The quality of mercy is not strain'd,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:
'Tis mightiest in the mightiest: it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown;
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptred sway;
It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God's
When mercy seasons justice. -- William Shakespeare
I don't know about you and where you live, but from the safety of rural mid-Michigan, the unfolding crisis in the Gulf states in the wake of Hurricane Katrina -- which is now being described as the worst natural disaster ever in this country -- seems strangely far away...in a way, farther even than last year's tsunami. To me, news coverage has been understated, to say the least. Maybe this is simply because news organizations can't get to the most stricken areas; we're not seeing them or hearing about them because reporters aren't there yet. Or maybe we're all still in a kind of shock; when we do see fleeting footage of bodies, of refugees, it seems like something that's happening in another country -- somewhere in Africa, or the Caribbean, or on the Indian subcontinent.
The plight of the hurricane victims drifted far from my consciousness today, despite my frequent check-ins on the Internet to read news updates. One report talked of a man who lost his wife when their house literally broke in half; they'd been holding one another through the brunt of the storm, but when the house split in two he lost his grip on her, and never saw her again; it seemed more like a sad, terrible myth of the ancients than something that happened yesterday. At one point I was totally lost in my work; at another I was bored and daydreaming; I had to remind myself, finally, "You know, there are dead bodies floating in the streets in the streets of New Orleans right now -- what is the matter with you?"
So when I got home, it was important to me to watch the news, to see what was happening in Louisiana and Mississippi...not out of a sense of voyeurism, but just to put a human face on words like "refugee."
I did see that -- faces of the displaced, the bereft, the stunned. As far as that went, even the usually dapper and unflappable newspeople sent to the scene seemed more human and vulnerable tonight, wet and dirty, almost overwhelmed by the mayhem around them. But what stayed with me for the rest of the evening, was a report on looting in New Orleans -- scores of people wading through thigh-deep water into supermarkets and drugstores and emerging with armfuls of food and dry goods. Police were present, but made no attempt to stop the looters; at times they even helped them carry their stolen goods through the flood waters. One weary looking police officer put it simply: "People gotta do what they gotta do."
I'm sure there were many law-abiding citizens around the U.S., watching the evening news from the comfort of high ground, who found this story disturbing and objectionable. And I don't want to sound as if I endorse thievery as a practice. But to me the police officers who, in some circumstances, held back from arresting the desperate, were a sign of grace and mercy in the midst of a merciless natural disaster. People in the neighborhood were hungry, cut off from their homes and possessions and the outside world; the merchandise in these stores was a loss anyway -- maybe soon to be covered by the rising water. Better that it not be wasted; that people who needed it had access to it. And better that violence not be added to the chaos. Someone who truly understands both the rules and the reasons for the rules also understands when the rules can be set aside; that's wisdom.
Last night, in my prayers, one of the things that I prayed for was that, in the midst of destruction and mayhem, that God's hands might be made manifest in the hands of helping others. I want to think that when desperate people went foraging today for things they needed to keep going, and experienced not judgment and punishment at the hands of the police, but kindness and solidarity, that those officers' hands became God's hands.