I heard the head of FEMA calling the situation in New Orleans "fascinating" as people were dying. Then there was the New Orleans mayor who ordered mandatory evacuations but left 2,000 school buses parked in rows, unused. I listened to President Bush's early statements and felt they conveyed less empathy than an Alan Greenspan report on the economy. Then there were the looters who seemed to be reveling in the destruction. The Rev. Jesse Jackson showed up not to help but to blame. And my hero's son, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., said the hurricane had hit Mississippi so hard because Gov. Haley Barbour had been against the Kyoto Protocol on global warming. Now Tom Delay is saying it is everyone else's problem. It isn't hard to find things to rail against.
Being angry actually makes me feel like I'm doing something. This is, after all, a righteous anger. I could see myself holding up placards with some slogan protesting just about everyone in any position of power. I could seriously see myself leading a chant like, "Hey, hey, ho, ho, Brown has got to go." The man seems slightly less qualified to run FEMA than I am to run Martha Stewart's empire.
But there is something deeper than my anger at everyone else. It is anger at myself. I should be doing more. I should be doing something. But part of me finds that it is easier to be angry. Being angry doesn't require me to do anything other than be angry. Anger doesn't require me to help or give. Anger doesn't require me to sacrifice.
Yet if ever there was a time to bring back the notion of sacrifice, it is now.
After the immediate horror of 9/11 had subsided and the White House looked at what we should do to help America recover, some advocated calling on the American people to sacrifice. If America was indeed at war, war required sacrifice from everyone, they reasoned. How could we keep a nation unified against terrorism unless people pulled together and was willing to sacrifice some of their own wants for the greater good? Maybe taxes should be raised or volunteerism required.
No, others argued, sacrifice couldn't be used because it might hurt the economy and "interfere with the American way of life." The American way of life it seemed didn't include the ancient idea of sacrifice. Besides, opponents of the sacrifice concept argued, Americans don't have any idea what sacrifice really means. "Americans aren't willing to sacrifice for anything anymore."
Maybe they were right. I saw a friend recently who had lost a considerable amount of weight. I asked him how he did it. A radical new plan, he responded flatly. "I ate less, I exercised more.I sacrificed what I liked for what I needed." We joked that it was indeed a crazy plan. He didn't take any pills or read any self-help books or anything. He just sacrificed something small - all the food he could stuff in his body at every meal - for something big - better long-term health. He was the only one he knew who'd been that crazy. Liposuction would have been far more convenient.
I hate it that I could easily give $1,000 to help in New Orleans but $5,000 would hurt and $10,000 more than that and $15,000 more than that. Sacrifice? You mean give up my beloved addiction to Amazon where I can click on a book and have it show up at my door the next day without ever having to leave my house? You mean making others my priority rather than stuffing myself full of whatever I want? It is much easier to be angry.
But then I am reminded of Jesus' blindingly simple saying, "Where your treasure is that is where your heart is also," and of Paul's warning, "the love of money is the root of all evil," and I realize that maybe the call to sacrifice isn't really optional. Jesus' emphasis was actually that the more it hurt it to give, the more that it meant to God.
Last year Americans spent more than $4 trillion buying stuff in retail stores (not including cars, gas, restaurant meals, electricity, heating, insurance, etc.). That amounts to more than $11 billion a day. A lot of that stuff is the stuff of life - food, for instance. But a lot of it isn't. More than $3 billion was spent on fishing lures. $5 billion or so goes to Starbucks for $4 lattes.
Of course none of these things are bad. These purchases are what keep companies open, people employed, and families growing. If no one buys, then no one works--and soon we'd be one giant welfare state run by Michael Brown or Disney or whoever bought naming rights. But maybe just one day of sacrifice wouldn't hurt.
What would happen, for instance, if next Monday we fasted from spending anything at all and send that money to the relief efforts? No shopping at Amazon, no going to Wal-Mart; no trips to the mall, and no eBay either. No restaurants, no Starbucks. No Gap, no Target, no McDonald's, no Taco Bell. No 7-11, no Baskin Robbins and not even Dairy Queen. Just for one day. Our economy could deal with it.