Being There by Dave Furman, Free for CaPC Members
Dave Furman’s Being There is intended to help us navigate life with those who are suffering.
Say what you will about hurricanes, but they aren’t boring.
Actually, that’s not entirely true. The initial sense of dread and the panic-driven hurricane prep to-do list (I’ve gotta go get gas, water, batteries, plywood, cash from the ATM, and then I’ve gotta move everything in the house!) give way, when the work is done, to long stretches of boredom.
Many of the messages conveyed by both my evangelical and environmentalist friends are fine as “in-group” messages, but when picked up by outsiders . . . the messages can be counterproductive.As I am writing this, Hurricane Irma is crawling toward my central Florida home (at last report, the storm is moving only 8 mph). The first bands of rain are here, but the winds won’t pick up for hours yet. However, most everything is closed, so there’s really nowhere to go. And the waiting begins. Since I still have power, and have not yet been reduced to playing Settlers of Catan by candlelight (praise His name for small graces), I’ve spent the time in a wholly unoriginal way: scrolling Facebook to see what’s going on. And wow, have the results been interesting.
From my evangelical friends, there have been several calls to pray in light of Irma’s approach. Now, I am sure the motivation for doing so is laudable—pray for those in its path, pray for a minimization of damage and hardship, and so on—but it still makes me a little uneasy. Many of these prayers seem to drift a little too close to self-preservation—“God, let the storm miss me (and drill the poor suckers off to the west).” A cynic would suggest that the whole thing feels like a competition—if we pray harder than the people on the Gulf Coast, we can drive the storm that way! We will win the test of prayer strength! Let me say again that I am sure these posts are not intended this way, but they still can be read as a bit myopic.
From my progressive friends, there have been constant references to climate change and how its effects have exacerbated these storms. Many of these have carried a political edge—look at Florida with its climate-change-denying Republican governor running scared from Irma! (There was a similar line with Hurricane Harvey in Texas.) The upshot is clear—you deserve the destruction that is coming for you, because you would not listen to our warnings about climate change! Again, these are my friends, so I feel confident in saying that these posts come from a good place, or at least a place that does not want to see hardship that could have been prevented, but still, they come across as mean-spirited schadenfreude.
And so Irma has become, in some ways, a giant Rorschach test, producing whatever revelations the beholder wants. It also has further revealed the deep divisions in the American populace and the polarization of an “us vs. them” tribalism.
For the progressive, evangelical calls for prayer are self-centered (God, let the storm hit them and not me), and, worse still, a panacea for guilty consciences pricked by inaction. “Well, at least I’ve sent thoughts and prayers! That’s something, right?” Hence the trend we are now seeing, of mocking politicians and others who offer “thoughts and prayers” in the wake of tragedies.
For the evangelical and the conservative, an environmentalist’s “I told you so” serves no purpose except to act as another “gotcha” in the ongoing culture wars. There is no redemptive value, no desire to help. Only a desire to revel in the fact that we enlightened progressives were right, and those dumb conservative yahoos were wrong.
Now, I stand with a foot in each of these camps. I am an evangelical, and I believe that praying for God’s mercies for all in Irma’s path is the most constructive action which can be taken. This is not to say that we can pray the hurricane’s path to change; it is to say that we need to acknowledge and honor God’s presence and to ask for His direct help to those affected. However, I am also an environmentalist who is convinced that, yes, climate change is exacerbating these phenomena (we’ve had an awful lot of “storms of the century” lately, it seems) and that we need to act both in preventative and reactive measures.
This positioning as an “edgewalker” rather than a “camp dweller” has its advantages and its disadvantages. The latter includes always feeling like an outsider and living with the constant temptation to let your nuance turn into waffling. Still, the advantages exist as well, including being able to see the blind spots in “camps” that you love and feel connected to—even if not fully connected.
Ironically enough, the blind spots in the evangelical and the environmental camps are nearly identical, and they have less to do with content and the messages which are spoken, and more to do with how different communities receive the messages which are conveyed, and particularly the tone in which those messages are delivered.
Many of the messages conveyed by both my evangelical and environmentalist friends are fine as “in-group” messages, but when picked up by outsiders (which, in a media-saturated world like ours, they are bound to do) the messages can be counterproductive. The outsider looks at the Christian praying over Irma and says, “Oh now you’re concerned about the effects of weather? When it affects you? How ’bout that?” At the same time, however, the outsider looks at the schadenfreude of the environmentalist clucking about climate disaster hitting red states and says, “You can go perform a physical impossibility on yourself.” In both cases, the message, although it may be right, does not produce agreement, but rather backfires—both sides entrench all the more, and the divide gets wider.
The edge-walkers have an opportunity in the midst of this polarization, and it begins with our care and concern for the camps in which we have a presence. So much dialogue nowadays, from all sides, is so mean-spirited, and mean-spirited screeds do nothing save to energize the already-convinced. They have no persuasive value whatsoever. Constructive criticism, however, spoken in love and in wishing the best for those being spoken to. . . now that has the power to create change. And I’m not sure if anyone except the edge-walkers can do it.
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