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Clockwise from top left: Lorna Dueck, Kesner Aristide, Michael Higgins, moderator Guy Nicholson, Sheema Khan, Howard Voss-Altman (Deborah Baic)
Clockwise from top left: Lorna Dueck, Kesner Aristide, Michael Higgins, moderator Guy Nicholson, Sheema Khan, Howard Voss-Altman (Deborah Baic)

Faith Exchange

Haiti: suffering and spirituality Add to ...

On Wednesday, Haitians will mark the anniversary of the catastrophic earthquake that devastated Port-au-Prince and other parts of their country. The size of the disaster was nearly matched by the size of the foreign aid effort - governments, organizations and individuals from around the world convened in an effort to alleviate the suffering.

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The Globe's monthly online religion panel has convened to discuss faith's response to suffering, with a nod to the Haitian situation.

Here are today's participants:

Lorna Dueck has produced two documentaries on responses to Haiti's 2010 earthquake, and is an ambassador for cbm Canada in Haiti. She is an evangelical Christian and executive producer of Listen Up TV on Global TV, Sundays at 11 a.m. Eastern time.

Dr. Kesner Aristide was born and educated in Haiti. He is an evangelical senior pastor in Scarborough, Ont., and helps oversee churches in Port-au-Prince and Pétionville in Haiti, where he sponsors schools and founded the NGO AEP Haiti International Organization.

Dr. Michael W. Higgins is the author and co-author of over a dozen books, a biographer, a CBC documentarist and currently the vice-president of Mission and Catholic identity at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn.

Rabbi Howard Voss-Altman has been serving Temple B'nai Tikvah, Calgary's Reform Jewish congregation, for the past eight years. He is a community leader in the areas of human rights and civil liberties.

Sheema Khan writes a monthly column for The Globe and Mail. She has a master's degree in physics and a Ph.D in chemical physics from Harvard. She is the author of Of Hockey and Hijab: Reflections of a Canadian Muslim Woman.

Moderator Guy Nicholson edits The Globe and Mail's online Comment page. He professes no religious beliefs.

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Guy Nicholson: Thank you, panelists, for taking the time to join us - especially Dr. Aristide, who has special expertise on Haiti and relief work there.

Let me get straight to a question for all of you that I think many readers will be asking: There are many ethical matters that even religious people do not connect to faith. For instance, I think many would say that faith is not directly tied to our strong but essentially secular response to drunk driving or political corruption. So why do many people associate religion, rather than those principles, with our response to suffering?

Howard Voss-Altman: You have hit upon one of the most profound and difficult questions of faith: Why do the innocent suffer? Why do bad things happen to good people? The Jewish people have had a long, historical relationship to suffering, and depending on the time and place, have responded in a variety of theological ways. In the case of Haiti, however, I would suggest that people of faith might offer secular responses as well. In addition to God's blessing, perhaps a stable infrastructure of construction and building regulations might have saved thousands of lives one year ago.

Lorna Dueck: Why do people expect religion to be associated with suffering? In my tradition, it is because God has a great dream for a good physical world, and good care for its people. Because of that, we are to rush to attend to suffering, injustice, pain and tragedy - these are things out of sync with God's ideal and that's why Christian folk associate with suffering by creating aid agencies, donating, etc. Our theology is built around how to put humanity into blessing and goodness. Howard, Christians still use your word Shalom to describe this - faith invites the world to made beautiful again. Not surprising then to find deep wells of Christian aid pumping into broken Haiti.

Michael Higgins: In my view, religion would be unfaithful to its purpose and meaning if it were to eschew reflection around suffering, one of the more enduring dimensions of existence. After all, faith is about the key mysteries of life. Why there is suffering, the relationship of suffering to justice, and the inexplicable and cruel arbitrariness of suffering clamour for answers.

Trying to understand suffering is at the very heart of human questing. The enormous physical suffering in Haiti invites, nay commands, people of faith to attend to the pain of others. For Catholics, suffering is not a mark of divine displeasure, nor a corrective for misbehaviour, nor a capricious indulgence by an indifferent God. Suffering invites us to participate in the redemptive love of a compassionate God. Faith invests suffering with meaning; it doesn't justify it.

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