Tuesday, September 06, 2005


Inner and Outer Levees

I came across three very thoughtful posts about the moral and spiritual implications of events as they unfolded in New Orleans this past week. Two explicitly described the concept of Moral Levees, those bulwarks against chaos and catastrophe that are thought of as hard, thick and made of concrete, and are at times of crisis revealed as earthen, earthy, and all too prone to collapse. The third commentator doesn’t mention levees, but describes one, but one not of moral construction, but of human will, of National Spirit, if you will. And this levee hasn’t yet given out, nor will it.

Lee Harris, reflecting on When the Moral Levee Breaks at Tech Central Station, is unsurprised by what he sees as a reversion of Man to His Natural State:
On the Tuesday after the levees broke in New Orleans, I found myself sitting in a submarine sandwich shop in a suburb of Atlanta, where, for the first time, I saw the video of the looting that was taking place, in broad daylight, throughout The Big Easy, unencumbered by anything so prosaic as law and order. To me, the looting came as no surprise: it was a completely natural phenomenon. It was exactly what my own theory of the social order would have predicted. What else should you expect when a civilized order collapses?
I might take issue with some of Harris’ points, especially those that seem to excuse bad or uncivilized behavior as being somehow more Natural. It strikes me that predatory animals hunting human beings for prey is entirely Natural, but strenuously to be avoided.

Nevertheless, Harris notes the parallels to New Orleans described in a book he’s reading:
I had been reading a book about the Sandwich Islands, now known as Hawaii, and what Captain Cook, the great English explorer, had observed about its people, and, indeed, about all the various peoples that he had discovered tucked away on their paradise islands in the middle of the nowhere called the South Pacific.

They were all thieves.
Again, I don’t dispute Harris’ premise that the ability of humans to “sink so low” is entirely the result of their primal nature. (In theology, we call that a Sin Nature, as in the natural state of man to commit sin or wreak evil.) Perhaps we ought not despise such “children of nature,” but I sure do want a public security presence capable of keeping the kids at bay.

The second article I came across, posted by Dean Barnett at Soxblog, is describing some of the same phenomena as Harris, but he notes other reactions of the all too humans thrown into extraordinary circumstances by the Hurricane, the Flood, and the terrible After All.
There’s an old saw that adversity brings out the best in people. Most clichés emanate from a basis in reality. Not this one. I’ve been around a bunch of people confronted with serious adversity; at such times, people revert to their most fundamental natures. Their innermost characteristics are what emerge. For some people, it is strength and courage that shine through.

Others are made of less noble stuff. Some complain and whine or take their frustration out on others. Others curl up in fear.

In the current crisis, there have been countless moments of heroism. There have been the public servants who have stayed behind or entered the shattered city. Although the circumstance is less dramatic, these people are spiritual cousins to the firefighters who scaled the burning World Trade Center. Common sense says flee the scene, and yet they do just the opposite.

And of course there are others who have acquitted themselves less nobly. In the city, there are sociopaths who have longed for anarchy and now have their long wished for chance to prey on the weak and defenseless. And outside the city, there are politicians who view the tragedy as a chance to chase cameras and commentators who see it as a chance to score political points.
And that seems a fair summation of the range of human response. I have always been astounded – and humbled – by the capacity of the human being in singularly devastating and under terrible threat to perform as if there were no threat at all. To do the thing that needed to be done without reluctance or hesitation. (I won’t say, without fear, for while that is sometimes the case, it is most-times not.)

Most of the Soldiers in my unit in Iraq are not under constant or even occasional threat, there are dangers, but they are not constant, they are remote, and they are isolated. It is easy for us to place these out of our minds without constant reminder.

But still and all, separated from our families, danger, sometimes exhaustion or even tedium and boredom, have taken their toll. We see the range of human responses here too, we see those that shine, those that absorb all possible light to no avail, and those that start out polished but in adversity dull in luster.

Is it our nature to be selfish, greedy, violent and possessive? Do we struggle against an inevitable backslide towards primitivism? Or are we designed for better things, and in crisis we snap? Is there a levee there that we can count on, or is it something else?

The Reverend Donald Sensing has an answer, and it’s an answer that has the advantage of being backed by some 3,500 years of civilization and religious practice. In a Sunday Sermon entitled in point of fact, Moral Levees, Sensing refers to the teachings of the Bible, and refers to the moral levees of our consciences:
But there was nothing unnatural about the violence in New Orleans. If a wide-scale catastrophe struck Nashville we would see the same scenes here. No one who knows what the Bible teaches about human nature should be the slightest bit surprised at the evil people do when the moral levees of their own consciences and of society have broken, allowing the flood waters of violence, selfishness and disregard for others to drown their souls.
Sensing notes all the levees that stood strong during the crisis, when others failed, and sees in Psalms 119 instruction in the ways of building these levees strong and durable in times of crisis and challenge:
The question is not why many people walked into the heart of darkness, but why so many remained children of the light. It is perhaps a mistake to over-generalize from hundreds of miles away, but perhaps some verses from Psalm 119 offer illumination:

1 Happy are those whose way is blameless, who walk in the law of the LORD. 2 Happy are those who keep his decrees, who seek him with their whole heart, 3 who also do no wrong, but walk in his ways. 4 You have commanded your precepts to be kept diligently. 5 O that my ways may be steadfast in keeping your statutes! 6 Then I shall not be put to shame, having my eyes fixed on all your commandments. (Psalms 119:1-6)

33 Teach me, O LORD, the way of your statutes, and I will observe it to the end. 34 Give me understanding, that I may keep your law and observe it with my whole heart. 35 Lead me in the path of your commandments, for I delight in it. 36 Turn my heart to your decrees, and not to selfish gain. 37 Turn my eyes from looking at vanities; give me life in your ways. 38 Confirm to your servant your promise, which is for those who fear you. 39 Turn away the disgrace that I dread, for your ordinances are good. 40 See, I have longed for your precepts; in your righteousness give me life. (Psalms 119:33-40)
Sensing goes on to caution the Christian that an over-legalist moralism can bind us to external laws that can break under pressure. Likewise, he warns that if we go to the other extreme and set as our levee the emotions of love only we may stray into licentiousness. We need both love and law, as Sensing puts it:
Rules bring the reign of reason into the impulses of the heart. Rules can serve as a lens to focus the impulses of love and bring needed discipline to love’s fleeting nature. Love provides desire, but rules provide a will.
And that combination creates a Moral Levee that in Sensing’s view, “hold back the churning seas of chaos from flowing over us. We need a solid bed of the rules of God topped by a strong wall of love.”

And that’s quite the answer if we’re looking for a Levee to keep danger from our doorstep. But what about the circumstance where the danger is already at the door, or the fight for survival is already upon us? (You may think your own example, but in here in Mesopotamia, that would describe the current Terror War against us, whereby we have rightly responded with a War on Terror right back.)

Levees are fine if you need to keep the water out. I mentioned at the start of this essay that the third commentator described a levee of human will and National Spirit. Dean Barnett described this construction of human will in this way:
SO WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE? We save lives, we clean up, and lastly and doggedly we rebuild. Because that’s what Americans do. Some might argue there’s no sense in rebuilding a city that’s below sea level sitting in a bowl. Perhaps they have a point.

But this is what we do – we fight, we don’t lose. The American character, the one that shines through in moments of adversity, is one that says we will not be defeated – not by an enemy, not by nature, not by anything. This is a principle worth fighting for, a principle that must be maintained. We’ll rebuild because it is our way.

And we will not, we cannot, change it. Not now, not ever.
I work with an Army full of Soldiers who feel exactly this way. They may not think much else about whatever it is we do in the world, they may have little sympathy for the peoples we seek to save, or make free, or even keep from chaos and death.

They just know that they’re doing what an American has to do. What America has too often been reluctant to do. That they can feel pride in the doing, and succeeding.

Remarkably, it’s been my experience that those Soldiers who have the keenest sense of the Moral Levee that Rev. Sensing describes, that “solid bed of the rules of God topped by a strong wall of love,” who can sometimes be most effective in the execution of their wartime missions. They will fight, they won’t be defeated, and they’ll be the first to throw their back into the rebuilding.

Because there is a Moral Levee that God points us to, and there’s the ones we build inside ourselves to protect us from evil and evil choices, and then there’s the physical earthworks that we will sometimes need to build to keep those other human natures at bay.

Links: Outside the Beltway, Basil's Blog, The Evangelical Outpost, Dawn Patrol at Mudville Gazette

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