by Andrew Stephens-Rennie
Do you remember that story in Mark’s gospel? You know, the one in the second chapter where the friends of a paralytic man take him to see Jesus? Do you remember the story of how Jesus, returning home to Capernaum after several days was accosted, surrounded, swarmed by the throngs who just had to see what this bold teacher and prophet was going on about?
Do you remember the story? Do you remember the story of how the friends couldn’t make it through the crowds, so they climbed to the roof, pulled away the thatch and let their friend down through the hole, into the house?
I’ve been thinking about that story a lot this week. But I’ve been reading the story from a bit of a different perspective. The perspective of one who has just returned from New Orleans, where in August and September 2005 Hurricanes Katrina and Rita hit, the levees broke, and the vast majority of the city was drowned and summarily rotted under 3, 6, 9 feet of water.
In the wake of this perfect storm, religious folks were all too quick to say that New Orleans deserved it. The big easy gets its due. That den of iniquity is finally paying for its sins.
Only problem,the French Quarter – the belly of the beast itself – barely got hit. Oh. And another thing? So much of the drunkenness and debauchery of that neighbourhood comes at the hands of those who are visiting from away. Those who come to be different people. Those who come to shed their inhibitions and to live raucously, before returning home to somewhere in the midwest to their picket fences, minivans and kids’ soccer practices.
I’m not saying. I’m just saying. There are so many lies about this place, so much the media takes for granted, so many stories that don’t even begin to scratch the surface of the structures of oppression at play in that city. If you’re going to talk about the problems in New Orleans, let me just suggest that these accusations don’t even scratch the surface, and that to be honest, the bigger, badder problems have a different perpetrator than even those from the midwest who come for a week of letting loose.
As I walked through the Lower Ninth, nearly two weeks ago today, and as I’ve been reflecting on that experience, I found it very difficult to read the signs of the times alongside the second chapter of Mark’s gospel.
I read the gospel story of friends climbing the roof, in great faith, to lower their friend down to see Jesus. And yet all I can see, all I can hear are the screams of people from rooftops. All I can see are those who have gone from first floor, to attic, grabbing the hatchet along the way in order to break through the roof, out-of-breath-and-all-the-while-screaming…
Somebody save us
Take our friend, leave us behind
Somebody, anybody, please, please help.
These good men are not lowering their friend into the house. If anything, they’re hoisting their paralytic friend up through the attic, and onto the roof, where perhaps, they will wait for days to be rescued.
Will they be rescued?
While the government turned a blind eye. While the president waited for days to come and survey the damage, and even then – even then, only to do a quick fly-by. This is heavy stuff. This is a system that is broken. These are dispatches from the forgotten corners of Empire.
Forget the fact that the Ports of New Orleans form the largest port system in the world by bulk tonnage, and the world’s fourth largest by annual volume handled. Forget the fact that some of the city finds itself 10ft below sea level. If you want to tell people to uproot themselves, move out of the city, and move to Omaha, you better think again. You might want to think about that for economic reasons. You might want to contemplate what it might mean from any person or group of people to simply uproot, leave their community, their group of friends, and to move clear across the country where they know no-one.
Maybe you’re from the suburbs, and that doesn’t seem so bad. Maybe you don’t know your neighbours that well, and you say to yourself, “well, that wouldn’t be so bad.” But when you live deeply in community. When you live in a neighbourhood with all your best friends, in the house your grandfather built, in a home that you own…well let’s think again about how easy it’ll be to abandon the community, the neighbourhood, the people you know, and find yourself in Arlington Heights, IL, or wherever. Oh the mythological worlds of the upwardly mobile…
So where is Jesus in all of this? Where on earth was Jesus? Was he on the ground floor? Was he in the attic? Was Jesus on the roof, in a chopper, or in a rescue boat? Where was Jesus when Katrina hit, and where is Jesus now, 3 years later, a city still bereaved, devastated, oppressed?
All the people say: “3 years after Katrina? They must have rebuilt by now.”
Uhh…sorry. Not yet. It may not have been in the media, but we’ve got other battles to fight these days. And really, in terms of rebuilding, we’re too busy blowing stuff up overseas to help our own people rebuild. Y’all understand tho. It’s about freedom. It’s about protecting our liberties, our way of life.
All the while the folks in New Orleans, and all across the gulf coast ask, “what freedom?” “what way of life?” “Have you even seen this place lately?”
Where are the hands and feet of Jesus in this story? Where is the healing? Will the people of New Orleans get up and walk? Are their sins, whatever those might be, forgiven?
But hold on a second. Jesus’ story doesn’t stop there. The story of the paralytic doesn’t stop there.
But where might it go?