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

Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail

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.

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:

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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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Kesner Aristide: Religion has always been a part of human lives and we have tried to understand facts in the light of religion. In certain cases, it is difficult to get to a true answer, especially in the matter of suffering. Does God allow suffering to one specific people and escape another? God is still a merciful one. In the case of Haiti, many are trying to speculate around its suffering. Is it God's punishment? It should come to an end if we do what we should. Is it human activities? If so, there can be a change. The result of everything should be to see where the real problem is located and get the real solution.

Lorna Dueck: Michael, here's my dilemma with your lovely Catholic patience with suffering. When suffering is so elevated as a virtue, we get useless about injustice. Some suffering is just good for our character, but so much suffering is a result of injustice and it grieves God's heart - God looks for people to end it.

Michael Higgins: I don't think one should be patient with suffering; I think one should contextualize it, unravel its power over us by situating it within the divine economy of human unfolding. One should never crave suffering - such an impulse is pathological - nor accept it as inevitable, only use it to probe mystery rather than allow it to wield its power over us.

Howard Voss-Altman: I certainly agree with Prof. Higgins that suffering enables us to participate in God's redemptive love and justice. This is, indeed, the teaching of the Jewish people's enslavement in Egypt - an event that we remember each year at the Passover seder. However, a crucial aspect of suffering must be our redemptive desire to turn that suffering into transformative change for the future. In short, how do the trials of Haiti motivate us to act to prevent further catastrophes?

Michael Higgins: This seems to me the critical point, Howard, about the Haiti disaster. Certainly, the physical destruction wrought by an earthquake is one thing - nature's suzerainty is a mite different from ours - but the genuine suffering that results from the attendant social evils is the greater human challenge. Although overwhelmingly Catholic, Haiti has remained largely untouched by the kind of liberationist movements characteristic of the justice initiatives in Latin America and the political upheavals, including the tenure of the former Salesian priest Jean-Bertrand Aristide, speak to a level of dysfunction that calls for radical, not remedial, restructuring. Lorna is right, I believe, when she speaks to the remarkable outpouring of aid and support coming from Christian communities, but mercy without justice is, in the end, a poor tonic.

Howard Voss-Altman: Yes, God calls us to seek justice as part of our covenant - with humanity and with God. But why are we - as members of faith communities and as a society - reactive to suffering, instead of pro-active to prevent further suffering? If our mission is to seek justice (or prevent injustice), we ought to be dedicated to Haiti because it is the poorest country in the Western hemisphere. There are certainly numerous religious agencies that care for orphans, etc., but our desires in Haiti must also be for good governance, decent education and the beginning of a stable society. These are all justice issues.

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Guy Nicholson: And, I would add to Howard's question about taking action: Even if you view suffering through the prism of faith, how important is it that faith be infused in the solution? Foreign aid often comes with preconditions - that it be spent in a certain place or on certain goods, that it influence a policy or that it further an agenda, which for some organizations involves proselytizing or missionary work. If aid depends on furthering an agenda (religious or otherwise, but religion is the focus of our discussion today), is it really aid?

Howard Voss-Altman: And is missionary work really "mercy" when it is attached to a religious message? But, more fundamentally, why has Haiti not experienced the liberationist strain of Catholic theology? One could imagine that Haiti's poverty and strife would have naturally led to the movement, as it did with many, largely Catholic, nations in Central and South America. The question remains, why not?

Sheema Khan: I think we would all agree that the best expression of faith is to assist without preconditions, especially where people are completely vulnerable and helpless. We should be looking to help people maintain their human dignity at such tragic times, and to share in their trials. However, faith communities should join with other groups to address endemic problems that afflict Haiti: poverty, corruption, weak civil institutions, etc. Wouldn't this approach combine both short-term objectives (alleviation of suffering) and long-term objectives (reduction of poverty, illness, etc.) toward a more "just" society?

Kesner Aristide: It is still aid, Guy, even with certain preconditions or agendas, because there is a target set of people who have been affected. Most Third World countries receive a certain amount of relief through foreign aid, especially when the local government proves unable to address the situation the country is going through. I could add that the arrival of foreign aid is God's providence to an unfortunate country like Haiti. This country has already faced so many successive catastrophes - it is a blessing to know that other people are thinking of Haitians.

Howard Voss-Altman: This is troubling, Dr. Aristide. If it is God's providence that inspired such aid (or that such aid was motivated by God's example of charity), then why is it not God's providence to cause the earthquake in the first place? Our responses may be religiously motivated, but the origin of the disaster does not belong - in my religious opinion - to God's providence. Otherwise, it would not only appear that God is indifferent, it would appear that God is responsible for pouring salt into the wound of poverty. My belief in God demands that such tragedy could not be within God's providence.

Lorna Dueck: Haiti's trials should motivate us to infuse healthy faith into much higher levels of society. Here's an example: At the faculty of theology in Limbé, near Cap-Haïten, Montreal's Dr. Glenn Smith teaches pastors urban planning issues, getting very practical on how healthy societies care for people with zoning, bylaws and building regulations that should not be violated. They teach anti-corruption and accountability of governance. The lack of having even one warning system on the island was just one of many sins that secular systems failed to stop in Haiti.

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If secular structures can't catch that, than faith ones need to speak prophetically into those systems and alert them to improve. Creating structures that are good for people are all part of the Christian mandate to be fruitful on the earth. It is not about, "We give you this donation if you come to this spiritual practice" - it's a wider application of healing for structural things.

Guy Nicholson: It's hard to argue with the response you mention, Lorna. Anti-corruption, accountability, urban planning … I think most would consider these to be worthy lessons that cut across creed.

Michael Higgins: I agree, and the signs of individual and corporate initiatives to bring meaningful change to bear is of high importance and hope-generating. But Canadian nuns, lay missioners and priests have been working for years to effect change - substantive, transformational change. Without the political infrastructure and accountability mechanisms in place, justice is too often reduced to charity, and I don't mean agape.

What is interesting is the tenor and focus of our conversation when you contrast the experience in Haiti - devastating though it was - with the response to the 1755 Lisbon earthquake that almost unseated God. That's something.

Kesner Aristide: Everyone is conscious that there is a problem here. If we know the problem, there can be a solution. Many times we try to attack the effect but not the cause. Haiti is facing these issues - corruption, accountability and so on - and I believe there is a solution, somewhere, somehow. God is not the cause of our problems. We human beings are responsible and if we help each other we can get out of that situation. Let us do what we think necessary to do and we will see the result.

Howard-Voss Altman: Lorna, that is certainly an excellent response. Do you feel the pastoral training is making any progress?

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Lorna Dueck: Howard, is speaking to broken secular systems, infusing faith values into their accountability, considered having an effect? I do know the concept of accountability to building standards is stark when you look at who adhered to them and who didn't, and yes, faith practitioners influenced their projects that way.

I have met clergy in Haiti who were both engaged and disengaged on government structures. Some felt corruption was so deep, they could not even appeal with integrity into it and went back to community work in their parish, others run for office to change it. What seemed most effective immediately was the way Canadian Christian aid agencies demanded accountability of government officials to develop the aid response.

Howard Voss-Altman: Your comments, Lorna, lead us to a much larger question: Can faith communities seek justice in a culture that, for many complex reasons, is unable to embrace justice? In Judaism, we tell a very old joke about the man whose home is ravaged by flood, and when his neighbours come to rescue him, he shoos them away and tells them, "God will provide." And then when the police come to do the same, he sends them away, telling them that "God will rescue him." And finally, when the flood waters are so high that the man is standing on his roof, a helicopter comes to rescue him, and once again he sends it away, with the same admonition, "God will provide." Soon after, the man dies in the flood, and when he gets to heaven and meets God, the man asks, "Why didn't you come to save me?" God replies, "I sent the neighbours, the police and the helicopters. What more could I have done?"

Lorna Dueck: Precisely Howard. We are all sent into the crisis - that is Shalom.

Sheema Khan: This is a fascinating discussion, and these are great points to ponder. I found Guy's initial example (the secular response to drunk driving) a little confusing, since alcohol is prohibited on a religious basis in Islam. I still remember walking into an altercation between a Muslim immigrant woman and a couple of drunk men. She had used her car to block the men from driving out of a garage. They were screaming and swearing at her. She stood firm, and explained to me that they were drunk, and that she did not want them to drive in that state. She did not know them, but she was impelled by her faith to stop them - even at the risk of personal harm.

But this is a digression. Why is religion associated with our response to suffering? Perhaps because all of the major religions place great emphasis on helping the poor, the afflicted, the needy, as part of one's expression of faith in the service of God. In Islam, we are reminded that we should help the afflicted (irrespective of creed, culture, faith, status, etc.), for the sake of God alone, and that we will be asked why we did not respond to the call.

Kesner Aristide: According to the Bible, there is a link between faith and works. Faith stimulates good works because you can show your faith by the works. Helping Haiti is proof of faith.

Guy Nicholson: That's very interesting, too, Sheema. My question, distilled, is why faith had to be the catalyst for her actions: I would like to think my response could be similar, though not motivated by religion. But I didn't realize that Islam or Christianity specifically compel such a response.

Sheema Khan: Well, it was this woman in particular who responded with courage. I don't know if I would be capable of doing the same. There is a directive in our faith that says if you see something that goes against God's prohibitions, stop it with your hands; if you can't do that, then speak against it; and if you can't do that, then hate it in your heart. Of course, this directive must be used within context, and with means themselves that do not go beyond the bounds allowed by the faith.

Getting back to Haiti: For Muslims, charity is such a central part of the faith. Payment of 2.5 per cent of one's net annual income to the poor is a pillar, a requirement, of the faith. The Koran exhorts people to give from the bounties that God has provided. This can include wealth, or even a smile. So, for many Muslims, charity and alleviation of suffering is part and parcel of the faith. It is a natural response. Such was the case a year ago, when many Muslim countries, organizations and individuals joined their brethren in humanity to help the people of Haiti.

Guy Nicholson: About 96 per cent of Haitians are Christians, half of whom also practise voodoo. Clearly, spirituality plays a giant role in Haitian culture. How has this spirituality influenced Haitians' response to the earthquake, and more broadly to the country's long struggle with poverty? I would also particularly pose this question to Kesner or Lorna.

Lorna Dueck: Guy, I was staggered by how deep faith was. Everywhere, people were engaged in spiritual practice to handle the stress and despair. There were many conversions to Christianity as people feared they were not ready to die, there were exercises of city-wide piety, prayer, fasting in Port-au-Prince. It was a place of great care for each other and patience. There is, too, a deep sense that God has promised them something far better in the world after this - they are truly a people who know God's promise of heaven, and they live with an eye on it while they behave in a way they hope would please God. This individualistic pursuit of God amid a system of such suffering is one way spirituality serves the survivor.

Howard Voss-Altman: Lorna, while such a response may be heartwarming in certain circles, the promise of paradise in the world after this one is one reason so many people are disenchanted with religion. If our religious faith inspires us to seek justice, then we should be encouraging the citizens of Haiti to demand justice now. A relationship with God should not be one that relieves stress; it should be one that demands that unacceptable conditions can not be tolerated. We need inspiration to act, not a promise for the afterlife.

Sheema Khan: Very interesting observations, Lorna. It almost seems that at such times, the greatest resource one has is faith. All of our defences are stripped away; the material aspects and even the people we relied on are gone. What is left? That is a stark realization that is deeply personal and should garner the utmost respect.

Getting back to the issue of aid and justice, it goes back to the "Give fish to a village" versus "Teach a village to fish" approach. Here, both apply. The initial response is to alleviate suffering of a fellow human being; to clothe her, to feed her, to shelter her. And once she regains strength, help her become independent. Again, the Koran exhorts its adherents to feed the needy, without seeking any reward or thanks from them - but rather, to seek the pleasure of God. Intentions are key.

Lorna Dueck: Howard, that is only the partial answer - to seek justice now works in societies like Canada where our systems do work and can be appealed to. When things are so completely broken, like in Haiti, and seeking justice is a century-long engagement, faith must have some immediate care for the angst - and that is when the real promise of paradise is a great comfort. We cannot hold back that spiritual truth. This life is as bad as it gets, God has something better for us.

Sheema Khan: I must admit that I know very little about the sociopolitical situation in Haiti, except for that it is so poor. Given the enormity of the issues facing Haitians, we must help - but not in a patronizing way. Any aid must restore human dignity; any aid must be provided with humility. The people of Haiti are extremely resilient, and this a strength that can be built upon. In terms of working toward a more just society, won't education be the key? Won't increased literacy lay a framework for people to improve their civil institutions, and work toward greater accountability? In the end, the people of Haiti will find their indigenous solutions. These should not be imposed from without.

Guy Nicholson: We're out of time today. Thank you all so much for stopping in to chat - I'm looking forward to talking again next month.

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