Giles Fraser: Repent of a theology of blame

20 January 2010

I am wondering what is the strongest word I can get away with here to describe Pat Robertson. My starter for ten is “idiot”, but there is much more where that came from, which the editor and the lawyers and sheer public decency might find problem­atic.

Pat Robertson, TV evangelist, famous Evangelical preacher, and 24-carat idiot, has said that the reason Haiti has suffered this terrible misery is that, back in history, it made a pact with the Devil so that he might help it drive out the French. The earthquake is God’s punishment. This is out­rageous.

I suspect that most people reading this will agree with me about Mr Robertson — if not necessarily with my manner of expression. But what, then, are we to do with the theology of those much-loved brothers, John and Charles Wesley?

In 1750, a series of small earth­quakes struck London, precursors to the massive Lisbon earthquake of 1755, in which 30-40,000 people lost their lives. Charles Wesley published Hymns Occasioned by the Earth­quake, then The Cause and Cure of Earthquakes, and John Wesley chimed in with Serious Thoughts Occasioned by the Late Earthquake at Lisbon.

Their common line in these works was that earthquakes were sent from God as either a warning or a punishment. Charles Wesley puts it thus: “Sin is the cause, earthquakes the effect.”

In John Wesley’s earthquake ser­mon of 1755, he asks: “And what shall we say of the late accounts from Portugal?” His answer is the aston­ish­ing claim that this massive natural disaster was God’s punish­ment on Roman Catholics and Roman Cath­olicism:

“Yea, how long has that bloody House of Mercy, the scandal not only of religion, but even of human nature, stood to insult both heaven and earth! And shall not I visit for these things, saith the Lord? Shall not my soul be avenged on such a city as this?”

Charles Wesley sums up this fraternal theology of earthquakes with the trenchant words: “Jesus descends in dread array to judge the scarlet whore.”

It is just too easy to dismiss TV evangelists such as Mr Robertson as extremists. He reflects a much wider seam of thought, of which we ought to be ashamed and repent. And by repentance I do not mean some weak and distancing “sorry”, but rather to undertake with conviction the in­tellectual endeavour to root out the sources of this theology and put them to the sword. It is morally shameful to say that the people of Haiti are to blame for their fate. We must exorcise our theology of such ideas.

The Revd Dr Giles Fraser is Canon Chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral and Director of the St Paul’s Institute.

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