Columnists > Soul Food


Its lack reveals the thin veneer of civilization

Issue: "The new school year," Sept. 11, 1999

How thin is the veneer of a civilization? How deep the polyurethane coating that keeps it smooth? Why do the hairline cracks appear? What does it take to unravel the fabric of civility?


It finally made it to the front page today, in the bold type usually reserved for serial killers and heads of state. The poor second cousin of your local and national report, the last minute addendum to your half-hour nightly news program, has just been bumped up to center stage. And though till now the concern has been academic and controlled, it is becoming increasingly shrill.

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I live in a part of the country we always thought was the safest, if not the most dramatically beautiful. Not a favorite tornado alley. No nettlesome shifting plates below our skyscrapers that daily threaten to swallow them up and lop off great swaths of humanity, setting them adrift into the sea. No particular proclivity to hurricanes.

We had it coming for a long time. I've sensed it like a pebble in the shoe-each time the "acuweather" man delivered portents of precipitation with a hint of grousing in his voice: "Some bad guys headed our way this weekend, folks"-then the camera cuts to cartoon clouds wearing little frowns. (Sunny days are the "good guys.")

Of course, now and then you will see someone pray for rain-though not always for the common good. My friend Donna prayed against ominous indigo formations over her July birthday party some years ago, and, sure enough, they dispersed. (I often wonder if somewhere else in town another of God's children was praying for rain on his tomatoes at the same time.)

But for the most part people around here don't include water in either their petitions or thanksgivings. I know I never did. Hey, we're Americans! It's fine for the West Bank Palestinians who are getting running water only for a few hours every two weeks; those people are used to suffering!

At this point things are still relatively calm. But if this drought keeps up, soon I expect the media will start dramatically counting off consecutive days like they did in 1980 for the hostages in Beirut; and soon skirmishes will break out in the neighborhood as people, peeking out their windows, report water ban violators. (I heard a New Jersey resident interviewed, the proud owner of a tawny-colored lawn who claims that so far his neighbors are doing the right thing.)

I don't know if it will ever get as bad as Leningrad in the big war, where after they'd eaten every cat and dog on the street, the besieged citizens were reduced to making soup of sawdust and industrial grease, and swallowing hair oil and Vaseline.

If Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was right in his 1978 Harvard commencement address, it will take less than that degree of hardship to bring us to the grisly state described in 2 Kings 6:25-29. (I would be censured by the editors if I quoted it at length.) Bringing a prophet's rebuke to a "soulless" nation that has largely jettisoned its Christian heritage, the Russian author notes, "The center of your democracy is left without electric power for a few hours only, and all of a sudden crowds of Americans start looting and creating havoc. The smooth surface film must be very thin...."

The book of Revelation is constructed like a bad dream. The horsemen dispatched in Chapter 6 draw eerily closer to their destination with each overlapping cycle. Then enter the "trumpets," destroying a third of this and a third of that (i.e., partial destruction; warning). When the "bowls" are finally poured, there is no more talk of fractions. No more "todays" not to harden your heart in. Only the seventh angel's chilling, "It is done."

It'll probably rain any day now, and this little scare will all seem funny in hindsight. Like the locusts seemed funny to Pharaoh after they were gone. And they'll pontificate about low pressure systems and El Niño (those puny secondary causes they go on about). But I know where both blessings and calamities come from (Lamentations 3:38). And I'll probably go right on seeing droughts as "cups"-those mercies in disguise that cause me to remember, to repent, to worship.

Andrée Seu
Andrée Seu

Andrée is the author of three books: Won't Let You Go Unless You Bless Me, Normal Kingdom Business, and We Shall Have Spring Again.


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