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Saturday, September 24, 2005

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.


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