Human Storm

Historian John Barry observes that hurricanes come in two waves, the natural devastation and then “the human” storm of recrimination and political conflict.

Viewing the carnage in the wake of Katrina should make is turn away; it is so grim. Yet already we are seeing frightening evidence of human devolution, most notably in the looting, which experts say almost never happens after a natural disaster. It is one thing to steal water and bread to feed a hungry child (like Jean Valjean in Les Miserables), it is another to break a store window so you can enter and haul off a big screen TV.

Though most of these looters are black, we should be quick to distinguish that this behavior is not racially defined–it is defined by the economic and more significantly spiritual poverty these looters hold in common.

This is an important distinction because knee-jerk political (and even religious) commentary will likely focus on economic poverty and construct policy and programmatic responses based on that assumption. We know, however, that economically deprived people have not been looters in the aftermath of natural devastation, at least not in recent history.

I believe the root cause of this sub-human behavior is spiritual and moral. It is back to the issue of the “content of our character” not the color of our skin so eloquently argued by Shelby Steele.

In this regard I see an analogy between political approaches and the New Orleans levy system. The levees were built to restrain water from entering the city and when they failed the disaster we witness is the result. Unfortunately the New Orleans levees were built to withstand a force 3 storm and Katrina is a force 4 (with 5 being the highest).

Politicians pass laws to restrain bad behavior, but these laws are like levees and they can be broken and eroded. The development and nurture of personal character builds within individuals a self-restraining mechanism that reduces the force exerted against the levy of the law. As inner character erodes among increasing numbers of individuals the laws (levees) face pressures they cannot withstand. It ought to concern us that our country is witnessing a little slice of the anarchy that erupts when moral deterioration manifests itself in exuberant lawbreaking. The over-packed prisons in America bear witness to the mounting moral crisis. In my view Americans, religious and otherwise, have come to place a disproportionate weight on political solutions to what are essentially spiritual and moral problems. Mark my words–it will be the approach taken in the aftermath of Katrina.

One final word; Jesus believed a nation’s moral character was gauged specifically by the care, compassion and justice it manifest for the poor. And Jesus believed “greedy” rich people were essentially “looters in nicer clothing.” The Proverb warns of a soul-less end for those who are greedy. “The end of all who are greedy for gain; it takes away the life of its possessors. (Proverbs 1:19).”

For rich and poor alike who have turned from God’s wisdom the warnings of Proverbs 1 are frighteningly prescient.

27 when panic strikes like a storm, and calamity comes like a whirlwind, when distress and anguish come upon them. 28 Then they will call upon me, but I will not answer; they will seek me diligently, but will not find me. 29 Because they hated knowledge and did not choose the fear of the Lord, 30 would have none of my counsel, and despised all my reproof, 31 therefore they shall eat the fruit of their way and be sated with their own devices. 32 For waywardness kills the simple, and the complacency of fools destroys them; 33 but those who listen to me will be secure and will live at ease, without dread of disaster.”

Our greatest fear is not natural disasters; they will come. Our greater fear ought to be our own waywardness; for the greatest dread of disaster is the second and often more devastating human storm.

Yours for the pursuit of God in the company of friends, Dick Staub.

PS. And remember, “these are the best of times and the worst of times, but they are the only times we have.” (For Now).

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