This weekend is the tenth anniversary of the Gulf Coast landing of Hurricane Katrina, which wrought so much destruction in both Louisiana and Mississippi. I had started the predecessor format of this blog earlier that year. Given ancestral and business interests, a disaster of this size made an impact on me, especially after visiting the place the following year.
My focus at the time was on the eternal, and that’s never a bad thing. But the aftermath of Katrina, and the relief effort that followed, highlighted two things. The first was the total inability of our governmental agencies to act effectively in response to this disaster. Most of the media blame was centred on George W. Bush. But to err is human; for a real disaster, you need a bipartisan effort, and Louisiana in particular supplied the Democrats to round things out. The only state or federal executive to have his or her reputation come out enhanced was Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour.
The second was the response of the church. In many ways, Katrina was the church’s finest hour since 9/11. The speed at which churches and parachurch organisations responded and organised relief of all kinds amazed even those of us who were familiar with its charitable arm. Ministries such as Operation Blessing, Operation Compassion, Mercy Chefs, God’s Pit Crew, the Southern Baptist efforts and many others rose to the occasion and, within the limitations of their resources, filled in the many gaps left by government.
People who blithely call for the revocation of churches’ tax exempt status, saying the government can take care of such things, have conveniently forgotten the lessons of Katrina. If they succeed, they will soon see the fulfilment of their prophet Karl Marx’ dictum that history repeats itself: the first time as a tragedy, the second as a farce. How funny the next round of victims sees that is another story…
Hurricane Katrina has come and gone, and taken a good deal of the New Orleans area with it. There’s a lesson from this that dates back to the time New Orleans was founded. In Matthew we read the following parable:
Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables. “The Kingdom of Heaven,” he said, “may be compared to a king who gave a banquet in honor of his son’s wedding. He sent his servants to call those who had been invited to the banquet, but they were unwilling to come. A second time he sent some servants, with orders to say to those who had been invited ‘I have prepared my breakfast, my cattle and fat beasts are killed and everything is ready; come to the banquet.’ They, however, took no notice, but went off, one to his farm, another to his business; While the rest, seizing his servants, ill-treated them and killed them. The king, in anger, sent his troops, put those murderers to death, and set their city on fire. Then he said to his servants ‘The banquet is prepared, but those who were invited were not worthy. So go to the cross-roads, and invite everyone you find to the banquet.’ (Mt. 22:1-9)
In his classic Meditations on the Gospel, the French bishop Jaques Bénigne Bossuet translated the term “farm” (v. 5) with the term métairie. Residents of southern Louisiana are all too familiar with this term: today the city of Metairie, the suburb in Jefferson Parish immediately west of New Orleans, is underwater, victim of Hurricane Katrina and a broken levee. The immensity of the tragedy is beyond words.
The term métairie refers to a form of sharecropping that was practiced in New France, and the estates where it was practiced. When New Orleans was founded in 1718—just a few short years after Bossuet wrote his Meditations in old France—it was concentrated in what is now called the Vieux Carré, the French Quarter. The land surrounding it, in what is now Orleans, Jefferson and St. Bernard parishes, became estates to farm the rich alluvial soil.
Bossuet’s use of the term métairie is interesting, because most translations give the impression that the man who refused the invitation was going out to till his own soil. Bossuet—preacher most of his career to kings and aristocrats—takes the idea to a new level, portraying a man who will leave the hard physical labour to others while he takes in the profits.
New Orleans has always led a precarious existence. Its physical location makes for an excellent port, but the low elevation of the place—which only got worse as it expanded from the Vieux Carré, except for the area up near Lake Ponchartrain—made water removal a constant trial. Inadequate levees have been a part of the city’s woes from its founding. Tropical diseases took their tool as well. Moreover New France didn’t provide the proper hinterland to feed the city and port economically; it wasn’t until the Spanish took the city after the Seven Years’ War that this took place, and things really got going when New Orleans entered the US in 1803.
This strange combination of alternating wealth and poverty—and the uncertainty that goes with it—is what developed New Orleans’ carefree attitude towards life. The “Big Easy” was born in adversity, and many of its residents have contented themselves with drowning their cares in rum old fashioneds since the days when Bossuet’s patrons, the Kings of France, ruled the place.
Today, as then, we have may people who have ignored the invitation of God for eternal life and have gone off to their métairie or whatever other concern that they have. Between trying to keep that going they have immersed themselves in whatever pleasure—and that includes intoxicating substances a lot more potent that rum old fashioneds—that might come their way. But neither business nor pleasure can be taken into eternity, and both can be taken away in a hurry, as the residents of Metairie are being reminded of the hard way.
This life has a great deal of uncertainty. That uncertainty looks a lot different when we can view it from the perspective of eternal life. That’s especially important at times when your métairie—and Metairie itself—are wiped out.