Loving Your Neighbor in Tennessee

    On November 9 and 10, a series of severe thunderstorms spawned tornadoes from Louisiana to Pennsylvania. At least three dozen people were killed and dozens more wounded by the storms, the largest single outbreak since May 1999. Perhaps the hardest-hit region was East Tennessee. But in the midst of the chaos and suffering, those with eyes to see can witness how Christianity has shaped and continues to shape American life. In Morgan County, Tennessee, two twisters left sixteen people dead, dozens wounded, and dozens more without homes. As devastating as the storms were, the response of the people in Morgan County was even more remarkable. Less than twenty-four hours after the storm, Morgan County was overflowing with relief supplies -- not from the government, or from outside, but from within Morgan County. Without being told, ordinary men and women donated "every variety of household good imaginable": clothes, toys, toiletries, linens, and food. As one volunteer told National Public Radio, the donations included nearly everything you would need to start a home. And the donations weren't limited to material goods. Volunteers donated their time and labor to make sure the stuff got to those who needed it. And they opened their homes, as well as their wallets: The two shelters that were set up by county officials to house the sixty families left homeless by the twisters were empty. Family or friends took in all sixty families. Amazing! The county's Emergency Medical Services director Steven Hamby cited Tennessee's nickname: the Volunteer State. But there's a better explanation for this extraordinary response, and it is found in the way that Christianity has shaped how Americans think about their obligations to their neighbors. This is especially true in a place like East Tennessee, where biblical faith still exercises a strong influence on people's lives. In his classic book, Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville marveled at the way Americans looked after the common good. He marveled at the way Americans helped each other: building barns and churches, starting civic associations, and founding common schools. He described Americans as "extraordinarily gentle, empathetic, and compassionate people," and he wrote that "there is no country on earth where people make such great efforts to achieve social prosperity." The impetus behind this social prosperity, as de Tocqueville understood, was Christianity. It was Christianity that taught Americans about the love they owed each other, as well as owing God. It was Christianity that made Americans the empathetic and compassionate people de Tocqueville marveled at. It's the command "to love our neighbors as ourselves," and not utopian government visions, that moves people to think beyond their rights and narrow interests. Morgan County is filled with just this kind of people, who still take seriously the Christian commands -- down-to-earth, God-fearing rural folks. Unlike those in urban areas who are wealthy in material goods, these folks are rich in the more important things of life: character, community, and caring for one another. For further information: Listen to NPR's November 12, 2002, All Things Considered broadcast, "Tornado-Ravaged Towns Begin Recovery Process." Ina Hughs, "Church is gone, but faith still strong," Knoxville (TN) News-Sentinel, 18 November 2002. Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (Alfred A. Knopf, 1994). William Wilberforce, A Practical View of Christianity (Hendrickson, 1996).


Chuck Colson


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