Ever Wonder What Religion in Haiti is Like? (Part II)

This is a continuation of my essay.

Although there are clear links with modern Voodoo and Dehomean faith, Haiti’s religion has morphed into a collection of two faiths.  Today, Voodoo in Haiti cannot be mentioned without the syncretistic character of Roman Catholicism.  There is no doubt as to when this took place; for it was customary for Christian missionaries and teachers to participate in Europe’s colonization process.  Thus, as slaves were transported to Haiti, the Church followed close behind.  “Filled with the unquestionable devotion to evangelize the world, the colonial church set in motion a number of events which were to leave their imprint on Haitian culture.”

Christianity was mandated by the French colonialists, and signs of Christian faith became a common way to win favor with masters and owners.  “Catholicism was imposed on the slaves in Haiti and, despite the ill repute of the clergy during early colonial days, it appears that many elements of the Christian religion were readily acceptable.  Baptism, for example, became a status symbol greatly desired by newly-arrived slaves.”  Christianity grew even more as the Church forbade Voodoo.  Slaves were banned from many activities associated with Voodoo, such as beating of drums, magical practices, and regular meetings.  The punishment of such crimes led to torture or even death.  Thus, Christianity grew according to the growth of French colonization; a pattern that would soon be reversed.

After independence of the slaves was won in 1804, there was a resurgence of Voodooism in almost defiance of the faith of the colonialists.  Ironically, the practice of the colonists had dismantled the religion of the colonists.  However, Roman Catholicism remained, but now as a new mixture with Voodoo.  Thus, the syncretism of Catholicism and Voodoo became a common and almost needed element of religious life in Haiti.  “That the Haitian peasant must be Catholic ‘to serve’ the Vodun gods seems logical to him, for he sees both Catholicism and Vodun as necessary parts of his existence.” 

Combining these two very different faiths may appear trivial, but the emphases of both faiths on ritual, tradition, and symbols have been the focal point of combination.  One example of such a blend is the use of names.  In particular, the names of the saints were added to the already established African pantheons of deities.  Voodoo gods were easily personified in the form of Roman Catholic Saints and founders.  Another form of syncretism is seen in ritual behavior.  “The prêt savanne’s behavior corresponds to that of the Catholic priest in the Catholic ritual.”  Both Roman Catholicism and Voodoo rely heavily on ceremonial practice, leaving room for such a fusion of ritual.  Symbols are another item of blending.  Although symbols in Roman Catholicism are primarily used as tools for reminder, Voodoo uses Christian symbols for spiritual influence and protection.  Particularly, the Christian cross has been used as a tool for communication between the profane world and the sacred world in Voodoo.  As syncretism between Voodoo and Catholicism continues to evolve, both religions will continue to remove themselves from their original states.

In looking to the influence on society, it is apparent that Voodoo had played a key role in the development of revolution and the eventual independence of Haiti.  It inspired followers, and put the colonists in fear.  Desmangles records, “[Moreau de Saint-Mery] recognized Vodou as a powerful unifying agent and a ‘terrible weapon’ in the hands of the maroon leaders, a serious threat to life in the colony.”  It was easy to use religion as a weapon for the revolutionists, as the Christian colonialists had also used religion as a control mechanism for the Haitian slaves.

Due to the inconsistency of Christian beliefs and moral actions towards slaves, the colonists’ apparent religion had in fact inflamed the religion of Voodoo.  The resurgence of Voodoo, therefore, was primarily reactionary, rather than a statement of faith.  Nonetheless, Voodoo became a symbol of identity for Haitians, one that reaches into their African roots.  “The repudiation of the Christian god of the whites was the cause for the reaffirmation of the African gods of the blacks, who were invoked and welcomed through the religion of Voodoo.  With that repudiation, the African influence in Haitian history and religious life was established and institutionalized permanently, so much so that Haiti is possibly the most Africanized country outside the continent of Africa.”  Thus, even in spite of “bad press” by many Christians and others, some have recognized positive effects that Voodoo has played in the lives of the Haitian people both culturally and religiously.  It may behoove a Christian to help a Voodooist reconcile with a difficult past with Christianity in order that they may see the true gospel devoid of the abuses of slavery.

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