Trying to understand Pat Robertson, the Temanite

Many people have been posting Pat Robertson’s pretty vile explanation of the Haitian earthquake. No one that I’ve seen has attempted to justify what he says, though. I’m sure some people agree with him since he has such a following, but I’m not sure how significant it is.

As horrible as what he said is, something must be behind it. Though he has said a number of racist things in the past, I don’t know if his motivation is purely racist in this case. I think what he does is that when he sees something horrendous occur in the world, either naturally or at the hands of humans, he feels there must be some reason for it.

His moral imagination is tied to his theology. He has a view of God that is quite strong, for good or bad. If Haiti has experienced such a tragic history, something must be at the root of it. So he does a cursory glance at the history of Haiti and notes that they have a voodoo religion. Matt Yglesias does a good job of explaining it here.

Because the French were undoubtedly Catholic, and the Haitians dichotomised their god from the French god, Robertson surmises that, since there is only one god, the Haitians must have made a deal with the devil.

Obviously there are problems here. One is that the French, despite being Catholic, were also slave owners and owned the Haitians. Can anyone really blame the Haitians for not identifying with the French god? It is utterly amazing that anglophone slaves in America ended up so Christian, isn’t it? In America, both sides invoked the same god in their dual struggles, either to be free or to own slaves.

Another problem is that Robertson claims to be a Bible believing Christian. I’m sure that he holds the Bible to be the highest authority in his theology. Yet, I can’t, for the life of me, find a satanology that fits his in the Bible. There are some vague pacts with satan-like figures in the Old Testament, but Satan is a very vague character there. If, as I’m sure Robertson thinks, we are to take the Satan figure in the Book of Job, for instance, as a fully developed characterisation of the Devil in medieval and modern cultural Christianity, then God himself makes a deal with the Devil. Is that, then, how Robertson explains the crucifixion of Christ? Christ suffered, not for the sake of humanity but because his father made a deal with the devil in the book of Job? I doubt he would go with me on this.

Other occurrences of Satan in the Old Testament are equally dubious. The serpent in Genesis 3 is, if you are to take the Bible literally, nothing other than a serpent. The story shows how man, woman, God, the earth, and animals lived harmoniously in chapter 2 and how that harmony became disrupted in chapter 3.

Now, as for Genesis 3, we do have an example of God’s creatures reaping what they sowed, with God as the agent of their punishment. This happens again in Genesis 6 and 7 with Noah. But this retributive theology becomes muddled by the time you get to the end of Genesis and the beginning of Exodus. Here you have a story that looks awfully similar to the Haitian story. You have an ethnic group enslaved by another ethnic group. The slaves call on their own particular god to help save them from the particular god of their owners. Their god saves them from the slave drivers and their own god. Does Robertson equate the Egyptian god to Satan? Perhaps. But you have to admit that the god of the Haitians looks more like the God of Israel than the other way around.

(There are also numerous stories throughout the Pentateuch and Deuteronomistic literature that describe battles between two ethnic groups and their own particular gods. Satan does not appear in these stories. The Hebrew word satan, however, does appear in Numbers 22:22. In that story, oddly, it is the Angel of YHWH who confronts Balaam and his donkey on the road as a satan, meaning as one who opposes. So, along with Job, where the word satan has an article in front of it–thus, the satan–the Hebrew word satan does not often refer to the medieval or modern character of the Devil.)

Another problem is that Robertson seems oblivious to the many characters in the Bible who seem to suffer through no fault of their own. Again, we refer to the book of Job, where Job is considered perfect and upright. There is no reason to think that Job had even sinned. That is one of the main points of the book. Had Job sinned, his friends would have a loophole with which to blame him for his misfortune. Job insists he did nothing wrong and therefore, does not deserve the horrendous grief he has experienced. His friends, including Eliphaz the Temanite, insist that he must have done something wrong, otherwise he would not suffer.

At the end of the book, God says that Job has spoken right of Him and that the friends did not. Job, in fact, did not do anything to deserve his suffering. This understanding of how the world works is picked up as well by Qoheleth, the narrator of Ecclesiastes, who says in 7:15, “In my own brief span of life, I have seen both these things: sometimes a good man perishes in spite of his goodness, and sometimes a wicked one endures in spite of his wickedness.” Robertson may have seen this, but he doesn’t recognise it as such. If the good man perishes, he seeks out anything that might have doomed him. If the wicked one lives, he either says that it’s only a matter of time before he receives his comeuppance from God or his life is a testimony that he has done the right thing (Perhaps this is how he justifies his own profit off of blood diamonds. God has not punished him for it yet, so he must not have done anything wrong).

There are also the many words of Jesus that refutes Robertson’s karmic theology (isn’t it ironic that Robertson’s theology really has more in common with Hindu theology than a Christian one?). Jesus declares the poor blessed in Luke. They are not poor because they made a pact with the devil or legalised same-sex marriage. They are blessed because they are poor. No explanation as to how they became poor. Jesus also says, “Woe to you who are rich” in Luke. Read all of Luke 6:20-26 and tell me who you would rather identify with, the well-fed millionaire Pat Robertson or the malnourished and homeless Haitians.

In the gospel of John, Jesus’ disciples see a blind man and ask Jesus who was at fault for his blindness, him or his parents. Jesus says neither. In that particular case, he was blind so that Jesus could cure him and that God’s works could be revealed in him. If I were to apply that passage to Pat Robertson and the current condition of Haiti, I would say that Robertson should shut the hell up and do something to help the Haitians, revealing God’s work. Not blame them for their own misfortune like a pharisee.

So there is an explanation to Robertson’s vile messaging. Strangely enough, it does not come from the Bible he purports to read and understand, unless he sees Job’s friends as the heroes of that book and forgot to read the last chapter.

Updated: Ta-Nehisi Coates has follow up.


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One Response to “Trying to understand Pat Robertson, the Temanite”

  1. Still trying to understand Pat Robertson « Ivan Goddard Says:

    […] to understand Pat Robertson By ivangoddard Man, this guy is something else. I mentioned in an earlier post that Robertson has a kind of retributive theology, which is akin to a prosperity gospel. He seems […]

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