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WORLDVIEW: Two modern myths take another hit

RICHMOND, Va. (BP)–One of the first fatalities of Hurricane Katrina was the myth of American invincibility.

True, our national illusion of omnipotence took a major blow after the 9/11 attacks. But this time wind and water accomplished what terrorists couldn’t: the near-destruction of a region, and the crippling of a significant part of the national economy.

Beyond the enormous human suffering and dislocation caused by Katrina along the Gulf Coast, experts predict its economic costs will top $200 billion — and possibly climb far higher. Prices will rise on a whole range of goods; taxes may follow. The shortage of key products delivered via the Gulf Coast will slow the entire U.S. economy, at least in the near term. Regional oil refining, shipping, agriculture, industry and transportation all will need time to recover.

Even some Third World nations have sent us aid. That’s good: We can use the help for storm victims — and we can use a little more humility as a nation.

The United States remains the world’s only superpower, but we aren’t invulnerable. American Christians need that reminder as well. We live in a fallen world. We can’t — and shouldn’t — hide from it within “safe” physical or mental borders, which don’t exist in the first place. God calls us to use all of our blessings to shine the light of His love into the dangerous darkness.

“We’re all in this together,” International Mission Board President Jerry Rankin reminded Southern Baptists when he announced the allocation of $2.5 million in IMB contingency funds to aid Katrina-affected churches in the Gulf Coast area as they rebuild and minister to others. “We all share responsibility for the needs of one another. We all share the responsibility of fulfilling the Great Commission by using every opportunity God gives us to touch a lost world.”

As if to illustrate that spiritual truth, even the physical effects of Katrina extend far beyond our borders.

“Whereas the Gulf is a significant source of oil for the United States, it is a critical source of food commodities for much of the world,” explains George Friedman, geopolitical analyst and chairman of Strategic Forecasting, Inc., a Texas-based private intelligence firm. “More than half of the (U.S.) grain and soybean harvest comes down the Mississippi River in barges to the ports of New Orleans, from whence it is redistributed around the United States or is shipped to Europe, Asia and Latin America. Certainly, the world markets have other sources of grain and foodstuffs, but the American harvest is the major source.”

The global economy is amazingly resilient, but it’s a more fragile patchwork than we like to contemplate. It relies far more on intricately linked, interdependent national economies than it did in the years prior to the Great Depression. And all the major national economies depend on a finite, increasingly precious resource: oil.

With another major hurricane bearing down on Texas’ Gulf Coast and its oil refining infrastructure, one wonders how many Katrina-level disasters global markets can take before the economic house of cards collapses.

No one can answer that question. Let’s hope we don’t have to. But the question itself should humble us — as should the human folly, indifference and brutality displayed in the immediate aftermath of Katrina.

“The scrapbook of history accords but a few pages to each decade, and it is already clear the pages devoted to this one will be grisly,” predicts New York Times commentator David Brooks. “Americans have had to acknowledge dark realities that it is not in our nature to readily acknowledge: the thin veneer of civilization, the elemental violence in human nature, the lurking ferocity of the environment, the limitations on what we can plan and know, the cumbersome reactions of bureaucracies, the uncertain progress good makes over evil.”

That last item in particular — about good and evil — continues to trip up believers in another myth: the inevitability of human progress. A frustrated professor of social science fired off a letter to my local newspaper after watching in horror as the strong abandoned or abused the weak amid the rubble of Katrina’s destruction. He lamented that human society has allowed the “thin veneer” of civility to wear away to nothing.

“In my view, there has been absolutely no intellectual progress in this area for at least 50 years and perhaps for the whole century,” he wrote. “When science and information are proceeding at blistering speeds in other areas, why are we blind, tethered and in perpetual darkness here?”

Answer: Because good and evil are not matters of the intellect; they are matters of the heart. And as the prophet Jeremiah told us a long time ago, the heart is “deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?” (Jeremiah 17:9, KJV) Perhaps one day the apostles of progress will admit it.

Humanity is fallen. Nature is fallen. The world is in darkness. We groan together as we reach for the light shining in darkness: God’s saving grace and mercy expressed through His Son, Jesus Christ. That’s the force empowering the thousands of Christian workers ministering to Katrina survivors — and reaching out in love to the suffering and lost of the world.

It’s a force more powerful than technology, economics, “progress” — or hurricanes.
Erich Bridges is senior writer with the Southern Baptist International Mission Board whose column appears twice each month in Baptist Press.

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  • Erich Bridges