Herbert E. Douglass, Th.D.

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Atty Kent Hansen's Meditation on New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina

From: herbdouglass@sbcglobal.net 
Sent: Sunday, September 04, 2005 10:25 PM
Subject: A Word of Grace for Your Monday - 9/4/05

[This is a must read! The clearest, sanest, most articulate overview of New Orleans I have heard or read this past week. Take the time to read it carefully. Thank the Lord for Attorney Hansen and his willingness to expose his head and heart. Cheers, HED] 

From: Kent Hansen khansen@claysonlaw.com
Sent: Saturday, September 03, 2005 11:06 PM
Subject: A Word of Grace for Your Monday-9/4/05

Here is Your footstool, and there rest Your feet where live the poorest, the lowliest and lost.
When I try to bow to You, my obeisance cannot reach down to the depth where Your feet rest among the poorest, the lowliest, and lost.
Pride can never approach where You walk in the clothes of the humble among the poorest, the lowliest, and lost.
My heart can never find its way to where You keep company with the companionless among the poorest, the lowliest, and lost.

--Rabindranath Tagore

Dear Friends:

I have wrestled with my thoughts and prejudices a good deal this week in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. It is clear from the editorial pages and the blogs that I am not alone in this. The fabric of our country is torn and we are naked and ashamed.

In the sagebrush country of the American west, one learns never to build in grassy meadows because they will flood when the snow melts or in the summer thunderstorms. My Dad who built a lot of houses over his lifetime never built a house down hill from the road. "It will flood," he said.

So it is with some bemusement, that I am watching the aftermath of the flooding in New Orleans, a city built on reclaimed swamp land below the water line of Lake Pontchartrain and the Mississippi River. Eighty percent of the city is constructed at least eight feet below the water line. Earthen levees built in the 19th Century keep the water out. When the levee failed along the lake, the water poured in to a depth of twenty-five feet in spots.

An Insurance Institute of America study, a Federal Emergency Management Agency study, and the October, 2004 National Geographic magazine articles, "Lost Coast" and "Gone with the Water," all predicted horrific casualties and property losses should a major hurricane batter the city and the Gulf Coast to the south and east of the city. Hurricane Betsy flooded large portions of the city 40 years ago. The 1927 Mississippi flood almost swamped it. None of these practical and scientific warnings were heeded.

Now Hurricane Katrina has come, followed by the flood waters. The predictions were true. The result is said to be the worst natural disaster in U.S. history. It will take at least ninety days to pump the flood waters out and a year to dry out the city. The devastation along the Gulf Coast adds to the misery. There is literally no port for this storm or its aftermath.

New Orleans' location near the estuary of the Mississippi makes it an essential port for shipping Midwestern farm products to overseas markets, the importation of Latin American goods and Gulf of Mexico's oil. That trade alone will require the rebuilding of some semblance of New Orleans, but the "how," "why" and "what" of that rebuild will surely be controversial because the human habitation of the area is a defiance of nature.

New Orleans is known as the "Big Easy," a city of revelers, renowned for its Mardi Gras carnival, its casinos, political corruption and being the birthplace of jazz music.

But there are even deeper problems with New Orleans' foundations than the water level. It is also one of the poorest of American cities, sixty-seven percent African-American, with thirty percent of its population living below the federal poverty level. This population provides cheap labor for the casinos and hotels.

The city was built on the slave economy. Before the Civil War, the New Orleans' slave market was the largest in America. Slaves were shipped in and the cotton they planted and picked was shipped out and on this wretched bargain the city grew. After the politically cynical, abortive end to Reconstruction, New Orleans resorted to a class and caste system of race and wealth that is probably the most pronounced and rigid of any city in the United States.

More recently the New Orleans and Gulf economies have become increasingly dependent on casino gambling and tourism. Gambling is among other things a regressive tax upon the poor and requires a large minimum wage work force while profits are skimmed off elsewhere. Tourism requires a kind of "window dressing" of social problems that emphasizes "looking good" over "being good."

The crime rate in New Orleans is among the highest in the nation. In the mid-1990's, it was considered the "murder capital" of the nation. The homicide rate has receded a bit since then, but was still on track this year before Katrina to 330 murders as opposed to 65 in Boston, a city of about the same size. To deal with the crime, the New Orleans Police Department has engaged in well-documented brutality. It has contributed to that crime with notorious corruption. There are only 3.14 police officers per thousand population in New Orleans as opposed to twice that number in Washington, D.C.

Hurricane Katrina destroyed the ephemeral social fabric covering the festering poverty and racism of the city. Looting and violence broke out. The perpetrators justified their actions on their victimization by the storm and their hunger. Bodies were left where they fell. Some died from dehydration and heat stroke, a cruel joke amidst the flood waters. Some, including police officers, died at the hand of roving gangs of thugs armed by a raid on the gun department of WalMart.

The crime (and "crime" is what it is despite "politically correct" interpretations of the events) is appalling. This was not a matter of taking bottled water and diapers. The TV sets, weapons and liquor, and prescription pharmaceuticals were stolen for no justifiable purpose. The commandeering of a bus from a nursing home and the intimidation of its residents is without excuse. The rape of defenseless women and the murder of police officers and unarmed citizens which continued through the week represents a total repudiation of law and order. The grievances of those who waited for relief without action themselves are in fact a stunning condemnation of the welfare and political patronage system that has kept the lid on their problems without solving them. The difference between explanation and excuse is a yawning ethical chasm.

Denial abounds. The Mississippi Delta and Gulf Coast is a region that has tried to deny the inexorable forces of wind and water throughout its history. As late as last weekend, the hotels and airlines were urging visitors to keep their reservations in the face of questions about the coming storm. The repair and strengthening of levees and flood walls has been given a low priority even as two disaster drills in 2000 and 2004 predicted serious harm, albeit with the levees holding.

Crime has been suppressed without addressing its causes to preserve tourism. It was obviously better for business to cover over poverty and ignore it than to seek to eliminate it. An image of partying and frivolity has been maintained to obscure the deep social dysfunction. Immorality has been marketed as a quaint local commodity and cultural attraction.

Recriminations mount like a storm surge. Everyone from God to President Bush to the State of Louisiana to the New Orleans municipal government to the petrochemical industry (global warming) to the residents of the city themselves are being blamed for what happened and is happening. Everyone involved, it seems, has a finger of blame to point at someone else. The cant of political demagogues and the race-baiting of the media gratuitously inflames and polarizes the nation putting electoral opportunity and ratings ahead of common sense, understanding and rescue and relief. Gloating by Jihadist web-sites that "Private Katrina has joined the Jihad pour toxic salt into the wounds.

Much of what is being said is so irrational or meretricious and venal that it is tempting to turn one's back on the whole thing, grateful that I live thousands of miles away, but irritated that I'm going to pay more for my gasoline. My heart burns with desire for life imprisonment at hard labor for the looters and for the disgrace of those who are exploiting the situation for political advantage.

Yet, it is undeniable that what continues to unfold is a scandal at every level of our government. The government has failed here, but the government is not President Bush and Governor Blanco and Mayor Nagin. The government is us. The government's priorities are our priorities especially in these politically shallow times of governance by public opinion poll. Ultimately, "all politics are local," but this "local" failure has national consequences and reminds us that the checks and balances of federalism and democracy require respect for the rights of everyone or we dissolve into the tyranny of the strong over the weak. Those rights can suffer every bit as much from neglect as from overt malice.

I confess that I have watched and read about this disaster with anger and condemnation more than anything else. Patricia and I come from families that flirted with the federal poverty line for a substantial portion of our childhoods. Yet, we were taught that faith in God, our own hard work, common sense and personal responsibility were the only things that could be counted on and not to expect anything more than that in this life, lessons that have served us well. Victimization, social entitlement and government-provided healthcare were alien concepts to our households. So was reliance on government for anything but roads, utilities and law enforcement. I have no inherent empathy with those who believe otherwise. "The Lord helps those who help themselves" is the conditioned attitude of our hearts, even if our intellectual embrace of grace tells us otherwise.

But we are followers of Christ. Our obligations in this situation arise not out of what we are seeing and hearing, our political traditions, social values, economic interests, the demonstrated worthiness or vileness of others, or our empathy or lack thereof. Our race, denominational affiliations, political opinions, patriotism and social status are irrelevant to our calling in Christ. I've wrestled with these issues many times, frankly seeking another, more convenient answer, but it is the simple truth that there is no other answer. Our obligation to help arises out of who we are in Christ, no more and no less.

It is the radical truth of the Gospel that our God is kind to "the ungrateful and the wicked" (Lk. 6:35). To show partiality between the rich and the poor is to "commit sin" and to be "convicted by the law as transgressors" (Js. 2:9). In our belief in Christ as Lord and Savior, we bear the very life of the One who, "When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless like sheep without a shepherd. Then, he said to his disciples, "The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few, therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest" (Mt. 9:36-38).

Jesus counts everyone in the harvest. He warned his "laborers" not to try to make distinctions between what they considered to be good wheat and bad weeds in the growing crop because we are incapable of not damaging the good in our clumsy attempts to eliminate the bad (Mt. 13:28-29). Instead, he said kindnesses shown to the hungry, thirsty, naked, sick, and jail-birds among God's children are kindnesses done to God (Mt. 25:34-40).

The television pictures tell me that there are some in New Orleans that deserve help more than others. I see the products of bad choices and actions, but Jesus says, "When you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing" (Mt. 6:3). "Just as you did it to the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me" (Mt. 25:40).

The relative size of one's resources is no limitation on responding with help to those in need. Jesus applauded sacrificial living over philanthropic giving (Lk. 21:1-4), because unhesitating grace is the way of life in his kingdom "He looked up and saw rich people putting their gifts into the treasury, he also saw a poor widow put in two small copper coins. He said, 'Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them; for all of them have contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in all she had to live on' " Luke 21:1-4).

Giving and service to the poor, the sick, and the bereft, is not a matter of my intellectual preferences or my emotional comfort. Charity is an act of faith that the God who has provided me with resources knows best about their disposition. "The one who needs mercy is your 'neighbor,'" taught Jesus in defining what it means to "love your neighbor as yourself" (Lk. 10:25-37).

In the end we will be judged by the love we live.

Then the King will turn to those on the left and say. "Away with you, you cursed ones, into the eternal fire prepared for the Devil and his demons! For I was hungry, and you didn't feed me. I was thirsty, and you didn't give me anything to drink. I was a stranger, and you didn't invite me into your home. I was naked, and you gave me no clothing. I was sick and in prison, and you didn't visit me."
Then they will reply, "Lord, when did we ever see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and not help you?" And he will answer, "I assure you, when you refused to help the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were refusing to help me." And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous will go away into eternal life" (Mt. 25:41-46, NLT).

Neutrality is no option and ignorance is no defense to the call for mercy. The priest and the Levite both stand condemned for eternity because they crossed to the other side of the Jericho Road to avoid helping the victim of violence because he was a mess and was neither of their race or religion (Lk. 10:31-32) "If you faint in the day of adversity, your strength being small; if you hold back from rescuing those taken away to death, those who go staggering to the slaughter; if you say, ' Look, we did not know this'-- does not he who weighs the heart perceive it? Does not he who keeps watch over your soul know it? And will he not repay all according to their deeds?" (Prov. 24:10-12).

I wonder what Christ could do on this earth if we were not men and women of reserved hearts, fearful thoughts and self-serving actions? The only answer to this question that I can ever really know will be my own obedience to God's command to"Love your neighbor as yourself." And I haven't a chance at obeying that command unless I obey his first command to "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your strength, and all your mind" (Lk. 10:27). "Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ is a child of God. And everyone who loves the Father loves his children too. We know we love God's children if we love God and obey his commandments" (1 Jn. 5:1-2).

It is a paradox of grace that in a time of famine and devastation, I invite you, "O taste and see that the Lord is good. Happy are those who take refuge in him" (Ps. 34:8) But we really have no other hope.

Under the mercy of Christ,


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