Last week in New Orleans … nobody took control. … The rich escaped while the poor were abandoned. … 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.
I have pondered these words by David Brooks on the Sunday (9/4) New York Times Op-Ed page almost relentlessly. After 23 years as pastor of a downtown church, I know the names of Richmond’s vulnerable too well for comfort. Our congregation, together with more than 100 churches and synagogues in the city, has ministered to them, sometimes with opposition from the city and the powerful. We have served them lunches, listened to their woes, celebrated their joys, seen the plight of their circumstances in adult homes, and directed them to medical care or emergency assistance. We have preached their funerals. We have sheltered them and visited them, and with many agencies, have tried to keep them from homelessness. Their faces are the faces of those multitudes abandoned by the authorities in New Orleans.
Some rant and rave at God for not providing a world without hurricanes and waves to break the levees; and some “Christians” may want to claim that “wicked New Orleans” perished for its sins. Let me call attention to human irresponsibility, and pray (plead, argue, and demand) that we use what we have seen of this tragedy to prevent others on a similar scale. The Gulf Coast was forewarned. What were elected officials thinking? What took them so long?
An event like Katrina and its aftermath can be transforming, if we revise the anti-government rhetoric in which our culture has been awash in recent decades. Calvinists and Augustinians should tolerate it no longer.
Katrina calls not for an ownership society, with everyone for herself, but for proprietorship so that all are equally protected and spared. We are responsible for one another, and government — not the voluntary sector — is our first defense against anarchy. We may not abandon each other, or consign the vulnerable to looters and volunteers while the strong run away in their SUVs, elbowing their way to the gas pumps. To respond to such devastation, we do not rely alone upon the good and kind hearts of the American people. We need government as “a sure and strong defense,” a beacon of hope and stability instead of helplessness.
Failure to strengthen the levees was not God’s responsibility; it was the irresponsibility of duly-elected legislators who paid more attention to lobbies than to the needs of their constituents. They spent federal dollars in Louisiana to subsidize the oil and chemical industries — not to protect citizens, which is the first duty of government.
Even Pharaoh in asking Joseph to manage his resources knew better. Pharaoh had the wits to plan for disaster — a pagan king! Can we really, as Christians, trust in a chimera called “human progress,” or will we now recall that vigilance and strong, good government are not only our hedges against terrorism, but also our security in the face of avoidable disaster.
And of all people, we Presbyterians, we who follow the Reformed Confessions and the teachings of Jesus the Messiah as they are recorded in the holy Bible, ought to be “in the faces” of officials, asking them what their plans are for the next time.
The abandoned people we have seen on television live all around us in every metropolitan area in this nation: in wheel chairs, on the streets, in shelters, and in adult homes. They are frail, addicted, and barely surviving on medication; some need constant attention. They do not own automobiles. What is the plan for them? And does a plan for all citizens reflect the ethical requirements of the God of Abraham and Moses, the God of Sarah and Miriam, the God of the prophets, who requires of us mortals that we do justice, show kindness, and walk humbly with God? That is the sure foundation of any social fabric that calls itself moral, good, and just.
A shorter version of this editorial appeared in the September 14 issue of Style Weekly, a Richmond magazine.