On October 17, 1989, a magnitude 7.0 earthquake struck the Bay Area of Northern California. 63 people were killed. The earthquake that struck Haiti was also magnitude 7.0, but current estimates are that between 45,000 and 50,000 people have died. As David Brooks of the New York Times wrote in his op-ed today, the earthquake in Haiti is “not a natural disaster story. This is a poverty story.” I applaud Brooks for the courage to deal with a sensitive topic. Why is it that earthquakes of similar magnitudes, both striking relatively densely populated areas, can have such vastly disparate impacts? For Brooks, the answer is poverty. I respectfully disagree. The answer isn’t poverty. It’s worldview. To his credit, Brooks eventually broaches this sensitive subject:
It is time to put the thorny issue of culture at the center of efforts to tackle global poverty… As Lawrence E. Harrison explained in his book The Central Liberal Truth, Haiti, like most of the world’s poorest nations, suffers from a complex web of progress-resistant cultural influences. There is the influence of the voodoo religion, which spreads the message that life is capricious and planning futile. There are high levels of social mistrust. Responsibility is often not internalized. Child-rearing practices often involve neglect in the early years and harsh retribution when kids hit 9 or 10.
We’re all supposed to politely respect each other’s cultures. But some cultures are more progress-resistant than others, and a horrible tragedy was just exacerbated by one of them.
Upstream of culture is “cult.” In other words, we build societies and cultures in the image of the God or gods we worship. Voodoo, which is still widely practiced in Haiti, is a satanic belief system, and Jesus warned, “The thief [Satan] comes only to steal, kill and destroy” (John 10:10). Cultures and nations built on this “cult” will reap tragic consequences, which are often exacerbated by natural disasters.
But what if a culture is built upon the worship of the one true God—the maker of heaven and earth—as revealed in Scripture? The Bible is far more than a devotional book or a guide to personal spiritual salvation. It presents a comprehensive worldview that provides the only sure foundation for healthy, free, and prosperous nations. This is the thesis of my colleague Darrow Miller’s book Discipling Nations: The Power of Truth to Transform Culture.
Cultures can be shaped by a worldview that leads to a belief that life is capricious, the future is going nowhere, and therefore planning is futile. Or they can be influenced by a worldview that leads them to believe that life is meaningful and planning for the future is important.
Cultures can be shaped by a worldview that leads to social mistrust, corruption and a lack of personal responsibility. Or they can be shaped by a worldview that leads to a culture of honesty, trust and responsibility. Not all worldviews are created equal—and while they don’t cause natural disasters, they do explain the disparate impact they can have.
The God of the Bible is not capricious. He is a sovereign, loving God who works in an orderly and purposeful way to accomplish his plan to redeem and restore all things. Cultures that worship him tend to be future-oriented. Planning is valued. Science is possible because of the orderliness of the universe, and can be used to help construct strong buildings which are less likely to collapse in an earthquake.
The God of the Bible created men and women in his image and works through them to carry out his good purposes for creation. People are not cosmic accidents; they are image-bearers of God with immense value, purpose and destiny. Cultures that worship him tend to place a high value on human life. They see children as history-makers, and as such, education is highly valued.
The God of the Bible is righteous and trustworthy. He always keeps his promises. Cultures that worship him tend to value honesty and have high levels of social capital.
This is not a theory or a hope. It is a historically verifiable fact. If you want to explore this further, I encourage you to explore the works of Vishal Mangalwadi, particularly his most recent book Truth and Transformation: A Manifesto for Ailing Nations. You may also wish to explore the works of Rodney Stark, particularly The Rise of Christianity. Even atheists are unable to deny the power of a comprehensive, Biblical worldview for social and cultural transformation. See Matthew Parris’s article “As an atheist, I truly Believe Africa needs God.”
For too long, too many Christians have promoted a gospel of spiritual salvation, yet failed to tell the whole story of Scripture. This message of spiritual salvation for heaven has been taken around the world and gladly accepted in many nations, yet their underlying culture has remained intact. It has been said of Haiti, for example, that it is 80% Christian, but 100% Voodoo.
The Bible is far more than a guide for personal, spiritual salvation. It is a comprehensive worldview that provides a sure blueprint for the building of healthy, free, and prosperous nations. Spreading this message and connecting it to local churches that begin to incarnate it in their lives, families, and communities is why the Disciple Nations Alliance exists.
To some, what I’m writing here sounds critical and uncompassionate. Am I blaming the victim? In America, we are expected to (in David Brook’s words) “politely respect each other’s cultures.” But what if there are elements within our culture and other cultures that lead to brokenness, fatalism, poverty, and despair? Is it compassionate to continue respond to disasters in Haiti without asking the hard questions of why Haiti has been so resistant to positive change despite years of well-intentioned international aid? I think not. The people of Haiti deserve our compassion. They bear God’s image and are as full of dignity and worth as any people in the world. The answers to their deepest problems don’t lie in our pity and continued handouts. Instead, they will be found in Scripture and in the power of God and his Word when it is rightly understood as a comprehensive worldview. A truly compassionate response will recognize this, and act accordingly.
- Scott Allen