For me, the big story these past weeks was not the wrath of God but the mercy of God. Disasters are, for me, not evidence of God’s non-existence but evidence of His divinity and power. That He can hold such forces in check by His sheer will. That, in the midst of such chaos, He knows every name of every person in the storm. Every heartbeat, every strand of hair on every head. Rather than ask why God would send a flood, we should be grateful for all the years God held the floods back.
Well, most of us breathed a sigh of relief.
easily as deadly and destructive as the historic Katrina, seemed
poised to duplicate, in Houston, the devastation visited upon
Mississippi Alabama and Louisiana. Texans fled by the millions,
and the news networks went into a feeding frenzy of ominous
projections while dispatching reporters into the heart of the
storm. I never understood why they did that—send reporters into
the wind and rain to tell us it’s windy and it’s raining.
I mean, couldn’t they just set up a few remote cameras in lock boxes? Why do I need to see Anderson Cooper and the indescribably dreadful Rita Cosby buffeted about by 100-mile per hour winds? Other than the comic amusement of the moment, it serves virtually no journalistic purpose. It’s mostly our voyeurism, I suppose; America’s appetite for human tragedy. It’s why we slow down and gawk at car wrecks on the highway.
How disappointed these news folks must be to see only, well, routine devastation (if one can call it that), rather than the epic and tragic loss of life and property we’d previously experienced. How ultimately disappointing to see, this time around, the local and federal governments with their ducks well in order, state governors timing their remarks so their news conferences didn’t overlap, supply vehicles lined up for miles at staging areas, and a shockingly competent (if, for the moment, temporary) boss at the Federal Emergency Management Agency. As the president said, “We’re hoping for the best, but are prepared for the worst.”
Rita was a bit of both. But for the will of God, the wisdom of God, Rita could have turned a little to the West and mowed Houston down. She could have turned a bit to the right and completed the Biblical extinction of New Orleans. But Rita stayed mostly between those two extremes, weakening rapidly and raining destruction, certainly, but with, miraculously, no reported loss of life.
Now the news nets, stood up by Rita on their big date, are filling the hundreds of dead weekend hours with what-mighta-coulda-been, and tales of heroic rescues of many of the same people they’d interviewed before the storm, people who had arrogantly refused mandatory evacuation orders and had instead hunkered down in the storm’s path.
In the low-lying coastal regions and flood plains directly in the hurricane’s path. There was story after story of tearful, dramatic rescues of folks trapped in their homes, which angered me a great deal. Before the storm, these reporters interview dozens of locals who refused to leave, refused to obey mandatory evacuation orders. This was the absolute height of selfishness, of narcissism. The ultimately realization of a six-month old staring at his navel. The Coast Guard had to rescue one lady and her three small children from her flooded home. Standing in front of CNN cameras, she tossed off a sigh, saying, “I probably should have left but oh well.”
‘Oh well.’ This woman has put someone’s husband, someone’s father, someone’s son, in mortal danger because she refused to leave. Because of her selfishness, the men and women first responders had to put their own lives in danger to get her and her children out. ‘Oh Well.’ Millions of dollars are being spent on search and rescue missions to go find these holdouts now trapped in attics or marooned on rooftops, millions we all have to pay. ‘Oh Well.’
I realize this sounds terribly un-Christlike, but I believe people who ignore warnings, especially mandatory evacuation warnings, should not be rescued. I think people who choose to selfishly go their own way deserve the fate they get. We should not have to collectively pay for their mistakes, and search and rescue teams should be searching and rescuing people legitimately victimized by these disasters, not morons who chose to stay in harm’s way.
These are people who made a choice. By the divine example of our own Lord and Savior, we, too, are presented with a choice: to be with God ort to be where God is not. If that standard is good enough for God, it's good enough for me.
For me, the big story these past weeks was not the wrath of God but the mercy of God. Disasters are, for me, not evidence of God’s non-existence but evidence of His divinity and power. That He can hold such forces in check by His sheer will. That, in the midst of such chaos, He knows every name of every person in the storm. Every heartbeat, every strand of hair on every head. He made us. Therefore, He surely must realize the greatness we are capable of as well as the selfishness.
One of Bill Cosby’s most famous comedy routines is called Noah (Right), wherein he recounts the Biblical story of Noah’s Arc, placing it into a modern social context. How would people today respond to an elderly man building a massive ship in the middle of a desert? Cosby had Noah’s neighbors complaining about their declining property values, Noah’s kids being mocked in school, and ultimately Noah himself doubting God, finally taking a hammer to his creation just as a thunderclap heralded God’s judgment. The bit really is hilarious, but it isn’t the jokes that make it funny so much as the social commentary, Cosby’s observations on the nature of mankind. To mock things we do not understand, to scoff at progressive thought, and, most prominently, to not fear God until God removes His hedge of protection from us.
It’s always been my assertion that God’s grace extends to the just and the unjust. That people who deny God, people who live their lives only for themselves, benefit from God’s mercy as much as we who claim to know and love Him do. I believe mankind, saved an unsaved, would experience a life-threatening shock if God were o remove His divine presence from us. I believe that very presence allows us to smugly go about our day, forgetting about Him and even denying He exists. A denial that seems increasingly ridiculous in the face of such larger-than-life events.
Rather than ask why God allows tragedy and catastrophe, the thoughtful observer might look at things from the other end, realizing that, each and every day, God extends His grace, what we call unmerited favor, to saint and sinner alike. Rather than ask why God would send a flood, for example, the more informed thinker would be grateful for all the years God held the floods back.
It’s not that a wrathful God is hurling bolts of lightning down on us. Quite the opposite, He measures our circumstance and routinely manages forces beyond our comprehension by his sheer will, making it so that we have a sunny day to mow the yard and go to Wal-Mart. If we stop and think a moment, if we truly consider how many billions of billions of seemingly random elements must align themselves perfectly so that we can have that sunny Wal-Mart day, we’d likely all be a bit more grateful to God, and that gratitude wouldn’t be this fleeting, exasperated acknowledgement or the half-hearted three or four handclaps of praise devotional leaders manage to beat out of us Sunday morning, but would be the kind of gratitude that manifests itself in productive use of our time, talents and treasure, employed in the service of a God who decided, for now, to hold back chaos from our lives.
Many of us act as though we are entitled to these miracles. These warm, sunny days. Many of us blame the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina on God. How could God do this to us. When we should be awed at God’s might and God’s mercy in that Katrinas don’t happen every single week. That meteors the size of Texas don’t slam into the planet and wipe us out. That disease and famine has not visited us. Rather than curse God for the times and places these things occur, rather than consider ourselves somehow better or more worthy of His mercy than the poor starving, AIDS-ravaged Africans, we should recognize there is great misery, peril, and, yes, evil in this world. And every day of our lives, God spares most of us from most of that.
Word of the approaching Hurricane Rita had dominated the news for days. Days. Yet many of these folks did nothing until the very last minute. Many of these folks tossed some things in the car and headed out, having chosen not to prepare for this eventuality in the many, many days when all anyone was talking about was the approaching storm.
These were the folks frantically looking for gas, who, I supposed, assumed they’d be the only ones on the road and could just top off at Chevron along the way. These are the folks who left without bringing food, who sat in traffic running their air conditioners, burning fuel quicker and overheating their vehicles.
It’s not that I don’t have sympathy for the people stranded on the side of the road, whose cars ran out of gas, overheated or otherwise. I do. But the cable news nets show clip after clip of angry and beleaguered evacuees complaining and whining and angry and demanding the government do something. And I couldn’t help but wonder why these people didn’t prepare better than that. Why they waited until the last minute and why, in their waiting, they didn’t stock up on essentials? Why their trunk is jammed full of junk they don’t need, jewelry and clothes and toys, when what they should have had in there was water, food, and containers of gasoline. A brand new spare. Tools. A radio.
For every genuinely innocent victim who needed help, I’d guess there were eight to ten dumb folks who just plain didn’t think. Many of us simply are not thinkers and thinking itself is not prized in this country. Our president is not a thinker. He needs people to tell him how things all connect together, how letting his oil billionaire buddies drive the market up could lead to many of us having no heat this winter. How committing so many of our National Guard resources to his vanity war in the Middle East would leave us vulnerable to both national disaster and social unrest here at home.
The massive traffic jam, in and of itself, represented a childlike Me First narcissism. I kept wanting CNN to stop hovering over the traffic jam but to fly way up north and see what was actually causing it. Sheer volume, I assume, but by “sheer volume,” what we actually mean are selfish and untrained drivers up the way who are either merging badly or having traffic accidents. I mean, in theory, if the traffic simply kept moving, there’d be no reason for the, literal, 1 and 2-mile per hour crawl out of Houston. In many cases, you could walk faster than the traffic was moving.
Many people did not anticipate that possibility, and their fuel supply gave out on them. And they had a car full of cookies and soda rather than packing real food and several gallons of bottled water. I have to believe local Houston authorities and news networks were giving out this kind of advice. What to bring, what not to bring, when to go, where to go. But many people waited until the very last minute and either arrogantly ignored advice, or simply forgot what the advice was. Lacking much practice at deductive reasoning, they remembered the Lyle Lovett CD’s but forgot the food, perhaps figuring they’d pick up something along the way. Thinking mainly of themselves, it never occurred to many of these people that there’d be hundreds and hundreds of thousands of other people thinking they’d grab something along the way as well. It never occurred to them the four-hour drive to Dallas would take them two or more days.
These are the folks from Cosby’s Noah bit. The scoffers who, year after year, ridiculed and insulted Noah—his own daughters included. The self-serving and godless folk who ignored the prophet’s warnings, who, rather than seek shelter and prepare themselves for the coming wrath, did nothing and ridiculed God’s prophet. “How long can you tread water?” Cosby’s Noah asked these folks.
Millions of Texans are now rushing home, ignoring well-publicized pleas form the mayor, governor and U.S. president to keep the roads open for emergency vehicles, fuel and supply trucks—all of which are being caught in massive traffic jams caused by these people heading home. People who still don’t see the Big Picture, thinking firstly and perhaps only of themselves, and not realizing there’s no gas in town and not a lot of food to be found along the way.
As insane as it seems, people are experiencing the exact same problems going back they experienced going out. Having learned absolutely nothing from that experience, these folks, many in gas-guzzling SUV’s, are clogging the highways and running out of food and gas along the way, while causing access problems for the very resources they will desperately need once they make it home.
"This traffic thing is a big problem,” said Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Texas, at a Saturday afternoon news conference in Austin on relief efforts following Rita. He said he saw trucks from the Texas Department of Transportation, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and other agencies stuck on the clogged streets.
He called on residents to heed the warnings “out of good citizenship.”
Houstonians are heading back into a town experiencing 100-degree heat, where many communities are without power, some without water. Downed power lines and trees threaten neighborhoods. But a great many of these folks are irrational and hard-headed, ignoring warnings and rushing back home, where, most assuredly, emergency rescue will be called into action, risking their lives to save some of these people who could and should have waited at least one more day before selfishly and thoughtlessly rushing home in the same bind panic with which they left.
These are children with car keys. No more mature and no wiser than they were at six or eight. No impulse control and absolutely no wisdom. And, so far as I’m concerned, they certainly deserve the misery they are racing back to, but I’m more concerned about the additional risk to rescue workers and additional money that will be needlessly spent because these folks are too immature and self-centered to think of much but themselves.
The Race Card
The main gripe about Hurricane Katrina was there were all of these innocent poor black folk trapped there. I’m sure, to some extent, that’s true. I’m also sure that, to some extent, a great number if not a great majority of those people chose to stay. Many of them had ridden out storms and ignored evacuation orders before. This was nothing new. They were more concerned about looters. In many poor neighborhoods, families are afraid to even go on vacation, let alone evacuate before a coming storm. Crime is so rampant, with black-on-black and even neighbor-on-neighbor crime, many impoverished people are more afraid of Roscoe breaking in and taking their TV than they are of hurricane or flood.
Most of us would be ready to fight if somebody called us a poor dumb Nigger, but we’re ready to play the Poor Dumb Nigger Card when it suits us. Oh, we were helpless. Oh, we didn’t know. Oh, we couldn’t get out. Help us. The government done us wrong.
Without dismissing any of that, let’s not also dismiss us as a pluralistic people. Let’s not band together under the Victim banner out of embarrassment for having chosen to stay in harm’s way. And, most important, let’s not allow the specter of racism to perpetuate itself by pretending ever single black evacuee is a victim of racism when the truth is, some sizeable statistic are victims of their own selfishness, ignorance or fear of losing material possessions. By painting the entirety of the evacuees with one brush, we’re allowing America to doubly victimize us, stigmatize us, and, frankly, keep us all down. We, as a people, will never be truly equal until we can be criticized equally. Until we can take the hit for being stupid the same way whites can.
I must take responsibility for me. For my choices. I must not blame all of my troubles on God or Bush or the weather. Which isn’t to say this hurricane season is without legitimate tragedy—it certainly is. But an overwhelming number of people are playing the blame game, the victim game, when God sent us plenty of advance warning. And, in Rita’s case, plenty of free rides out of town. Plenty of advice. Plenty of hope.
Maybe we should cut Him a break. Let’s not further victimize the legitimate suffering of this terrible disaster by using the hundreds of thousands of displaced folks as human shields for our own moral and intellectual failure. There’s an enormous difference between someone who did all they could do and someone who did nothing and then had to be rescued and then blamed the government. Let’s not confuse the two, or, for that matter, the dozens upon dozens of variations between those extremes. Let’s not allow black America to be lumped together as though we were all one voice or one type of person. This is the nature of racism: assuming attributes based solely on race.
Let’s show compassion for the victims, but let’s not enable the narcissists hiding among them. Let’s say there exists a plurality and diversity even among the evacuees, that they are not, in fact, one tribe but many tribes. And for every legitimate victim of this tragedy, there is at least one if not a dozen hard-headed folks who laughed at Noah and his stupid boat; ignorant narcissists now hiding among the legitimately wounded, looking for a hand out.
Rush To Compassion
There’s been this rush to compassion, kind folks of varying races and creeds, rushing to open their doors and wallets to the victims of these terrible tragedies. Local churches, here, pledging to adopt entire families and bypassing governmental chains (and background checks) to just grab folk and bring them here.
Helping people is absolutely the right thing to do. I’m gratified to see local churches here—many of which have been in a kind of social consciousness coma for decades—making some effort. But rushing forward is a bad idea. Given our nature—all of us, not just blacks—wisdom and balance is the prudent course.
A lot of churches are rushing to help the evacuees in the same reckless and tunnel-visioned manner as those people fleeing Houston with a half-tank of gas and some Doritos, We’re not seeing the Big Picture. We’re not being thoughtful about the best way to help the most people. Many churches are just grabbing folk, giving them cash, driving them across the country. Many people are opening their homes, grabbing folk, putting them into their houses. And there’s all of this good will and smiling and waving and tears and singing.
Meet me back here in six months.
When our patience has exhausted. When the rawness of this horror has dulled. Meet me back here to see how many of these wonderful stories pan out. I’m not saying don’t help people, I’m saying this is a marathon and not a sprint. Lots of people start with the best intentions and run at it full throttle only to find they can’t go the distance.
A local woman here took her $350,000 house off of the market and let a family of evacuees move into it rent free. A wonderful gesture. Only, this family likely never lived in a $350,000 house before. Okay, I’ve never lived in a $350,000 house before. This is a family of women and children, who likely know little or nothing about lawn maintenance or house maintenance. Kids tend to be kids. Messy, dropping and spilling and writing on walls. Most of all, relationships require investment and maintenance. Gratitude is what it is, but eventually guilt and other factors intrude, people becoming preemptively hostile, perhaps assuming their benefactor will eventually throw their generosity back in their faces.
While it’s possible we’ll never hear these stories, I’m all but certain we will. And lots of them. As relationships buckle under the weight of long-term support for these folks, I’ve no doubt we’ll begin seeing increasing reports of families falling out with evacuees, evictions or even vandalizing of property well-meaning folk allowed evacuees to use.
These social shifts are as old as the Bible, the children of Israel griping—griping—after God liberated them from Egypt. Insecurity and guilt are like termites, eating away at the foundation of relationships, often to the point where people who have been shown enormous kindness lash out at those who were kind to them.
The best way to help anyone is to help them to help themselves. A measured response, a corporate (community) response, inviting folks into the community and serving them as a community rather than as isolated pockets of individuals. Helping them plan their own future and setting realistic goals—small at first and then with increasing difficulty. Achieving those goals builds self-esteem and independence from their rescuers. It also helps divine the legitimate victims from those taking advantage of the system, like the ignorant Leroy on MSNBC last week gleefully counting his FEMA cash in front of the camera. Mo' money, mo' money, mo' money.
Throwing money at these people is the lowest form of investment. Truthfully, many of the poorer evacuees have likely rarely, if ever, had two thousand dollars all at once. Many of these folks will head for the nearest ATM or squander the money on Sean John and G-Unit. In Houston, an evacuee was prepared to put down a $1200 deposit for cell phone service. The president's $2,000 giveaway is, to me, the worst kind of politics, the president giving these people a quick fix in order to stop his own political bleeding. But the cash giveaway amounts to not much more than a sugar rush, one that won't last more than a few days. And then what? Throw more money at them?
Savvier families have banded together and pooled their Red Cross and FEMA stipends to acquire housing, which is by far the smartest choice. Even those living rent free know that hubris can't possibly last forever. Rather than running to the mall, they pooled their resources and walked to the real estate agency, getting their feet on solid ground and a roof overhead that doesn't depend on charity. But, my guess is, these are largely exceptions and not necessarily the rule. In the end, the money was more a political decision than a genuine effort to help someone. You don't help a man by handing him a fish. You help a man by teaching him to fish.
As imperfect as government and some charitable agencies can be, skirting their process is folly unless you develop a process of your own. Grabbing folk and dragging them to your home town only exacerbates the horror these folks have lived through when they realize you, in fact, have no process. No real plan for what to do, and no real timetable for how long they can depend on you. That anxiety can create the kind of conflicts many of us can’t even imagine right now, as we allow the media and the world to paint us all as one flavor of chocolate—Victim. And assume all victims are angels. We should know better. We should choose wiser.
It’s a bit ironic that all of this good will is pouring out for the evacuees when we have homeless and hungry right here in our back yard. There are a number of huge buffet restaurants around town who close their doors around eight (this town is utterly ridiculous; yes, many restaurants here close at eight) and then throw amazing amounts of hot food into the dumpster and lock the dumpster, fearful of lawsuits from homeless folks out to make a buck. It’s shameful that legislation couldn’t exist to provide liability shields to these places so they could deliver the day’s leftovers to soup kitchens and homeless shelters.
When the day comes, sooner than we think, that the gut-punch of this tragedy wears off, when our collective rescuer buzz wears down to a tingle, where will our compassion be for the needy already among us? Those we should have been housing, those we should have been clothing in the first place. Nobody’s chartering buses to run down and grab those folk. Nobody’s dragging those folk across the country.
Hang Together, Hang Separately
We’ve only begun to see the real fallout from this terrible weather season. Like the ensuing nuclear winter a missile attack would create, which renders the land uninhabitable for decades, this year’s disasters will have terrible consequences for all of us. The U.S. economy, already strained to the gills by this Administration’s blind march to war and this president’s tax cuts for the wealthy, will certainly groan and buckle under the weight of the unfathomable job ahead. Congress is already rushing to protect its $286 billion Highway Bill, which is laden with pork-barrel projects (expenditures included in the bill that have nothing to do with highways but are personal pet projects of the Congressmen involved). The Highway Bill is the most obvious source of funding for the massive relief and rebuilding efforts, but already we have a virtual parade of politicians embarrassed and sputtering but refusing to commit one way or another to rescinding the bill.
The president refuses to rescind his tax cuts and, of course, he’s not even considering pulling out of Iraq. Additionally, Medicare Part D, the prescription drug benefit for seniors, is another flawed and mega-expensive Big Government program that could be delayed or cut to help fund the rebuilding. Initial estimates project that Medicare Part D, part of the greatest expansion in Medicare's 40-year history, was conceived at $400 billion but now will cost nearly $700 billion over 10 years and promises to be an earnings bonanza for the nation's largest health insurers, But entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare are the third rail of politics, so this pet project of the Administration, which the president fought long and hard to ram through Congress, is not likely to be touched. This president, who campaigned on smaller government and lower taxes and fiscal responsibility, has overseen one of the biggest spending increases in the nation's history, while turning President Clinton's $200 billion surplus into a (currently) $503 billion deficit (pre-Katrina and Rita). So the U.S. deficit spirals towards an unprecedented $870 billion (projected post-Katrina and Rita) while these people hem and haw and make excuses and look for somebody to blame for it all.
The president’s Big Oil friends are experiencing historic and unprecedented profits and are making no perceptible effort to use at least some of those profits to lower our fuel costs (I mean, they’re making so much money, they can certainly afford to take a hit). Natural gas prices are up 77% fro last year. People will be cold and hungry this winter, as the economy continues to spiral and there remains absolutely no visible end to the fighting in Iraq.
All of which makes compassion a long-term business. A Big Picture business. We must be led by the Spirit and not by our emotions. Through God, our compassion can be tempered by wisdom. We can be long-term and not quick-fix. The storms in the Gulf hit millions of people, but the economic and social consequences will hit us all. Like the Texas evacuees, we should be heeding those warnings and packing the right things in our cars. Not the material junk of this world but those things that really sustain us: the Living Water. The Bread of Life. And the Spirit which fuels our travel by guiding us into all truth.
Being a Christian doesn’t mean rushing out and doing things emotionally and irrationally because trusting the governmental process seems to slow to us. Consequently, not opening your home doesn’t make you not a Christian, either. We’ve got to deal with this Christian Guilt Complex. With folks who do things they absolutely shouldn’t because they feel guilty or feel like this is their Christian responsibility. Don’t do what you think you’re supposed to do because you’re a Christian. Do what God actually inspires you to do. We don’t serve a God who orders us to do things, we serve a God who inspires us to do things.
The lifeguard’s first rule is to not wrestle with panicked swimmers. If they do, they’ll both drown. Not everyone can afford the financial or emotional strain of houseguests, especially houseguests picked at random without any real process. As an individual and as a family you must be prepared, spiritually, emotionally and economically, to deal with strangers, including strange spirits these people bring with them. You are introducing an unknown quantity and unknown element into your home and family. You should be led of the Spirit before you do that and, if you are unable to quantify the pros and cons of this benevolence, you can do more damage than good. In trying to save them, you can both drown.
Doing the right thing is not enough. Make sure you’re doing the right thing for the right reason. Make sure you’re not motivated by guilt or by what you think a Christian should be. And make sure you are actually helping somebody, not just throwing money at the problem and not opening your home simply because that’s the latest fad. Above all, make sure you're working within a community and not just leaping in on your own. Make sure your group has a plan and make sure that plan is for the long haul and that you won't tire and abandon these folks.
Most important, be led by the Spirit. Now, more than ever, we need real religion instead of play religion. Real church instead of play church. Real faith. Rubber-meets-the-road faith. And perhaps that's the why of all of this: God calling His church into accountability and fortifying us for the even tougher days ahead. The very worst of this hurricane season—the economic and social disaster— is likely yet to come.
Christopher J. Priest
26 September 2005
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