Generous Orthodoxy  

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Supporting our troops: Thoughts about leadership

The tabloid New York Post has Pfc. Lynndie England on its September 27, 2005 front page. "Lynndie Leashed," its huge headline seems to gloat, and the first sentence of the accompanying article refers to her as "the pathetic poster girl" of the Abu Ghraib prison scandals. Looking at her homely face and lumpish body today, one wonders if this is the same slightly built, even elfin, certainly gleeful young woman photographed humiliating naked Iraqi prisoners. The humiliator is now the humiliated.

Can there be any baby more unfortunate than the 11-month-old offspring of this "poster girl" and Charles Graner, her tutor and enabler in abuse? Graner, now serving 10 years, had cast Lynndie aside long before her child was born and, prior to his conviction by a jury of Army officers, had married another reservist who pleaded guilty in the case. Nothing seems more certain that that these liaisons were fueled by the erotic dimension underlying the sadistic activities at the prison. They were getting off on the degradation of their captives.

I for one am somewhat persuaded that Lynndie England was an unformed young person with no inner moral compass to speak of. There is some truth in what her defense attorney said: she was "overly compliant," infatuated with Graner, and unable to distinguish what authority was legitimate and what was not. We know from numerous studies that most people will go along with whatever they are led to believe is acceptable group behavior. Very, very few will be able to muster the courage to say "this is wrong and I'm not going to do it," when their peers are all doing it. It is small wonder that this is the case, given the demotions and firings that await most whistle-blowers.

The question that should be raised by all Christians whenever we get a chance is, Where were the majors and colonels and generals? In every substantive article I have read, the question arises over and over: where was the leadership? There are a number of superior officers, several of them women, who have been identified as negligent or indifferent to the torturing of prisoners under their command. Some of them are now being discussed for promotion.

There is a great deal of reverence for the military in the churches today, and there are prayers "for our troops" every Sunday, but the right questions are not being asked. What is the command of young men and women for if not for the shaping of young minds? My father graduated from the Virginia Military Institute; some of my most vivid memories were of listening to him talk about honor in the corps, the absolute prohibition of lying, cheating, stealing and the responsibility of each corpsman to report such violations. The huge cheating scandal at West Point in recent years rocked the Point to the core. What is the matter here? Is abuse and torture of "Persons Under Control" (PCUs) considered a lesser offense than lying, cheating and stealing? In recent developments (see previous Rumination, "Double Shame for America" on this website), several soldiers have testified that when they reported abuses to their superiors, they were told to shut up. It took one of them 17 months to get through, and the only way he could do it was to go to Senator Warner and Senator McCain.

Imagine what it would have been like at Abu Ghraib if the commander had been a humane leader with a clear sense of his/her responsibility for curbing the worst human instincts among the troops. There would have been regular meetings in which it would be stated in no uncertain terms: "There will be no, repeat NO, abuse or humiliation of prisoners. There will be regular unannounced inspections to make sure that this does not happen. Prisoners will be treated with watchfulness and suspicion if necessary, but there will be respect for them as fellow human beings. They will be treated as you would want your buddies to be treated if they were taken prisoner. Moreover, there will be no fraternization among the troops guarding this prison. Is that clear?"

If that had been done, there would have been no photographs of naked prisoners, no American shame, no prison term for a hapless young woman, and no poor misbegotten baby with two notorious parents hating each other in their respective prison cells. What a failure And to this date no one in the higher reaches of the Pentagon has paid any price whatsoever.

Saturday, September 24, 2005

Double shame for America

As the country continues to reel from the spectacle in the New Orleans Superdome and Convention Center, a new disclosure reminds us that there is more unfinished business in America. In Tips for the Times on this website, readers can find a front-page article from the New York Times that relates how three soldiers of the 82nd Airborne have finally, after 17 months of trying, have broken through the stonewalling of the Pentagon leaders by contacting Senators John Warner and John McCain. The substance of their testimony is that beatings and degrading treatment of prisoners in Iraq was constant, that it continued after Abu Ghraib, and that it was done out of boredom, "for fun." The most striking detail concerns the complicity and the silence of the leadership.

What does it mean to "support our troops"? Surely it means developing leadership that will protect the young men and women from their own worst instincts. Surely it does not mean bringing them home having become accustomed to torturing human beings for amusement. Surely it means outrage that this should have been allowed.

I have always admired the Army as the most egalitarian of the services, but my admiration is draining away. Where are the Dwight Eisenhowers and the George Marshalls? Doesn't God want our voices as Christians to be raised on behalf of our armed forces? Is this good training for them? Where are the "Christian soldiers"? Doesn't anyone care about this?

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Remembering St. Paul's Chapel, Fulton Street, New York City in the wake of Katrina

Krystyna Sanderson, a parishioner at Grace Church in New York, was the only photographer permitted total access to St. Paul's Chapel at Ground Zero during the year following September 11, 2001. This large, handsome colonial church building, the oldest in the city, was miraculously unharmed in the attacks and became world-famous as the central place of respite for the firefighters, police, demolition teams, and other workers at the site. As I turned the pages recently of Krystyna's splendid book of photographs, I realized that one of the major differences between post-9/11 New York and post-Katrina New Orleans is that there is no St. Paul's for the rescue workers and police in the Crescent City. There has been no place for them to go for massages and home-cooked meals, no place for them to rest their weary heads on a clean pillow, no counseling center for them to retreat to, no one to pray for and with them. (Belying the reputation of the Big Easy, there are no available female groupies to sleep with them, either, as was widely reported to be the case at Ground Zero. Not that St. Paul's was the scene of these ministrations.)

A reporter for The New York Times writes from New Orleans that on Sunday, September 18, "Downtown, no chaplain could be found to preach for the Salvation Army workers or the soldiers under the Budweiser Hurricane Relief tent down by the casino. The windows were gone from Tilly's Chapel Services in Bywater, and the doors were closed on the Way Jesus Christ Christian Church on St. Charles Avenue. Archbishop Alfred C. Hughes had spoken of a Mass at St. Louis Cathedral for rescue workers, but gave no certain date." (Michael Brick, "In a Parking Lot...Sunday Goes On," NYTimes, 9/19/05)

The person who presided over St. Paul's Chapel after 9/11 was the Rev. Lyndon Harris, formerly of the Grace Church staff. For some reason he has never gotten the recognition he deserves for this work. Among the many merits of Krystyna's book of photographs is its recording of his heroic service to the city of New York and the City of God.

Musing about race

Paul Krugman's column "Tragedy in Black and White," started me thinking about slavery and segregation and racism in a way that I had not for a long time. Thinking back to my childhood in ultra-segregated Southside Virginia, I recall how the different physical traits of "Nigra" people (large posteriors, heel pads, thick lips, wooly hair, not to mention skin color) made it easy for whites to think of them as a separate, inferior species, not human in the same way that whites are human. I remember a black woman crippled from rickets; this was explained to me as her failure to take the cod liver oil that I gagged on daily, as though she was to be blamed for having rickets.

So I think Krugman is right. I believe that in spite of the ascendancy of the Colin Powells and the Condi Rices (both of whom easily pass the grocery-bag test of skin color), there is a lingering legacy from the days of slavery that infects us all and that leads us into racist thinking without our even realizing it. "These people are underprivileged anyway," in the now-infamous words of Barbara Bush.

Link to the relevant portion of the Krugman column:

Friday, September 16, 2005

One human story of race and class in the wake of Katrina

Some of the most striking and most disturbing data to come out of the debacle in New Orleans is the discrepancy in the polls between blacks and whites. When asked if they thought that there was evidence of racial prejudice at work in the botched evacuation, several different polls showed 70 per cent (more or less) of whites saying no, 70 per cent of blacks saying yes. This ought to shock us as much as the situation itself, if not more so.

I have committed to memory a sentence in Philip Gourevitch's major award-winning book, We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families (Winner National Book Critics Circle Award 1998). This is a highly praised account of the genocide in Rwanda and the abject failure of the American and European powers to do anything to stop it. Here is the sentence: "Power largely consists in the ability to make others inhabit your story of their reality.”

This strikes me as one of the most telling descriptions of oppression that I have heard. With just a moment's reflection, anyone of any race can understand this on the individual level in situations that happen to us every day. When people reword your story of distress about something into a different story that is more palatable to them, you feel reduced, dismissed, and quite probably angry. The other person has failed to inhabit your story, but has imposed his own story on yours.

When an entire dominant group is allowed to impose a story on a subordinate group, day after day, year after year, the amount of rage that builds up is significant. If, after all the gains since the 50s, blacks feel that they are still required to listen to white people rewording their stories in ways that are not at all like what they are actually experiencing, then our racial problem is still acute. This should be particularly grievous for white American Christians. The African-American population as a whole is still overwhelmingly, and devoutly, Christian. It is a source of wonder that the tradition of redemption and forgiveness is still so strong among them. We should be humbled and grateful to them for preserving so much of what is central to Christian faith. I do not romanticize the black Church, but it should be obvious that, whatever its faults may be, it has instilled an extraordinarily forgiving disposition in the majority of its members.

Here is a vignette from the front page of The Berkshire (Massachusetts) Eagle:

The front page features a four-columns-wide colored photograph of a white woman, Nita LaGarde, age 105, being wheeled away from the now-infamous scene at the New Orleans Convention Center by a burly rescue worker. The aged but dignified silver-haired white lady is remarkably well-groomed under the circumstances in a neat black dress and a smart handbag. Alongside the wheelchair marches an equally neat and dignified little black girl, aged 5. The two of them, one hundred years apart in age and a world apart in social status, are holding hands.

Inside the newspaper we learn who these two are. The little girl, Tanisha Blevin, is the granddaughter of Ms. LaGarde's caregiver, Ernestine Dangerfield, 60. They have spent (incredibly) two days in an attic, two days on an interstate island, and four days on the pavement in front of the convention center. Ms. Dangerfield said Ms. LaGarde had not had a clean adult diaper in more than two days. "I just want to get somewhere where I can get her nice and clean,” she told a reporter. If Ms. LaGarde looked dignified in her black dress, if she was still holding her handbag, and if Tanisha felt a kindly, protective connection to her after eight days of hell, we know that Ms. Dangerfield is the one who made that happen—by the grace of God.

This story of devotion and self-sacrifice across the lines of race and class, and many others like them that I have heard, must be told again and again. Only by paying attention to these narratives can we hope to break through the stereotypes. In the same newspaper, a man in Gulfport, Mississippi was in his flooded house, in dire need of aid, but disgusted with the scenes on TV from New Orleans. He said to a reporter, "I say burn the bridges and let ‘em all rot there. We're suffering over here too, but we're not killing each other. We've got to help each other.” Somehow we must get the message across that many blacks and whites in the nightmarish conditions in New Orleans were indeed helping each other.

The Berkshire Eagle
, Sunday, September 4

Saturday, September 10, 2005

The Resurrection of New Orleans

Behind the Cathedral of St. Louis there is a statue of Christ with his arms upraised in a powerful gesture of blessing. At night it is dramatically lit with a spot that casts a shadow on the wall of the church behind it. The shadow is three or four times larger than the statue, an effect which exponentially multiplies the visual impact.

On one of my many trips to New Orleans a few years ago I took a literary walking tour through the French Quarter with Kenneth Holditch, who was a friend of Tennessee Williams. It was one of the best tours I ever took. Holditch said that Williams had taken a particular apartment on Toulouse Street because it afforded a view of the statue. Williams said the atatue was comforting to him because it seemed that Christ was stretching out his arms to the suffering world.

The French Quarter and the Cathedral survived the hurricane relatively unharmed. May our Lord lift up the city of New Orleans from the dead. A friend, the rector of All Saints River Ridge, wrote me that the Resurrection of the city would look like Mardi Gras!

There is much we can do, even from a distance, to give heart and soul to the rebuilding. Churches in Mississippi also need our help. Episcopal Relief and Development is one agency that is positioned to help, and the other denominations also have funds similarly ready to go to work with a minimun of administrative overhead.

"Everyone here is grand to me -- painters and writers; In the evening we gather somewhere and discuss the world and politics and art and death." -- William Faulkner, describing the French Quarter in a 1925 letter to his mother

Friday, September 09, 2005

A disturbing question about Christian witness in New Orleans after Katrina

Wouldn't the Christian thing to do in New Orleans have been for some highly-placed privileged person, some government official, some business leader, some bishop or pastor, some banker or lawyer, some state senator or big-time chef or somebody to go down to the "Sewerdome" or the Convention Center and make a witness by sharing in the misery? Wouldn't that have been a witness for the ages? Much has been made of the celebrities who are organizing fund-raisers (and collecting much fulsome on-air praise). What if Wynton Marsalis or Emeril or Ellen deGeneres had actually gone down instead of looking on from a safe distance? When the Netherlands suffered a disastrous flood some decades ago, Queens Wilhelmina and Juliana went in with hip boots and were beloved ever after.

The city was not totally closed off; I personally know of two people who were brought out of the French Quarter on Day 2 in a friend's car who drove in via I-10 to get them. These two evacuees are people of a certain age and in fragile health, so I am in no way pointing at them, but why was there no physically strong, able-bodied person to go in as an incarnate example of Christ's humility? Have this mind among yourselves which is yours in Christ Jesus, who thought he was in the form of God emptied himself of his divinity, taking the form of a slave...(Philippians 2). We are constantly celebrating St. Francis with sentimental statues, animal blessings, and endless repetitions of the famous prayer; can it be doubted that what Francis would actually have wanted us to do was get down there with the poor people in their desperation? We are all sending money (one presumes), but why was there no Dorothy Day, no Oscar Romero, no Simone Weil to lie in the streets in the name of Christ?

Perhaps when all the stories are told it will emerge that some one did go and bear this witness on behalf of us all.

These thoughts were inspired by a sermon I heard in Virginia on the Sunday after Katrina left her malign tracks across the landscape, the lives of countless human beings, and our national psyche. The sermon will be posted soon in Resources on this website.

Don't mess with the Mississippi

Everyone keeps referring to the wake of Katrina as a "natural disaster." In Biloxi and Gulfport, OK. But New Orleans? The cataclysm in New Orleans was almost entirely man-made. Much damage was done by the wind, of course, and there would have been some flooding in any case. But the city was built in the worst possible place for purely commercial reasons, and as everyone surely knows by now, the money was not available to build up the levees to protect against Categories 4 and 5. This was a failure that now looks like prodigious folly. I remember clipping a major article about five years ago—which I still have in my files—describing the precarious situation of the city and the threat that hung over it. It is now common knowledge that the city could have been spared the worst of the present situation if the levees had been strengthened. It is known that the barrier islands and marshes should have been protected. 12 billion for the levees seemed like an absurd amount at the time, but that sum pales beside what it will cost to rebuild New Orleans—and the human cost, it need hardly be said, is not quantifiable.

When I was in Cajun country four years ago, a native Louisianan once described to me the efforts of engineers to control the Mississippi, and then said, "The river will always win in the end." In that sense, the catastrophe was a "natural" one. But the effects were multiplied exponentially by greed, heedlessness, and misplaced priorities. Pharmacist Jason Dove, looking out over the scene at the Convention Center, said, "We created this Frankenstein." (Allen G. Breed, Associated Press 9/3/05.)

Thoughts about Katrina on Day 2 (posted later)

Though it was built assertively against nature for the purpose of amassing wealth, New Orleans is one of the world's great cities. It is utterly unlike any other American city (local people will tell you emphatically that it is not Southern). It is an amalgam of French, Spanish, "Creole" (with all the many meanings of that term), Caribbean, African-American and, almost as an afterthought, WASP (the WASPs who moved into the city were disdainfully called "Americans" by the Creole elite). As a passionate lover of New Orleans, which I know well, I have often been asked what I like so much about it. One word sums it up for me: gusto.

No doubt, the spirited, insouciant population of the Big Easy will recover enough to welcome tourists and visitors to hotels and restaurants in relatively short order. The French Quarter, the Garden District, and the Uptown section—the areas best known and most beloved by visitors—were least affected, so far as one can tell at this point. No one can fail to have noticed, however, that most of the refugees in the Superdome were black and that the terrified people awaiting rooftop rescue were from the poorest neighborhoods. As Christians we are seriously challenged by this factor which almost always makes itself known in disasters of this kind. Members of relatively affluent churches along the stricken Gulf Coast will undoubtedly be moved, even in the midst of their own miseries and losses, to reach out to those who have few resources to cope with catastrophe. Churches will be on the front lines of response to individuals and families in distress. All of us throughout the country can contribute to special funds at the churches on the Gulf Coast of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama, in addition to the various agencies that minister to those who have so little. These church funds (such as Episcopal Relief and have the advantage of going directly to people and places where there is most need.

Saturday, September 03, 2005

Katrina: "We don't live like this"

Of the many affecting scenes on television these past few days, there were two in particular that haunt me. Two black women, one young and one old, were both in their fourth or fifth day of living like animals in the streets. The younger one, sobbing uncontrollably, was offered (after a five-day wait) an MRE. She sobbed, "I want to go home. I want to eat my own food. This is not the way we live." (Note the word "we".) The older woman was especially arresting in her dignity; she was filthy, she was semi-literate, she was overweight, but when she said through tears, "We don't live like this," it seemed that she was speaking for her whole community of people who, though poor and badly educated, nevertheless worked hard to maintain a semblance of decency in their homes. She was speaking for thousands who kept their floors swept, their flowers watered, their pots shiny and their Mardi Gras decorations in boxes. These are not people who go to the bathroom in the street, who eat with hands unwashed for days, who live below the divide between the worthy and the unworthy.

As many of the best articles about New Orleans have observed, this is a city which is as much as 80% native. Perhaps more than in any other American city, the people of New Orleans have preserved their traditions and their history among themselves for generations. And there is something else. Among my many friends there is a woman who, though not a native, has lived for two decades in the Garden District and has grown to love the city deeply. I asked her to talk about its unique qualities. I particularly remember her saying, "The people here understand suffering."

All the more reason that they should not be asked to suffer one day longer, any more than we can help. May Our Lord walk among the homeless of New Orleans, but even more, may he open the hearts of all Americans to help them to arrive some day at a time when their traditions and histories will include these words: "I was hungry, and you gave me food; thirsty, and you gave me a drink; homeless, and you brought me home again."

Friday, September 02, 2005

Katrina: Real Help or Self-Aggrandizement?

A splendid recent book, The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami? by David B. Hart, sharply criticizes the spectacle of people congratulating themselves for their magnanimity in the face of terrible suffering, as though human tragedy could be excused and explained as an opportunity for others to feel good about themselves. Surely Hart's point is apposite for the present Gulf Coast catastrophe, as celebrities speak unctuously of their own generosity, and news broadcasters preen themselves as they go through the rehearsed gestures and use the stock cadences that they employ for every situation, from the most trivial to the most tragic (the sole exception being Aaron Brown).

We can learn something from observing the difference between artificial sympathy and self-aggrandizing gestures, on the one hand, and genuine empathy and active help on the other. The parable of the Good Samaritan is the model. The details of the story are remarkable. The Samaritan responds to need with practical, effective, unsentimental actions attuned to the victim's specific needs, and he makes certain that the sufferer will be cared for in the long term, guaranteeing his own return to cement the arrangement. In this parable, Christ is obliquely describing his own ministry to humanity. As the incarnate human presence of God, he is showing us the way we who live in the Spirit are empowered as his agents in the world.

Katrina: Race and Class

As I write this on day 5, leaders of the black community have begun mounting a powerful response to the chaotic situation in New Orleans and the media coverage of the disaster. This has been very heartening to see, because four days of television images of young black men looting and dishevelled black people in dire circumstances has threatened to cause a severe dislocation in the national psyche. Whether they were conscious of it or not, viewers were absorbing the message, "This is the everlasting lot of black people, and maybe some of them have brought this on themselves by being poor, by being semi-literate, by being overweight, by having poor control over their children." The strong offensive today by African-Americans in public life will go a long way toward mitigating that perception.

There remains the very difficult matter of class. Most of the American citizens
who have been reduced to living like animals in filth on the street are poor, with none of the resources that many of us take for granted. Americans like to think of themselves as a classless people, and certainly our tradition of upward mobility is rightly valued; but we should all be clear-eyed about this: our vaunted American and Christian values will be tested more strongly in this situation than they have been in a very long time. God loves the people at the New Orleans Convention Center in a special way (God really does have "a preferential option for the poor"). May he move all of us affluent Christians who are sitting at our computers in our nice clean houses to open our minds, neighborhoods, pocketbooks, and hearts to the sufferers who have been swept up in a cataclysm less of their making than ours.