Last week I was overcome with rage and shame at the pitiful responses to the onset of hurricane Katrina and its watery aftermath. I was ashamed at the helplessness of the government of the United States. I was angry that neither the mayor of New Orleans nor the governor of Louisiana did anything initially except to criticize the federal government for its lack of response. How many lives would have been saved by the immediate response of which we showed ourselves capable after 9/11 in New York — a disaster which we did not know was coming? The mayor and governor have power to evacuate people forcibly. The governor can order the National Guard to use whatever means necessary to stop violence, confiscate guns of looters, and protect hospitals and individual citizens. (In one hospital patients were moved to upper floors to protect them from looters who were attacking them.)
The non-response was a massive failure of legally constituted government at every level, but has its origins in decades of anti-government rhetoric, not the least of which is from those who preach Sunday after Sunday non-Christian apocalypticism. And we have paid the price, some citizens with their lives, all of us by the cheapening and denigration of human life. Where, in this pro-life administration that spent emotional and political capital on Terri Schiavo, is the outrage — or better, the immediate deployment of law enforcement and other resources to save human lives? How many Terri Schiavos simply perished in New Orleans through lack of response? How can a president who vows to protect fertilized human eggs seem incapable (with his massive constitutional power) of protecting living human beings?
The answer lies beyond this tragedy. For as a nation we have fed ourselves on anti-government rhetoric. Our principals are helpless to prevent violence in the schools. Our cities are victims (New Orleans among the worst) of gang violence over guns and drugs. We refuse to regulate (or hold responsible) those who pollute our rivers and destroy our forests because that would interfere with the “free market,” which favors only the strong. As a secular columnist, writing in the New York Times put it on Sunday:
Last week in New Orleans … nobody took control. … The rich escaped while the poor were abandoned. Leaders spun while looters rampaged. Partisans squabbled while the nation was ashamed. The first rule of the social fabric — that in times of crisis you protect the vulnerable — was trampled.
And so we have reaped the whirlwind. Calvinists–who accept the authority of Scripture with joy, and who have relentlessly preached that attention to the common good (no, Cato Institute and Heritage Foundation, that is not a liberal idea) is the responsibility of government–have been sadly vindicated. The first duty of government, as Paul said to the church in Rome is to maintain order, not just for the vulnerable, but also for us all. It was utterly forsaken. When those in authority refuse or neglect to keep order, or do not understand that that is their first responsibility, we are all in danger.
How about this as a beginning: cities stop tolerating the intimidation and mayhem that afflict poor neighborhoods; universities and colleges restore order and restrain the drunken anarchy on campuses; principals be required by state law to enforce respect for authority in schools; giant corporations (and unions) that deceive the public and mock the common good be brought to heel; that we the people not only educate ourselves about the foundations of our government, which grew out of the Protestant Reformation — especially its Calvinism, but also demand that those responsible for our public life pay attention. Spare us any more optimistic speeches about the goodness and kindness of the American people. Tell us the truth about the failure of government, and do not give us a thousand points of volunteer light.
We need a “strong arm and a sure defense” from those whom we have elected and inaugurated to govern us.
If we fail in these things, and all our governments continue refusing to govern us, then we must read I and II Kings, to be enlightened and to prepare for the worst, which will surely come. God is not mocked, and God holds us accountable for our failures to the least of our citizens.
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. … For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. (Romans 13:1 ff.)
Let us pray fervently that it will be so, beginning today.