The Haitian Earthquake: The Pagan Wheel of Fortune or God’s Will and Grace?

File:Edward Burne-Jones - The Wheel of Fortune.jpg

In a recent New York Times essay, literary critic James Wood made the following observation on President Barack Obama’s selection of the language of Christian theodicy over that of the pagan Wheel of Fortune (in response to the Haitian earthquake):

[T]heological language has a way of hanging around earthquakes. In his speech after the catastrophe, President Obama movingly invoked “our common humanity,” and said that “we stand in solidarity with our neighbors to the south, knowing that but for the grace of God, there we go.” . . . If the president simply meant that most of us have been — so far — luckier than Haitians, why didn’t he say that? Perhaps because, as a Christian, he does not want to believe that he subscribes to such a nonprovidential category as luck, or to the turn of fate’s wheel, which is really a pagan notion. Besides, to talk of luck, or fortune, in the face of a disaster seems flippant, and belittling to those who have been savaged by such bad luck. A toothache is bad luck; an earthquake is somehow theological.

Wood also notes similar responses by some of the survivors:

[A] 27-year-old survivor, Mondésir Raymone, was quoted thus: “We have survived by the grace of God.” Bishop Éric Toussaint, standing near his damaged cathedral, said something similar: “Why give thanks to God? Because we are here. What happened is the will of God. We are in the hands of God now.” A survivor’s gratitude is combined with theological fatalism.

I suppose an earthquake brings you up against circumstances so beyond your control that there is little you can do but choose between atheist fatalism (shit just happens) and theological fatalism (God, beyond my comprehension, does exactly as He wills). In other words, this amounts to a choice between two languages: the metaphorical language of contingency or grace. In accord with Ecclesiastes, does time and chance happeneth to us all—or is there a divine plan, however obscure, to the fall of even one sparrow—or a whole nation like Haiti?


Or this:


Image source: Sir Edward Burne-Jones, 1863, Wikipedia Commons

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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