Monday, August 3, 2015

"Sick Religion": Jacques Roumain, and The Decline of Christianity in the Era of the American Occupation in Haiti (Part 5)

"Sick Religion": Jacques Roumain, and The Decline of Christianity in the Era of the American Occupation in Haiti (Part 5) 
by Celucien L. Joseph 

This is the final post of our series on Jacques Roumain and the American Occupation in Haiti (1915-1934). This present essay is a continuity of what we have already established and discussed in Part 4. Nonetheless, in this article, we pay closer attention to Roumain’s engagement with religion including his idea about the Vodou religion. This is not an exhaustive treatment of Roumain’s  thought on religion per se; to learn more about Roumain’s critical engagement with religion, the interested reader should refer to my forthcoming book Thinking in Public: Faith, Secularism, and Development in Jacques Roumain (Wipf and Stock publishers, 2015). I have also published in the Journal of Postcolonial Networks a detailed scholarly article on the subject matter. To read it online, click on the following link: "Faith, Secular Humanism, and Development: A Reading of Jacques Roumain’s Religious Sensibility and Marxist Rhetoric."

 In another article published in December 13, 1928 in Le Petit Impartial, Roumain becomes more vocal in his denigration of the joint forces—the Christian Church and American occupation in Haiti. He charges the French clergy as exploiters, haters, and traitors of the Haitian people. The French clergy put the Haitian people under “white tutelage,” and that the white clergy through racial solidarity and astute political aversion is committed to the foreign oppression of the Haitian people.
du clergé français qui nous exploite, nous hait et sans cesse nous trahit; toute cette infamie froidement organisée ne peut pas tromper le people haïtien…. le clergé français âpre à maintenir le negre haïtien sous la tutelle blanche. Nous avons déjà suffisamment montre combine le clergé blanc par solidarité de race, astucieuse politique, aversion pour le negre était dévoue a l’oppresseur étranger: le Yankee est valets du gouvernement. Nous avons illustre nos accusations avec les attitudes toujours anti-haïtiennes des hauts dignitaires blancs du clergé dans les moments difficiles de notre existence nationale..[1]

Consequently, Roumain could write: “Le clergé français en Haïti n’est pas l’Eglise Catholique pour laquelle nous avons le plus grand respect. Le clergé français est compose en sa grande majorité de l’écume des forbans ecclésiastiques. Notre pays est, pour ces prétendus chevaliers de la Croix, une industrie à exploiter.”[2] [“The French clergy in Haiti is not the Catholic Church to which we have the utmost respect. The French clergy is composed of a large majority of ecclesiastical scum pirates. Our country is for these so-called Knights of the Cross an industry to operate.”]
To reiterate, the American occupation was a new form of neocolonisation and anti-Haitianism, which worked efficiently against the economic freedom of the Haitian people and their struggle for national sovereignty the same way the French clergy collaborated with Occupants and crusaded to censor the  religious liberty or spiritual freedom of the Haitian people: “Si l’américain est l’adversaire de notre indépendance matérielle, le clergé blanc français est celui de notre indépendance spirituelle et un des moyens pour nous faire passé sous le joug colonial définitive[3](“If the American is the enemy of our material independence, the white French clergy is that of our spiritual independence and a means to make us definitely passed under colonial yoke.”)  For Roumain, the institutionalized Catholic Church in Haiti was a “sick religion” with no trace of genuine Christian virtue or morality. This sick faith worked harmoniously with the U.S. imperialism to destabilize the country and dehumanize the Haitian people. In an article published in June 13, 1928, he asserts these powerful words of remonstration and opposition against Haiti’s bankrupt Christianity: “… nous protestons contre le clergé français séculier qui particulièrement depuis l’occupation yankee s’immiscie dans notre politique de la façon la plus malheureuse, la plus anti-haïtienne ”[4] (“We protest against the secular French clergy, which since the Yankee occupation meddles in our politics in the most unfortunate, the most anti-Haitian manner…”)
In addition, in June 13, 1928, Roumain publishes another column in Le Petit Impartial, in which he and his colleague George Petit reasoned that the loyalty of the French clergy in Haiti could not suffice. The church must show its Haitianism—its patriotism by becoming truly Haitian, that is, by changing its composition from a predominantly foreign to a predominantly Haitian clergy…Jacques Roumain and Georges Petit are here concerned with the political liberation of Haiti and an end to social injustice. They dare to attack, even to ridicule, the most venerated of institutions –The Church to achieve it.[5]

Because of the irrelevance of the Church in the Haitian society, Roumain’s strong antagonism and harsh criticisms become more provocative and outrageous:
We well knew that with the civic and mental deformation effected in our environment by the French priests and monks, we would have to deal with a coalition of infamous and shady people who cannot live outside of intrigues and orgies which the ill-served sacristy obtains for shirkers in search of pleasures who pass themselves off as Christians, even as ministers of God, when one has only to raise their soiled skirt to uncover there the grimacing antichrist sneering upon the heads of the “dirty niggers” they say we are![6]

On one hand, Roumain’s closing word in the column expresses a rhetoric of protest against the religious Catholic hierarchy; on the other hand, it is a rhetoric of rejection of the American power in the country: “A bas le clerge francais negrophobe et ami de l’occupation americaine.[7] [“Down the negrophobia French clergy and friend of the American occupation”]. The declaration is meant to be a challenge to both forces in power in the island. Elsewhere, in the context of the anti-superstition (Vodou) campaign, supported by the Roman Catholic, Roumain brings the essay to a closure with this riveting pronouncement:
Nous croyons que cette campagne dite anti-superstitieuse a des ressorts plus secrets, subtils et politiques qu’il ne parait en surface. On ne peut sous-estimer le fait que la hiérarchie catholique française est pro-Vichy, pro-collaborationniste, anti-britannique, antisoviétique, anti-allies: bref, qu’elle fait partie de l’appareil pro-fasciste.[8]
 [We believe that the so-called anti-superstition campaign contains more secretive, subtle, and political resorts than it seems on the surface. One cannot underestimate the fact that the French Catholic hierarchy is pro-Vichy anti-collaborationist, anti-British, anti-Soviet, anti-allies; in short, it is part of the pro-fascist apparatus.]

Andre Corten’s comment on the historic event of 1942 is notable here: “La seule manière que l’Eglise découvre pour reconnaître l’existence des gens des campagnes est de mener des campagnes anti-supertitieuses[9] (“The only way the Church discovers to recognize the existence of rural people is to lead anti-superstition campaigns.”)
 To the great dismay, Corten adds that the Church in Haiti “does not mean a civil society primer. On the contrary, it contributes to the division of the society. On one side is the ‘civilized society’ (but the black urban middle class, especially in Port-au-Prince, is not accepted) ;  on the other side, is the ‘barbarism’ of rural regions ” (“L’Eglise n’est pas pour autant une amorce de société civile. Au contraire, elle contribue à dichotomiser la société. D’un cote la ‘société civilisée’ (mais la classe moyenne urbaine noire, surtout à Port-au-Prince, n’y est pas acceptée), de l’autre la ‘barbarie’ des campagnes.[10]) Moreover, the Church has for sometimes been uninvolved in the public affairs or inactive in the Haitian Society ; it has lost its real mission in society and ability to relate to the people. As Corten observes, “The Church  is placed itself on the side of the government.  It is symptomatic for nearly a century  of prudence, by intentions, not to complicate the bishops ... have very  little to say. In good as in bad fortune, they prefer to keep quiet” (L’Eglise se situe à cotes des autorités. Il est symptomatique que pendant près d’un siècle ‘par prudence, par nécessite même, pour ne pas compliquer des évêques…ont très peu parle. Dans la bonne comme dans la mauvaise fortune, ils ont préfère se taire[11]
Roumain does highlight that theological conservatism and the non-progressive nature of Haitian Christianity does in fact deter social progress in the country. For example, in his debate with the Catholic Priest-Theologian Joseph Foisset, he accentuates the importance of education, medical technology, and science in the contributing process of social development ; on the other hand, he sees religion as a hindrance to social transformation “c’est par la science éducationnelle  et médicale en corrélation intime avec la religion que nous porterons l’homme de nos campagnes à renier définitivement, et non pas du bout des lèvres, la croyance aux vieilles divinités de l’Afrique ancestrale"[12] [It is through educational and medical science in intimate correlation with religion we may convince the individuals in our rural regions to betray definitely—and not through lip service—the belief in old deities of ancestral Africa.”)
Elsewhere, in the well-known, controversial churchstate-sponsored, anti-superstition campaign against the Vodou religion during 1941-1942, Roumain had engaged publicly in a series of vexed debates with the French Catholic priest theologian, Joseph Foisset, who grounded his position in the Christian worldview and conservative theology. Foisset approved of the assault and the persecution of the adherents of the Vodou faith. The hotly contested written exchanges—a total of fourteen published articles or more—between these two engaging interlocutors appeared in the pages of the nation’s Catholic newspaper, La Phalange, and the widely-read newspaper, Le Nouvelliste.
The on-going correspondence began on March 30, 1942 and continued until July 31, 1942. David Nichols observes that the Roman Catholic Church in Haiti was “largely dominated by European clergy, and was regarded as the principal weapon employed by the Francophile mulatto elite for maintaining the predominance of western culture in Haiti and for defending their own superior position.”  Roumain’s position, grounded in secular humanism and Marxism, was that the peasants should not be persecuted and their religious expression—as a philosophy of life—should not be underestimated. He posits that “Catholicism was no better for the peasants than Vaudou.” Vodou spirituality, for Roumain, “should rather be viewed as the peasant dependence on the supernatural in order to explain his world, and consequently would only disappear when the peasant was provided with a scientific explanation of his reality. In the face of economic progress and enlightenment, the peasant would be more able to understand his world and control it.”  

Furthermore, this far-reaching claim by the author, some suppose, is nothing but a radically anti-religious feeling; however, we should not conclude quickly that this assertion represents Roumain’s general characterization of the Vodou religion or his overall religious sensibility. His religious vision is more complex than what he articulated in those sentences  above. His religious discourse is ambivalent at times. For example, Roumain had written a series of careful and rigorous scholarly essays on the Vodou faith and publicly presented an apologetic defense of the Vodou religion against Foisset’s classification of the religion as superstitious nonsense and scandalous practice. Other Haitian nationalists and intellectuals (e.g. Jean Price Mars, Carl Brouard, Francois Duvalier, Louis Diaquoi, Lorimer Denis, etc.) of the period and after Roumain and the cultural and nationalist movement known as Les Griots had represented Vodou favorably, were sympathetic toward the popular religion, and even affirmed and praised its liberating force and revolutionary potential in the time of the Haitian Revolution and subsequently in the anti-imperial struggle against the American military occupation (1915-1934).  (It is unclear, however, to what extent Roumain’s writings on the subject may have inspired affirmation of Vodou in revolutionary thinkers. Price-Mars’s 1928 book, Ainsi parla l’oncle, did in fact change and directly influence Haitian intellectuals’ perspective on and prejudice toward the Vodou religion and Haiti’s African-derived traditions and practices.) For example, during the occupation, the guerilla army called “les cacos” used the power of Vodou sorcery and magic to resist the American empire and to regain national sovereignty. Roumain was particularly concerned about Vodou as a cultural symbol and signifier contributing to a better understanding of the Haitian experience and history. It is in this manner, for the most part, that he engages the religion in his creative works. Evidence that he had written about the liberating presence of the Vodou religion in achieving national independence, or the faith’s emancipative aspect as a causal effect leading to Haitian freedom, is totally absent in Roumain’s writings. 
What remains paradoxical in Roumain’s thought on religion is the readily available proof that he had written both positively and negatively about the religion of Haitian peasants. Perhaps, we should construe this particular engagement with faith as a critical reflection on religion and its role in the social fabric.  Moreover, Roumain would write cogently and fearlessly against the nationwide anti-Vodou campaign that the Catholic Church officially initiated in 1941. The goal of the struggle against the so-called “fetishism and superstition . . . aimed at pressuring Haitians to renounce Vodou.” In the paragraph below, Roumain exposes the possible relationship between religion and terror (or violence) as related to the campaign: 

L’essentiel n’est pas d’amener un paysan à renoncer, à rejeter la croyance en Hogoun St.- Jacques. Il s’agit avant tout de changer complètement sa conception du monde. L’élément de coercition morale qui a été mis en jeu dans la campagne antisuperstitieuse: c’est la peur. La peur du refus des sacrements de l’Eglise . . . . Il faut naturellement débarrasser la masse haïtienne de ses entraves mystiques. Mais on ne triomphera pas de ses croyances par la violence ou en la menaçant de l’enfer. Ce n’est pas la hache du bourreau, la flamme du bûcher, les autodafés qui ont détruit la sorcellerie. C’est le progrès de la science, le développement continu de la culture humaine, une connaissance chaque jour plus approfondie de la structure de l’Univers.

[The key is not to lead a peasant to renounce and reject the belief in Hogoun-St.-Jacques [a combined name for Vodou spirits or divinities). Above all, it is a question of completely changing his conception of the world. The element of moral coercion that has been employed in the anti-superstitious campaign: It is fear. The fear of refusal of the Sacraments of the Church . . . . Naturally, we must get rid of the Haitian masses of their mystical impediments. But we will not triumph over these beliefs by violence or by the threat of Hell. It is not the executioner’s axe, the flame of the pyre, the auto-da-fes which destroyed sorcery. It is the progress of science, the continuous development of human culture, a growing and deeper understanding of the structure of the universe on a daily basis.] 

In this analysis, Roumain bluntly condemns the campaign for its deliberate censoring of the religious freedom of Haitian peasants and for undermining the democratic vision of religious tolerance and pluralism. He rejects the psychological subordination of religion in the process of inciting fear in people and in promulgating violence through strict dogmas and dangerous ideologies. The problem here with religion and the Catholic hierarchy in particular is deeply  rooted in a psychological and philosophical understanding and misunderstanding of the world as well as in the misapprehension of the richness of various religious traditions and spiritual practices. The Catholic Church (along with Protestant Christianity) had ferociously exercisedreligious xenophobia and cultural hostility against Vodou practitioners. Therefore, it is reasonable to infer that bad religious practices or behaviors clearly promote and sustain social alienation and social exclusion. As historian Laurent Dubois comments on the problem:
The campaign left permanent scars on the Haitian landscape. In many communities, ancient trees were considered holy by those who practiced Vodou, understood to be a kind of home for some of the lwa; to eliminate such sites of worship, Catholic priests ordered these trees to be chopped down . . . . The Protestants often saw Catholicism and Vodou as twin enemies . . . one Baptist missionary declared that “The Roman Catholic Church in Haiti is a bastard production of Voodoo-ism, witchcraft, and other African heathenish cults with a gloss of Roman Catholicism.” Catholics, for their part, returned the favor, portraying the Protestants as a spiritual menace and accusing them of doing “Satan's work” in Haiti.”

As observed above, the impossibility of tolerating competing religious traditions and divergent theological beliefs in Haitian society in the period discussed had generated substantial conflict and tension between the people. This was borne out in these truly remarkable debates. In another instance in the debates, Roumain launches an additional critique at imperial Christianity in the project of Western conquest, colonization, and the project of civilization. He speaks assiduously of the functional use of civil religion, and in particular of the hegemonic power of Christianity in land acquisition and social control. He underscores Christianity’s role in (or support of) subjugating weak peoples, pacifying them, and conquering less powerful nations. He moves on to restate a point directly from Friedrick Engels: 

On ne peut se contenter de déclarer que la religion qui conquit l’Empire romain et qui depuis 1.800 ans règne sur une importante partie du monde civilisé est une absurdité cuisinée par des imposteurs. Pour le comprendre, il est nécessaire de savoir expliquer  son origine et son développement dans ces conditions historiques où elle naquit et atteignit la domination. 

[One cannot simply declare that the religion that had conquered the Roman empire, and, since 1800 years dominated by far the larger part of the civilized world, is fraud or just plain nonsensical. To understand it, it is necessary to know its origin and development from the historical conditions under which it arose and reached its dominating position.]

Clearly, the undeniable power of religion in the making of Western civilization is attested; the intimate dynamic between religion and domination and the project of invasion is also affirmed. To return to our conversation about Roumain’s engagement with Vodou and Catholicism, it is important to clarify here that he was not an advocate of a particular religious system such as the folk religion of Vodou or Catholic Christianity. What he articulated in the second part of the paragraph above—his comment on the Vodou religion—is standard Marxist anti-religious rhetoric and scientific orientation to faith. The only difference is that the Catholic Church is imagined to be both powerful and a promoter of ignorance, whereas the folk religion of Vodou is just superstition. It is evident that Roumain sought to supplant both forms of religion with another system of authority, namely “scientific Marxism.”
Ce qu’il faut mener en Haïti, ce n’est pas une campagne anti-superstitieuse, mais une campagne anti-misère. Avec l’école, l’hygiène, un standard de vie plus élevé, le paysan aura accès à cette culture et à cette vie décente qu’on ne peut lui refuser, si on ne veut pas que ce pays tout entier périsse, et qui lui permettront de surmonter des survivances religieuses enracinées dans sa misère, son ignorance, son exploitation séculaires . . . . Si l’on veut changer la mentalité religieuse archaïque de notre paysan, il faut l’éduquer. Et on ne peut l’éduquer sans transformer, en même temps, sa condition matérielle.

[What is necessary to be carried out in Haiti is not an anti-superstitious campaign, but an anti-misery campaign. With school, hygiene, a higher standard of living, the peasant will have access to that culture and that decent life which one cannot refuse him if one does not want the whole country to perish, and which will permit him to overcome religious survivals rooted in his misery, ignorance, and secular exploitation . . . . If one wants to change the archaic religious mentality of our peasants, we must educate them. And one cannot educate them unless their material conditions are transformed.]   

Like all religious traditions, for one deeply shaped by Marxist frameworks, the Vodou faith is a false consciousness, and Roumain believed religion of any tradition would be ultimately replaced by scientific progress. By applying Marxist theoretical analysis to Vodou as a reflection of the material process and of the mode of production, Roumain was positing that “this ideological superstructure reacts on historical development and often even determines the form” (“Cette superstructure idéologique rétroagit sur le développement historique et souvent même en détermine LA FORME”). Furthermore, Roumain’s vision of social development, sourced in secular humanism, compels him to question the nature of the social work of Catholic Christianity in Haiti. He holds that the Catholic Church must socially engage the life and experience of the Haitian people by doing acts of kindness and human liberation. In a similar vein, Roumain is also stressing the progressive meaning and persistence of religion in society. His impression of religion here is that of a social institution that should be actively participating in the social transformation of Haitian civil society by engaging responsibly and constructively in social justice issues.  

With respect to the social vision of the Catholic Church in Haitian culture, Roumain believed that the Church should be (or should have been) an instrument of social change and practical democracy, a catalyst of hope and human success. He also holds that the Church should never have been an initiator or a mediator of social ills and evils, but should have been engaged intentionally in solving social problems, such as the projects of educating peasants and of creating schools, hospitals, and jobs in Haiti’s rural communities, which would lessen the country’s poverty. For the social activist, the mark of true religion and faith in action constitutes a serious commitment to alleviating harassing social ills such as the problems of hunger, poverty, class systems, globalization, global and local economy, education, environmental justice, healthcare, human rights, etc.
On one hand, Roumain was articulating an orthodox Marxist perspective on religion and social development; on the other hand, he was advocating the “direct and open use of the Church’s human and material resources to promote social change toward some form of democratic socialism.” He also interpreted the role of religion in society functionally; that is, a belief that maintains that religion should contribute to the good and progress of society; that genuine faith should also be “an active liberation from all forms of oppression: spiritual, social, racial, cultural, economic, and political.” Roumain’s articulation of the place of religion in the civic order sandwiched with his Marxist social theory is a clarion call for transforming individuals’ material condition toward total freedom from exploitation, corruption, and oppression—which would also involve “a more and human dignified life, the creation of a new man, the abolition of injustice, a new society, a truly human existence, a free life, and a dynamic liberty.”


[1] Roumain, “Manifeste Au Peuple Haïtien,” 516.
[2] Ibid., 517.
[3] Ibid.
[4] For more information about this article, see Fowler, A Knot in the Thread, 51, 274.
[5] Fowler, A Knot in the Thread, 51-2.
[6] Cited in Fowler, A Knot in the Thread, 275.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Roumain, “A Propos de la campagne ‘anti-superstitieuse,’" 752.
[9] Corten, Misere, religion et politique en Haïti, 61.
[10] Ibid., 62.
[11] Ibid., 70.
[12] Roumain, “Réplique finale au Révérend Père Foisset,” 790.