A recent New York Times column raises some very hard questions about Haiti and our response to the tragedy there. David Brooks points out–correctly–that “This is not a natural disaster story. This is a poverty story.”
Brooks, however, treads where few thoughtful columnists fear to tread, and suggests that the problem in Haiti might be theological.
He writes, “Haiti, like most of the world’s poorest nations, suffers from a complex web of progress-resistant cultural influences. There is the influence of the voodoo religion, which spreads the message that life is capricious and planning futile. There are high levels of social mistrust. Responsibility is often not internalized . . .
“We’re all supposed to politely respect each other’s cultures. But some cultures are more progress-resistant than others, and a horrible tragedy was just exacerbated by one of them.”
He doesn’t do the same empty analysis that Pat Robertson has done, ignoring the oppressive practices of the French, the United States, and other colonial powers. Nor does he blame the disaster directly on a deal with the devil.
Still, other countries have faced colonialism from without and corruption from within and done better. While this is true, we also must remember few countries have had to pay such a high price for their independence, for so long.
Even so, Brooks’ main point stands. What you believe DOES matter. A belief in a capricious God leads to only living for today. A belief in a retributive God leads to extreme conservatism. A belief in an other-worldly God leads to a de-prioritizing of the immediate.
Some say that the protestant work ethic led to the rapid economic growth of this country (mostly protestants, of course). As a protestant, I like that idea. (Of course, our bad idea that nature was to be “subdued” instead of “stewarded” has led us to over-consume, too).
What can be done? Debt forgiveness and aid are still a part of the solution, but Brooks also argues for the intentional development of “No excuse counter-cultures,” led by local leaders with high expectations. People who believe differently, and expect success.
Which is where this story takes a local turn.
Our poverty is nowhere near the level of Haiti’s, but we fall into the same trap of bad beliefs. Buffalo needs more than money. Change comes when beliefs change, and beliefs change when local leaders–many of whom you may see featured on this site–help people envision and enact a new reality. We can no longer blame Albany, the closing of the canal, the market crash or the weather for our problems. We need new beliefs to create a new reality.
The church, at its best, has been a localized counter-culture that had higher expectations for itself. Communities like that (whether they are churches or not) are key to success–in Haiti, and in Buffalo.