Friday, September 02, 2005

Katrina and How Others See Us

It is my practice each morning to get up sometime between 5.00-6.00 a.m., make tea, and then ride my exercise bike for 20-25 minutes while watching the News on BBC America. Not only do I usually get a good overview of what is going on in the world, but I catch up on important issues like how England are doing against Australia in cricket, and the latest goings on in the world of rugby football! Obviously, much of the focus of the last few days has been on Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. A news source outside the country also allows one to see ourselves as others see us.

Yesterday evening I happened to be home and tried to first read, and then to watch a movie, but my mind wouldn't stay on it and I found myself hungry to know every minute detail of what was going on 400 miles or so to the south of us. Several times yesterday, particularly when watching babies airlifted from Charity Hospital, New Orleans, I found myself in tears imagining how I would feel if one of those little ones was my granddaughter.

Like everyone else I am horrified at the slowness of response and the total breakdown in law and order. Which brings me back to the BBC this morning. As I watched they wheeled in the Professor of Organizational Psychology from the University of Lancaster. I shrugged as I peddled and thought, here's another Brit about to pontificate about the misfortunes of the USA.

Well, this professor turned out to be an American (although surmising from his online profile, he is now a UK Subject) who is watching from that distance and obviously is intensely involved in what is going on -- much as people in Britain were when 9/11 happened, or Americans were when the terrorists bombed London in July. He was asked the usual questions and then he started to make some of the most incisive comments that we in the United States, and especially in the churches, ignore at our peril.

New Orleans and the Gulf Coast have deteriorated to worse than Third World status in a matter of days, he pointed out. Within 24 hours there was news of looting in the Big Easy, and yesterday there were reports of shootings, women being raped, babies being abused, and there were the awful, awful pictures of thousands of sheep totally lost and without a shepherd. Also, it cannot have escaped anyone's attention that most of the faces of suffering that we saw on our screens from N. O. were those of a permanent black underclass.

Professor Cary Cooper from Lancaster was saying this ought to be a wake up call for the United States as we review our values in the wake of this catastrophe. I cannot remember his precise words but he suggested that a lot of what we are seeing is the fruit of a materialistic, me first society, in which dog-eat-dog individualism prevails, and where an impossible gulf exists between the rich and the poor that there is virtually no sense of commonality and community. The professor was, in effect, asking America not only to get its organizational act together, but also as a result of this to look very carefully at its soul.

I realize that there are a lot of folks doing heroic things at the moment in circumstances that are close to impossible. However, I think that when inquiries take place after the event there will be an awful lot of blame to go around, not least to our politicians and leaders who not only feed off, but also feed, the radical individualistic selfishness that is at the root of a lot of the anarchy that we are seeing. Now, it is easy to blame our politicians, but we should not forget that they probably reflect our values because we put them there.

A lot of what we have seen in the last few days is rooted in generations of history in the United States, a corporate history that we all of us, native-born and immigrants, in one way or another share. We have tended to avoid or downplay issues like the lasting legacy of slavery, or the manner in which our social structures provide such a limited safety need for the needy. The middle class and wealthy were the ones who fled the city and the Gulf Coast before Katrina hit, but who gave a thought to the plight of those without money or vehicles who would be left behind whether they liked it or not? They got warehoused in the Superdome.

I admire Bishop Charles Jenkins for coming straight back to Louisiana and into the eye of the hurricane from his visit to Hawaii, as soon as he knew what was happening. I pray for him and his clergy and lay leaders almost every hour, that God will use them in some way as a result of this horrific crisis. Yet how does one pick up after a crisis this big?

This morning I feel guilty and have a nagging depression deep inside. I am implicated in Professor Cooper's indictment, and I find myself asking how now do I... we... honor God in the midst of this appalling crisis. Perhaps one of the fruits that will come out of this situation is that we have been jerked around enough by what has happened to start asking questions about our core values, and then as Christians might begin to be able to work toward a modification of them.

The core values that have until now shaped most of our lives have more to do with American capitalism than with what it means to be the servants of King Jesus, and this is something I will be sharing with my congregation on Sunday. I don't know what the right way forward is, but perhaps a starting point is to strip down and examine the message that we proclaim, its undergirding worldview, and the values that we live by, and to ask ourselves, whether we are conservative or liberal, how much of this is selfish narcissism and how much is from the Lord.

American brothers and sisters (and I chose to become an American), we have been humbled by the weather and we have been humbled by the inadequacy of our response to this situation. The time has come for us to sink to our knees to confess our sins, and then to rise onto our feet and do our part in making both a church and a country so that when the day comes when we meet him face-to-face our Master will say, "Well done, good and faithful servants, enter into the joy of your master."


who, me? said...

Though I am in tremendous sympathy with your viewpoint, I think it is the intellectuals' hostility to public order, and the romanticization of evil that has developed in American that is far more basic.

The poor cannot be helped by encouraging evil and poverty. Most of the middle class and elite are tremendously concerned and generous, but the channels of help have turned into "rights" generators making things morally worse.

A well-bred Englishman is likely to have some unconscious assumptions that may not carry over here. Please don't go off onto some kind of satisfying anti-capitalist toot. The other alternatives are worse.

"The love of money" is better illustrated by looting TV's in floodwater than any fat cat in a limousine I've ever seen. Do some hard, not romantic, analyzing, before you muddy even more waters.

Richard Kew said...

I am not sure that I romanticize evil, I think that I actually have a very realistic understanding of human fallenness -- and we see that fallenness everywhere in society.

What is fascinating, and I have noticed this time and again in the three decades that I have lived here, is how difficult it is for Americans to accept what is seen as criticism from one who was not born here. This is a sensitivity that Americans need to overcome if they are to be taken seriously in the rest of the world.

Richard Kew