As Christians, our compassion should extend beyond the corner our churches are located on. But I can’t imagine justifying sending money away from our neighborhoods to help the huge corporations who own the beachfront resorts or the comparatively well-off sole proprietors who are certainly suffering but whose misery index remains much cheerier than that of much of Black America. The ecological disaster is heartbreaking but, again, unless you live in those areas, the heinous impact of the virtual genocide of dozens of sea species in the Gulf remains in the abstract. It is The Other. The Other Thing Happening To Other People. Our faith demands that we pray for those stricken communities, for those suffering people, but it’s difficult to draw a straight line from the sinking Deepwater Horizon to black pulpits across America.
...what has defined us as a nation since our founding is the capacity to shape our destiny -– our determination to fight for the America we want for our children. Even if we’re unsure exactly what that looks like. Even if we don’t yet know precisely how we’re going to get there. We know we’ll get there.
It was a bad speech.
On Tuesday, June 15th, shortly after 8PM Eastern Daylight Time,
Barack Obama, President of the United States, delivered one of
the most tepid and mealy-mouthed Oval Office speeches in
American history. The speech was such a jaw-dropping
disappointment, completely bereft of substance, leadership or,
frankly, anything at all we didn’t already know, that I wondered
why he bothered to deliver it. Political friends and foes both
panned the speech as insignificant bordering on meaningless, the
president delivering only the most vague promises of an end to
the ongoing ecological disaster while shaking his fist at
BP—whom the government is relying on to solve the problem. This
faux-rage at BP included an apparently empty threat to demand BP
set funds in escrow for the economic and ecological damage from
the oil spill, but no legal scholar has come forward to conclude
the president actually has the authority to force BP into doing
anything. At a time of national crisis, the spewing well in
split-screen on many televisions, the president provided no
fresh news, no new answers and no concrete solutions to the
crisis. He made empty threats to British Petroleum while
rambling on a bit about the importance of green energy and
making references to World War II, of all things, that I’d
imagine most people under 30 simply didn’t get.
It was a bad speech. Which puzzled me, considering this is one of the best speech-ifiers the world has ever seen. And if ever we needed a rousing speech from Barack Obama, we need one now. But, maybe that wasn’t entirely his fault. I mean, what did we expect him to say? “The Navy, in conjunction with the CIA and Star Trek, have a top-secret submarine that will now go down there and seal off the well?” If the Navy could do that, they would have done it by now. The sad fact is, there really isn’t much, in the near future, this president or anybody else can do to stem the awful, sad tide of ruination visiting the Gulf region and, soon, the pristine beaches of Florida. With the economy still on the ropes, the massive losses in tourism revenue and jobs will deal a savage blow to national morale as the stock market seesaws and high unemployment numbers continue unabated.
The president, at the end of the day, is pretty helpless in the face of this disaster. Going on TV was a terrible idea because his lame speech, clearly (and overly) vetted by one committee after another, confirmed it. This disaster is a political body blow to this president who was slow to respond, slow to grasp the enormity of the problem, and way too slow getting out in front. He now appears to be playing catch-up, having to tell us the government has been involved since day one. Had the president been involved since day one, we would have seen those pictures. Instead it’s dead birds all the time, the president strolling along beaches in shirt sleeves pointing at tar balls.
Each year, at the beginning of shrimping season, the region’s fishermen take part in a tradition that was brought to America long ago by fishing immigrants from Europe. It’s called “The Blessing of the Fleet,” and today it’s a celebration where clergy from different religions gather to say a prayer for the safety and success of the men and women who will soon head out to sea -– some for weeks at a time.
The ceremony goes on in good times and in bad. It took place after Katrina, and it took place a few weeks ago –- at the beginning of the most difficult season these fishermen have ever faced.
The president’s speech marked him as a one-term president. This may or may not be true, I mean, Bill Clinton came back from Lewinskygate. However, in every way that matters, the BP spill is Obama’s Katrina. Of course, it’s nothing at all like Katrina, which dealt death and suffering to thousands, trapping thousands more in squalid detention camps with overflowing toilets where people were assaulted and raped. What we have with the BP spill is dead birds, but the similarity is the seeming disconnect of the president from the reality on the ground or, in this case, beneath the sea. President Bush was extremely slow to respond and slow to grasp the enormity of the crisis and then bungled the response at every turn. President Obama was just as slow, seeming almost dismissive of the event initially—I mean, it was BP’s problem. Since waking from his coma, his management of the crisis has been mostly symbolic, as the government admits BP has more expertise and technology for handling this event than anyone else. The president is trying to appear presidential, but the more time he spends on TV the more impotent he looks. The fact is, he really can’t do anything but wait, along with the rest of us, hoping one of the two relief wells BP is digging will hit their target the first time (such wells rarely work the first time). Absent some real action, like a nuclear sub arriving on-scene with a dozen elite Navy SEALs mustered on deck, there really isn’t anything the president can do, which makes his effort to look presidential a real roll of the dice. Each failure on BP’s part is considered a failure on Obama’s part, which lends the appearance of mismanagement when, frankly, the president is not managing—BP is. But each Wyle E. Coyote ACME atom-smasher plan BP comes up with inevitably becomes a failure on the president’s part, making the president seem inept when he really isn’t. Perception becoming reality, however, this mess becomes Obama’s Katrina, even though it is an unfair comparison.
The president seemed powerless in the face of enormous tragedy and harm to the American people. Additionally, the significance of this having been the president's very first address to the American people from the Oval Office weighted the speech with a great deal of political significance. Eloquence and gravity are this president's strength. Here, he had neither. He seemed lost in rhetoric that was neither here nor there; words so fussed over by department heads that they'd been stripped of all meaning. Barack Obama is never boring, yet he was boring Tuesday night. He was, dare I say, almost George Bushian in his vagueness. Better to have cancelled the speech or, better, thrown out the lame script and spoken from the heart. The vague references to the president's Cap And Trade bill (which he himself derailed in favor of an immigration bill the White House knew, going in, would never pass), World War II (of all things) and prayer reminded me of the literary sparring I'd do to flesh out thin term papers. More typing than actual writing, it was all fluff; Hamburger Helper designed to help me reach the bottom of the page. The president's speech seemed filled to the brim with this verbal fluff, which only served to make the horrible ever more so and it became evident, early into the speech, that the president really had no solid answers, no big stick with which to whack this problem.
Black America has, in large measure, paid limited attention to all of this. I mean, we have our own problems. Black unemployment remains steady at 15%, and there aren’t a *whole* lot of black shrimpers or black pleasure boat owners in the Gulf area. I imagine some of us are actually gloating—the relatively well-to-do fishermen, restaurant owners, hotel owners and tourist attraction operators being mostly white folk, some of us may be grateful these people are getting a sense of what blacks have been going through since Katrina and Rita. Which is a bit ignorant considering these very same people, white and black, were savaged by Katrina and Rita, the Gulf coastal area having only recently begun to recover from that devastation.
But what is our response? What are we saying about all of this in our churches, in our homes, at the buffet table? Not a lot. I’m not hearing a lot of discussion about this in our churches. At the barber shop last week, the talk was all about the NBA playoffs. It may remain to be seen how, beyond our president’s political trouble, the BP spill has any relevance to the black community. I mean, its taken two months to even show up, here on the PraiseNet.
Suffering is nothing new to Black America. So much so that our misery index may be quite different from others, perhaps to the point of indifference to the suffering of others. The Gulf story has worn out its welcome in an instant-gratification, 24-hour news cycle. We are, quite frankly, tired of hearing about it. Mainly because none of that BP cash will help us save our homes or feed our kids. As tragic as the goings-on are, we find ourselves observing the suffering of a community that has not, to my thinking, ever been much a part of our own. I am unaware of any African American churches or social services chartering busses to rush to Pensacola to clean up those beaches in order to save the Florida tourist trade. What does Florida’s tourist trade mean to us? Aren’t we still waiting for assistance rebuilding lives in Louisiana and Alabama?
As Christians, our compassion should extend beyond the corner our churches are located on. But I can’t imagine justifying sending money away from our neighborhoods to help the huge corporations who own the beachfront resorts or the comparatively well-off sole proprietors who are certainly suffering but whose misery index remains much cheerier than that of much of Black America. The ecological disaster is heartbreaking but, again, unless you live in those areas, the heinous impact of the virtual genocide of dozens of sea species in the Gulf remains in the abstract. It is The Other. The Other Thing Happening To Other People.
Of course, thousands of those "Other People" are, in fact, us. They are resort staff and day laborers, truck drivers and food processors, tour guides and chefs, waiters and busboys. Lots of regular folk, white and brown, caught up in circumstances that had nothing to do with them. NBC ran a story about a famous clam house, which supplied clams to Red Lobster restaurants across the country, shut down by the oil spill. Its work force seemed 75% minority workers, many of them now desperate to find work. We know their story. We can certainly empathize with them.
But can we, should we, have compassion for rich folks? For corporations and stockholders? Tourists? Beachgoers? Images of dead birds and families driven off of beaches fouled by crude oil certainly evoke sympathy but do they evoke empathy in places where going to the beach is the least of our worries? Of course the ecological disaster earns this story its constant-on place in the news, but it’s difficult to draw a straight line from the sinking Deepwater Horizon to black pulpits across America. To Brooklyn or Watts or Little Rock or Chicago. Our faith demands that we pray for those stricken communities, for those suffering people. But it makes one wonder when’s the last time those communities, those people, prayed for us. It is wrong to justify indifference, but the truth, nonetheless, is the BP spill is a much smaller story here in Ourtown and maybe in yours. The nation, white and black, is most assuredly outraged. The impact on the national economy remains to be seen, and the devastation along the coast is surely tragic. But where is the nation’s urgent response to gang violence? To poverty? To people suffering without health care? Where is the nation’s empathy for the least among us?
"We don't talk about the environment," PraiseNet Associate Editor, Reverend Neil Brown, said. "In our church tradition, we do not educate ourselves about the environment. It's not something that I've ever heard discussed in a black church. There's been no mention of the BP disaster in my church." When asked what the black church's response to the disaster should be, Neil was a bit stumped. "I have a lot of empathy for the people trying to stop the leak. These are people who had been doing their jobs, doing what they'd been told to do. Now they're being scapegoated—given an impossible task mainly so they can be blamed for not accomplishing it. I know what that feels like."
The president got his $20 billion without a fight. I'm sure BP would have put a bow on it if they could. The oil giant's first-quarter profits were $5.60 billion, up from $2.39 billion in the same period of 2009, thanks to higher oil and gas prices. It is entirely possible, if not likely, that BP will sacrifice in excess of a year's profits on reparations for this mess. Of course, Republicans immediately criticized the Obama administration, calling BP's $20B escrow fund—which is likely to only be a down payment on the actual cost of this tragedy— a "shakedown." Sarah Palin criticized the president for not calling in the Dutch to fix the leak, whom Palin argued has lots of experience, "plugging dykes and things."
This is the most powerful woman in Republican politics.
Foreign vessels have been thus far prohibited from assisting in cleaning up the oil spill due to provisions of the Merchant Marine Act of 1920, a United States Federal statute that regulates maritime commerce in U.S. waters and between U.S. ports. Section 27, also known as the Jones Act, deals with cabotage (i.e., coastal shipping) and requires that all goods transported by water between U.S. ports be carried in U.S.-flag ships, constructed in the United States, owned by U.S. citizens, and crewed by U.S. citizens and U.S. permanent residents. The purpose of the law is to support the U.S. merchant marine industry, but agricultural interests generally oppose it because, they contend, it raises the cost of shipping their goods, making them less competitive with foreign sources. In addition, amendments to the Jones Act, known as the Cargo Preference Act (P.L. 83-644), provide permanent legislation for the transportation of waterborne cargoes in U.S.-flag vessels. [Wikipedia]
The president's to-date refusal to waive this law prevents BP from assembling an armada of foreign supertankers equipped with advanced skimmers capable of more effectively combating the Gulf spill. Wikipedia: In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff temporarily waived the U.S. Shipping Act for foreign vessels carrying oil and natural gas from September 1 to September 19, 2005. There have been claims critical of the Obama Administration that the act should again be waived in wake of the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill. Such claims have persisted despite the need for a waiver being deemed unnecessary in the current scenario by those involved in the Deepwater response effort.
It should not surprise me that the Republicans are desperately inventing ways to blame this mess on the president. I don't think any rational, thinking person could do that—blame Obama for the disaster—and calling this "Obama's Katrina" is certainly just as disingenuous. But this is precisely what his political enemies will do, and the charges will stick. First and foremost because, in large measure, the American people are not rational and do not think. Barely 26% of us even vote, and of those of us who do, I would guess at least 75-90% of those vote along vague ideological lines: vote for Obama because he's black. Vote against Obama because he's black. Rational thought has very little to do with politics. It's all about managing appearances because appearances, impressions, stick. People use them to justify their gut feelings. In the case of this president, those feelings likely resolve around Obama's race moreso than anything he's actually done. But it is the politics of perception we wrap our prejudice in to justify our choices. People predisposed to support this president will continue to do so and find some political cover to justify that choice. People who hate Obama will certainly blame him for the oil spill and argue that this is Obama's Katrina.
Which was why last week's speech was so egregious in its poor timing and vapid content. Already politically hammered by this tragedy, the president's speech only made things worse by validating—as opposed to alleviating—our fear, and revealing a president with feet of clay. Mere weeks before the disaster, the president, moving against the political grain and infuriating his base, announced his support for expanded offshore drilling. During last week's speech, he announced,
As a result of these efforts, we’ve directed BP to mobilize additional equipment and technology. And in the coming weeks and days, these efforts should capture up to 90 percent of the oil leaking out of the well. This is until the company finishes drilling a relief well later in the summer that’s expected to stop the leak completely.
90 percent? Where did the president get that number? Oh, wait, of course—he got it form BP. The 90 percent figure is being laughed off the air by talking head politicos on both the left and right. It is an absurd claim, one that will do even greater harm to this president when it fails to come true. Al of which makes this not only an ecological, environmental and economic disaster, but a political one for this president. And, perhaps, a spiritual disaster for our church.
And still, they came and they prayed. For as a priest and former fisherman once said of the tradition, “The blessing is not that God has promised to remove all obstacles and dangers. The blessing is that He is with us always,” a blessing that’s granted “even in the midst of the storm.”
God's character embodies the definition of compassion. God desires to free others from their suffering. He has compassion for people who are lost. He has compassion for people who repent and have a true desire to turn away from their sin. God has compassion for people who have faith in Him. God's compassion is not just talk and feelings, but His compassion is full of action. He desires to and blesses mankind because of His compassionate nature.
But what should our action be? What should our response be?
The definition of compassion must include human kindness as well as good deeds. Someone cannot have human kindness in them unless they have the love for others. God is the best example of compassion. He loves all of mankind whether or not any one individual loves Him or not. Because of this love, God desires to bless us. As our Creator, He desires us to be as compassionate as Him and show human kindness to others. To be compassionate we must have love in us that compels us to do good deeds. If we just do good deeds for someone, but we have no love for that person we are not compassionate. We have no human kindness (1Cor. 13:3, "And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing"). In fact, if you have something to give and do not give it to someone in need, you have no compassion or the love of God in you (1 John 3:17, "But whoso hath this world's good, and seeth his brother have need, and shutteth up his bowels of compassion from him, how dwelleth the love of God in him? ").
The ongoing Gulf disaster poses this question uniquely if not exclusively to the black church in America. For years, we've reached beyond our walls asking other communities, other tribes, for their compassion, for their empathy—most ironically with blacks in this very same region with Hurricane Katrina. Yet we seem slow to reciprocate unless we see our faces, our families, in those news photos. In this specific case, rest assured those faces are most assuredly there, even if they do not dominate the news coverage. But, even if they didn't, this tragedy would still be a major test for us, one I fear we are likely failing. My suspicion is that our churches are treating this matter with a great deal of indifference as we go about our business of hollering, catching vapors and falling out every Sunday. Thakya Jeezaas. Without one word, one prayer, even one moment of silence for those suffering in the Gulf. A reality that makes this tragedy truly universal in that our pastors continue to fail to look beyond the square feet of dirt their church is planted on, continue to fail to teach us how what happens to this guy affects that guy affects that other guy... affects us.
What should our response be? Something better than this.
Christopher J. Priest
20 June 2010
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