Trembling for Transformation, Confessing for Justice: Reflections on the Disaster in Haiti

By Andrew Krinks (Originally published in The Contributor, Issue 23, February 2010)

[Photos by TJ McCloud]

When first confronted with the devastating reality of the events which took place in Haiti on January 12th, it was difficult to know what sort of sound to utter first. Truth be told, bombarded as we are by what so often turn out to be nothing more than ‘pseudo-events’—manufactured “news” that sells but cultivates no redeeming conversation or transformation—I am cautious about investing myself too heavily in the headlines of the day. But hearing the unspeakable numbers in the initial reports that Tuesday evening (45,000 to 50,000 dead), allowing them to settle first in the ear, then in the heart, and sensing the heavy timbre of the news reporters’ voices, it wasn’t long before the gravity of the situation became clear.

Since that first night, when tens of thousands of Haitians were killed immediately, and when tens of thousands more already-poor Haitians became instantly homeless, the situation has only grown worse. Only a week later, the number of expected dead has risen into the hundreds of thousands as much-needed aid coming from around the world is forced through the narrow bottleneck at the Port-au-Prince air and sea ports, leaving untold masses of hungry, homeless, injured, and dying Haitians in frantic waiting. Meanwhile, the time for finding any trapped persons still alive in the wreckage is now all but passed.

The stories coming from various news sources have colored the situation painfully dire: the lone family member wandering collapsed concrete jungles in search of lost loved ones; the bed-ridden hospital patient whose family hasn’t shown up since the earthquake struck; the mass graves of unclaimed dead in a country where funeral rites are among the most sacred; the newly-risen shantytowns with S.O.S. signs pleading for help—but with no help whatsoever available; the portable medical clinics abandoned by U.N. workers due to safety protocol, leaving patients to wait in pain with a lone news reporter looking on; the men and women with open wounds and broken bones pleading outside the Doctors Without Borders tent-clinics to be seen, while the doctors themselves wait with empty hands for supplies to be shipped in; and the list is literally—maddeningly—endless. Even as aid and its distribution is established more effectively in Haiti, the task of full restoration will remain a serious challenge for a long, long time.

And though they will forever remain faceless and nameless to the rest of the world, we can imagine those who live on the margins of an already-marginalized country. We can try to imagine their loneliness in this hour—as well as the loneliness of those on the outskirts of the city’s center where the quake struck, those who will receive aid last. We can try as best we can to imagine their plight, but in cases such as these, our imaginations will fail to apprehend the depth of the desperation at hand.

And so I am still asking myself: what words are there to utter in such moments? At least for a time, silence may be our only means of a reverent, compassionate articulation—the space between our words meaning more than the words themselves in such situations. But if, after our stunned silence, words should come, a good question to ask ourselves before we speak is: are they words which could be uttered in the presence of a mother weeping outside her demolished home where her children are trapped inside? Are they words which could be offered to the upturned face of a young man searching the stacks of bodies strewn along the road for members of his family? If we have faith enough, we will allow ourselves to tremble before such a grave task, to be haunted by the humanity of Haitians both living and dead, to sympathize, to suffer with those caught in the grip of death. If we have faith enough, we will find the courage to keep from looking away—not out of a captivated voyeurism, but out of a deep welling within us that longs for healing to come quickly.

If, on the other hand, we wish to see what should happen when we fail to get on our knees before such devastation, we need look no further than our well-known televangelists and political commentators, who, rather than aligning their speech with the depth of suffering at hand, have responded in the pitiful strain of men too afraid to enter with their whole hearts and minds the plight of their neighbors. But really, who can blame them? After all, it’s a great deal easier to speculate from a distance on the metaphysical causes of suffering and its foreseeable effects than it is to face suffering head on, to reach out—whether literally or imaginatively—and touch it with one’s own hands. But this is no easy task, for there is safety in separation, but danger in intimacy; clarity in autonomy, but confusion in vulnerability; comfort in averting the grief that comes with standing face to face with tragedy, injustice, and death, but bitter pain in stepping into it.

Now of course, to simply watch the news or read the detailed reports of the hellish aftermath of Haiti’s earthquake is not to fully embody the suffering of our Haitian neighbors. And yet, something sacred takes place when we allow ourselves to be afflicted by the affliction of others. As people of various forms of hope and faith believe, suffering is the site of God’s breaking into our world—whether through the restlessness of exile and oppression or the sheer violence and emptiness of the cross. Furthermore, in both the Hebrew and New Testament scriptures, we learn that to entertain the stranger, the orphan, the widow, the marginalized—those who suffer—is to entertain God himself. The void of suffering and oppression is where the divine is made manifest. Indeed, it is a major paradox of life and faith that there can only be hope and healing once we have passed through this darkness. There are even those who would suggest that the darkness itself is precisely where we discover the divine, not just on the other side of it. If this is true, then far from being absent, we can trust, though it may seem impossible, that the spirit of God is at work in Haiti. Indeed, as a country that has long suffered the darkness of oppression, we can be sure that God, whoever s/he may be, was there long before the earthquake, and remains there today—in both the bloodied hands and feet of Haitian victims and in those hands and feet that work to mend them.

*     *     *

I recently attended a prayer and lament service for the victims of Haiti’s earthquake. There is a rich legacy within the various faith traditions in which lamenting and crying out to God against needless suffering and death is understood as an act of deep faith. From the Psalms of Hebrew scripture (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”) to God himself, in Jesus of Nazareth, echoing the same words of abandonment at the moment of his own death, the cry of lament is an important one to people of faith. For to ask God “how could you let this happen?” is not to turn one’s back to God but to face him head on in the passion of grief, in the yearning for things to be made right. Furthermore, the act of crying out in prayer and tears against needless suffering and injustice has the strange tendency of compelling our hands and feet to move towards actually mending the wounds at hand, toward concrete acts of mercy that give way to justice. Indeed, it might even be said that one can only work to alleviate the plight of their neighbors after they have first acknowledged and then stood in the presence of that neighbor long enough to be shaken by their plight. As the best of our prophets, ancient and contemporary alike, teach us, we can only begin the process of restoration and healing after we have first taken the time to kneel before the darkness of suffering and grief, allowing it to send its terrible tremor through our very bones.

So when the time of prayer and lament at the aforementioned service changed abruptly near its close to jubilant praise and worship, something didn’t feel quite right. It seemed hurried, inappropriate. I couldn’t help but imagine the battered, newly-homeless, already-poor victims of Haiti’s earthquake sitting next to me in the pew. How would these songs strike them, I wondered? Could they find it in them to sing along to these hope-filled words with wounds still so fresh? Could they feasibly wrap their minds around anything other than the terror of the present moment? Though there are certainly those Haitians (a historically resilient and deeply religious people) of such peculiarly strong faith that praise and thanksgiving have been their first response, it is difficult to comprehend such jubilant singing while death still abounds so recklessly. So because I could not help that night but keep my mind fixed upon Haitians deep in the midst of suffering, my longing for a deeper solidarity with them trumped any urge to sing my way to hope too quickly. But bitter lament and mournful solidarity with those suffering now does not mean that singing will not come. On the contrary, voices will be lifted and praise will be offered—but only in time.

While I certainly don’t condemn my brothers and sisters who are blessed to be capable of such a hope-filled posture in the midst of tragedy, I would urge that in moments such as these, we resist the tendency to hurry so quickly from the darkness of grief and anxiety; for if we attempt to avert the grief of suffering, the relief and ‘hope’ we rush toward on the other side lies in serious danger of functioning as little more than a farce. Though the person of faith can have no faith without the hope of restoration and renewal, there are times when we must have faith so deep that we trust that our acts of grief and suffering—long as they sometimes last—will, in fact, be the very means by which we are transformed and energized, rather than seeking to escape or short-circuit their brutality. With time, hope comes, and singing, and renewal. But if, in our fear of the void, we skip over grieving, the hope which does come may be insufficient in bringing about a lasting transformation. For grief and healing do not exist in separate spheres but on the very same continuum, as one gives way to the other over and over again in the various deaths and births of life—even now, even in Haiti.

We may say, then, that there can be no transformation without first trembling at the loneliness, the terror of suffering. This is a task far easier said than done, but, especially for those of us who will not encounter the actual suffering firsthand, it is important that we engage in the best solidarity we can muster: not looking hurriedly ahead to hope in such a way that we forget to address the hurt which is taking place right now. For the hurt which is taking place right now, far from being a lightning bolt of divine judgment against a deserving people, is the result of a dark history in which human power has forced an entire nation of people into a posture of economic, social, and geopolitical weakness. As many writers and journalists have pointed out in the last few weeks, had this earthquake struck a better-developed civilization (as they have in recent history), the death and destruction would have been substantially less desperate.

Thanks be to God, the overwhelming response from all corners of the globe has seen millions upon millions of dollars poured out in support of those organizations working on the ground in Haiti to mend the medical, architectural, infrastructural, and spiritual wounds there. This charitable giving is one hundred percent indispensible; without it, Haiti would be in far worse condition than it already is. It is also crucial that those on the ground be as well-organized as humanly possible, and that they act quickly in this time of desperate need. But there is an oft-unrecognized danger inherent to such charitable giving—namely that, in our immediate flood of compassion, an unacknowledged past will give way to history repeated.

It is for this reason, then, that we may make another claim: there can be no justice without confession. But what is there to acknowledge, and what to confess? Haiti is often referred to as ‘the poorest nation in the western hemisphere.’ But one does not have to be an economist, or even a Marxist, however, to understand that such poverty does not simply come about as the result of poor choices on the part of its citizens or even by supposedly corrupt leaders (or by deals with the devil), but by all manner of colonial and imperialist actions on the part of the world’s superpowers, as well as by complex and finely-nuanced systems of economic domination. To be certain, the devil is not far from such activity—only not in the way folklore legends propounded by televangelists would have us understand it.

The following, though only cursory, are among some of the details which must be acknowledged. Starting with the landing of European colonizers in the 15th century to French colonial occupation in the 18th century, up through a United States invasion of Haiti in the early 20th century, the country has existed, in some form or another, under the thumb of foreign powers for centuries. Following its slave rebellion and subsequent independence in the late 18th century (after the example of other newly independent nations), Haiti has been mired by corruption from both within and without: ‘within’ because its various leaders and dictators have played a role in the country’s poverty and mass killings of certain segments of the population; ‘without’ because many of those leaders were installed by way of internationally sponsored coups and invasions.

To illustrate, former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, once a Catholic priest who endorsed liberation theologies which favored the uplifting of the poor and destitute, first elected in 1990, was ousted from the presidency by members of his own government and flown into exile only a year after his inauguration. In 1994, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter helped arrange to have Aristide re-instated as president. Then, in 2000, after the intermittent presidency of now-current President René Préval, Aristide was re-elected, only to be removed four years later by way of a paramilitary coup/kidnapping, this time by U.S. Marine forces.

In the six years since then, Haiti has been stricken with terrible political instability and turmoil, the result, in no small part, of the evolution of a global market whose policies have left the nation on the underside of the rest of the world’s prosperity. For instance, foreign investment in the area of agriculture has resulted in the pushing of rural farmers into overcrowded hillside and village slums and shantytowns, unable to support themselves with the work they once depended upon for survival. Furthermore, foreign trade and world market arrangements are such that Haiti’s destitution and impotence in regards to bettering its own situation by enabling its own people to prosper are scandalously frozen in place without any sign of change.

The United Nations has also been a felt presence in recent years with a mission described as one of peacekeeping, but which, it has been argued, serves, in effect, only to pacify violence without building up or developing the nation either economically or politically. In addition, many of those U.N. nations now so generously sending an impressive array of resources also happen to be the same countries that have consistently denied Haiti the opportunity to receive the sort of long-term aid that would help build up the country’s economy and infrastructure—an infrastructure now so poorly-developed that an earthquake that elsewhere would have caused minimal damage has in Haiti directly contributed to hundreds of thousands of deaths.

Statistics also show that 75% of Haitians live on less than $2.00 a day. As a result, shantytowns and slums abound in the inner cities, whose shoddy architectural designs are in no small part responsible for the ever-growing death toll in the wake of the earthquake. As a number of people working with these socio-political circumstances in Haiti have pointed out, this socio-economic arrangement, and the massive death and injury which have resulted from it, is neither natural nor just.

While our current aid efforts are more than indispensible, if we do not first acknowledge these historical realities and confess our complicity in their perpetuation, then Haiti will be mired in a charity which offers relief and saves lives, but does little to nourish the likelihood of renewed, sustainable human flourishing across the nation in the years to come. Sending money and resources to begin mending the destruction in Haiti is entirely necessary and crucial. But if we are to think along the lines of long-term development in the aftermath of the quake, charity is akin, in the well-worn metaphor, to ‘giving a man a fish.’ Justice, on the other hand, has a two-fold task. First, it is to teach a man how to fish: empower him to know how to use the resources at hand to make his and his community’s flourishing a very real and achievable possibility. But when the context within which this man stands at the river with a fishing pole is such that even a new skill set can’t ward off his poverty and oppression, then we are confronted with the second task: to go upstream to figure out who’s contaminating the river. Who are they and why have they been allowed to do it for so long? What part have I played in creating a world in which such actions go unnoticed or without reprimand? What sort of sickness is it that keeps us from looking after our neighbors? What will we do to redeem and reform this situation?

If international leaders will allow it, the devastation of this situation can give birth to a situation in which past oppression can be reversed and redeemed. But in order for this sort of justice to be born, it is crucial that our acts of confession and acknowledgement be followed by a deliberately weak posture of giving aid. To put it another way, if a more holistic flourishing is to unfold in Haiti in the aftermath of this tragedy, it will be the result of others coming under their Haitian neighbors, rather than over them. It will be the result of compassionate neighbors working with the people of Haiti to help build a more sustainable and well-nourished country—not by giving hand-out after hand-out, but by listening and allowing themselves to be vulnerable to the complex needs of a long-oppressed people.

*     *     *

The French philosopher-mystic-activist Simone Weil writes that “affliction compels us to recognize as real what we do not think possible.” In the case of the tragedy in Haiti, those who are trapped in the heart of an all but collapsed country have been forced to recognize the fierce, unrelenting power of death. But for those of us whose affliction is only secondhand—an affliction borne of compassion for our Haitian brothers and sisters—the recognition of a reality we didn’t think possible ought also to be the recognition of a reality that has long existed but which, due to the conniving hand that writes history, we have hardly known. That reality is a dark one: colonial exploitation which has evolved into contemporary postcolonial and economic oppression all in the name of foreign trade, humanitarian ‘aid’, and U.N. protocol—‘laws’ which, in seeking to uphold justice, actually inhibit it. Because while the law intends to make justice possible, justice cannot be contained by man-made structures and codes. Justice is not a containable entity but an ever-unraveling event whose unfolding we are ever-welcomed to struggle for and celebrate. It is for this reason that our work with the newly-homeless population of Haiti ought not look like the law, whose impotence allows for those working in the name of justice and charity to leave victims dying on stretchers because of safety protocol. Justice driven by love knows no bounds, and will likely seem reckless and dangerous to the rest of the world—but boundless love and justice are exactly what is needed in a crisis as dire as this one.

Along with that, it is crucial that the mending of wounds—both literal and figurative—in Haiti be not divorced from the sort of creative action and work that enables Haitians to emerge from the devastation newly-empowered to live in a way that makes human flourishing more possible in the long-term. The fostering of such livelihood can and must be nurtured at the local and individual level, but it is crucial first that those who have played a role in squelching the potential of such flourishing in Haiti come to the table with confession on their lips—confession to their complicity with a dark history of colonial rule and covert economic oppression. As for those leaders within Haiti who are partly to blame (God knows the web of responsibility is multi-faceted and extends beyond any single party), perhaps a confession from outside of their borders will create the space necessary for them to echo with the same in the name of a more honest future.

But the call to confession also resonates among those of us who are not politicians or foreign trade analysts or historians. We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We have not asked better questions of our elected leaders and lauded business people. We have not asked how our acquisition of goods and wealth affects unseen others. We have not loved with our whole hearts those who live under the thumb of the principalities and powers, the spirits of darkness who are made flesh in history in the form of governments and economic institutions. We are complicit because we have not answered the cry of suffering with anything other than our indifference. May we take the time to tremble before—to lament—the devastating suffering in Haiti. For it is in trembling and lament that we are enabled to sympathize, to suffer with, more purely and wholly. Out of such sympathy and compassion, it is crucial that time and money, knowledge and resources are poured toward those in need.

But the task does not end there. If the world community’s current acts of mending in the country of Haiti are to have a lasting effect, more of us must confess, must witness to, our complicity in a history which has led to the devastatingly immediate collapse of an entire country—not just homes and national infrastructure, but human lives—in the hope that such a confession will act as a redeeming light in an especially dark moment. For the person of faith knows that the suffering of death is not the final word. But another, better word can only ever be encountered if we first open ourselves to the shaping, the purging, the redeeming night of suffering, out of which life inevitably comes. Likewise, the person of faith knows that injustice is not the final word. But another, better word can only ever be encountered if we first acknowledge and confess our justice-inhibiting actions before those we have wronged, while taking steps to work with those who now suffer in such a way that when humanitarian aid workers leave, the country no longer looks like it has for centuries, but instead is equipped to flourish and thrive uninhibited by the invisible hand of economic oppression.

Thanks be to God, such confession and witness makes possible—after the necessary time of grieving and trembling—an even greater confession and witness, namely that of restoration and resurrection, even out of the midst of a tragedy as grave as the one which continues to unfold this very hour in the country of Haiti.

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