Thursday, August 31, 2006

Heaven Help You (Because Nobody Down Here Will)

I'd love to find the most sensitive and articulate way to broach this subject, being that it's one that has the unique and inherent ability to get me called all kinds of not-very-nice names. I have a feeling though, that as with all discussions of this particular topic, there will be no avoiding a certain amount of disastrous misunderstanding and bitter rebuttal.

Oh well -- whatever.

Now that a week's worth of media genuflection is coming to a close in honor of the first anniversary of Hurricane Katrina (not to be confused with the week's worth of media hand-wringing in the wake of the John Mark Karr fiasco), I'm left to ponder a couple of questions. They're questions not so much about the coverage as about the people being covered; those whose lives were so hideously affected by Katrina, and those who have -- through obligation or a simple desire to do good -- taken it upon themselves to help the desperate and needy. I would never dare insult anyone willing to step forward with a helping hand in a time of need, but for some reason there is one inarguable curiosity which has made itself clear in the aftermath of this massive storm which deserves a closer examination, or at the very least a raised eyebrow or two.

Obviously, Katrina shined a very bright light on the disparity of treatment between rich and poor in this country -- moreso I believe than simply black and white. Yet the racial makeup of those affected is playing a major part in just who's helping in the rebuilding effort, how they're helping, and why.

Eariler in the week, I watched an interview with Bruce Gordon, the president of the NAACP, as he rightly bemoaned the lack of governmental support for the reconstruction effort in New Orleans's devastated Lower 9th Ward. As he walked through a neighborhood that looked frighteningly like pictures of Hiroshima in the days after the bomb was dropped, he spoke of the need for others to take up the mantle of responsibility for putting the pieces back together again. Mentioned in the first few words out of his mouth: the church.

So perhaps, putting all the verbosity aside, my question is as simple as this: why do Black Americans -- especially the underprivileged -- seem to consistently turn to the church for help in solving their problems?

You might be tempted at this point to open that thesaurus and begin looking for as many synonyms for "asshole" as you can find to pepper your comment with, but please understand that this observation doesn't come from upper-class whitey, sitting on-high, rebuking all the little people and their immature ways; it's a legitimate question which I've wondered about for quite some time.

Years ago, when I was a producer at a Miami television station, there was a local boy who became somewhat of a cause celebre. I can't remember his name for the life of me, but his actions are rather unforgettable: by the ripe old age of eleven, he had a rap sheet taller than he was -- a fact which our reporters and others in the market delighted in pointing out, then parroting ad nauseum. The boy -- who happened to be black -- was pretty much on his way to juvenile detention, then inevitably to jail for life -- until someone stepped in to take him under his wing and hopefully show him another way. That man was Jesus. Well, not Jesus himself -- but Jesus acting through a local pastor who made a special arrangement with the police and the courts to take young what's-his-name out of the system and into the arms of the church.

For weeks we followed the boy's progress. We watched the church group -- dressed in their Sunday best -- sing hymns to the Lord to thank him for delivering the soul of the young sinner and putting him on the path to righteousness. We watched that pastor, looking not entirely unlike the laughably over-zealous bible-thumping character Arsenio Hall created in Coming to America, as he proudly showed off the new and improved young what's-his-name, and touted the transformational power of Jesus Christ.

We then watched as the kid stole a car and went right back to jail.

I remember thinking at the time that if I were a young boy with a potential to get into trouble (no snickers please), it would bug the hell out of me that the leaders of my community -- its most powerful citizens -- weren't people who could give me life lessons grounded in the real world: doctors, lawyers, judges, civic leaders (that is, civic leaders who weren't also church leaders).

If I were that boy, the message you'd be sending me by surrounding me with pastors and their flock is simple: only God can help you kid.

It was a questionable enough solution for one misguided boy; it borders on incomprehensible for an entire community.

I don't doubt the church's ability -- nor do I cast derision upon its willingness -- to play a charitable role in the lives of millions in need. What I have an issue with is the black community's seeming insistence on laying a substantial part of the burden in any crisis squarely at the feet of Jesus Christ.

Once again, the message this sends is obvious: everyone else has abandoned you -- so you have to now put your ass in the hands of a being you can't see or hear, cross your fingers, say a prayer, and have faith that things will turn out okay. Praise Jesus.

A caveat of this, I hinted at before: it seems a prerequisite that to become a civic leader in the black community, one must at least be religious, and at most be an ordained pastor or minister of some kind.

It goes without saying that government was sleeping on the job and fully relenquished its post in the days leading up to, during, and following Hurricane Katrina. It let an entire city down; it let an entire city drown. In the absence of tangible, real-world help -- a reliance on myth and superstition is bound to flourish.

The message to the community though is unfortunate.

It'll take much more than faith to help the people of the Gulf.


Robo said...

So many little time/space..

First...It kinda pisses me off that my tax dollars are being spent (or not spent thanks to the administration) on reconstruction efforts for personal property. I understand that the Tax $$ should be used to rebuild the levees and the infrastructure but they chose to live in an area that has the potential to be destroyed by a hurricane. I shouldn’t have to pay for your house to be rebuilt. Maybe I'm a prick on this but it's America and you can do anything you put your mind to. Saying that you're stuck there because of a job or no education or ___(Fill in the blank) is just an excuse for not getting off one's ass and doing something about it. I’m not saying that we should just ditch New Orleans but I don’t think the rest of the country should have to pay for it to be rebuilt is all I’m saying. Plus I think the funds would be widely misused on a ridiculous scale. Just see all the reports on what the $$ from the FEMA Debit Cards were spent on. Strip joints, Champagne, Sneakers, Booze…..just boggles the mind.

On the religion tip....I am not religious at all. I can see where people would put their entire faith into something like religion because they have nothing else to believe or have faith in. I was raised to have faith in MYSELF and to believe that I am the one who determines my course. My parents were also upper-middle class citizens so there was a 'light at the end of the tunnel' for me I guess. If I had nothing and lived in the ghetto (I've spent plenty of time there believe me) I would be searching for something to put my faith in too. To be quite honest….that’s how I think Religion got started. It was started in the lowest class and built up reputation and gained membership because back then people really did feel (and due to the class system probably were) unable to better themselves. A servant could never marry an Aristocrat or someone a class above them. Today this isn’t so much the case (See K-Fed). Some people were ‘doomed’ to a life of servitude and knew it. So they heard a story about this ‘afterlife’ where if you behaved in this life you would be rewarded by going to ‘heaven’ where all your dreams would come true. If I was a servant I’d be like “Fuck Yeah…where do I sign up?”

So with that said…I think that when slavery existed in this country it made some Blacks feel like the servants back in the day. Plus it gave them a sense of community when they could all have something in common besides being enslaved by some White Dickhead. Religion in the form of Christianity was introduced and all of a sudden there was something to believe in. They could escape the perils of their earthly existence and feel like they were truly destined for something great.

I could go on for hours about religion and the ridiculous grip it has on the human race but I’ll just stop here. The best way to describe how I really feel about it is in a quote from Einstein:

“My religion consists of a humble admiration of the illimitable superior spirit who reveals himself in the slight details we are able to perceive with our frail and feeble mind.”

Jaedon Woods said...

First off, let me say that you are not unlike an opening in the anus, but to call you that would be to downplay the realities of my own similar description.

The question of organized religion has completely dumbfounded me my whole life. I don't know that I find it to necessarily be culturally specific. I really think it deals with all beings inherant need to believe in something. From a psychological standpoint it's how our schemas work. We all have a set of beliefs in which allow us to build our individual realities. Whereas you and I may place our belief in ourselves rather then baby Jesus, others (of all cultures) desperately need to believe in a higher being to make sense of there world on some level and give them hope (psychology is founded on that and metaphysics is an extension of understanding how we can take more active control of it). My belief is that organized religion-on many levels-exists as a system of control at this point. Look no further then our own American paradigm to see how well fear motivates and controls. The construct is strong and many of us can't see past the programming, whether it's making you believe in the American dream (buy a house, work a crappy job, get married and have 2.4 baybays), Patriotism, Organized Western religion, or a whole host of other prods the system employs to keep the herd moving in line, CONTROL is the resonating concept.

We are a nation of people that believe in varying degrees of assinine concepts that control us. We've spent our whole lives being conditioned in such a manner. It's in all of our ability to break that programming but to do so means seeing reality. Which is something most of us are just not equipped to handle. the weight of realizing the myopic nature of your current view and making it something more ubiquitious isn't a weight the vast majority wants to bear. But, on the bright side, I've always got MTV Cribs to keep my world safe and rational...

And to Robo, please save your waxing philosophic on why black people do certain things for your next life or in the case the Springer show returns to the air. Quoting Einstein makes you know more knowledgable on this topic then me quoting Stephen Covey makes me a more effective drinker.

VOTAR said...

Robo's chronology is heartfelt but a little off. The advent of superstitionism precedes the stratification of human society into different "classes." Art, music, dance, painting, sculpture, writing...nearly everything that makes us slightly better than apes, evolved out of the need to explain the universe. The moon goes across the sky because there is a chariot pulling it, of course. The storm destroyed our village because god is angered, and he must be appeased. Vaal hungers, he calls to us!

And when class distinctions did emerge, religion was most likely the priveleged arena of the elite, not the other way around. The priests / kings / witchdoctors / shamans / pharaohs were the ones with the secret hotline to "god"...and the poor schlubs dragging the bluestones across Salisbury Plain? Good luck in the afterlife, guys. "As it is below, so above."

That having been said, I agree that religion is the easy choice in situations like this. Religion is the last refuge of the ignorant and the frightened. I don't say that to dispairage the unfortunate people whose lives were ruined by this disaster...but actually that's kind of my point: god didn't ruin their lives, and god isn't waving a baton to transform that huge pile of rubble back into something resembling a house. God doesn't help your favorite team win a football game, and he didn't boost the sales of your favorite pop singer's latest CD. He isn't going to help anyone shake their addiction to [insert your favorite drug here]. He isn't going to keep you out of jail...although he hangs out there, an awful lot, apparently.

I suppose I should say, I'm guilty of it too. I was once on a plane over the everglades flying through a lightning storm like you see in the movies, where the little model plane is being spun around on marionette strings in front of a strobe light. The lady next to me was praying with her little rosary beads. "Adrenaline Faith." Everyone on board was scared shitless, including me. The devout skeptic found himself saying "alright, help me get out of this alive, and I'll be a good person, I
promise." I'm guilty of the reverse, too. I've been shaking my fist at the sky for the past, oh, thirty years or more, wondering why so many crappy things happen to me. Superstition is in our DNA, I think.

But I guess, if I understand you Chez, what we're saying is, in the absence of doing things "because it's the right thing to do," we have to settle for "because god tells us to." It does get the job done, in a way. We mean well, even if we're still clinging to the metaphor rather than living in the Source (read Joseph Campbell). It's just a shame that we are still so recently emerged from the trees that we need an artificial construct to guide us behave decently. I was struck by the powerful images a year ago of post-apocalyptic New Orleans, of people throwing chairs through glass storefronts to steal armloads of sneakers and VCRs while police officers with shotguns looked on helplessly knowing that nature had taken over where civilzation had dissolved. I remember thinking, look how easy it is that we go right back to primitive, when the controlling clamp of "civilization" is removed. It was a demonstration of the line of Tim Curry's character, Darkness, in that 80's fantasy movie "Legend" (starring Tommy Cruise and the delicious young Mia Sara):

"We are all animals, my dear!"

TK said...

Why do we turn to the church? Simple. Who else are we going to turn to? The government? Yeah, because they have such a long and storied history of helping black people. Please.

As for robo's comments - why are you paying for the reconstruction of personal property? For the same reason your taxes pay for Social Security and Medicaid and Head Start programs. Because that's the price you pay for living in a Democracy. Every now and then, something happens and people need help, and we, collectively, pick up the tab.

Frankly, I'm ok with that. I mean, these are people who lost EVERYTHING. Who else is going to help them? I'm sorry, but I'm a purist when it comes to this stuff. Use my taxes to help the downtrodden. I'm totally fine with it. I'd rather it be used to rebuild a family's house than to build a better missle.

famous mortimer said...

you tax dollars have a better shot of ending up in the pockets of one of Dick Cheney's buddy's companies than going to help rebuild New Orleans, (Newer Orleans?). obviously their prayers are being answered...

as for the indigent faithful who survived Extreme Home Makeover: God Edition, they are no more likely to get help from Jesus as some high school football coach praying for the game winning touchdown. unless they're in Texas. God loves Texas and small town football.

rather than have people bring up Jesus in conversation they should just announce they are a fucking moron and that everything they say and think is suspect due to their inability to reason logically or critically. having faith, while creating some false comfort for them, is the ultimate empty gesture. if everybody could will something to happen through the strength of their dedication and belief, women would need a wheelbarrow to cart their tits around and men would be good listeners and sensitive. so far neither side has had much in the way of results, but perhaps they need be a bit more faithful...

it's so easy to be on the slippery slope when you look at minorities and say they're the ones with the least finanical and social standing so their stock is in religion, but who do you think you're kidding? turn to the one intangible and infallible thing that, unfortunately, is also by it's own nature beyond all redress and culpability, and all that's left is an infinite scenario chasing the carrot dangling from the faith stick. any why not? beats having to find a way out of the inner city or crossing borders to work illegally...Jesus will work it out for you.

people by their own shitty nature refuse to acknowledge or be responsible for themselves and situations, because faith is the ultimate get-out-of-confronting-reality-free card. kids get cancer, kitty cats get thrown in the river by the sack-full, and bad things happen to good people...and nobody seems to put the finger of blame on Jesus. well, except for nuts like Robertson and Falwell, but that's really a result of our decadent gay liberal lifestyles.

end on a Karl Marx quote...

VOTAR said...

I'm down with tk on that. The next time it might be here in Miami (...again!) and I'll be the one needing some serious "to each according to their need" assistance. Unfortunately the missiles will still be built, with money borrowed from our unborn grandchildren... but hey the rapture will happen soon anyway and all the republicans won't be here to have to worry about repaying that debt....right?

"Putcha hands togethah.... for Sexual Chocolate!"

Eric said...

Regarding "Getting off your ass and getting a job." Anyone who says that doesn't know the unbelievably high unemployment rate that existed in New Orleans before Katrina.
Perhaps they also don't understand that, if you are, say, in New Orleans, you can't just up and leave in search of a new job.
With what money will you leave? And have you tried finding a job to get you out of the poverty level range with a company that will pay to relocate you? No?
Didn't think so.
The simple answer is that most of these people are stuck. They are stuck in jobs that barely pay them anything, stuck living in government-subsidized housing on government-subsidized money with which to eat.
And now we have said, "nope. Sorry. You can't have a home."

As for religion, my experience with it goes far beyond a "black" thing and extends to a southern cultural/traditional thing. Perhaps that goes some way to explain the black churchgoing experience here? I do not know.

Robo said...

Eric...I'm just sick of the victim thinking in this country. People will complain, complain, COMPLAIN but never change their behavior or attitude to change things.

That is part of the problem. There is always a way to make a change for the better. The first step is education...there is $$ to be had if you're too poor to afford it. Shit even community college is better than nothing. Education can get you out of the slums. Bottom line. Sure it's much easier and cheaper to complain and do nothing but then you stay where you are.

Last I knew we lived in America where millions flock for a better life. It's out there if you really want it!!!

Nothing in life worth a shit is easy and nor should it be.

Anonymous said...

It's been hinted at in these comments: my take on why the church is so powerful in poor/rural/strongly Black areas is that the church(es) provide the strongest place to form a community. I don't see it as promoting the message that "Only God will save you;" think back to the way religious gatherings were used throughout the 20th century to unite Black communities and, specifically, to forge solidarity in the civil rights movement. It's an area of Black life that wasn't regulated by the Whites in power.

I see it as a shattered community returning to the place where they build strength, not by turning to the redemptive power of Jesus Christ (though I'm sure that has gret significance to some individuals), but by turning to each other for the help The Powers That Be are, once again, not providing.

glenna said...

Percy Campbell - that was who we slugged "Crime Boy" - remember? There have been so many more since.. We miss you in Miami..