Landscape organizes everything within sight.

Friday, September 30, 2005

Heretical?? Southern Baptists? Noooo... Never...

Because, you know, when *I* read the gospel, I *totally* can see Jesus Christ saying something like:

this unholy lot of HELLBOUND homosexual non-KJV reading liberal wussies it is clearly within our discretion to allow them to wallow in their sin as well as of course their imminent eternal damnation so bring it on bad boys and show Papa Satan what obedient little stewards of evil you all are.

16 "Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.

1 . . . if any of them do not believe God's word, your conduct will win them over to believe. . . .

1 PETER 2:12 TEV
12 Your conduct among the heathen should be so good that . . . they will have to recognize your good deeds and so praise God . . . .

1 PETER 2:15 TEV
15 For God wants you to silence the ignorant talk of foolish people by the good things you do.

18 Instruct them to do as many good deeds as they can and to help everyone. Remind the rich to be generous and share what they have.

1 JOHN 3:14 TEV
14 We know that we have left death and come over into life; we know it because we love others. Those who do not love are still under the power of death.

1 JOHN 3:18 TEV
18 My children, our love should not be just words and talk; it must be true love, which shows itself in action.

1 JOHN 4:7 TEV
7 Dear friends, let us love one another, because love comes from God. Whoever loves is a child of God and knows God.

See the resemblance? See it yet?

(thanks, Mom! thanks, Believers!)

Satire in Intelligent design

“But—brown?” Buddha asked.
“Brown with infinite variations,” said the Lord God. “Taupe, ochre, burnt umber—they’re called earth tones.”
“I wasn’t criticizing,” said Buddha. “I was just noticing.”

-- Paul Rudnick, in The New Yorker

Thursday, September 29, 2005

A success story

Last week I took a lunch break from the dusty vellum manuscripts of eighteenth-century lawyers, and hitched a bus over to Westminster, where I met Dr. Andrew Bradstock, president of the Christian Socialists, for lunch.

Talking to the Christian Left on this side of the Atlantic is one of the true restoratives I know. When one begins to feel the hopelessness of saving Jesus’ teachings from adolescent school-boys obsessed with pints of blood and centurion whips, when one blanches to see teachings of mercy and fellowship somehow converted to the torturing of prisoners and taking pints of milk away from school-children, it’s time to turn to what political Christianity can do in her truer incarnations. And it’s very appropriate for our young, feeble movement for a true political Christianity to take guidance from an older political Christianity that has been working for the poor and outcast in the unbroken work of a hundred and fifty years.

Their office is small: three wee desks squeezed into a basement room, idiosyncratically hidden beneath the grand copper dome of Westminster Hall. On the shelves are booklets on global poverty, welfare, racism, and public education. The pamphlets are authored by names that are famous here: Members of Parliament, famous journalists, and the Archbishop of Canterbury himself.

Like progressive Christianity in the US, Christian Socialism in the UK arrived in mid-nineteenth century, in response to the ‘theology of atonement.’ For a solid two generations on both sides of the Atlantic, evangelical ministers had preached thrift, cleanliness, and obedience – very human virtues with a limited resemblance to Christ’s teachings. By the 1860s and 70s, a new group of ministers were preaching a theology of “incarnation” which stressed the redemptive power of Christ’s love, according to new historical research by Georgetown professor Michael Kazin and Harvard political scientist Richard Parker. Cambridge University theologian F. D. Maurice and populist orator William Bryan Jennings collaborated with grass-roots workers’ activism for political rights and economic representation. Christian Socialists in the UK, and their US equivalent, the Social Gospel Movement, preached that corporate interests were taking rank advantage of the poor in total disregard of Christian ideals. On both sides of the Atlantic, the church lobbied to cleanse government of corporate influence, proclaiming that the primary goal of government was to protect the interests of the people.

Christian Socialism didn’t enjoy its reign of political influence unabated, and its spunk waned severely in the Thatcher years. But the movement saw a rebirth in the 1990s, nourished by a generation of strong leaders from Labour politics and the church. British congregations now stand united on issues of poverty, environmentalism, and peace in the Middle East, capable of serious political pressure in the international realm. Last week, bishops of the Church of England condemned the War in Iraq as a “litany of errors,” and apologized to Muslims for the suffering it had caused. This week, opposition party leader Gordon Brown announced that the leading nations of the world (minus the US) had decided, at long last, to acquiesce to the forgiveness of third world debts lobbied for by the campaign to Make Poverty History, a program of historic proportions, largely engineered by the Church of England and related Christian aid programs in the UK.

In the US, churches have been much less quick to lead initiatives for visionary, global change. Trapped in the Bibles-and-bread foreign missions of the last century, communicating only to their denominational circles, US churches have had few visionaries of the kind that have captured Britain’s heart.

We see right now some developments that could give US Christians a push along equally visionary lines. One sign of change is the number of conferences that appeared this year, organized by the Christian Alliance for Progress in Jacksonville and the Rockridge Institute in Berkeley, among others, where professedly progressive Christians drafted leaders, passed resolutions, and took a firm stand on political issues. Now, in the wake of Katrina, another major event, the Values Conference, is condemning the Bush government for its abandonment of the poor. Sponsored by Episcopalian Sunday School programming developers Via Media of San Francisco, the Values conference will host an array of bipartisanal politicians, journalists, grass-roots leaders, and intellectuals. It takes place October 13-14 at the National Cathedral in Washington.

If such an idea is intriguing, we know from the British success story that there are at least three key ingredients. First, local volunteers must be motivated to work towards education within the local churches: the campaign to Make Poverty History came only after ten years over which motivated volunteers distributed leaflets to congregations, personally corralled preachers, and visited one Sunday School after another to talk about the Christian message as they understood it.

Second, a national campaign must coordinate the goals of individual congregations at a national level: the Christian Socialists were united around a common conversation about what their highest priorities were. While some fought racism and others lobbied for political power in Parliament, it was only their unity at a national level that allowed the campaign to Make Poverty History to have such effect.

Third, a powerful and articulate leadership must speak effectively for organized action by the churches and the congregations. England has seen leaders in the church and in Parliament lobbying for justice and social responsibility in the name of an articulate, rampantly progressive Christianity. Will America see the same?

Technorati Tags: , , , ,

I am a drupal addict.


Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Check it out!

StreamingChristianity gets its own page!

Share with your friends!

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Bloggers helping bloggers to find the black response to Katrina

My curiosity about where to find black bloggers on Katrina was first vented here, then responded to by the Kossacks, and then received an extremely worthy reply at Negrophile.

The Negrophile response is really uplifting to me (they found us, we didn't go after them!) -- ask and the door shall be opened, indeed. Thanks, Negrophile, for helping to keep alive this important line of social questions.

Blogging spreads, waters down Religious Left community

An article on religious bloggers notes a world-wide explosion of blogging about faith and values.

Strange to say, from this blogger's perspective, that religious blogging won't do the Religious Left much good. But then, over here, we're feeling exhausted. In the last three weeks, the three-person publicity team for the Progressive Values Conference has been emailing as many of our progressive blogger colleagues as we could reach, reducing the admissions fees, offering free wireless and shoulder-rubbing opportunities with the senators and journalists, begging the community of lefty religious bloggers to help spread the word. Result? two responses (Philocrates and Bene Diction, thank you sincerely, you are awesome) (actually, to be fair, we got *three* responses, if you count StreetProphets).

Frankly, discouraging. Seems sometimes as if the more bloggers there are, the harder it is to get consensus about any one action, and the harder it is to spread the word around any given community.

I was complaining to Meg, my economist friend in LA, about this, when she called last week.
"Sounds like the problem you're trying to solve -- of unifying a disunified Religious Left -- is the very problem that's holding back your registration numbers."

How true.

Witch-hunts and the divided religious Left

Conspiracies of name-calling are getting the Christian Left in trouble now more than ever. For high conspiracy theorists of the Left, a proclaimed life-long Leftist is guilty if he sometimes has dinner with military officials -- no question about whether they're related, old school friends, if the particular officials are dissidents within the structure, or if Chomsky was merely playing spy in his own way, buying dinner for a gimp in order to get more information about what the military is doing next! I'd hate to see what these people would do with my own chequered past.

Speculation about cabals and conspiracies might be fine if it were confined to local banter on blogs, but the divides of the Left then get into the media at large. Leftist fractions feed a media machine programmed to exploit the first signs of failure.

Hence the Church of England, which just condemned the War in Iraq (this is huge, considering that Blair is technically head of the Church), is guilty of being hypocritical if -- as was the case here -- the Church once made a deal allowing telecoms to use church steeples as programming towers. Witness, all of you: the Church that condemns Bush and Blair's war is hypocritical if some of its clergy at any point know military people/invest in military stocks/ are ex-military themselves. They "have connections" to the war they condemn. They are guilty by association.

Headlines in England: "Clergy criticise the Church over links with British weapons firm","Church of England accused of hypocrisy over links with arms firm." As if the Church, now condemning the war, were secretly, unbeknownst to its parishioners, manufacturing in each of its crypts and Sunday-school rooms, hives of bombs for nursery-schools in Baghdad.

Headlines in America have barely stressed this major resolution from a major conservative Christian body, condemning Bush (here's a single link from a Virginia paper and another from CrossWalk; major US news sources didn't pick up the headline, although, thank Providence, many in the Middle East did).

Shh, don't listen to the Church of England, nobody hates the War in Iraq except crazy people who eat their own children. Now, back to how Pat Robertson is saving the victims of Katrina...

We don't need leftists in Britain to play tough by picking off their friends. We do need a united front of progressive Christians capable of holding fast to a political message and keeping its positive reaction in the news. What if the Bishops, having passed this resolution, had made a publicity tour of hand-shaking with the Middle Eastern journalists who received the invitation so well? Certainly bishops can do at least as well as politicians. The game is simple: keep your own story in the news as long as possible. Don't let your fantastic proclamation fizzle out three days later to accusations of "hypocrisy" from within. But frankly, at the game of keeping a unified voice in the media, the religious Left sucks.

At this game, progressive American Christians are even worse off than their European counterparts. What we also need is a body of progressive American Christians with the organization, unity of voice, and unity of action of the house of bishops in the UK. None exists. The Episcopal Church USA will never pass such resolutions, terrified of having the conservative "Network" of Republican churches flee with part of their money. Until we summon up the courage to speak with one voice, to hold the tongue of inner dissent among the Left long enough for real action, we can look forward to all our marches, all our conferences, and all our fine blogging, vanishing like grass.

When is a conspiracy not a conspiracy?

My favorite conspiracy site has been harping on the ANSWER coalition and its fragmented politics as the reason why marches on Washington don't go so far.

But I have a history lesson and a complaint about Leftist politics in general: why they tend to fragment, why coalitions are hard to build. The Left, Leftist journalists, Leftist historians, all of us, love a good conspiracy story. But as a result, we tend to fall into the hermeneutics of suspicion -- seeing conspiracies even within our own ranks. Lumping in a thousand different messages at the anti-war march. (and then, if you run with it, accusing the thousand different messages of the anti-war march of being enemy plants by Republican spies.

The origins of this way of thinking, historians think, go back to Karl Marx trying to figure out why the Revolution didn't come in France in 1848.

1848 was actually a true conspiracy between different monarchical and bourgeois factions, cleverly getting rid of the proletariat barricades and swiftly moving the country in a direction where memory of revolution could never come back. But Marx's essays on 1848 became really influential among the Left -- still are -- and they're all about figuring out how somebody's not on your side by the fact that they marginalize your interests.

So that logic applies in the case of 1848, where there's clearly a takeover of some sort going on, and a lot of aristocrats promising one thing but doing another; but in many, many other revolutions, you simply have true believers (some of them aristocrats) who are trying to make practical deals with other interests (rather than necessarily evil deals), or simply sideline their other affiliations in order to present a coherent image of the movement to the public.

Anyway, the result is that the Left tends to resort to proving its earnestness by constantly proving that its affiliations are pure and diverse. Hence the "out of Palestine" signs at ANSWER, if you want my guess; probably one of the friends of ANSWER was a pro-Palestine activist who said something like, 'you'd be exploiting all of our dedication to your cause if you don't bring up the *true* issue here. What are you, a bunch of anti-Palestine conspirators? Suppressing the truth?'

I've had similar poisoned fractions pulled so many times on the Religious Left. 'How can you call yourselves progressive Christians unless you're lobbying for gay marriage?' -- well, I've spent plenty of time lobbying for gay marriage and will again, but I was trying to have an event where we invited moderate Republicans *just to admit* that Christ hates the fact that we're mean to poor people.

It ought to have been the easiest liberal coup to pull. But pulling coups at all would require a kind of coherence and collective action that our movement rarely has.

Monday, September 26, 2005

Where the home in the valley meets the damp, dirty prison

Cindy Sheehan, the California woman driven by her son's death in Iraq to re-ignite the anti-war movement, was arrested Monday while protesting outside the White House.
-- Chicago Sun Times

Networking our Community

On September 11, 2001, the Twin Towers of New York City were attacked by two planes, toppling in flames. That date has haunted America for the last four years, outcries against war and an unjust government have been shunted in the name of God and country.

In the Fall of 2005, all that will change. Progressives begin to speak out with one voice.

On August In the wake of Katrina, starving children, dismantled houses, the abandoned sick, and the unclaimed dead shocked the American viewing public. Could this be on American shores? Communities across America cried out in despair against the systematic dismantling of our welfare and health care system in this country that left so many of the neediest utterly vulnerable to disaster.

Hear the prophecy: Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.

On September 24, 2005, hundreds of thousands of protesters in Washington, London, San Francisco, and New York voiced their sustained protest against an endless war and a government equally unconcerned for the lives of its own citizens, its armed forces, and human suffering abroad.

Hear the prophecy: Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled.

On October 13 to 15, 2005, hundreds of Christians will turn out at the National Cathedral in Washington, DC, where preachers, lay-people, soup-kitchen workers, peace-protesters, prison-visitors, visitors to New Orleans, progressive journalists, and politicians of both parties, will gather to call for a reformation of the country with one voice, shouting down the government that has abandoned its poor.

Hear the prophecy: Blessed are the clean of heart, for they shall see God.


A conference on Progressive Christian Values to be held October 13-15 at the National Cathedral in Washington, DC will gather Christians together to actively condemn the moral failures of the right-wing government and issue a comprehensive strategy for reform.

Panelists at the conference will present an array of ongoing faith-based media and policy responses towards Hurricane Katrina, poverty, the war in Iraq, health care, the environment, and racism.

Talks and meetings will take place at the National Cathedral, St. Alban's Church, and the Marriott Hotel. Registration is $265/head, including all receptions, meals, and a banquet with Jim Wallis. We've realized that the cost would be prohibitive for a lot of people we want to attract. The daily door fee is now at $20, or $10 for students, with a "pay what you can" clause attached.


Our confirmed participants include political and social justice figures Jim Wallis, former Senator John Danforth, Jonathan Schell, and Richard Parker; journalists E. J. Dionne, Amy Sullivan, and Steven Waldman; and intellectuals Michael Kazin and David Hollinger.

The conference will also host leaders from the major think tanks on religion and politics, including the Bliss Institute, the Henry Institute, The American Center for Progress, and the Center for Public Justice.

Leaders of the progressive Christian activist groups CrossLeft, The Christian Alliance for Progress, the Center for American Progress, The Center for Progressive Christianity, and CrossWalk America will be panelists for discussion groups on sharing local strategies for permanent, nation-wide social and political change.


One of our three major activism panels is about "New Strategies," and includes a major representation of net activists like Kaliya Hamlin, one of San Francisco's major thinkers about new kinds of community structure on the internet. She'll be giving a talk about the possibilities of linking net communities to real communities through new blog technologies like those from Civic Space Labs (which gives possibilities for sharing calendars, chatspace, etc etc to this kind of a format).

We've also wired the conference, and alerted every blogger whose email we could get that we'd like to have them there blogging.

Bloggers, famous or not, are encouraged to come, meet each other, speak out at the discussions of strategies for long-term change, and document the conference real-time. You're right that the press-release probably doesn't play up the blogosphere activity as much as it should; alas, our media effort is probably less well coordinated than it should be!

Anyone able to come is encouraged to let me know so that I can introduce myself at the event, and lend any assistance or introductions that would help! jo (at) social redemption (dot) com.


Most of our panelists are grassroots leaders with a major presence on the internet -- the Pres and VP of the Christian Alliance for Progress, the entire leadership of CrossLeft, representatives from CrossWalk and the Center for Progressive Christianity. We've made a big deal to participants, panelists and speakers alike about the need for netroots, church, media, think-tank, and pundit to start talking to each other about a common stream of values, and a shared vision of how internet/media/politics can help us promote real social and political change.

The networking of a larger community is a problem progressive Christianity faces before it takes back the country from the radical right fringe. Conference organizers are adamant about helping the whole community start talking to each other, facilitating discussion over the internet, and enabling grass-roots groups with strategies for contacting larger media and political players.

The media panel, for instance, will offer activists information about what gets covered in the mainstream press and what doesn't. We're working from the position that most progressive Christians are sick of reading the headline "church splits over gay issues," with interviews of all the radical right-wing clergymen, every time the Episcopalian church issues a proclamation saying that they're trying to make peace between right and left without having anyone leave. How to get more even coverage? Seems like a good start.

We'd noticed, when talking to grassroots organizers around the country, that very few had access to media and politics on the one hand, or other groups of other denominations / other websites / other geographic locations on the other. Several of the activist participants are involved in longer-term initiatives to make effective the groundwork laid at the conference. CrossLeft's plan for the next year is to set up such a clearing house on the web -- with links to the different grassroots sites by geography and political initiative, with a craigslist-type information/people/needs sharing pool, and with an rss stream of progressive Christian news & blogs.

I welcome more ideas and help in spreading the word! Let's help our community to act with one initiative and reform the country.

-- Jo Guldi, jo (at) socialredemption (dot) com

Sunday, September 25, 2005

Sustainable outrage?

Continued personal despair over Katrina has led me several times to wonder, where are the black people blogging about NOLA?

  • Kos asked this question a few weeks ago, and found a few Counterpunch-type respondents but little grass-roots blogging. By September 10, likely that any black bloggers from NOLA were still making their way out.

  • Negrophile is brilliantly, daily assembling the facts of what was lost in NOLA: the damage to the black professional classes' homestead of Eastern New Orleans, the damage to black businesses, the lack of government response.

  • A more schizophrenic response is going down among the moderate to conservative black community and their grassroots counterparts.

  • A couple of black Manhattan bloggers who elsewhere have complained about the thinness of their ranks (jet,songbirds) blogged a month ago and have since returned to blogging their lives as normal). All along, Katrina has been as much a *regional* issue as a *race* issue. The savvy educated leaders of media and politics spend a lot of time in places like New York and the twin towers, and very little time in the Gulf Coast, which they locate as a backwards and racist backwater.

Certainly sites like the above-mentioned Negrophile should make clear how permanent is the damage to the professional, middle-class, and poor communities of Louisiana across the board. And aside from race questions (if such a thing is possible), Katrina is exposing the worst of poverty and how much more vulnerable America's poor have become in the last decade of disassembling every form of large-scale social conscience in America.

So finding the sites of continued outrage is an interesting endeavor. The internet is indeed allowing certain communities to sustain that outrage. As we see above, sustained outrage involves a serious reckoning with what sorts of community structures were disbanded by the hurricane -- small businesses, universities, schools, and churches among them. And noting how fragile were many of those communities involves a serious critique of American government, as it seeks to respond to Katrina with large-scale corporate welfare.

Surprise: the online communities sustaining outrage are less closely related to progressive Christians or race activists than one might think.
Katrina and race drops out of the headlines among both the Christian Discussion sites I read and the general news with (i think) surprising rapidity.

Here's the blogger's tool deluxe: is a social bookmark server that allows you to share sites that interest you with others of the same interest.

For sustained outrage, and a sense of who's interested, and what's being done, check out these feeds:

Find the individual bloggers and activists who are concerned, and you find a community paying attention to exactly how Bush's government's favoritism of large corporations bleeds community structures, and exactly what sort of a moral response caring Americans owe their government.

And while we're on the subject of regional divisions...

(From Ted Rall)

Urban Archaeology

Derelict is documenting the crumbling waterways, vaults, and housing developments of bygone London eras.

Saturday, September 24, 2005

How to see the world, by Bea

Objectives: To look at your immediate landscape and see how it can be art. To collect and document information in an unhabitual way.

Zombie cats to fuel green future

"'It's an alternative fuel that is friendly for the environment. But it's complete nonsense to suggest dead cats. I've never used cats and would never think of that."
-- - Inventor denies dead cat fuel story - Sep 15, 2005

With thanks to the the 'wonderful' feed for the link.

Loan me a Lesbian

As reported in USA Today a library in Stockholm, Sweden has set up a sitatuion where people can literally come in and check out a person.

Thanks to Straight, Not Narrow for the link.

Crowds and politics and blogs

In a 2000 article in Representations, historian John Plotz gets to the heart of a matter that ought to hold the attention of the contemporary activist. Yesterday just saw another anti-war protest in Washington.

So are bodies in the street convincing? And whom do they convince of what?

British historians have long understood that crowd demonstrations in Britain met with extremely disparate political responses: occasionally effective, often splintered, often alienating public opinion altogether. And British historians have been trying to figure out why a protest can be so effective in one context, and just the opposite in another.

In 1839, the British Chartists were petitioning for universal suffrage, which would not become a political reality in England until the twentieth century. They published pamphlets, wrote petitions, and marched in the streets of Birmingham. According to the Chartists themselves, the turnout on the streets clearly indicated that the masses of England believed that deserved the vote.

Plotz writes:

What is visible in the streets, by this account, is only a representative tranche of what lies beyond: the threat is not so many thousand massed bodies, but so many millions of potential voters here signified corporeally.
That claim, however, was no more easily accepted by the mainstream Victorian press than by the middle and upper classes. The bodily presence of the crowd behind its peacable speech might seem -- depending on one's political perspective -- like the paternal rod sitting untouched in the corner when a child is asked politely to obey, or like the club brandished by a brigand asking for a handout on a deserted byway.

-- John Plotz, "Crowd Power: Chartism, Carlyle, and the Victorian Public Sphere," Representations 70, Spring 2000, p 87 ff.

For Plotz, as for Geoff Eley, the historian whose ideas he elaborates here, the nineteenth century saw the creation of vying kinds of speech-acts in public. In short, here the activist, there the expert, there the intellectual, there the aristocrat, each perceived as speaking with a specific kind of authority, to a specific kind of audience..

Activists need to think about how they present themselves, and to whom. We know that performance is disciplined by society: what American activists often forget is that actors can open up particular audiences to their meaning by working within a discipline.

I worry that in blogs, on the web in general, more so than the general media, progressive activists write for and read and cross-post one another. It is good to have our opinions in a public venue where they're accessible. But we risk losing our battle for the next hundred years, even like the Chartists of nineteenth-century Britain, if we don't pay attention to how our public acts are received.

Link: Canadian blogger Jeff Wells thinks that the Washington crowds are alienating their own majorities.

Technorati Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

Evangelicals forget America's history - Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.

Forgetting Reinhold Niebuhr - New York Times

Visual Anthropology

So, now that I'm back to blogging in earnest, this blog will return to its multitudinarian calling as a smorgasboard of all things that interest me: Stratego as the meeting place of urban anthropology, Christian socialism, sexing the single city-dweller, and military cartography! I know you've been looking for that cosmonaut map-maker, and your search is over. Welcome home.

It's a Saturday night in rowdy Cambridge, and being the party animal I am, I'm drinking a glass of valpolicella with fresh mozzarella and reading academic articles about travel writing in nineteenth-century England. And a wonderful life it is, too!

For my own future reference, I'm noting the following bibliography on nineteenth-century visual culture, the spatial construction of otherness, and the gaze, from a very useful article on Henry James.

Male spectatorship and the gaze
Laura Mulvey, Visual and Other Pleasures (1989)
John Urry, THe Tourist Gaze: Leisure and Travel in Contemporary Societies
Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish (1979)

Urban markets and mass consumership as the origins of a new, pictorial way of viewing cities as pictures (rather than as person-to-person interactions)
Alan Trachtenberg, The Incorporation of America: Culture and Society in the Gilded Age, 1(1982)
Robert L. Herbert, Impressionism: Art, Leisure and Parisian Society (1988)
T.J. Clark, The Painting of Modern Life: Paris in the Art of Manet and his Followers (1984)
Mary P. Ryan, Women in Public: Between Banners and Ballots, 1824-1880 (1990)

Technorati Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

Free Gifts and Trojan Horses

Reporting from my hometown of Dallas, Texas, the Washington Post reporter pondered how his colleagues were lavishing attention on the poor.

Kevin Merida and Michael Fletcher of the Post give a visuals-intense description of what they see visiting the poor: free clothing, free cars, and free toys.

Athletes come to them, bestowing jerseys and autographs. Entertainers sing for them, and Bennigan's restaurants here and in Houston announced Katrina's kids could eat without paying for a while.

What emotions should this juxtaposition between great wealth and suffering create in us? Should we shift nervously, wondering whether the poor will become accustomed to taking advantage of free gifts? Should we feel nervous about the publicity, how political opportunities mask greater suffering? Should it make us feel warm and hopeful?

The American conscience is programmed to be suspicious of charity for two very different reasons, both of them religious, both of them anti-materialistic.

On the one hand is the evangelical suspicion of free gifts: both the success of the soul and the success of the body politic depend on hard work. Subverting the natural process of accruing material success through projects like welfare or government housing will, evangelicals fear, subvert the normal mechanisms of suffering, atonement, and hard work, which guide the Christian towards the heavenly kingdom.

On the other hand, the Left also has a history of suspicion towards free gifts. When the reading public of the Daily Kos and the Huffington Post look at post-Katrina church charity, they see an inadequate effort, a mere sop to great structural problems, the rafts of donated clothing and canned food hopelessly trying to repair the damage done by the dismantling of Social Security and welfare. For them, free gifts come not from the heart, but at the hands of disdainful, church-going doners who use charity to appease their own guilt for their part in the nation's political failures.

The Post adequately notes the kind of contention over fairness, worthiness, and the intentions of charity that post-Katrina America is now grappling with:

Jennifer Carter, who had been a data-entry technician for the New Orleans police department, didn't realize the fair was open to non-Katrina survivors until she noticed the nicely tailored Nora Gonzalez assert herself at the hiring table of a personnel services company. According to Carter, Gonzalez jumped in front of her, saying, "Well, I'm from Texas, this is my résumé." Fumed Carter: "They should give us an opportunity because we have nothing."

Told of Carter's perspective, Gonzalez seemed surprised. Her friend, Keyla Robinson, who was looking for clerical work, chimed in: "Why should you feel guilty? We're in need, too.

If Katrina does anything, it should make us face the reality about which the Bible preaches. We are all of us in peril: For we see that the rich, like the poor, die also, says the psalmist. To this message Christ reminded us that the poor, faced with starvation and murder, understand their vulnerability to suffering, evil, and hatred more than the rich.

Glossing Christ's parable of the eye of the needle, the early church father Saint Clement explained that the rich come closest to salvation when they participate in the suffering of the poor, not by blind charity alone, but by emotional co-participation in the vulnerability and suffering of the poor.

Nothing can minimize the suffering of disaster. Katrina ought to bring that message home to American viewers, who, like the writer herself, have found themselves turning a blind eye to disaster in Africa, India, or the Middle East when it seemed too terrible to bear recognition. So disaster offers an opportunity to recreate the world, one much grander and more important than the experiment in government-planning-free capitalism Bush envisions for post-Katrina New Orleans. Disaster offers an opportunity for everyone who views the destruction, rich and poor alike, to foreswear their worldly ambitions and take up community, fellowship, and responsibility for others in their place.

The post-disaster world is the world of nightly scandals, accidents, and warfare on CNN as well as the world post-Katrina. It has too conceivable meanings, only one of them Christian: the first is that net of vulnerability to unfair markets and corrupt individuals set forth by the Post reporters, a world that has informed American politics for the last two decades. In such a world every gift is a possible Trojan Horse in which swindles and heartbreak lie hidden.

The other message the universe may send us in disaster is a recognition of how universal opportunism, greed, corruption, and strife are in our world, a recognition that our brothers in sisters in New Orleans are the counterparts to the poor everywhere in America, to the denizens of the Twin Towers four years ago, to the AIDS orphans and starving genocide victims of Darfur, and to the war-throttled citizens of Iraq. After such a message we have no choice but to reach out, to create a better world, in small acts of charity as well as great acts of political vision. In this world, free gifts still hold a secret enwrapped deep in beneath their surfaces: a precious, forbidden conviction that each stranger we encounter really is our brother, that in every act of true charity we participate in the physical presence of Jesus Christ, that nothing else in the world can compare with the purpose and truth of God in such moments of uninhibited giving.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

I'm back

Hello everyone out there.

I'm back to Pembroke College, Cambridge, after a rather excruciating three weeks back home in California. I failed my quals. They told me that I was jetlagged and had overstudied. I passed my quals a week later, answering questions about the 10 books on the syllabus rather than the 500 books I had prepared to discuss. I passed my quals a week later, turned away for being jetlagged rather than dismissed from the department as often happens in these cases. I'm back, and starting a dissertation, in my new status as "ABD": "all but dissertation."

That's not what's eating me. Not by a long shot.

I saw news of Katrina the Monday before I boarded the plane. I smoked a pack of cigarettes and downed a bottle of whiskey, recorded a few strokes earlier on this blog. I got back and saw my profs. A colleague, the afternoon before my exam: "I didn't feel bad for those stupid folk in New Orleans. But then they started making our president look bad; I guess they're alright." My activist friends from the blogosphere: at Burning Man, spending $900 a head on furry costumes, expensive sleeping bags, bonfires, and drugs. So much for social transformation.

Two nights before the exam I failed, I went to a wake for New Orleans with James and his roommates, all from Louisiana. Blues music played in the background. Former residents of Baton Rouge and New Orleans stood around a bonfire in the cool air of ocean in Oakland, drinking beer and reminiscing. All of us, people keep asking us: is your family ok? Of course we're ok, I say; we're white; we had cars.

So this is what I need to say:

Those of you who aren't distressed, you have an inadequate interpretation of what a city means.

A city is cultural heritage and social heritage. A city means a group of people who remember together, work together, live and tolerate each other together. New Orleans is gone. A great American city has sunk beneath the ocean: more than that.

The only American city I know of where race wars were somewhat mitigated behind two hundred years of intermarriage, careful politics, interracial marriage -- that city is now vanquished, erased, its physical infrastructure and cultural memory vanished, its people dispersed to the corners of the earth, their right to work for themselves thrown into the cruel inhumanity of the market and the charity of large corporations for the next decade. And those centers of true racism: New York, Los Angeles, Oakland, Washington -- they go on reaping the profits of New Orleans' destruction. Infrastructure engineers and mass-trailer-park-housing-units reap a commercial benefit. Churches and schools stand idly by, sending a few dollars or volunteers when they should be sending hundreds.

Stand for a moment with those of us at the wake for New Orleans. Wonder with us how 9/11 could transfix the international media for three years, causing a war, and how 8/28 could slip under the radar screen, causing the least tremor of the eyebrow among liberal or conservative alike, as to what a war on poverty would look like, what an adequate response for the sick or elderly would look like, what progressive and humane care for the victims would look like, and how different each of those ideals would be from the reality. Reality spelt food-trucks turned away by FEMA, below subsistence malnutrition of victims on isolated trailer parks, the sniping of looters above the rescuing of the sick.

When New York lost two of its towers, people wept and strangers spoke to each other in the street. People wondered what it meant that their country was coming apart at the seams: was it government neglect? outside terror? the wrath of God? What could we do to help it? The Manhattan response was so energetic, so vital. People rushed to cell phones, volunteering at phone banks and clothes centers and charities for the years afterwards. The firefighters went down in memory as heroes. Their families received trust funds. We staged a war in their memory.

In New Orleans we see that vitalism, patriotism, nationalism, and community utterly undone. Three thousand blacks huddle in the Astrodome for a week and Burning Man rages in the desert, churches in Texas organize a couple of food banks. The Christian Left newswire registers a couple of references to Katrina daily, decrying Bush, and then launches back at its mainstays -- gay marriage, prophetic community, stem cells, porn. Stop it.

Stop the normal racket for a moment and look at this moment of history: a portion of American tolerance, history, and charity has been silenced forever. Tens of thousands of American lives have been lost, not just because of American disaster, but because in our selfishness and stillness we couldn't fabricate a plan to save them fast enough.

We went to war in Iraq over 9/11. What would going to war over 8/28 mean? What would happen if we went to war on poverty, on the lack of health care, on the absence of evacuation plans that care for the most poor in our cities?

Look at yourself before the world for a moment, America, and testify as to what your neglect means. You've said you were an advanced and civilized nation for so long: you claimed to be a Christian nation, an arbitrator of right and wrong in other regimes. I'm back in Britain now, and the Brits can't stop asking me about us. They say, we're like Bangladesh, only more corrupt; they say, even the Bangladeshi would bury their dead and evacuate their poor and feed and house them, not on government reservations but in cities where they could interact and thrive again.

The British say, surely this is the end of this regime, surely your people have had it with the current system of government, surely this means (at last) the end of Bush and the end of this useless War in Iraq to which we are wed by following Blair, the only viable leader of the Left our country possesses. I tell them that Bush's approval ratings have fallen from 50% to 40%. See here, readers, Brits, friends, family: the country is falling apart. Americans have lost all sense of what is reasonable, kind, worth voting or working for.

America, you are lost. American progressives, you lack guts. American conservatives, I begin to believe with the conspiracy theorists that the cold, hating blood of reptilian, green aliens have infiltrated your bodies and has transformed you into demonic haters of everything human.

I pray for the Savior. I pray for warmth, and community, and humanity, that they may descend from heaven and overwhelm us like the beating of a thousand angel wings. I return to news after weeks and read about the horror, and find my friends tepid and cold in response. Whatever humanity remains in America, let it raise its head. Come out now, all you progressives whose ideals are offended by this abandonment of the most helpless and innocent. Come out now, all you religious who believe in a God who cares for the least life. The apathy of nations is come home to America, and we fight its coolness here or lose the holy war for lives that are humane forever.