May 9, 2005

WHY, THEY'RE ALMOST HUMAN... (via Jim Yates):

The role of religion in the Deep South (Justin Webb, 5/07/05, BBC News)

visit to Mississippi in 2005 provides a reminder that while religion has motivated all manner of charlatans and creeps in American life and still does, it is also the primary motivation for many of those who genuinely do good and are not collecting money or condemning other people's vice.

In a nation without anything but the most basic social services, without a National Health Service, many of those picking up the pieces are religious, often fundamentalist, Christians.

To be sure the president has encouraged this trend, but in Mississippi I did not get the impression that they needed much encouragement from far-off Washington.

I went to a prison housing the most dangerous young offenders, considered so beyond the pale that they are being tried as adults.

The American penal system is brutal, the sentences are long and the conditions harsh.

I had been invited to this place by Dr John Perkins, a renowned black prison visitor, a man who brings bibles and talks to the kids about the lives they might one day lead.

I assumed we would be treated with icy courtesy by the whites who run the place.

But I got it all wrong.

We had been inside for two minutes when a request, an order, came that we were to lunch with the sheriff, the man in charge. He was a redneck straight out of central casting, huge and menacing.

Then suddenly, as giggly as a schoolgirl, he hugged Dr Perkins and thanked Jesus Christ for the food.

Over lunch he told their story of a meeting at a prayer breakfast which led to an invitation for Dr Perkins to visit the jail.

A couple of highly motivated evangelical Christians have built a personal relationship unthinkable in even the recent past and are now significantly improving the lives of mainly black 16- and 17-year-old murderers and rapists - people the rest of the nation is happy to lock up and forget.

This was surprise enough, but there was more to come.

We were introduced to Cynthia Cockerne, an elderly, frail white woman who has been running the rudimentary prison education effort. She was a person of quite extraordinary cheery religious fervour, in almost every sentence she referred to the Lord.

She and Dr Perkins did their stuff with the kids. When we said our goodbyes, Dr Perkins walked out with me and announced casually: "That woman is a saint, and to think that her great uncle killed my brother."

It was a racist killing, unpunished as they all were in those days in these parts, which this elderly couple had only realised linked them when they chatted recently about places where they had lived and events they had witnessed.

They are reconciled now and working hard to make life better in modern Mississippi

It's like he's visiting another planet.

Posted by Orrin Judd at May 9, 2005 11:44 PM

Yeah, the BBC aren't "charlatans and creeps...collecting money"

They are funded by the government.

Posted by: Randall Voth at May 10, 2005 5:26 AM

One reason that Americans are basically hostile to the kind of cradle-to-grave socialism so rampant in Europe is that we have always been far more generous to charity than they are. There is a sense that we can make do through private giving and that there is in some sense an obligation to engage in private giving.

Posted by: bart at May 10, 2005 7:45 AM

For decades the BBC had Alastair Cooke (RIP) explaining what America was like, and this, this clod couldn't be bothered to listen to the old man. How the devil do you deal with ignorance that deep.

Posted by: Mikey at May 10, 2005 10:14 AM

Dips like Justin Webb think that they understand us all too well, but Americans don't understand Europeans. They don't know jack about us and never will, that's what makes their posturing about how world-wise they are infuriating. I'll bet he doesn't know anymore about Iraq, Afghanistan, Russia, France or even northern Britain than he does about Mississippi.

Posted by: Brandon at May 10, 2005 1:31 PM

It's really astonishing how secular values of decency and humanity have infected Southern Christianity.

In my youth, the Social Gospel was regarded as one step, and not a very big one, either, from frank atheism down there.

The Enlightenment is a weak acid but given long enough, it will tame the savagery of even universalizing, salvationist monotheism

Posted by: Harry Eagar at May 12, 2005 2:52 PM

Except that none of these folk believe in Labor or the State anymore.

Posted by: oj at May 12, 2005 4:23 PM

Oh, they believe in the State all right. None more fervently.

Christ's Commonwealth.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at May 13, 2005 2:20 PM

That's the opposite of the State.

Posted by: oj at May 13, 2005 3:38 PM