Helping Haiti

Michael Metzger

Before the rebuilding begins, there are lessons to learn.

The human and emotional toll of the earthquake in Haiti is almost unfathomable. The images flashed on the television can’t in any way depict the gritty mix of heartache and heroism, faith and fatalism that has marked this tragedy.

In the coming days and weeks, a nation now lying in ruin will need to be rebuilt – literally from the ground up. For Haiti this is a unique opportunity.

One of the central lessons from Haiti, writes David Brooks in last Friday’s edition of The New York Times, is that “it is time to put the thorny issue of culture at the center of the efforts to tackle global poverty.” It’s a difficult but necessary issue to raise because Haiti has over 10,000 well-meaning aid organizations performing missions and microprojects with little to show for all the effort. Why is culture at the center of the solution?

Haiti, writes Brooks, “is not a natural disaster story. This is a poverty story.”1 “By some estimates, Haiti has more nongovernmental organizations per capita than any other place on earth. They are doing the Lord’s work, especially these days, but even a blizzard of these efforts does not seem to add up to comprehensive change.”

Like most of the world’s poorest nations, Haiti 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 and personal responsibility is often not assumed. Few if any of these cultural attitudes have been altered by the efforts of the modern American church.

Since Haiti’s founding in 1804, most Western missionaries have brought a “two-chapter” gospel focusing on saving souls while largely ignoring culture. (The same could be said for Africa and Asia.) More recently, faith-based organizations have jettisoned this truncated gospel for: “God loves you—do social justice.” The focus is on the poor and a bottom-up changing of culture. We have ricocheted from an individualized gospel of personal salvation to an individualized gospel of social justice. “Worthy as these projects may be,” Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith says, “none of them attempt to transform social or cultural systems, but merely to alleviate some of the harm caused by the existing system.”2 Haiti remains “a story about poorly constructed buildings, bad infrastructure and terrible public services,” Brooks concludes. It doesn’t have to.

The tragedy of Haiti is not unprecedented. Ancient cities were packed with people—some of the highest population densities in recorded history. They suffered unimaginable squalor. Crime was rampant, law was lax, medical care scant, streets were open sewers, and plagues were commonplace—killing at times upwards of 50 percent of a city’s population. It was in this world that the early church made real changes. The church made systemic, institutional change by placing culture at the center of its efforts.

To begin with, the church was heavily Jewish for it’s first 300 years.3 In Judaism, the mission is making culture (Gen 1:26-30). Making culture assumes people are fundamentally enculturated beings. Only about 5 percent of our daily activity is the product of conscious, intentional actions that we “choose,” writes James K. A. Smith in Desiring the Kingdom. The other 95 percent is the “automatic unconscious” shaped by culture. Making culture is largely why “Christianity revitalized life in cities by providing new norms and new kinds of social relationships able to cope with urgent urban problems,” Stark writes.4

Culture however is not primarily created by clergy. Looking at the data, Stark says that Paul’s missionary journeys and rank-and-file missionaries who circulated from city to city had no significant, independent effect on Christianization. It was businesspeople. “Although wandering preachers may have been the first Christians to reach Rome, it seems likely that the primary bearers of the new faith were rank-and-file believers who traveled for commercial reasons.”5 By starting in cities and changing commercial enterprises, the gospel rode the wave of business travelers so that by 350 CE the Christian population of the Roman Empire had grown very large. As Lucian the Martyr put it early in the fourth century, “[A]most the greater part of the world is now committed to this truth, even whole cities.”6

Finally, culture remains a thorny issue because the modern American church places importance on individuals over institutions. It assumes that if we get enough good information in people’s heads, an aggregate of impassioned individuals will “tip” the culture in whatever direction they lean. But history and human nature tell us that reality doesn’t work this way. The early church knew this.

It is striking that Hezbollah’s spiritual leader sees this more clearly than the American church leadership. “Here is an important point,” notes Lebanon’s Grand Ayatollah Muhammed Hussein Fadlullah. “America is not ruled by a person, it is ruled by institutions. We, in the Arab countries or in the East, we don’t have institutions. The ruler is one person or one family. Therefore the people cannot object.”7

If you want to read how the lack of overlapping networks of healthy institutions has destroyed Haiti, read Jared Diamond’s Collapse. Then, when you see tens of thousands of collapsed buildings and infrastructure—another word for culture—you will appreciate the wisdom of Charles Kettering: a problem well defined is a problem half solved.

Brooks’ article concludes with the late Harvard political scientist Samuel P. Huntington. Huntington acknowledged that “cultural change is hard, but cultures do change after major traumas. This earthquake is certainly a trauma. The only question is whether the outside world continues with the same old, same old.”

Uh, here’s one more question.

Will the church continue with the “same old, same old”? If it wants to help Haiti, the church has to put the issue of culture back at the center of its work, taking seriously the Cultural Mandate. This means aligning itself with an accurate assessment of human nature, sending more theologically-equipped businesspeople instead of theologically-deficient missionaries, and thereby establish institutions and cultural systems.

1 David Brooks, “The Underlying Tragedy,” The New York Times, January 15, 2010
2 Nancy Pearcey, Total Truth: Liberating Christianity From It’s Cultural Captivity (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2004), p. 73.
3 Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal, Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force in the Western World in a Few Centuries (San Francisco, CA: HarperCollins, 1996), p. 66.
4 Stark, Rise, p. 161.
5 Rodney Stark, Cities of God: The Real Story of How Christianity Became an Urban Movement and Conquered Rome (New York, NY: HarperOne, 2006), p. 73.
6 Stark, Cities, p. 64.
7 Robert J. Pollock, “A Dialogue With Lebanon’s Ayatollah,” Wall Street Journal, March 14-15, 2009, A7.


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  1. I have read Collapse. It is well worth the read!!!

    Another way to frame the issue is to consider the island of Hispanola, where Haiti occupies the western part. On the east is the nation of the Dominican Republic. It is certainly not the riches nation in the world, but compared to Haiti it is very prosperous.

    Same people. Same basic culture. Very different results. Why?

  2. Chris:

    Glad you have read “Collapse.” Might I amend one sentence in your comment? Haiti and the Dominican Republic do not share the “same basic culture.” That’s one of the central points in “Collapse.” They share a common island and geography. That’s about it. The cultures are radically different, as evidenced, for example, by nighttime satellite photographs. The Dominican Republic is brightly lit. Even before the earthquake, Haiti was relatively dark. Electricity distribution requires overlapping networks of institutions, or infrastructure – another word for culture. Haiti’s was virtually nonexistent before the earthquake. The little that was there is now essentially obliterated.

  3. So as Haiti digs out and and the Haitian people (more likely with the help of the rest of the world) essentially face the task of rebuilding a nation, how does the rest of the world and in particular the church (that is made up of more 4-chapter gospel people than you might think–) engage in this challenge?

  4. One of the reasons that the growth of healthy instutions in Haiti has been retarded is the misuse of power and the level of injustice — often by Christians. When Haiti’s slave revolution was successful and they won their peace from France, France required $147 million in reparations ($21 billion in today’s dollars). It took Haiti until 1947 to pay off the debt. This was a crushing debtload that diminished the building of infrastructure and provided little hope. Local governance went from short-term, ineffective regimes to a regime of totalitarian dominance and oppression (supported by the west). So you’re right, institutions matter and culture matters. Sadly, in Haiti, injustice has prevailed and not created the proper canvas for the artwork of freedom to be realized.

  5. Danny:

    Thank you for your wonderful addition to this column. I hope readers note that Haiti’s dire predicament is multi-layered in dysfunctional institutions. It’s not easily or quickly corrected.

  6. Ouch.

    Theologically-deficient missionaries? I hear you on that one. From my experience of life in the business world, it is really hard to develop a realistic, God-honoring theology if you never set foot outside of the “North American Christian Culture”. I don’t mean to be prejorative, just honest.

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