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a818: Implications of the mythic pact with Satan

From: Elizabeth McAlister <emcalister@mail.wesleyan.edu>

My dearest Jean-Jean,

I hear your outrage about the myth of the Haitian revolutionary pact
with Satan.  It is indeed outrageous to think that this story of
unprecedented courage and self-determination should be cast as evil;
indeed that a whole nation be cast as evil.   But this is how the new
evangelicalism is casting Haiti, and many Haitian evangelicals are
taking up the story and working it to suit their own purposes.  For
you and others who are interested in historical narrative, I excerpt
a passage from a paper I'm writing, below.  I'm sorry if the
footnotes do not come through; please consider this a draft of a work
in progress.  Others who are working on this issue include Melvin
Butler, Laennec Hurbon, Karen Richman and Nina Schnall. I should add
that while I personally disfavor the Pentecostal  narrative, I think
it is imperative to respect and take it seriously.  You know me, so
you know my heart is with the rich arts of Vodou.  But one must
understand what it means that so many Haitians are embracing this
story as their own, both in Haiti and in the diaspora.   Hurbon
reports that a third of Haitians are now Protestant.

Pentecostal Spiritual Warfare at the Crossroads: Winning Haiti for Jesus
Rara bands stop in crossroads to salute and "feed" the spiritual
powers that inhabit them.  It is at the crossroads of militarism and
spiritual warfare that Pentecostals have attempted to battle Vodou,
both literally and symbolically.  It is also at this juncture that
Pentecostalism poses the most serious questions for Haitians'
national identity and historical narrative.  For the Pentecostal
church demands a total rejection of African-based traditions, and
regard them as Satanic practice.   Sermons and literature about Haiti
urges missions to "pull down strongholds" and aim efforts at
destroying working Vodou temples in various ways.  Missionaries are
admonished to conduct "warfaring against powers and principalities,"
cast in particular as Vodou temples and Rara bands.  Haiti's poverty,
political turmoil and structural disadvantage with regard to the
United States are held up as proof of God's disfavor.  In sermons,
white American missionaries have interpreted the blackness of
Haitians' skin as the curse of Cain, demonizing Haitian identity
further by racializing evil.

For a national culture that is based, however ambivalently, on ideas
of an African past, African moral values, and pride in an Afro-Creole
revolutionary war of independence, what does it mean to be told, and
to accept, that one's national culture is corrupt, immoral, and evil?
What happens to the evangelical story when it is told to Haitians,
and how do Haitians take up that story as their own, when this new
story casts them and their national culture as evil?

One group of Haitian Pentecostals reacted by actively confronting
Vodou on the national stage.  They had taken workshops led by pastors
from the United States, who schooled Haitians in the Pentecostal
practices of "spiritual warfare."  They learned the techniques of
"putting on full armor," "pulling down strongholds,"
"coming under
the blood," and "taking Jericho marches."  In group rituals of
and fasting, they aimed to exorcise various localities in the Haitian
countryside of its family spirits and Vodou spirits.  They
interpreted scripture literally in terms of national territory and
preached that "We believe that the Lord really does want His people
to possess the land."    Mirroring  the outdoor maneuvers of the Rara
bands, the Pentecostals marched through public space performing
exorcisms at spots considered sacred in Vodou and recast as satanic
for Pentecostals.
In one charged "crusade" ceremony, a group of Haitian Pentecostal
pastors launched a serious critique of the Haitian government and
indeed of national history.  The group marched on August 14th of 1997
to the north of Haiti to Bwa Kayiman, the site of the original
religious ritual in 1791 when the slaves of Saint Domingue vowed to
fight for freedom.  The pastors intended to exorcise the Vodou
spirits who still governed the site, and "win" the space "for
They perceived their work as a serious material and psychic battle
between opposing spiritual forces.  Pastor Jeune related:   "As we
approached that satanic field where no Christian has even before
been, it was not easy for us.  The power of witchcraft was so strong
and the air so heavy.  As we pushed our way towards that big tree
where the pig had been slain, we really had to be violent in the
Spirit, praying, rebuking, fighting, and casting out the devil and
all his spirits."

This particular crusade was aimed at the genesis and essence of the
Haitian nation:  the foundational ceremony at Bwa Kayiman.  The
occasion that Haitian history books regarded as a sacralized moment
of inspiration for the historic slave uprising was re-interpreted in
Pentecostal terms.  In a complicated view that blamed the Catholic
Church for blessing the slave market and racializing evil in terms of
African's skin, the leaders of the "Bois Caiman for Jesus" crusade
blamed slavery for causing Africans to turn to Satan as their divine
protector.  In invoking African and Creole spirits to possess the
religious leaders who had attended, Boukman had made a "pact with the
devil" and dedicated Haiti to serve the devil.  It was this unholy
alliance that had been responsible for Haiti's subsequent two hundred
years of misery.

The idea of the crusade was to undo Boukman's pact with the devil,
and to halt Haiti's economic and political downward spiral by turning
Haiti into a "favored nation" of God.  Pentecostal leaders would
carry out this work using the techniques of the "Jericho March," a
ritual inspired by the biblical story of Joshua.  In this ritual, a
group circles a space seven times in the name of Jesus, "commanding
its walls to fall down."  The pastor described that "The battle raged

until we broke into a Jericho march seven times around that big
witchcraft tree. . . and. . .at the seventh time we all felt that the
heavy power of the devil had been lifted and God gave many people a
vision of the devil flying and leading that place."   Video crews and
reporters were on hand to capture the spectacle and relay the news of
the exorcism to Port-au-Prince and beyond.

The ritual was a direct challenge to the politics of national
heritage and to the pro-"folklore" politics that had been at work
since the Duvalier regime.  The Pentecostal ceremony caused an uproar
in the capital and the Haitian government considered it an insult to
national pride.  The government had in 1991 sponsored a bicentennial
commemoration of Bwa Kayiman at the National Palace, and the Haitian
parliament had voted to make Boukman a national hero. Some
Pentecostals had interpreted this as a renewal of the contract with
the devil on the part of the Haitian government.   By undoing that
contract and claiming the birthplace of the Haitian nation for Jesus,
however, they had symbolically "won Haiti for Jesus" and
the entire nation to evangelicalism.

Police were dispatched to arrest three pastors who led the crusade
and there was speculation on the radio and newspapers by political
commentators that the crusade was an American plot launched by
Republicans to erode Haitian national sovereignty.   But in their
statements to the press the evangelicals pronounced a victory, "a
breakthrough. . . Haiti has reached a historical turning point."  In
their reframing of the national myth of Bwa Kayiman as satanic and
the casting of its hero, Boukman, as having made a contract with the
devil, Pentecostals attempted to superimpose a new, evangelical story
on the Haitian national narrative.  Through the public and
performative attack on the revolutionary site, Pentecostals attempted
at once to re-write Haiti's future and its past.

The Pentecostals' action was enormously symbolic, since it launched a
new national narrative that repositioned Haiti in both time and
space.  By undoing the contract with Satan the nation could now
dramatically enter millennial temporality, and its citizens could
join other evangelicals in their preparation for the end times.  No
longer would Haitians, through Vodou, return to mystical Ginen (a
spiritual African homeland) upon death.  No longer would they be
"reclaimed" from Ginen to become spirits residing in natural space.
The cyclical nature of time, and of human spirit within it, would be
replaced by a linear temporality and a Christian eschatology.  "The
appeal to historical time in this way takes up the language of
modernity as it spoke to Caribbean peoples through colonization,
missionization and, later, modernization theory."   By being "born
again," Pentecostals performed a complete break with the past in both
personal and cultural terms.

Pentecostal leaders also attempted to redraw a new Haitian
orientation to space.  Replacing the sense of living on an island in
the sea, populated with spiritual forces and charged energies,
Haitians were now a nation standing before God.  Haitians were now
part of God's people thirsting to enter the New Jerusalem.  At the
end of the world, Haitians would no longer return to Ginen/Africa as
they were destined to do in Vodou.  At the moment of the rapture, or
again at Armageddon, Haitians could now enter God's Kingdom.  The
themes of exile in scripture could be plainly understood by Haitians,
as they had by other African peoples throughout the Americas.  In the
new evangelical story of Haiti, it was now time for redemption,
salvation, and homecoming.


The article goes on to say that for Haitian immigrants in the US, it
is much easier to be part of an exilic community coming "home" to
"God's New Isreal" than it is to be Haitian Vodouists in a hostile
America.  Evangelicalism has a lot of meaningful answers to some hard
existential questions.  It also provides real networks and social
services that extend transnationally across boundaries.  Of course,
it changes power relations, and so we must also talk about what it
does to structures of race, gender and class, not to mention what it
means to rewrite Haitian history and the Haitian future.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Elizabeth McAlister, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor
Department of Religion
Wesleyan University
Middletown, CT  06459-0029
Tel:  (860) 685-2289
Fax:  (860) 685-2821
Internet home page: http://www.wesleyan.edu/religion/mcalister.htm
Rara book page:  http://www.ucpress.edu/books/pages/9291.html

Faculty Research Fellow
Institute for the Advanced Study of Religion
Yale University
New Haven, CT  06520