A disturbing question about Christian witness

Friday, September 9, 2005

A disturbing question about Christian witness in New Orleans after Katrina

Wouldn’t the Christian thing to do in New Orleans have been for some highly-placed privileged person, some government official, some business leader, some bishop or pastor, some banker or lawyer, some state senator or big-time chef or somebody to go down to the “Sewerdome” or the Convention Center and make a witness by sharing in the misery? Wouldn’t that have been a witness for the ages? Much has been made of the celebrities who are organizing fund-raisers (and collecting much fulsome on-air praise). What if Wynton Marsalis or Emeril or Ellen deGeneres had actually gone down instead of looking on from a safe distance? When the Netherlands suffered a disastrous flood some decades ago, Queens Wilhelmina and Juliana went in with hip boots and were beloved ever after.

The city was not totally closed off; I personally know of two people who were brought out of the French Quarter on Day 2 in a friend’s car who drove in via I-10 to get them. These two evacuees are people of a certain age and in fragile health, so I am in no way pointing at them, but why was there no physically strong, able-bodied person to go in as an incarnate example of Christ’s humility? Have this mind among yourselves which is yours in Christ Jesus, who thought he was in the form of God emptied himself of his divinity, taking the form of a slave…(Philippians 2). We are constantly celebrating St. Francis with sentimental statues, animal blessings, and endless repetitions of the famous prayer; can it be doubted that what Francis would actually have wanted us to do was get down there with the poor people in their desperation? We are all sending money (one presumes), but why was there no Dorothy Day, no Oscar Romero, no Simone Weil to lie in the streets in the name of Christ?

Perhaps when all the stories are told it will emerge that some one did go and bear this witness on behalf of us all.

These thoughts were inspired by a sermon I heard in Virginia on the Sunday after Katrina left her malign tracks across the landscape, the lives of countless human beings, and our national psyche. The sermon will be posted soon in Resources on this website.

Don’t mess with the Mississippi

Everyone keeps referring to the wake of Katrina as a “natural disaster.” In Biloxi and Gulfport, OK. But New Orleans? The cataclysm in New Orleans was almost entirely man-made. Much damage was done by the wind, of course, and there would have been some flooding in any case. But the city was built in the worst possible place for purely commercial reasons, and as everyone surely knows by now, the money was not available to build up the levees to protect against Categories 4 and 5. This was a failure that now looks like prodigious folly. I remember clipping a major article about five years ago—which I still have in my files—describing the precarious situation of the city and the threat that hung over it. It is now common knowledge that the city could have been spared the worst of the present situation if the levees had been strengthened. It is known that the barrier islands and marshes should have been protected. 12 billion for the levees seemed like an absurd amount at the time, but that sum pales beside what it will cost to rebuild New Orleans—and the human cost, it need hardly be said, is not quantifiable.

When I was in Cajun country four years ago, a native Louisianan once described to me the efforts of engineers to control the Mississippi, and then said, “The river will always win in the end.” In that sense, the catastrophe was a “natural” one. But the effects were multiplied exponentially by greed, heedlessness, and misplaced priorities. Pharmacist Jason Dove, looking out over the scene at the Convention Center, said, “We created this Frankenstein.” (Allen G. Breed, Associated Press 9/3/05.)

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