Thursday, January 14, 2010


The view of Haiti we in America have witnessed through the video, photos, and media narrative pale in comparison to the human misery being experienced by the people of Haiti. Their national pain can be heard in the screams and moans echoing almost constantly from the rubble. Bruised and battered people wander aimlessly in the streets. Doctors, medical supplies, and the volunteers needed to bring healing are in critically short supply. Given this grim scenario, some Haitians bravely dig through the fallen buildings with their bare hands in desperate attempts to rescue those on the cusp of death beneath the twisted and smashed concrete.

At such times even the necessary international response seems so inadequate. The reports coming in are grim – as many as a half a million may have died in the quake, with thousands more dying as the needed help makes its way ever so slowly to the disaster’s epicenter. People seem strewn across the scarred land like dead wood drifting on un-caring sea. Is any flotilla of aircraft carriers the world can muster enough? Even if we load cargo aircraft to the gunwales and fly them to Port au Prince in never ending waves, will it be enough to end the misery?

The questions are moot, really. The world must act and do whatever is necessary to alleviate the suffering and begin the rebuilding. In doing so, answers to those questions will come in the days and months ahead. It will be a difficult battle, tinged with despair, but it’s a battle that must be undertaken with the utmost of purpose.

Sometime yesterday, in the wake of the tragedy, evangelist Pat Robertson made the following observation:

“And so the devil said, ‘Ok it’s a deal.’ And they kicked the French out. The Haitians revolted and got something themselves free. But ever since they have been cursed by one thing after another.”

The response was swift and predictable. Robertson was denounced as a fanatical bigot.

It would be easy to say, as a Christian, that Robertson’s words were nothing more than a matter of bad timing, but I can’t. They were un-Christian.

What is Haiti, then, if it’s not cursed? Are the people of Haiti just unlucky? Are they just unfortunate pawns in some crass evolutionary game? Why is it them these things seem to always happen to and not us? As the people of Haiti dig deeper into the earth for their loved ones and the rest of the world digs for answers, there’s an answer right there on the surface I think we may have missed in our desperation. Haiti is a nation of sorrows, acquainted with grief. It’s a nation in desperate need of healing, not off-the-cuff root cause analysis.

There’s a story recorded in the ninth chapter of the Gospel of John. It’s the story of Jesus’ and his disciples encounter with a blind man. The encounter is prefaced by the disciples’ questions about what had caused the man’s blindness. Was it his sin that was the root of his problem? Or, was it his father’s sin? Jesus said that it was neither. He made a startling claim – “This happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life. As long as it is day, we must do the work of him who sent me. Night is coming, when no one can work.”

How can this be? How can human misery be a portal to “the work of God?” Can this principle, if I can call it that, apply to the enormous tragedy we see today in Haiti?

The message to me, as a Christian, seems clear. I (we) must be about our Father’s business, which is reconciliation and healing. It is when we engage humanity on that basis that the “works of God,” the miracles of healing, take place. The question posed to us, in the form of need, is clear, and so is the answer. We must be about the healing work of God in Haiti.

I tuned in to C-Span this morning and was taken aback at the question posed early on. Using Pat Robertson’s statement as a back drop, the audience was asked about the statement. It was like waving a red flag in front of a bull. I must admit I got a bit upset and called in. In due time I got on the air and expressed my belief that C-Span would have been better served to use the time to do some fund-raising rather than engaging in salacious journalism. I tried my best to express the theological implications of my reading of John 9. I went on, too far I’m sure, about Haiti and my view, that over the years I’ve lived I’ve seen this type of tragedy played out over and over and over again. I’ve seen the bloated, dead bodies in the streets for over forty years. I’ve read about the rampant political corruption. I’ve seen the international promises of aid wither and die on the vine as the world turned its attention away from Haiti’s misery to turn its attention to the heady promise and potential wealth of the new global economy. When, I asked, is the world going to really do what needs to be done in Haiti, whatever that might be?

In the face of my onslaught the host was very gracious. C-Span could have done better and so could I.

In the wake of the earthquake and its physical aftershocks, there are philosophical aftershocks also being felt in the wake of Pat Robertson’s words. The tragedy of Haiti will, I suspect, soon be overtaken by the societal war taking place between the religious and irreligious here at home. I fear that the end result will be that Haiti is placed back on the treadmill, waiting as the next tragedy crouches at the door. The NGO’s, religious groups, and missionaries, including CBN's Operation Blessing, will bravely move on, like the little Dutch boy with his finger in the dike. They’ll plug away, day by day, uncomplaining. Their work will be little noticed here as Haiti’s current woes fade into the rear view mirror of history. Here in America, the compassion of many, particularly the anti-religious, will recede. There will be great crowing and thumping of chests about caring inner selves for a little while. But it will pass. People will congratulate themselves profusely for the kindnesses they’ve offered the “less fortunate.” People will get back to work. There will be the inevitable climbing of the corporate ladders and the cut throat office politics that comes with the climb. The fine wine will once again flow in the trendy restaurants dotting Soho and Foggy Bottom. People will make nice for a while. But, in time they will once again resume coveting their neighbor’s wives and possessions. Life will go on.

Jesus’ words haunt me right now. “The night is coming when no man can work.” I look outside my window. It’s a grey winter day. The mulberry tree has been stripped of its leaves. It’s a bit past mid-day. Night is coming; I can feel it coming on. And so it is with us and Haiti. In a world so programmed to forget misery, the pain so close to us now will be overtaken, as it always has, by self interest.

The creeping darkness of night is coming; I can feel it. There is little left of the day. We must use it! This all begs the final question – will we?

Monday, January 04, 2010

Seeking the Celestial City

"Give me my scallop shell of quiet,
My staff of faith to walk upon,
My scrip of joy, immortal diet,
My bottle of salvation,
My gown of glory, hope’s true gage,
And thus I’ll take my pilgrimage.”
     - Sir Walter Raleigh (“The Passionate Man’s Pilgrimage”)

For some time now, Nancy and I have been discussing our growing sense of alienation with “the things of this world.” The abiding life theme coming from those discussions has been that our shared pilgrimages have a way to go. We see the “celestial city” less dimly than we did a quarter of a century ago, but we recognize that our vision is still dimmed by the temporal realities that so often dominate our lives. This begs the question for us. How can we truly learn to be “in, but not of, the world?”

As Christians, we have learned that a substantial part of our historical narrative is the shared story of aliens and strangers looking for a city they had neither built nor seen. As we gaze back through time we see the panoply of fellow travelers who preceded us. There was Noah. There was Abraham, who left one of the most vibrant cultures in the early world to seek the city Nancy and I now see dimly in the distance. There was Moses, who traded the wealth of Egypt for a pilgrimage in the wilderness with God’s liberated slaves. As we hear the names called we see human weakness in all its glory. We see a prostitute, a coward in hiding, a self-absorbed strong man, and a repentant adulterer. We see the prophets who set trumpets to their mouths only to be stoned for the words of warning they proclaimed.

These are the citizens of our homeland.

Through all the tribulations in life these men and women saw life through a common prism – faith! They chose alienation from the familiar and safe for a promise they never saw fulfilled on the earthly side of their journeys. And it is that prism through which we too must see our lives and our times.

As we proceed on our respective journeys we see what they saw long ago. The road we must travel is difficult, littered with the age-old temptations to stay earth-bound and proceed no further than our culture will allow. Moses experienced it when Pharaoh responded to God’s demand for liberation with the telling words, “You can go, but don’t go too far.” So do we.

One of the great lessons of history is that even the greatest of cultures are imbued with curses as well as blessings. Egypt, Babylon, Greece, and Rome could boast of power, wealth, philosophy, art, law, and human progress. But theirs was also the story of barbarity, corruption, and unbridled evil. Empires rose, full of promise, only to descend into madness. Another would supplant it. In time the cycle would repeat itself. Our fathers in faith saw this and refused to give in to the temptation of becoming earth bound. They sought something better.

Ah, but we’re Americans. We’re different. We’re the people of the “New Frontier” and the “City on the Hill.” We’re “the last best hope of earth.”

This, I think, is the great American curse. It’s the temptation to which far too many Christians have fallen prey. We’ve all too often succumbed to the false notion that America is our final destination. Richard John Neuhaus recently wrote of this phenomenon and its accompanying tension and asked whether, for the Christian, America may be more Bablyon than it is the New Jerusalem we’ve falsely thought it was, or hoped it would be:

“The title American Babylon will likely puzzle, and even offend, some readers. There is in America a strong current of Christian patriotism in which “God and country’ falls trippingly from the tongue. Indeed, God and country are sometimes conflated in a single allegiance that permits no tension, never mind conflict, between the two.”

There’s a tension at play here. We live in one world. We seek, or should be seeking, another. In the third century Tertullian asked the question – “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” In our time should that question be – “What has Babylon to do with the New Jerusalem we seek?”

Is this all a matter of just splitting hairs? I think not. The tension is as real as my American citizenship and the sense of love, duty, and patriotism I feel for my country. I realize that I’ve been a partner to freedom, privilege, and wealth that few in history have had. I am an American. But, the sense of alienation I feel in my little corner of Babylon is also as real as the dynamics of the new city I seek. As I read the accounts of those who have preceded me in faith I also understand that my Babylon carries its curses as well. America is no different in that regard than any other empire in history. The children of Israel had their taskmasters. So do we! This new age is not immune. As C.S. Lewis once observed:

“What assurance have we that our masters will or can keep the promise which induced us to sell ourselves? Let us not be deceived by phrases about ‘Man taking charge of his own destiny’. All that can really happen is that some men will take charge of the destiny of the others. They will be simply men; none perfect; some greedy, cruel and dishonest. The more completely we are planned the more powerful they will be. Have we discovered some new reason why, this time, power should not corrupt as it has done before?”

Can we escape the tension? I think not. About the best we can do is give moral voice to our concerns, live in peace with others as much as it is possible, realize that our narratives are linked historically to a different homeland and people, and to learn to sing the song of Zion in a foreign land. That seems like so little. Perhaps so. But if we give in to the temptation to make Babylon our permanent abode we fall prey to the false notion that we have the capacity to create heaven on earth. Once we give in to that delusion it may only be a matter of time before we stir the stagnant water, see ourselves mirrored there, and worship what we see.