Weather or Not

The internet’s nothing if not self-referential. A post by Fred Clark over on Patheos, pointed out to me by my brother-in-law, has received 235 comments (at the time of this writing) for a topic I’ve addressed repeatedly, to no avail. I know my place. In any case, the topic which brought such furor was that severe weather is caused by divine displeasure, something I’ve addressed a time or two. In fact, I’ve written a book about it. Never mind, some of us revel in obscurity. Fred is writing about the remarks of former Tory David Silvester that the UK has been suffering unusually severe weather because of homosexual marriage. That’s really old news to those of us over here in the colonies; Pat Robertson told us as much after Katrina (although he didn’t limit the sins to homosexuality). Sex tends to stir up storms of its own, regardless of divine voyeurism, while we ignore the obvious culprit—global warming. (Culprit of unusually severe weather, not of sex.)

Global warming, as a recent conversation with a very smart undergraduate confirmed, is a poor name choice. Those of us on the northeastern coastal corridor have been shivering a lot this winter, and snow has remained on the sidewalks of Manhattan for more than a single day at a time. You call this global warming? Yes. The science behind climatology tells us that warming the overall temperatures of the globe will result in erratic weather, including uncharacteristically cold and freezing in some locations, dampness in others, while yet others experience, yes, warming. We know it is real, we know it is happening. We just don’t know what to call it. Some choose to call it God’s wrath. Others choose to name it more properly human shortsightedness. After we hunted the last mammoth down, we decided to start building bigger fires to warm the ice age up a bit. Those fires have been burning ever since.

IMG_3659

My book on the weather, by the way, suggests that divine control of the elements is an essential part of the biblical mindset. To ancient folk this was a no-brainer. God is in (his) heaven and messing with the HVAC system is one of the ways (he) passes the time. Down here we may shiver, become parched, or get washed away. It’s all a matter of the divine thermostat. As Fred Clark points out, the divine temperament sets the temperature based on human activity. Sin leads to unusual weather. Unwittingly, however, David Silvester may have gotten it right. There is a sin involved, and that sin is called global warming. No deity need be involved. We have shown that humans are quite capable of messing with the thermostat on our own. And the day I get 235 comments on anything it will be a very cold day in a place famed for its heat.

Oklahoma

The tragedy outside Oklahoma City transcends petty human differences. Tornadoes, no matter how we dress them up, look like the wrath of God incarnate. The fifteen years I spent in the Midwest were filled with literal nightmares of tornadoes and even a few hours spent cowering in the basement. Such phenomena remind us that we are quite small in the face of nature, and the news reports are full of religious sentiment as people want assurance that God hasn’t abandoned them. Nature doesn’t favor humans over anything else that happens to be in the way of whirling 200 mile-per-hour winds. Even one’s belief might get blown away. Yet it doesn’t.

Although a tornado hit New York City last year, my terror of the storm evaporated when we moved back east. In the Midwest, although there were hills, I felt so exposed under the open expanse of the heavens. In the utterly flat part of central Illinois, I recall some truly awe-inspiring storms. The sky was so ubiquitous and overpowering, and you could see clouds towering thousands of feet over your head, throbbing with constant lightning. It was then I began having the idea for my book on weather terminology and the book of Psalms. Humans helpless in the face of nature. This is the raw material of religion. Like children we pray to God to make it go away. Storms do not obey prayers.

TornadoBlack

By their very nature tornadoes are capricious. We like to believe the good are spared and the evil punished, but as schools are destroyed and children killed we have to face the cruelty of nature. What happened in Oklahoma was a random act of nature, as much as hurricanes Andrew, Katrina, and Sandy were. We can’t help, however, any more than the people of the Bible, supposing that God must somehow be behind the weather. We may influence it, as global warming has repeatedly demonstrated, but seldom for good. And when we look for the divine in the fierce winds, we will end up facing tragedy.

Southern Comfort

CajunNightOnce upon a time, long before Hurricane Katrina, the American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature held their annual meeting in New Orleans. It must’ve been an incongruous sight: the Big Easy filled with right proper professional religionists discoursing eruditely. While there, my family purchased the Cajun Night Before Christmas, by Trosclair. A cute knock-off of Clement Moore’s “A Visit from Santa Claus” (‘Twas the Night Before Christmas), the story unfolds of a fur-bedecked Santa visiting a destitute, but grateful family on the bayou. Each year I try to reach deep in my southern roots to find an accent that accommodates the poem, and read the story the week before the holiday comes. A number of factors have suggested that perhaps this year Christmas might catch many people on a more subdued level. Crushing poverty is a reality, guns are too readily available, and the one percent don’t get close enough to humanity to contract the common cold. Even the effects of Katrina have refused to dissipate completely. Her sister Sandy visited the Big Apple, and things still aren’t quite right.

Big Apples and Big Easies may seem to have little in common, apart from how much money is available to assist in hurricane recovery. They both also participate in Christmas, being havens of Catholicity. Yet after the hurricanes some in New York and New Jersey were without power several days, but parts of Louisiana were simply abandoned. The will to help the disadvantaged seems to have improved since 2005. Considering changes at the top, this isn’t necessarily a surprise. Nevertheless, tragedy throws into sharp relief what we consider human decency. Too bad it takes a disaster to make us more human.

What sticks with me about the Cajun Night Before Christmas, apart from the flying alligators, is the profound hopefulness that the poem conveys. Those with so little take so little to improve their lot. Yet those with too much insist it is their right not to be taxed at all. Those who live in a shack don’t expect much from Santa. They have learned through the disappointment of experience that double standards are endemic in life and while some are unbelievably rich, the poor are happy with just the smiles of children. Ironically, Santa is the great equalizer here. While the children of the wealthy may expect and receive more, the children of the humble are also allowed a portion of hope. As I remember New Orleans, in the palmy days before Katrina, it was a city that knew Mardi Gras was far more humane than Lent, and that even a city marked my radical inequities (let those with eyes to see read) could come to a joyous accord when sins are about to be atoned. And even if he has to commandeer alligators, Santa will visit the poorest children the night before the holy days.

Blame it on the Rain

I’ve been on the losing side of my share of elections (although it feels like far more than my share), but I’m amazed at the character of the GOP that has come through these last few days. The quote that keeps running through my mind comes from The Dark Knight when the Joker says to the Chechen that if they cut him up and fed him to his hounds, “then we’ll see how loyal a hungry dog really is.” Blame has been flying thick and fast, but one thing I don’t hear any Tea Partiers suggesting is that Hurricane Sandy was sent by God to seal the election for Obama. Hurricane Katrina may have been sent by God to wipe out the sinners in New Orleans, but when Sandy gave a chance for Obama to show his true colors, it was just a freak storm. I’ve never been a fan of Chris Christie, New Jersey’s bully governor. During Hurricane Sandy and its aftermath, however, I was very impressed how he handled the situation. He showed a rare side full of compassion for those who were suffering. He vowed to help President Obama make things right again. When the storm of the election was over, however, Christie’s own party verbally crucified him for doing the right thing. Does this not show us just what white privilege spawns?

Turning back the clock is an exercise best left for post-apocalyptic scenarios of rebuilding society and the occasional spring or fall weekend. As our world makes progress—and yes, it is slowly making it—we must constantly reassess the situation. The ethics of the 1950s favored white men, the mores were blithely uninformed that an entire world exists outside this strange isolationism that could only be broken when Communists threatened our way of life. We are over half-a-century beyond that: the Berlin Wall has fallen, the Cuban missiles are gone, and those seeking to move to America are by and large the tired, the poor, and those yearning to breathe free. Not all of them are “white.” Not all of them are male. They are, like the rest of us, human beings.

I have never wished want or deprivation on anyone. I know what moderate want feel like (I lost an entire day of my college education searching for three dollars that fell out of my pocket, wondering how I would make it through the week without it). I have spent several years of my life tip-toeing around unemployment, and sometimes falling into that crevasse for a year or two at a time. Each time I claw my way out I earnestly wish that no one would ever have to face that. A political party that puts such a strong emphasis on giving up all the good we’ve managed to obtain, and cries about health care that doesn’t even approach the humane, universal care available in just about every other “first world” nation, is a party in need of serious, prolonged soul-searching. On this day when we honor veterans who, despite personal differences, stood side-by-side for the good of their country, perhaps those attacking their own might in days of privilege spend a few moments in serious thought.

Blame it on the rain…

Gitche Gumee

Up on the rugged western shore of Lake Superior the lamp atop Split Rock Lighthouse will be illuminated for the only time this year tonight. Immensities and superlatives fail at some sites, and as the cold waves lap eternally at the shore, this is one of them. Split Rock illumines its beacon in commemoration of the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald on the far end of that great lake on this date many years ago. While not as large as the Titanic, the Edmund Fitzgerald outstretched two football fields and carried more than fifty million pounds of cargo, immeasurables we are forced to recalibrate into yardage and tonnage. When the Fitzgerald sank during an unnamed November storm in 1975 only twenty-nine people died, but the tragedy soon became part of American legend. The image of immensities battling for the souls of twenty-nine human lives possesses an eerie, epic quality. When faced with the raw rage of nature, we are helpless indeed.

Shipwrecks may be the ultimate metaphor, for like ships we are consciousness in a protective vessel. Of course some deny that a soul exists, but in November it is difficult to doubt. A century ago the Titanic sank, and we still wonder in fascination. Human life is fragile when confronting the north Atlantic, or Lake Superior, or even the great waves that wash ashore and sweep some away. Great bodies of water, some psychologists say, represent forces larger than ourselves in the human psyche. Some suggest the ocean in dreams represents sex, but others would say it’s God. In the realm of metaphor anything is possible. It is no accident that many Christian sects begin the rite of membership with total immersion in water. When the Fitzgerald was baptized, twenty-nine men died.

Standing on the vast shoreline of a gray Lake Superior has a way of making you feel insignificant. Enormity was easily related to divinity in the primitive mind, but standing next to something truly vast still sends me into a protective crouch as I ponder just how little I really am. In this year of destructive storms, as we’ve taken to naming the winter squalls that whip across the continent with noble names such as Athena and Brutus, we are still at the mercy of something unspeakably large. The weather is the ocean above us, and it bears children named Andrew, Irene, Katrina, and Sandy. Each reminds us that we are constantly at the mercy of something far larger than human comprehension. Every year as the tenth of November rolls around I think of the Edmund Fitzgerald and the overwhelming forces that surround us. There is indeed a metaphor hidden here, for those willing to plunge into the frigid depths to find it.

Under the Rainbow

Great irony attends the bearing down of Hurricane Isaac on Florida, disrupting the start of the Republican National Convention. Ironic not because of the damage or destruction that normally accompanies hurricanes, but because of the silence concerning divine intent. When natural disasters—does anyone remember Katrina?—have struck against “sinful” collections of people in the past, the religious right has always been swift to designate them examples of God’s wrath. Now that God’s Own Party is being inconvenienced by a hurricane this time, well, it’s just nature. I wonder what it is that so easily distinguishes divine punishment hurricanes from benign, natural ones? In a perfect world we would perhaps have a God that saw no need to create hurricanes at all. In the world we inhabit, however, we face disasters of all sorts and have the added burden of deciding which God has sent and which s/he has not.

One of the main strands of this skein of tangled thinking is the blithe unawareness that politicians often use religion insincerely. People, just like our other primate cousins, learn to respect the alpha male and acquiesce when we might get hurt. Politicians, at least for centuries, have known that few people will chase down the logic of their muddled theological declarations. We all know and experience gut-level, emotional responses to issues that matter to us. We all desire to claim the sanction of higher power—who wants to come out and admit that their opponent has some aspects of the truth and that this is purely a human matter to be decided by reason? Reason tells us that certain behaviors are not tolerated by group leaders—just ask a chimpanzee—and those in power have trouble facing up to the facts.

In one of the saddest legacies of championing nationalism is the unshakeable belief, for any nation or leader that has not embraced an atheistic approach, that God is on their side. Both Allies and Axis powers claimed divine support in both wars to end all wars. During Vietnam Bob Dylan wrote “With God on Our Side.” Politicians still hum along but they have forgotten the words. No, it does not please me that once again a hurricane threatens life and property. I’ve been told that every cloud has a silver lining, however, and I wonder if that applies even to hurricanes. If Isaac, like his biblical namesake, can change perceptions of what God requires, maybe we can see politicians without their masks and ask what it is they really want. That, I believe, would be more stunning than any divine punishment delivered via giant bags of wind.

Criticism Is Not Attack

Each administration of George W. Bush was marked by a major disaster. 9-11 was followed four years later by Hurricane Katrina. The United States had received a one-two punch. I recently read Zeitoun by Dave Eggers. This is a book that should be read by every American, and it wouldn’t hurt others to read it too. This account follows the lives of a New Orleans family through the aftermath of Katrina. The main character, a tradesman named Abdulrahman Zeitoun, is a permanent resident of the United States from Syria. His wife Kathy, a convert to Islam, was American. When Katrina bore down on New Orleans, Kathy took their kids to safety with friends while Abdulrahman (known by many as Zeitoun) stayed in the city to look after the properties they owned. When the flooding had engulfed entire sections of the city, Zeitoun paddled about in a canoe, rescuing those he could, and even feeding abandoned dogs. Family and friends urged him to evacuate, but he felt he was doing good. Until he was arrested on his own property and imprisoned for being Syrian.

In a wrenching account based on interviews with Zeitoun and Kathy, Eggers describes how the US government quickly set up Guantanamo Bay-style prisons rather than attempting to rescue those stranded in their homes. Zeitoun was arrested and never informed of the charges, although he heard paramilitary guards armed with machine guns uttering “Taliban” and “al-Qaeda” at him. He watched as a mentally disabled man was pepper-sprayed by soldiers when he clearly couldn’t understand what they were commanding him to do. Despite having government issued ID and good standing as a business owner in New Orleans, Zeitoun was presumed guilty because of his profile: “Arabic” and Muslim. As Eggers reminds us, Homeland Security is now the administrative head of FEMA, and those that Homeland Security distrusts (all of us) are potential terrorists rather than citizens in need of help during times of disaster.

I grew up in a rather monochromatic part of the country, but as I traveled I met and befriended those of differing nationalities, including Syrians. Those considered “the others” by xenophobic bureaucrats are just as kind, loving, and good as those of us born under the sign of the cross with “white” skin. Zeitoun stands as an indictment of the jingoism that has come to be recognized as the only legitimate American citizenship. Zeitoun spent nearly a month in maximum security prison before being released after a makeshift trial, when no evidence existed that he’d done anything wrong. What has happened to the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free? They’ve become the enemies of the state. I know, Katrina engendered extraordinary circumstances. Extraordinary circumstances, from a “Christian” view, however, demand extraordinary sympathy. Do the nation a favor. Before November, read Zeitoun.