As I peruse philly.com each day to keep up on the news, I always make a point to read the comments after the articles and opinion pieces. I do so, as I have often said, to refresh my memory every day about how sinful, selfish, and proudly ("blissfully" doesn't do it justice) ignorant most people are, even (especially?) in this, the most powerful country in the world. In particular, I am constantly amazed — though I really shouldn't be — at the staying power and prevalence of what I call "Archie Bunker conservatives," whose thinly veiled racism and lack of compassion for people whose station in life lies below their own stands out like a sore thumb in this, the age of Obama.
This has been one of the more harrowing weeks in recent memory for those of us who live in the Northeast. Indeed, weather is rarely a matter of much concern in southeastern Pennsylvania, where I live. Extreme heat and extreme cold are rare (though summer humidity levels cause more than a little consternation). Rain is usually plentiful enough to keep the landscape green, but sunshine is far more prevalent than in such west of the Appalachians towns as Pittsburgh and Cleveland. October, in particular, is a glorious month, usually the driest of the year, when the plentiful deciduous trees show off their spectacular colors before they shed their leaves for the winter. But not this year. Last week seasoned veterans of life such as I looked on in disbelief at the approach of a "freak" storm dubbed "Frankenstorm," otherwise known as Hurricane Sandy. As predicted, Sandy veered to the west on Monday directly onto the south Jersey coast before moving inland and north to Canada, where it continued to wreak havoc days later.
The response of government officials was swift and helpful. In particular, New Jersey governor Chris Christie and Philadelphia mayor Michael Nutter performed admirably in the crisis. But what struck me was the response of so many "common people" to the storm, particularly in Philadelphia and its western hinterlands, which were published in philly.com. For, you see, southeastern PA was spared the full wrath of Sandy even as its weakening eye passed over it Monday night into Tuesday morning. Yes, there was an awful lot of rain. Yes, hundreds of thousands of people in the region lost electric power. Yes, hundreds of towering trees succumbed to the winds and drenching rain. BUT: because the region didn't suffer Katrina-like devastation, the advanced warnings were "much ado about nothing" — politicians, after all, can't be trusted. The weather forecasters — academics, after all, with advanced degrees — "lied" and "fudged the evidence" to advance their own "political" agenda. Reading scores of comments along these lines, I must say, shocked me and made me more than a little angry at such self-appointed, know-nothing intellectuals. Had they not seen the pictures of the absolute devastation wrought upon Long Beach Island, Atlantic City, and even my beloved Ocean City down the shore? (And mention of down-at-its-heels Atlantic City gives the lie to complaints that the "rich people" at the shore don't deserve our sympathy). Were these self-satisfied people ignorant of the devastation to be found in New York City, in particular the fire in Queens that incinerated up to 100 homes in a flooded neighborhood? Were they unaware of the 75 people (so far) who lost their lives due to this storm in the Northeastern United States, not to mention the 67 who lost their lives to it in the Caribbean and the 2 who have thus far perished in Canada? My hunch is that such people were not unaware of these things, but that they nevertheless didn't care. For they are the center, the be-all and end-all of their own little universe, and any inconvenience warnings and restrictions placed on their own freedom of movement overrides any concern they must show for the misfortunes of others. And such a reaction is, to put it bluntly, sin.
News reports about the levee breech in Moonachie, along the Hackensack River in North Jersey immediately got me thinking about one of the great songs in the oeuvre of the greatest of all rock bands, Led Zeppelin. "When the Levee Breaks," from Zeppelin's untitled 4th album, is a complete reworking of the 1929 Memphis Minnie/Kansas Joe McCoy blues song of the same name, which recounts the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 that killed 246 people and left the Mississippi River 60 miles wide south of Memphis. Few recordings convey to better effect the majesty of the mature Led Zeppelin sound than this showcase of the talents of Robert Plant, who in this song demonstrates, not only his legendary vocal prowess, but James Cotton-worthy chops on the harp as well. And few recordings convey the apocalyptic nature of such "natural" disasters to those unfortunate enough to live through them ...
... Which inevitably got me thinking theologically. Luke 13:1-5 records the response of Jesus to information he received about certain Galilean pilgrims who had been massacred by Pontius Pilate while offering sacrifices at the temple in Jerusalem. In the course of his response, Jesus brings up another tragedy, the loss of 18 lives when a tower collapsed on them in Siloam. His first point in each instance is one that many American preachers often seem unable to handle, viz., that such occurrences have nothing necessarily to say about the spiritual condition of the victims of such tragedies. But, in each case, Jesus' second point is the key one: "Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish." In others words, "natural" disasters are not to be used as occasions of self-righteous finger pointing, but rather as occasions of repentant soul-searching, because they are illustrative harbingers of the judgment that ultimately awaits all enemies of God. Jesus' message resonates and applies today even as it did 2000 years ago in Galilee, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand" (Matt 4:17).