Is justice for all?

Hurricane shows us poverty’s face and calls us to change it
September 30, 2005

It has been some days now since Hurricane Katrina barreled and bawled its way across the Gulf Coast, some days since a steady stream of human misery filled our TV screens. By now, no doubt, most of us have gone on to other things, the images not forgotten -- how could we forget them? -- but packed away, too much to deal with over a span of time.

This is a normal and predictable response.

Also predictable: the newswoman -- the winds barely died away -- thrusting her mike into the face of a harried official and demanding, “But who is to blame? Who is to blame for this?” Also predictable: the Americans who filled their cars and trucks with food and water and headed south. The thousands who sent money. After the fact, we are an astoundingly generous people.

Also predictable: the radical-right Christian who almost immediately declared that Katrina was caused by the wrath of God against the sin of homosexuality. Most of us, I think, would not follow a God who smites the poor and vulnerable in order to send a message, presumably to the unscathed, to mend their ways. No, Katrina was a weather system that ran headlong into the human fecklessness that builds cities below volcanoes, across major fault lines, in the middle of known tornado tracks and below sea level, and then stands horrified when nature takes its course.

Nature does not care if those who get in its way are black or white, male or female, rich or poor, gay or straight, young or old. Nature makes no judgments and has no morality. We do. And our judgments and our morality took a heavy hit from Katrina.

We believed we were the can-do people ... but the can-do people didn’t. We pointed with pride to our military tradition of leaving no one behind ... but we still don’t know how many civilians were left behind by civilian officials. We thought we were free and self-reliant ... but as the stories began to unfold we found that many had remained in the city, not by free choice, but because they had no means of leaving. Katrina flooded the mean streets -- streets that exist in every city and town -- and showed us the despair and even the shadowed violence that lives in them.

I am an optimist about the human race. I don’t believe we are callous. I don’t believe we are uncaring. Disaster may bring out the worst in us, but it also brings out the best. The lesson of Katrina is not that we turned away from poverty but that we looked and saw and did not understand.

We live in the richest country on earth, and most of us are, if not affluent, then at least reasonably comfortable. Most of us have a small emergency fund or a credit card, enough to buy us a bus or plane ticket, a tank of gas, a night or two in a motel.

For many of us, being poor is driving a used car, collecting grocery coupons, spending our vacations in the back yard and worrying about credit-card debt. We don’t always understand that true poverty is driving no car at all, going hungry, having the kind of job (if we’re lucky enough to have one at all) where time off is wages lost and lacking the income and history to even obtain a credit card.

We did not, perhaps could not, imagine the lives the very poor live -- not through a rough spot now and then, but day after grinding day -- until Katrina showed them to us. Now we have seen. Now the question is whether we, as a nation, can find the spiritual will to ensure that the ideals of freedom and equality are for everyone, that “the dignity of every human being” is respected on seven days of every week.

We cannot change the past; we can only redeem it by changing the future. There will be no quick fix. The road will not be easy, but we can be sure it will be long. It will require an overhauled educational system that values clear thinking over correct answers. It will require a financial arena where jobs at all levels are available and even the most menial provides a living wage. It will require a society where competition is a healthy game and winning carries with it obligation, where ethics and integrity are valued above power.

At Gettysburg, Abraham Lincoln called the nation to “a new birth of freedom.” Do we now have the spiritual strength to call it to a new birth of justice? We are going to find out.