A splendid recent book, The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami? by David B. Hart, sharply criticizes the spectacle of people congratulating themselves for their magnanimity in the face of terrible suffering, as though human tragedy could be excused and explained as an opportunity for others to feel good about themselves. Surely Hart’s point is apposite for the present Gulf Coast catastrophe, as celebrities speak unctuously of their own generosity, and news broadcasters preen themselves as they go through the rehearsed gestures and use the stock cadences that they employ for every situation, from the most trivial to the most tragic (the sole exception being Aaron Brown).
We can learn something from observing the difference between artificial sympathy and self-aggrandizing gestures, on the one hand, and genuine empathy and active help on the other. The parable of the Good Samaritan is the model. The details of the story are remarkable. The Samaritan responds to need with practical, effective, unsentimental actions attuned to the victim’s specific needs, and he makes certain that the sufferer will be cared for in the long term, guaranteeing his own return to cement the arrangement. In this parable, Christ is obliquely describing his own ministry to humanity. As the incarnate human presence of God, he is showing us the way we who live in the Spirit are empowered as his agents in the world.
Katrina: Race and Class
As I write this on day 5, leaders of the black community have begun mounting a powerful response to the chaotic situation in New Orleans and the media coverage of the disaster. This has been very heartening to see, because four days of television images of young black men looting and dishevelled black people in dire circumstances has threatened to cause a severe dislocation in the national psyche. Whether they were conscious of it or not, viewers were absorbing the message, “This is the everlasting lot of black people, and maybe some of them have brought this on themselves by being poor, by being semi-literate, by being overweight, by having poor control over their children.” The strong offensive today by African-Americans in public life will go a long way toward mitigating that perception.
There remains the very difficult matter of class. Most of the American citizens
who have been reduced to living like animals in filth on the street are poor, with none of the resources that many of us take for granted. Americans like to think of themselves as a classless people, and certainly our tradition of upward mobility is rightly valued; but we should all be clear-eyed about this: our vaunted American and Christian values will be tested more strongly in this situation than they have been in a very long time. God loves the people at the New Orleans Convention Center in a special way (God really does have “a preferential option for the poor”). May he move all of us affluent Christians who are sitting at our computers in our nice clean houses to open our minds, neighborhoods, pocketbooks, and hearts to the sufferers who have been swept up in a cataclysm less of their making than ours.