Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Some Thoughts About New Orleans

If you read, listen to or watch the news, you're undoubtedly aware of the disastrous recent events which have devastated New Orleans and other cities and towns near the Gulf of Mexico. People will be recovering from the effects of Hurricane Katrina for a long time to come.

I grew up in Southwest Missouri, but I visited New Orleans back in the '70's, during a trip to Florida with my father and my brother. During that trip, we visited the French Quarter.

New Orleans has contributed a number of positive things to American culture, including its unique cuisine, as well as the style of music known as jazz.

However, what I saw in the French Quarter during my visit to that neighborhood was a cesspool of immorality. For example, posters visible from the street (and therefore visible to any child walking down that street) featured prominent, vulgar photos of strippers, their breasts concealed only by strategically placed stars or "pasties". I was not surprised, therefore, when I later learned about some of the more decadent aspects of Mardis Gras, where female celebrants have been known to parade around topless, and where public drunkenness and loutish behavior are fairly common.

Another well-known aspect of New Orleans culture is the prominent role of "voodoo" in that culture. Whether or not one believes that voodoo rituals have any real power, it is an incontestable fact that voodoo is a pagan religious practice which is incompatible with biblical Christianity.

Some people say that such things are part of what always gave New Orleans its "charm". I guess that's a matter of perspective. I personally don't find it very charming when people thumb their noses at God.

I don't consider myself to be a "prude". I've seen artistic depictions of nudes, and unlike some of my fellow Christians, I don't believe that such subject matter is invariably inappropriate in an artistic context. Nor did Michelangelo believe that that was the case when he painted the famous Biblical scenes on the ceilings of the Sistine Chapel.

However, there is a big difference between artistic, tasteful depictions of the unclothed human body and depictions which promote the lowest forms of sensuality, as did the posters I saw in New Orleans.

Other big cities, such as Chicago, also have strip clubs, but most of them display outdoor signs which only vaguely allude to the activities taking place therein. That's true even in Las Vegas, which is nicknamed Sin City for good reason (making it one of my least favorite cities in America). New Orleans, however, seems to have a unique and longstanding tradition of blatant and very public carnality.

None of this, of course, in any way negates the value of the lives of the people living in New Orleans. God loves them all, just as He loves you and me. At the same time, it should be pointed out that God also loved the residents of Sodom and Gomorrah, but that love did not prevent him from destroying those ancient cities as punishment for their extreme iniquity. Love and judgment are not mutually exclusive.

Let me acknowledge that morally upright people also suffer during natural disasters. It would be presumptuous and unloving to say, of any individual victim of such a disaster, that that victim was being punished for his or her sins. That might indeed be true in some cases, but only God is in a position to know for sure. There are other possible explanations for why an individual might be the victim of such a disaster.

Moreover, even in situations where people really are being punished for their sins, that fact does not absolve Christians of the moral responsibility to show love, compassion and charity to disaster victims. After all, sinfulness is just a matter of degree. Not one of us can claim to be without sin.

Nevertheless, there is reason to believe that God has punished cities and even nations for practicing and tolerating ungodly behavior for prolonged periods of time. I suspect that that may have been a factor which led to the current disaster. No doubt, there were also ample environmental reasons which could be cited by meteorologists and other scientists. But it does not follow from the fact that a disaster is partially attributable to natural causes that the disaster was not also God's way of making a point. It is not for nothing that insurance companies often refer to such disasters as "acts of God".

Therefore, while I do sympathize with those who have lost homes, possessions and family members, I can't honestly say that I am eager to see the rebuilding of New Orleans, unless that city demonstrates a willingness to turn over a new leaf and reject the sinful excesses of the past.

Even apart from moral considerations, it seems to me that rebuilding New Orleans would be just plain stupid from a financial point of view.

New Orleans has always been extremely vulnerable to hurricanes and flooding on account of its location in what has been described as a "bowl" surrounded by levees. I'm reminded of Jesus' saying to the effect that wise men do not build their houses on sand. Perhaps there is a connection between New Orleans' obvious rejection of Biblical standards of behavior and its unwise choice to build on land which has always been poorly protected from natural disasters.

If New Orleans is rebuilt, it will be rebuilt with Federal money. That means that every American has a vested interest in how that money is spent. Wouldn't it make more sense to simply declare New Orleans to be a lost cause, and to build a new city further inland, in a place where such disasters are far less likely to occur in the future? Why should Americans from other areas of the country be required to subsidize the stupidity of rebuilding on unsuitable and extremely vulnerable land?

Yes, it's true that when fire destroyed substantial portions of Chicago during the 19th Century, the city was rebuilt bigger and better than ever. But that's comparing apples to oranges. Unlike New Orleans, Chicago was not in an inherently dangerous location. The Chicago Fire was caused by unwise building practices, not by any aspect pertaining to the location itself. Fires still occur in this city sometimes, as they do in any town or city, but modern building codes have substantially reduced the likelihood that another Chicago fire could ever destroy property on a scale comparable to the original Chicago Fire. But it is difficult to conceive of any innovation which would make the original location of New Orleans any less vulnerable to future disasters comparable to Hurricane Katrina.

There are probably those who favor the idea of rebuilding New Orleans itself, in its original location, based on their sentimental attachment to that city. However, the bottom line is that the city (80% of which is currently underwater!) is pretty much destroyed at this point. Even if New Orleans was rebuilt in its original location, most of the old historic buildings would no longer be there. Regardless of where the rebuilding takes place, nothing there will ever be the same.

When I heard that Katrina was headed for New Orleans, I prayed that God would spare as many people as possible, and I wept for the potential victims as I prayed that prayer. I still weep for the victims, and I pray that America will reach out to them with love and compassion. But I also pray that we will learn from the mistakes of the past, and that we will have the wisdom not to repeat those mistakes.

UPDATED COMMENTS AS OF 1/2/2005: My TV has been out of commission for the past couple of months, and I've been too busy with activities pertaining to my search for a new job to read the newspaper very much. I'm not sure what the status is down in New Orleans, in terms of the rebuilding effort.

I suspect, sadly, that people will fail to heed the lessons of the first disaster, and I suspect that they will try to rebuild New Orleans in its original location, even though it will probably cost almost as much money to do that as it would to simply rebuild the city in a new location. It is very much reminiscent of earlier situations in which people, buoyed by Federal dollars, rebuilt their homes in the same flood plains, along the Mississippi, which led to the destruction of their original homes.

I'm a committed Republican, and I'm glad I voted for Bush, but I was disappointed in President Bush's assurances to the effect that we would rebuild the original city, apparently at its original location. He said, in an obvious attempt to placate people angry at him for FEMA's slow response, that an America without a New Orleans was "unimaginable". Even if that's the case, relocating a city to a more sensible location is not tantamount to failing to rebuild the city. The current location of New Orleans is, by the admission of most serious scientists, an environmental disaster site. Destruction of wetlands has prevented natural processes from rebuilding the land which is lost every year due to runoff.

Compassion and common sense are not mutually exclusive. It is possible to show compassion for the people of New Orleans without subsidizing the stupidity of rebuilding the city on the original site.

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