New Orleans has haunted me this week. Watching what happens when the wind and the waves take our presumption of civilization and slap us in the face with it. Some commentators have agonized over such an act of God. A few bigots have taken that phrase literally and gloated of God punishing New Orleans. I don’t believe in such a God but I do see what has happened as a revelation. And what has been revealed are the fault lines that divide us from one another and the fragility of the pact that holds us together.
Here’s one fault line. When the waters drowned New Orleans the ones who suffered where the ones who hadn’t been able to get away to high ground: they didn’t have a car, they didn’t have the money, they were too sick. The poor are always the ones to suffer. In New Orleans they happen to be overwhelmingly black.
Here’s another fault line. It’s about choices. Why were the authorities so unprepared? Why was so little done to shore up the flood walls? One reason is that funding had been withdrawn to finance the war in Iraq. Why was there no-one to keep order in the aftermath? Maybe because a third of the state’s National Guard had been sent to Iraq.
Who knows? That might all be wrong. And the last thing we need is another scapegoat. But choices have been made. What are the choices, for example, that mean being black in New Orleans is to be poor?
And what’s this mass of politics doing a homily?
The word ‘religion’ has a confusing origin which scholars fight over but a best guess is that it has a meaning to do with binding, linking, connecting. Religion is about binding, binding and loosing. It is about the choices we make to build the bonds between us—or to gloss over their dissolution.
Ezekiel makes us each responsible for the salvation of all. Paul distils all the commandments to the single debt of love for each other. And Jesus gives his exhaustive account of how to love through conflict. Be reconciled he says. Do all you can to be reconciled. It’s easy to look at that last stage—the kicking out—as though it were the goal but what he wants is for things to never get that far. He wants us to be reconciled long before that.
But there is something to the kicking out. Whether our differences are irreconcilable or not they are always real. Too often our relationships rot because we never acknowledge the conflicts in the hope they will go away. And what Hurricane Katrina has done is expose the rottenness of a way of life that lets poverty persist for the sake of other ends. The violence and looting that emerged this week when the lights went out is a mirror image of the violent injustice that accepts the poverty of a minority so the majority may prosper. And that is a religious matter. It’s about what binds us together and what keeps us apart. It’s about what and who we are willing to sacrifice to keep the appearance of peace.
Jesus made his choices too. He chose to expose the rottenness of his own society and religion. He chose to be with the victims of violence rather than the violators. And, when push came to shove, he chose to be sacrificed rather than live the lie of sacrificial violence. And maybe, if we understood that choice of his we would find the freedom to love too.
What has kept me riveted this week, watching the mass of black faces in squalor and in despair, has been this: ‘where two or three meet in my name, I shall be there with them’. I know where God has been this week.