In the summer of 2005 the awesome power of Hurricane Katrina
wrought havoc across several of the southern states of America and in particular
brought death and destruction to the city of New Orleans. Although the city
should have been protected to some degree by the concrete levees surrounding it,
these failed, and most of the city was engulfed in water. It is hard to really
imagine the scale of the tragedy brought on by this natural disaster, despite
all the television and newspaper reports. Lives and possessions were lost,
thousands of buildings were destroyed and all this from one hurricane! But, as
if this was not bad enough, a second tragedy developed as law and order
collapsed and looting, rioting, rape and murder erupted. Why did the frightened
huddled masses have to cope with an outbreak of man-made terror as well as the
effects of a natural disaster?
Commentators reporting on these scenes asked whether such
things would happen in other cities of the world faced with extreme situations
and we must wonder how we would have reacted placed in the same situation.
Whilst we should not make rash judgements about what took place, we can look at
this second tragedy of New Orleans and see what it can tell us about our own
communities and our own lives.
In New Orleans the destructive effects of the hurricane made
law and order impossible to maintain. The normal external controls on everyday
life disappeared and violence and hatred rose up where care and concern should
have been prevalent. The hard pressed people of New Orleans found out what lies
beneath the thin veneer of civilised life – evils of all kinds waiting to break
Now we have experienced riots in cities in this country in
past years, but these happened when normal law and order was in place. Just
imagine what might happen if something like hurricane Katrina had caused the
breakdown of law and order - what might we then have witnessed here?
But the real lesson of the second tragedy of New Orleans
comes from reflecting on our own nature and character. In many ways we are like
a community, a town or even a city. We have many different aspects to our
character like the many different people in a town. There are good parts to us
and bad parts. We have right motives and wrong motives. But whatever the
tremendous mix of characteristics that makes us who we are, we tend to present
an overall image to other people that is reasonably good and kind. We keep
control of ourselves so that for most of the time the world around us sees us as
we want to be seen. But the question we need to ask of ourselves is – “what lies
Now occasionally some of the bad aspects of our character
come to the surface and we become angry, aggressive, intolerant, rude or
whatever. To some extent we lose that tight control we have on ourselves and a
real part of us briefly erupts. Now imagine what would happen if there were no
constraints on how we behaved, no laws to keep us in check, would just our
‘normal’ anger, aggressiveness and intolerance come to the surface or would much
worse, deeply hidden evils break out?
In the Bible Jesus uses some of the Scribes and Pharisees as
examples of the hypocrisy that can be present when we fail to acknowledge what
really lies beneath our veneer of respectability.
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you
clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed
and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and
the plate, that the outside also may be clean. Woe to you, scribes and
Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly
appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people's bones and all
uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you
are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness”. Jesus in Matthew 23:25-28
Emanuel Swedenborg comments on this aspect of our nature in many places in
his writings as in this extract from True Christian Religion 498:
It becomes clear in riotous crowds, where the restraints
of the law are ineffective, that this is what people are like inwardly, as also
in cases of massacre and looting, when the signal is given to wreak one's fury
on the defeated or besieged; hardly anyone holds his hand until the drum is
heard signalling it to cease. These examples show that if there were no fear of
legal penalties to deter people, not only society but the whole human race would
be destroyed. The only way to be rid of all these evils is to use one's free
will in spiritual matters correctly, that is, to focus the mind on thoughts of
the conditions of life after death.
Emanuel Swedenborg also explains that when we pass fully into
the spiritual world any external pretence about who we are, drops away and our
real character emerges so that what lies beneath comes out into the open.
But we must not wait till then! The challenge for us is to
confront what lies beneath and with God’s help remove the worst of our selfish
desires and inclinations and so progressively make our true character
transparently good. Then there will be no lies beneath!