“An apran viv ansanm/Let us learn to live together: Ten Theses about Interreligious Dialogue and Understanding between Vodou and Christianity in Haiti”
By Celucien L. Joseph, PhD
In the process of recommending and fostering a positive interreligious dialogue and understanding between the adherents of the two dominant religious traditions in Haiti—Haitian Vodou and Haitian Christianity—, I present these ten theses below as a summary of my approach toward this goal. Certainly, an interreligious approach to promote and celebrate religious differences and pluralism, participatory democracy, active citizenship, and nation-building is a complex labor and phenomenon that demands the collective participation of all Haitians regardless of one’s religious sensibility and orientation—toward the general welfare of the Haitian people and human flourishing in the Haitian society and in the world.
- The African-derived religion of Vodou is intrinsic to the Haitian culture just like Christianity is a core element of the Haitian reality—especially in contemporary Haitian society. Yet both Vodouists and Christians should remember that Haiti was not founded as a “Vodou nation” or a “Christian country.” Both religious traditions have been present simultaneously in the Haitian experience, from the beginning of the Haitian Revolution (August 1791) to the end of the Revolution (January 1804) and the founding moment of the nation of Haiti (January 1804).
- The religion of Vodou reflects the reality of the Haitian people and is deeply rooted in the Haitian experience and cosmology. Correspondingly, Haitian devotion to Christianity has significantly marked the Haitian soul and that Protestant Haitian Christianity is radically shifting the current religious sensibility of the Haitian people.
- The Vodouist worldview or mentality is associated with the general worldview or mentality of the Haitian people. In the same line of thought, Christianity has been with the Haitian people since colonial times in the French colony of Saint-Domingue and had assumed an active presence in the entire island of Hispaniola since the beginning. In fact, Christianity has deep African roots and direct historical antecedents in Africa before it was spread in Western Europe and in the emergence of modern slavery and colonization in the Americas and continental (precolonial) Africa.
- Haitian Christians and Vodouists need to learn to live together, in understanding, in unity, and in peace with their Christian and Vodouist neighbors and families; religion, whether Vodou or Christianity, should not be deployed as a weapon of exploitation, oppression, destruction, and abuse in the Haitian society. In other words, Christianity and Vodou should not be used to perform acts of cultural evil and injustice in society; rather, they should be employed as an instrument of moral and economic development and human flourishing in Haiti and the world.
- The African-derived religion of Vodou is not going to go anywhere. It has proven to be a significant aspect in Haitian history and culture; hence, it is irrelevant and futile to try to eradicate Vodou from the Haitian soil. (Nonetheless, if a religious practice, behavior, or ritual is deemed unethical, not morally constructive, and does not promote the common good, it needs to be prevented from spreading in the wider society.) In the same line of thought, Haitian Christianity has its proper place in the Haitian society and culture, and it continues to grow exponentially in contemporary Haitian society and has become a major pillar in the religious experience of the Haitian people.
- Let the Vodouists have their rights to practice their religion openly, freely, and unashamedly without being demonized and blamed for Haiti’s socio-economic troubles; similarly, let the Haitian Christians enjoy their rights to practice their faith openly without being blamed for Haiti’s underdevelopment and political crisis. Vodouists and Christians should sit together to talk and reason when the freedom of (one’s) religion infringes on the rights and freedoms of a different religious system—be it Vodou or Christianity. No religion or faith tradition has/should have the spiritual or religious monopoly in a secular (but paradoxically and overwhelmingly religious) state like Haiti.
- Haitian Christians should appreciate the worth and value Vodou as a faith system has added to the personal life and experience of Haitians—especially to those who have embraced it and continue to yield to its tenets—as well as to the national identity and culture of Haiti—without compromising their moral values and biblical beliefs. In the same line of thought, Vodouists should acknowledge the merits and benefits of Christianity in the Haitian life and history.
- While we recognize the drastic differences and similarities between Haitian Vodou and Haitian Christianity, each religion can be respected and tolerated for its own epistemological framework and worldview, ontological perception about God and the sacred, as well as its metaphysical conception of both natural and supernatural world, the universe, and the human life. Let the Vodou practitioner know Vodou is not biblical Christianity! Let the Haitian Christian come to the full understanding that biblical Christianity is not Vodou! The two should not be mixed, syncretized, or intermingled; Christian practices should be Christian, and Vodou rituals should be Vodouist.
- Within the practice of religious freedom and liberty, both Vodouists and Christians should not be shunned in society because of their attempt in proselytizing people into their faith or in the process of making converts or followers to their respective religion. Personal and voluntary proselytization is a pivotal element associated with the practice of religious right and freedom. In some religious traditions, such as Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, and Islam, active proselytization is linked to religious expansion and conversion. On the other hand, because of its inclusive and pluralistic nature, the Vodou religion is not a “proselytized faith,” and that particular aspect of Vodou should not justify Vodou practitioners not to tolerate Christian conversion and evangelism nor should they banned Christians in doing so in the Haitian society. Religious proselytization should be practiced in respect and tolerance, and in the absence of rhetoric of religious discrimination and acts of demonization and dehumanization.
- Haitian Vodouists and Christians should appeal to the moral teachings and ethical values of both religions to strengthen democracy, champion Haitian humanity and dignity, and eradicate poverty and violence in Haiti. The resources of both traditions are vital to improve the country’s civil and political societies toward a more just community and a new Haiti. In the same line of thought, Haitian Vodouists and Christians should use the channel of interreligious dialogue and mutual understanding to prevent future interreligious tensions, to reduce religious-based death threats and violence, and to counteract rhetorical discourses of Vodouphobia and Christianophobia in the Haitian society and culture.