The Burden of Grace & Truth: reflecting on the assassination of Haitian President, Jovenel Moise

Written by Nathan Zanders

Jul 10, 2021

The President of Haiti is dead. At 1:00 a.m. on July 7th, following months of protests, riots, and political unrest throughout the country, a group of trained mercenaries entered the home of the head-of-state, ended his life, and badly injured the first lady. By 6:00 a.m. that morning, word had gotten back to my team who was half-way through a two week documentary project we had been working on in Cabaret, roughly an hours drive in good traffic from where the assasination had taken place. Our last week of filming had been canceled and our team, along with nearly every other US citizen in the country, packed our bags and locked down in our hotels as we began the search for a way out of the country. 

A “state of siege” had been declared by the Prime Minister which meant that all travel to and from Haiti had been canceled until the group of assassins, still believed to be on the Island, had been apprehended. Not having any context as to when the order would be lifted, we were left locked in our hotel. Standing on the hotel balcony, overlooking a city in mourning, the events that lead up to this moment busily fill my head and heart, begging a question.

A mentor and friend once told me, “Be willing to ask questions you don’t know the answers to.” He was offering this advice in the context of a counseling or mentoring relationship, however it seemed to be the right approach to journalistic storytelling. After being invited by my friend Jeremiah to work on a documentary in Bayel, Haiti, we agreed to approach our interviews according to this philosophy. In our early production meetings, we envisioned telling the story of an impoverished community in need of many things, but whose hope could only be found in Jesus. And that was certainly the answer we expected to get when we asked local believers and pastors the question, “What is the greatest need in your community?”

However, this was not the answer we received. Instead, we heard heart-felt frustration with the current Haitian president. Such concerns came up in almost every interview we conducted with locals who spoke passionately about how corrupt, evil, and terrible the president was. In one interview, at the mention of this subject other Haitians gathered around immediately to joke, tease, and insult Jovenel Moise. This unanimous perspective became even more potent each day as our team received emails from the state department warning us not to go into the capital, Port-Au-Prince, due to violent protests and demonstrations. And as you might suspect, this is all beyond justified.

“The reputation of the church is on the line. If we cannot love the least of these when “least” means “the least integrous” or “the most corrupt” then our so-called unconditional love is a show, and Christ did not die for a theatrical performance of love”

Over the past few years, food prices have doubled, the country’s economy is tanking, certain cities have been cut-off from their local electricity grid, and gang violence is growing at an exponential rate with a significant increase in kidnappings and shootings in recent years. Imagine a community where the average family makes two dollars a day, barely enough to afford a single meal for their family and maybe some clean water if they have access to it. Now imagine the cost of their meals doubling almost overnight. Seven meals a week turns into four and necessities such as soap and clean water get placed on the backburner.

Additionally, the country has been in a state of ruin for decades despite well intentioned, but poorly-implemented international aid often contributing more to disorder than healing. After the 7.0 magnitude earthquake of 2010, free and subsidized rice imports from the US left local rice farmers with nearly no income and plunged the greater Haitian economy into disaster. Many Haitians have learned to not trust the help of the international community and believe the only hope for Haiti is an honest governing body that will hold corporations, nations, and gangs accountable. Sadly, all too often the stories of those in power have been of corruption rather than honesty and civil service.

Coming into this situation fairly detached, I was just starting to realize for myself the dire situation this president had led the country into. I began feeling the right to jump in and poke-fun at him in casual conversation and was somewhat fired-up at the thought of him. Certainly, this is not his fault entirely, but the long list of allegations against President Moise has made respect difficult at best. From the very start of his candidacy, accusations of a rigged election became wide-spread and even lead to a second round of elections needing to be held. Basic constitutional rights, such as Article 19 which states “The State has the absolute obligation to guarantee the right of life, health, and respect for the human person […],” have been blatantly ignored as the President has instead prioritized ratifying a new constitution which simply consolidates more power to his position. The closer I looked, the more difficult it became to have any grace for President Jovenel Moise.

“Overlooking a city in mourning, the events that lead up to this moment busily fill my head and heart, begging a question”

But then came my rude awakening, both figuratively and literally. A little drowsy still, I was given the bad news of the Presidents assasination. That morning, a once bustling city was silent. Protestors put out their fires, tore down their barricades, and went home because they had nothing left to do. The work they had begun ended in a moment of bloodshed. The president had been ushered into death with a legacy of jokes, insults, protest, and finally, a well-organized assassination. Don’t get me wrong, those who hurled insults and organized demonstrations are not responsible for the death of the president, and it is nobel that many of them did not choose violence. But what hit me that morning was not the death of a corrupt president, it was the death of Jovenel Moise, an individual whose actions were corrupt due to a heart that was corrupt. A heart that needed healing. A heart that needed the kind of grace that we all need, and only a few of us have ever accepted.

It can be easy to forget the moment when Jesus prayed regarding the men that were crucifying him “forgive them for they know not what they do.” What does it mean for us that in that moment, at the threshold of death, he demonstrates radical forgiveness over and above political commentary or denunciation? To his last breath, there was no corruption in Jesus Christ. The full weight of grace was offered to even the most corrupt through the cross that day, a grace that would lead to the founding of the church through victimizers, i.e. Paul the Apostle. And yet the full weight of justice was present as well, a weight that Jesus took on himself for all those who deserve judgement. In that moment, grace became accessible for any and all that would repent; a word in the greek which literally means “to change the way we think.”

Today, repentance looks like meditating on the incorruptibility of Christ in suffering contrasted with our own proclivities towards corruption of character when faced with adversity. Grace does not replace the need for justice, and something definitely had to be done about the injustice of the current administration. This week, the Christian community participated in protests, and joined the chorus of insults that culminated in ushering someone into death. Now, as the city remains silent in mourning and disorientation, we are faced with a conviction that there is some responsibility we must bear for this death.

The Christians I’ve encountered on this trip have shared a communion of jokes, but it breaks my heart that we never shared communion in prayer. Have our hearts become so distracted with the demands for justice against a politician, that we are unable to commit to love for the individual? We may not have drawn blood, but perhaps the world will remember us for our insults, more than for our love and pursuit of the common good? Sometimes, passive love can unintentionally deliver something that closely resembles intentional hate. And such passivity has deeply damaged the witness of the church.

Christians are the only people group called to love the victimizer as much as we are called to love the victim. If we refuse that call, will there be anybody left to do the work of deep healing? This doesn’t mean that there does not need to be correction or justice, but it does means that the church must get creative in how we protest injustice, corruption, and bad-faith politics without dishonoring the dignity of the individual.The reputation of the church is on the line. If we cannot love the least of these when “least” means “the least integrous” or “the most corrupt” then our so-called unconditional love is a show, and Christ did not die for a theatrical performance of love.

In his book “In the Name of Jesus,” Henri Nowen writes

“Christian leaders cannot simply be persons who have well-informed opinions about the burning issues of our time. Their leadership must be rooted in the permanent, intimate relationship with the incarnate Word, Jesus, and they need to find there the source for their words, advice and guidance.”

If the church is to learn to wield the two-edged sword of grace and justice, we must first begin with Christ. To truly pick up our cross in situations so tormented with injustice and corruption is an incredibly difficult task. We must not attempt to do so without considering Christ, keeping in step with the Spirit, and giving our best creative effort to bear the fullness of both justice and grace for all parties. The death of a corrupt politician is no cause for celebration, but if we are willing, it can be an invitation to repent that gives birth to a new hope in us. To a new hope for Haiti.