What is your only comfort?

Urban God-talk for the church-o-phobic.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

The Power of Context

This past winter, we went on a last minute cheap cruise that departed out of New Orleans. I'll admit - it wasn't my idea. I had never been on a cruise, and I have a lingering fear of traveling in the south following my college experience rebuilding churches that had been burned down by the Klan. But, the charm and elegance of New Orleans along with the kindness and hospitality of its people really won me over. I found myself scanning real estate pages wondering if there were affordable fixer uppers available.

This week's hurricane devastation has become all the more painful as the world watches such a beautiful city disintegrate in front of our television-transfixed eyes. I'm struck by the power of context - at least that's what Malcolm Gladwell would call it in the Tipping Point. How our moral decisions are effected not so much by our belief system, but by the context in which we exist. The entire context of life in New Orleans has shifted so dramatically that once kind and generous people have quickly degenerated into animals on the prowl searching for necessary food and water, without much regard for other people.

If I'm honest with myself, I will admit that if I were trapped in a city under water with no supplies and little hope of survival, I too could easily move toward stealing things that weren't mine. I could justify it by saying that there was no one to pay for the items, but I would know that it was steeling nonetheless. I wouldn't imagine doing it here in pleasently dry and downright comfortable New York. But if the context changes, I know my animal side enough to confess that I could do some things I think are unthinkable.

It seems pretty easy to forget to be thankful for living in contexts which allow not to have to steel or loot. My life gives me many comforts - a roof over my head, a car that runs (most of the time) and enough money to feed the cats regularly. I live in a safe city, where I can walk down the street and not fear for my life. I do not have a need to arm myself for protection. The can of pepper spray carefully given to me upon my arrival at college has long disappeared, an item unnecessary thanks our current low crime rate. But if crime were higher, if I were poor and lacked sufficient means to take care of myself and the people I love, if my life depended upon lawlessness, I do not know what I would do.

Instead, I find myself saying a new prayer of gratitude. "Thank you God for providing me with both the words of your commandments as well as the luxury of my context, which makes keeping them a lot easier than if I lived in other places at other times." It doesn't take much to cause a well meaning, loving, caring, generous person to shift into someone he or she never knew.

It seems that if we, as pastors and as followers of Christ, would like to lead people toward increased compassion and care for others, we should work not just at preaching such a message, but at working to build a context in which such a lifestyle can be lived out. For example, the religious right condemns abortions, but perhaps the key to lowering the abortion rate in American isn't to be found in preaching about it. Rather, it's in developing a context in which women are able to afford to take care of their children or are able to have their newborn easily adopted, without shame from their families or communities.

Instead of just preaching about caring for one another, we need to create an environment where people can actually slow down enough and have enough time to care for their neighbors instead of stepping over them to make it to our next appointment.

Shaking our heads in disbelief over the sad state of humanity in New Orleans is understandable, but realizing that we're all capable of such behavior is both scary and human. Those of us who are not in the situation can see it through our own context of priviledge. Those who are there have to experience it first hand. I imagine that many of the people participating in the horrible conditions in New Orleans confess Jesus as their personal lord and savior, just as I do. The only difference is that they know first hand that hell is real.


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