New Orleans, Christianity and the Future

Over lunch today, my political scientist partner remarked that the experience of New Orleans provided a pedagogically helpful starting point for discussing the Hobbesian view of human life and nature, as nasty, brutish, and all that. Some of the sufferings of the poor and marginalized of New Orleans seem to bear that out.

Psalm 72, one of the Psalms from last evening's daily office, includes one of my favorite passages from the psalms: "May people blossom in the cities like the grass of the field." As I've explained to some people before, I always find that supposedly breathtaking natural vistas fill me wonder and a sense of their beauty, but cityscapes are truly breathtaking to me; seeing Boston's skyline after turning the bend on I-93 excited me every time as a child, and still makes me feel like I'm floating today. Cities are not mentioned too much in the Psalms, except in reference to Jerusalem or to the City of God, and most imagery tends to be natural or pastoral in tone. But the grandeur of cities pokes its way through at many places, like here in last evening's Psalm.

It was therefore with a great sense of mourning last evening that I prayed those words while watching scenes of New Orleans falling apart. And more. While not wanting to be alarmist, I think that it might be realistic to expect that New Orleans is not the last major American city we're going to find in pieces in our lifetimes. Whether due to more storms, to terrorist attacks, or to the simple crumbling of a civic landscape running on fumes in a number of senses (if you want to see New Orleans in slow motion, look what we've let happen to Detroit), our cities remain fragile places, fragile islands where hundreds of thousands of people are able to live together peacefully not necessarily through their own merits or efforts, but through our dumb luck of living in the prosperity of the early twenty-first century. We are not in the habit of shoring up our cities; we are not in the habit of patching up the levees of our own greed and self-interest with the decisions and sacrifices needed to maintain a common good, a "commonwealth", in these times. We are not in the habits of learning to care for each other and, more, to put others ahead of ourselves, when the lights fail, when the trains don't run, when food becomes more scarce. While I very much hope that I'm wrong, I've also read enough Bernard Lonergan and enough history to know how easily a lack of attentive, rational, responsible living can begin and hasten a merciless cycle of decline.

There is hope in this, however, a hope that we can begin learning in the concrete details of our own personal experiences of suffering. Christians have, by and large, always lived in unimaginable times. They do today as well. It's only my experience and, to make some assumptions, by and large the experience of anyone reading this blog, that makes Christianity seem to fit so easily into the bourgeois security of middle class, educated America. I fear that the coming decades will give many more of us the opportunity to practice Christianity, or to abandon it, in the difficulties of collective disorder, of a stumbling economy, of a more profound insecurity. September 11th no longer seems like such an isolated incident anymore. Will we sacrifice our values of non-violence and love of neighbor when that neighbor's survival will threaten our comfort? Will we have the ability to practice "costly discipleship" in the years to come? Will we be able to call ourselves Christians in any meaningful sense, and will we suffer for it?

Augustine wrote The City of God as Roman civilization was becoming increasingly irrational around him in Western Europe, and as refugees from the sack of Rome were landing on his shores in North Africa. Even as I re-read my words, they seem too rooted in fear and in the heat in the air at the end of the summer. But watching New Orleans stumble and fall is sending me back to Augustine; if I'm wrong, I'll know my Augustine much better; if I'm sadly prescient for a change, I'll start gaining some wisdom regarding how to follow Christ in times of famine.

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