe it’s too easy to pick on Rev. Pat Robertson—it’s the theological equivalent of shooting fish in a barrel. But as long as he has a public platform like The 700 Club, the media take him seriously, and I will, too. The latest controversy involves his firm belief that Haiti is under a curse because of a deal, Robertson asserted, that the people of Haiti made with the devil 200 years ago to get out from under French enslavement. Although he doesn’t come out and say it, his statement implies that God has cursed the Haitians because of this Faustian deal.

Obviously, this statement raises many questions. First, assuming Satan is a literal being [1], does he or it have the power to effect political change in this way? Is this how demonic forces work in the world? I assume Robertson’s understanding of Satan is informed by Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, especially Matthew 4:8-9: “Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, ‘All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.’”

I don’t take this to mean that Satan here could have snapped his fingers and made Jesus ruler of the world. In each of the gospel accounts, Jesus has just been baptized by John, and the Father reveals to him (and possibly bystanders) his identity as God’s “beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” Satan’s temptation, therefore—which I believe is often our temptation—is to act against our true and best selves, against our identity as God’s beloved children. To worship Satan would mean giving allegiance to someone or something other than God. If Jesus contradicted his true identity in this way, the end result (assuming Satan’s promise is credible) would be Jesus’ becoming a powerful world leader, instead of a Messiah who is also Suffering Servant. (It’s easy to speculate that Jesus had great charisma and leadership skills, after all.) Jesus’ earthly reign might have been a good thing for all we know, except that this was not his vocation; the Father called him to do something far more important.

My point is that Satan tempts Jesus to do something through Jesus’ own agency—by Jesus’ own power, strength, and will. We should not understand Satan to be offering to endow Jesus with superpowers or perform some supernatural feat. Inasmuch as Satan acts in the world, he or it does so through the free will and natural abilities of people who succumb to Satan’s temptation. We wouldn’t require Satan to make it happen. (See footnote 1 below for my understanding of Satan in Job.) Moreover, we shouldn’t imagine that Jesus, who in the incarnation empties himself of all divine privilege, is anything other than an ordinary human man, i.e., he’s not Superman.

The question of whether Satan has the power or authority to act in the way that Robertson believes, however, is far less important than the question of what Robertson’s statement says about God. Would the God who is revealed in Jesus Christ punish Haiti in this way? Here, Robertson would undoubtedly cite the story of God’s destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 19, but not so fast… Genesis 18:22ff contains a remarkable dialogue between Abraham and God, in which Abraham—no five-point Calvinist to be sure!—brazenly questions the justice of God’s decision to destroy the city. Abraham said to God,

Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city; will you then sweep away the place and not forgive it for the fifty righteous who are in it? Far be it from you to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?

God replies, “If I find at Sodom fifty righteous in the city, I will forgive the whole place for their sake.” The conversation continues with Abraham’s getting God to agree that even for the sake of ten righteous people, God would not destroy the city. The number of righteous people isn’t important; the logical implication of this conversation is that Abraham was right in his assessment of God: the Judge of all the earth will deal justly and will not destroy the righteous—even one righteous person—for the sake of the wicked. What makes Robertson imagine that God would destroy Port-au-Prince or Haiti because of something done by the ancestors of its current citizens (who had nothing to do with this alleged “pact with the devil”)?

The Book of Jonah provides another powerful example of God’s mercy toward the wicked. Jonah is in many ways the opposite of Pat Robertson. He’s reluctant to preach God’s judgment against Nineveh because he believes it’s a waste of time. He tells God: “That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.” [2] Unlike Robertson, Jonah believes like Abraham in a merciful God who stands ready to “relent from punishing.” Jonah wishes God weren’t that way: He hates the Ninevites—enemies of Israel—and would love for God to destroy them as God promised. But he knows it’s not going to happen. It’s not in God’s character to do so.

Finally, a funny New Testament example: Jesus and his disciples pass through a Samaritan village on their way to Jerusalem. The Samaritans treat Jesus and his disciples inhospitably. James and John are indignant. They ask, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” Jesus, of course, does not want to destroy this town. He rebukes the brothers’ for their uncharitable suggestion. [3]

Based on what I know of Jesus, based on what I know of God’s grace, based on what I know of scripture, based on what both my heart and head scream at me, I strongly reject the idea that God punished Haiti on account of their sins, or the sins of their ancestors. (I have no idea where the myth of a “pact with the devil” comes from, either.) The larger question is, Why would Robertson understand God in this way? What happened to this poor man that he would construe the terrible destruction in Haiti as God’s punishment? What prevents him from sharing Abraham’s intuition about God’s justice or at least Jonah’s grudging faith in God’s mercy. Especially considering that our Christian faith teaches us that God is revealed perfectly in God’s Son. When given the opportunity to return evil for evil, Jesus instead prays, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

It’s just weird. But Robertson’s statement says a lot more about him than it does God.

Footnotes

1. I don’t believe this is an important question. There is no Satan in the Old Testament. The Book of Job’s depiction of “the satan” (not the proper name Satan) should be construed as an angelic being who serves in God’s courts, not as the personification of all evil (why would God be in league with him?). The satan there functions as the modern equivalent of a prosecutor.

Belief in Satan emerged between the Testaments, and the New Testament assumes his/its existence without elaborating on the concept. The New Testament does give us warrant to view Satan as a symbolic representation of evil in the world. Jesus himself uses the idea symbolically when he calls his closest disciple “Satan” [Mark 8:33; Matthew 16:23]. We don’t imagine that Jesus literally believed that Peter was Satan or possessed by Satan. Paul certainly accepts the reality of the devil and its/his minions (c.f. Ephesians 2:2; 4:12), but he says very little about its/his activities, even when given a natural opportunity to so, for instance, in Romans 7, in which he talks about humanity’s enslavement to sin.

Personally, I believe that evil spiritual forces exist. I know this is hard for moderns and post-moderns to believe, but once you accept the reality of God, is it really so much harder? In my view, this belief explains how evil seems to be bigger than the sum of its parts and often takes on a life of its own. These forces oppose the work of God’s kingdom in the world. Nevertheless, because the Bible says so little on the subject, I am reluctant to say how they manifest themselves in our lives and in the world beyond this present discussion.

2. Jonah 4:2
3. Luke 9:51-56

5 Responses to “Taking Pat Robertson’s words very seriously: a brief theological analysis”

  1. Steve Says:

    The truth is that they did make a pact with the devil.

    Now the significance you put on that pact I guess has to do with whether you believe the devil is real or not.

    But it is one of Haiti’s founding myths.

    http://muse.jhu.edu/login?uri=/journals/small_axe/v009/9.2laroche.html

    According to Haitian national history, the revolutionary war was launched on the eve of a religious ceremony at a place in the north called Bwa Kayiman (Bois Caiman, in French). At that ceremony on August 14, 1791, an African slave named Boukman sacrificed a pig, and both Kongo and Creole spirits descended to possess the bodies of the participants, encouraging them and fortifying them for the upcoming revolutionary war. Despite deep ambivalence on the part of intellectuals, Catholics, and the moneyed classes, Vodou has always been linked with militarism and the war of independence and, through it, the pride of national sovereignty.

    So, yeah if there is a devil, Haiti made a pact with it. Might explain why even though Haiti and the Dominican Republic share the same island, the Dominican Republic has been far more successful.

  2. Brian Sassaman Says:

    My closest co-worker is married to a lady from Haiti, and he says that the myth is widely believed in Haiti itself. And as crazy as it sounds, I was listening to the Regular Guys and one of them had a good comment. That was if a population believes that it is cursed, then that could have negative effects on that population.

    Of course that has nothing to do with an earthquake, but it could shed some light on how that country continues to suffer so much. I guess it is hard enough for someone to escape from the bad effects of a dysfunctional family, and on a larger scale it must be that much harder.

    What surprised me was the large presence of Christian missions already in place in Haiti. I really hope that out of this disaster that some new hope is borne and Haiti can set its foot on solid ground.

    And I am disappointed that Robertson said what he said. It is only fodder for anti-Christian folks to hold up and ridicule Christians and Christianity.

    We can all pray for the people. From the last suffering survivors trapped in their likely grave (a scary dark hell), to the grieving survivors who’ve lost their families, to the workers there to help. They are all needing a strength from God. Let’s pray.

    • brentwhite Says:

      Interesting and thoughtful words. I’m sure there are any number of good reasons– sociological, religious, political, and economic–as to how and why Haiti finds itself as the poorest country in the western hemisphere. But French colonialism–colonialism in general–was a terrible idea and wrought havoc all over the globe.

      Regarding this response to Robertson, someone on Facebook said it was casting pearls before swine, by which he meant that I shouldn’t dignify his remarks with a serious response. I don’t see it that way. When it comes to religion in America, it seems like only the crackpots with their TV empires and the cynical skeptics get to have the last word. Why should it be that way? (Not that this little blog is a proportional response!)

      • Brian Sassaman Says:

        I agree with you. We should respond to outlandish remarks. Especially when they come from the folks with the biggest megaphones. And I should add that your response was excellent.


  3. […] sins of Haiti, why not start with the French, who enslaved the Haitians to begin with? I have more information on my blog about this, but suffice it to say that the very idea of a “deal with the devil” doesn’t fit with our […]


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