THE BLOG
09/28/2016 05:49 pm ET Updated Sep 16, 2017

Black Theodicy: If S..t Happens, Manage It.

Getty

By the end of our family's long summer at the pond, everyone affirmed that 2016 was the worst year EVER. Our Turkish-American grandkids had barely escaped the bombing of the departure lounge at the Istanbul airport, when a failed coup d'etat upended their country. Our Chicago grandkids were returning to a city whose shoot 'em up south and west sides were being renamed Chiraq. And all of us were enduring the hottest summer on record, while climate-change deniers were nominating an orange-haired talking yam for POTUS.

The litany of horrors (ZIKA, ISIS, Boko Haram, GMO seeds, the Sixth Extinction...) continue to unfold, portending---surely---the apocalypse. But I urge perspective. Consider Haiti, where I've been conducting field research for a generation, which has already suffered several most emphatically not-metaphoric Apocalypses. In 2010, a massive earthquake nearly leveled the capital of Port-au-Prince, killing a quarter million in a nanosecond. A cholera epidemic followed a few months later. Haitians looked for explanations. Was this the work of the lwa, the gods of Vodou whom the Haitian people have served forever? Or were their gods just as frightened and bewildered as they were?

Similar questions have perplexed theologians since the time of St. Augustine, but it was the 18th century polymath Gottfried Wilhelm Liebniz who coined the term 'theodicy' to describe philosophic attempts to reconcile divine benevolence with the persistence of evil or suffering in the world. Liebniz's conclusion, that "we live in the best of all possible worlds," became the butt of Voltaire's brilliant satire, Candide, written in the wake of yet another disaster, the great Lisbon earthquake of 1755, which crushed thousands of the faithful attending mass in soon-to-collapse churches. As Nietzsche famously observed, 'it may rain alike on the just and the unjust, but the unjust have the umbrellas.'

Critiques of Leibniz continue in popular culture. Folklorists of a certain age (i.e. my own) will recall that lovely piece of 1980s xerox-lore titled, "If Shit Happens...," which offered various religious takes on squaring unearned shit with divine justice: e.g. "Jews: Why does this shit always happen to us?" Or "Hindus: this shit seems to have happened before." Or "Catholics: Shit happens cause you deserve it." Since I was teaching a course on Black Atlantic Religions at the time, I asked one of my Afro-Latin students how Vodou might respond to the question. He answered, "if shit happens, manage it."

I believe my student nailed it. Black Atlantic theodicy does indeed assert the necessity of human agency in the face of catastrophe and divine indifference. In the particular case of Haiti, no one would dispute that the place has endured shit storms for the last five hundred years. In the last decade, these storms have cascaded. Kidnappings, riots, coups d'etat, Katrina-sized hurricanes, and the monstrous earthquake of January 12, 2010. If all that weren't enough, within a year of the quake Haiti was overwhelmed by a cholera epidemic unleashed by raw sewage dumped into the Artibonite River by Nepali soldiers, acting as UN "Peace Keepers."

Is there some divinity who can be blamed for these disasters? Not an unreasonable question in a country whose folk commonly exclaim, "Bon Dye bon," (God is Good) in the face of every misery. Beyond their affirmation of His goodness, Haitians say little about Bon Dye because he is a deus otiosus (remote high god), vaguely identified with similar remote divinities across the Black Atlantic, or indeed with the Christian Pater Noster. Apparent only through the natural laws of the universe, Bon Dye is Gran Met (the Grand Master) who plays no role in our quotidian lives. In His absence, divine agency is ascribed to the lwa, who are Bon Dye's deputies, as well as our doppelgängers, spirits who shadow us from their repose in the Fourth Dimension.

Of all the lwa in the Vodou pantheon, it is Gede who most effectively presides over post-Apocalyptic Haiti. He (and occasionally She) is the putrefying skeleton of the ancestral dead, re-animated by a fierce and demanding sexuality. The graveyard and the phallus. Alpha and Omega. Gede is the ancestral memory of Africa, the manifestation of those who died in the Middle Passage. Gede is a roustabout, a flasher, a petty thief, a wise counselor and miraculous physician, the protector of children and---best of all---the brutal enemy of hypocrites and liars. As times have worsened, his stock has risen. A god of so many disparate parts, Gede has become the tribune of justice in an unjust land. A pledge that we will endure beyond present miseries. And in the meantime, there is drink, laughter, sex.

What role did Gede play in the unspeakable tragedy of January 12, 2010? In fact, wasn't Gede responsible for---or at least implicated in---all this disaster? That very question was posed to oungan (Vodou priest) Sauveur St. Cyr, whose own temple had collapsed into the general rubble of his neighborhood. "Au contraire," Sauveur explained, "Gede was terrified of the earthquake too." It turns out that Gede fled Port-au-Prince for "the City of Camps" as Vodouists call the 4th dimension abode of the lwa. Gede returned to Earth nine days later, after most of the Dead had been burned in mass pyres or bull-dozed into improv graves. What Sauveur understood was a catastrophe beyond the comprehension even of the God of Death. The inscrutable designs of Bon Dye, who is none-the-less always Good. In this vacuum of reason, it remains for the living to bear witness, to endure, and of course, to manage.

What measure of responsibility can then be ascribed to Gede, or to any other supernatural force, for Haiti's unparalleled catastophes? American televangelist Pat Robertson thought he had the answer. Bloviating on his weekly TV show, Robertson declared the quake God's punishment for the temerity of slaves who rose in rebellion against their French slave masters in 1791, using "voodoo" to kill them and make Haiti the world's first Black Republic. (Odd that God should wait 200 years to exact such tribulations on the uppity ex-slaves). In the wake of the earthquake, Evangelical sound trucks plied the ruins of the Grand Rue in downtown Port-au-Prince, supplicating survivors to renounce voodoo and accept Jesus (whom many Vodouists already understand as an aspect of Gede). Most survivors were too busy clearing rubble and fabricating new shelter to listen to piped-in preaching about a vengeful foreign god. In appreciation of their resolve, the particular duende of the Haitian people, we might ponder one of their most popular proverbs, "nou led men nou la": WE'RE UGLY, BUT WE'RE HERE.