Sunday, September 11, 2005

More than food and clothes

An official in Baton Rogue asked for them. A publisher in Nashville sent them. Sounds commendable enough at a time when aid is pouring into the part of the country torn apart by Katrina. Seems even reasonable that such aid would consist of items local officials were asking for. What's the problem, you may well ask? The items themselves seem to be causing all the controversy. The donors sent the refugees Bibles.

Critics of the Christian publishing house that sent the Bibles (and matched their employees' monetary contributions up to $50,000) say that they would be offended if they received a Bible in such a time as this. (There was no comment on whether they would have been offended by the monetary contribution as well. I assume they would not.) These critics do not seem to realize that, in a crisis, many people draw more comfort from their faith than their full stomachs. If an individual does not want a Bible for whatever reason, no one is forcing him to take one. Why should such an individual compel the donor to stop giving to those that want to receive? Local officials specifically asked for this aid. It would be wrong to deny spiritual comfort by imposing a purely naturalistic world-view on those refugees who believe that life is more than food and the body more than clothes. And is this belief, which at least 83% of Americans hold, really so unbelievably controversial? Most of us have gotten over our insecure belief that we are no more than unfeeling brutes.

The incident brings me back to feelings I had in the wake of September 11. I was at music school, and felt that I was wasting my time there. I could have been studying something that would have been more useful to people in need. A dear friend - a non-musician - stopped me and told me a story of a NY violinist. This violinist had walked around all day and night and played his instrument for the people that were sitting in the streets, walking in the debris, and looking for their loved ones. He wept as he played. People later said that his music meant more to them than the food and water they received from the Red Cross, or the practical physical aid they received from doctors. And why? He was feeding their souls. He was reminding them what it meant to be human. He was reminding them that our bodies house something special and unique. Each man gives what he can: the violinist, the song; the Christian publisher, the Bibles. Why has it become trendy to let our souls starve?

How would I feel if the tables were turned? One might argue the reason the Bible donation sits so lightly on my mind is that I am a Christian. What would I do if a publisher of another faith handed me a Torah, or a Koran along with some money for food? Would I be offended that he was trying to comfort me with a belief I don't share? Not in the least. I would be thankful and grateful to any human being that tried to meet a hunger that, for most people, runs deeper than physical hunger. And I would understand that such a longing is part of our shared humanity.

Religion and music can sustain people in ways that food never can. And woe to the critics that have forgotten this truth. Maybe they should sit in a room filled with Bach sonatas and read a Psalm.


Misha Tseytlin said...

While I have struggled and found little solace in either religion or music, I think this post's larger point is right on. There are more important things in life than physical comfort, more essential to what it means to be human. When we are in the place where we need food, we operate at the level of animals. To satisfy that part of us that is more than animal, we need something different in-kind. Sarah would say that is for our soul, I would say that its for our intellect, although I dont really think we mean very different things.

David Gomez said...

In my view, this has nothing to do with the virtue of the religion (or music for that matter); Rather, these Bibles were donated. They were free and the refugees bore no cost in receiving them. So what's the harm in giving them out? If 90% of people throw it out or reject them (I assume that the Bibles would be given and have the opportunity to be rejected), but these gifts help the 10% get through a difficult time, then it seems ridiculous for local officials to reject them.
And more practically, it is doubtful that many of these people who lost their homes in a blink of an eye thought to grab whatever spiritual books they possessed. The donated Bibles can be viewed as replacing the lost property of the refugees, such as clothing or furniture. I doubt that officials would reject donations of that category. Ridiculous.

Charles Iragui said...


Do these critics dislike:

1. the state's participation in the distribution of the religious material,

2. the perceived indifference to the immediate material needs of displaced persons, OR

3. the prosyletizing itself, potentially to non-believers?

If it is the second, then I agree with them. Before Christ spoke, he ensured that the multitudes had eaten... Most likely, though, the critics' fears are misplaced. Many governmental and non-governmental organizations looked to this hunger, medicine and shelter problem. Perhaps one might even say that this sort of material analysis denies an obvious fact: that since ancient times, civilization has generated sufficient surplus to accomodate priestly labor. Certainly this is far more true today than in the distant past.

If it is the third, then there is little for me to say: it's a free country.

If it is the first, they may have a point. What if significant government resources were displaced to distribute these Bibles? It seems unlikely... but perhaps it would have been better to distribute these Bibles through private charities.


Sarah Kohrs said...

1. The Bibles were distributed through Samaritan's purse, a private charitable organization.

2. The organization that sent the Bibles also committed to matching their employees contributions up to $50,000. I think they ended up sending $100,000 total.

3. I'm not sure it counts as "proselytizing" since a large majority of the homeless are Christians.

And the problem that most of the critics had was your point number 2.

Charles Iragui said...


Thanks for the clarification concerning the private distribution.

I suspect, regardless of what they claim, that the critics of such a harmless (even very charitable) action must be motivated by a profound dislike of religion. As you said in your original post, they see no value in reading the Bible and quite likely see it as an "opiate of the masses".