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Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Nagin - Robertson or King?

In all things, there is a balance. Apparently, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin is attempting to be the balance for the vocal Right.

CNN reports:

In his speech, Nagin also said "God is mad at America," in part because he does not approve "of us being in Iraq under false pretenses."

"He is sending hurricane after hurricane after hurricane, and it is destroying and putting stress on this country," Nagin said.


This is a theological belief I grew up with - that a vengeful God will strike us down if we disobey him. It has led to all sorts of places being called "modern day Sodom and Gomorrah". As far as I know, however, none of these modern cities of sin has ever been destroyed by a rain of burning sulfur.

Far be it from me to disagree with Biblical history (I'll leave that to people who actually study it). However, I believe it is also an unsound theology (you can read a discussion of the story here). It simply doesn't hold up to common observations. Is there anyone who believes that a single city in the United States lives up to the Biblical standards of perfection?

Let's, for the moment, say that God did want to strike New Orleans. The city sits below sea level all the time - there was simply no need for the widespread destruction that reached far beyond New Orleans. In the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, it is important to see that ONLY Soddom and Gomorrah were destroyed because Lot escaped to the nearby city of Zoar.

Of course, Lot intervened for Zoar - so to call Katrina the "wrath of God" is to also say that not one Godly man asked for his city to be spared. That simply defies belief. I'm sure there was no shortage of prayers before, during, and after Katrina hit.

I simply don't believe that God takes an active interventionary role in our world. To say that he does is to undermine the concept of free will. If you have the choice to obey or die; then you don't have much of a choice at all. It isn't free will, but coerced will, at that point.

Similarly, if God were to punish us for invading Iraq, then the Biblical model of God's wrath would be the complete and utter destruction of our forces by a much smaller and poorly equipped resistance. At this point, the resistance is not poorly equipped ("poorly equipped", in my decision, does not include access to shoulder-fired missiles and mortars) and we are not facing utter destruction (more like slow attrition).

Sorry, Ray, but your theology just doesn't hold up - though it does make a good sound bite. Of course, that's what any mayor facing re-election would want. Lots of free press that can be played off of both sides of the political spectrum.

The report continues:

He [Nagin] said God is "upset at black America also."

"We are not taking care of ourselves. We are not taking care of our women, and we are not taking care of our children when you have a community where 70 percent of its children are being born to one parent."


I won't deny these are serious problems that call for serious solutions - both in the personal acceptance of responsibility and in the social structure that fosters such behavior - but you're going to have to show me that this is more of a problem in New Orleans than it is in New York, Detroit, Chicago, or any other major city in the nation. It's nothing more than the worst kind of opportunism to say anything to the contrary. When the larger remarks are taken into account, it's obvious that this is what Nagin is doing:


"I don't care what people are saying Uptown or wherever they are. This city will be chocolate at the end of the day," Nagin said in a Martin Luther King Jr. Day speech. "This city will be a majority African-American city. It's the way God wants it to be."


A lot of people are upset over the use of the word "chocolate" or Nagin's explanation - played ad naseum today on CNN (sorry, no link):


When you take dark chocolate and mix it with white milk, you get a delicious drink. That's the kind of chocolate I'm talking about.


That car you see heading north out of New Orleans would be Nagin's campaign manager, car-pooling with his communications director. I could care less about the use of "chocolate" as a synonym for "black". I don't even care that Nagin said the city would be re-built as a black city - though it does make me wonder what would happen to a white southern mayor who said a town would be "white because that's the way God wants it".

What bothers me most is saying "that's the way God wants it". Look, I've read the Bible from cover to cover and I can assure you that New Orleans is not mentioned at all. What Nagin is doing is claiming some divine revelation about population density and demographics. Either that, or he is basing his claim on God wanting New Orleans to be black on what it was prior to the hurricane - which he said was punishment for the way the city was. I don't believe there's any divine message in Hurricane Katrina - except perhaps the common sense injunction against building below sea level when surrounded by water. However, it would make more sense to say that God wants black people to live somewhere else than it does to say he wants them to come back and wait for another tragedy - but that's my reading of the situation.

It also bothers me, though to a much lesser extent, that these remarks were made on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Nagin does a disservice to Dr. King's theology by speaking about a hurricane being punishment, but even more so by saying that God wants New Orleans to be black.


I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

I have a dream today!

I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of "interposition" and "nullification" -- one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.

I have a dream today!


I don't buy Nagin's spin that he wanted to say "chocolate milk" instead of just "chocolate". That's a politician trying to change his words after they left his mouth. I don't think Nagin intended to make a racially insensitve statement, he was just trying to make sure that the black people of New Orleans had a voice. His mishandling of the moment, however, hurts his cause. It only shows how far we are from realizing Dr. King's dream:

And when this happens, when we allow freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!

We, alas, are still not free. There is much work to do.

Come, Let Us Reason Together

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