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The Multitude Gathered: Reflections on Katrina

In Mark's Gospel Jesus asks, "Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,' and do
not do what I say?" That is the question we must ask President Bush and
those politicians who strut their Christian faith while ignoring the
care for the needy that their faith demands: "How can you call Jesus
‘Lord,' and not do what he says?"


The Gospel of John contains an interesting social lesson. In the sixth
chapter, Jesus asks Peter where they can buy enough bread to feed the
hungry gathered crowd. Peter's answer is that they can't afford to. The
Gospel then tells us that Jesus' query was not a real question at all,
but a test of Peter's willingness to find a way to meet the immediate
needs of the people – a test that Peter failed. For with only five
loaves of barley bread and two fishes, Jesus fed the entire hungry mass
– with extra left over, no less.

What is the lesson of this story? That the difference between
addressing the needs of our neighbors and leaving them mired in need -
especially when we have resources to call on — is simply whether we
muster the will to do it, or not.  In other words, where there is
a will – a true will – there is a way.

That is a poignant lesson for us today. August 29 marks the anniversary
of Hurricane Katrina, one of the worst disasters in our nation's
history. The hurricane itself was an act of God, but the tragedy that
followed was the result of the collective actions of a government that
simply did not muster the will to meet the storm victims' needs until
many had painfully died or were thrust into a tragic downward spiral of
deprivation, dislocation and homelessness.

Still, several weeks after the disaster, President Bush heartened many
in a speech in New Orleans' Jackson Square when he announced that
despite his administration's failures, he did in fact have the will to
reconstruct the lives of his suffering fellow Americans. "We have a
duty to confront this poverty with bold action," he declared. "We will
do what it takes."

But since his dramatic declaration, the president seems to have lost
the will to help. For almost a year – until the last few weeks, in fact
– he has been virtually silent on the plight of the Katrina victims.
His apparent lack of will has had devastating results. Seventy-five
percent of New Orleans' pre-Katrina population remains dispersed over
49 states. Medical care in New Orleans is hard to come by, as is
education: only three of nine hospitals have reopened and just 56 of
New Orleans' 128 schools will reopen this fall; it is estimated that as
few as a third of school-aged children will be in place when the fall
term begins. The suicide rate in New Orleans is three times
pre-Katrina, yet there is not one open facility for psychiatric
patients. And nearly sixty percent of the inhabited homes and
businesses in New Orleans are still without gas and electricity.
Moreover, while more than 100,000 homeowners throughout Louisiana
languish on a waiting list for aid to rebuild their homes, so far not
one has received a single dollar of federal housing rebuilding
assistance.

In July, seven of the nine religious leaders Bush enlisted to
distribute aid to churches resigned in anger over the administration's
disarray and sluggish disbursement of the funds designated for Gulf
Coast faith organizations. The overall pace of the recovery is so slow
that even tsunami relief workers who visited New Orleans this summer
were shocked. The UN Human Rights Committee expressed concern over how
"poor people… continue to be disadvantaged under the reconstruction
plans."  Even the Republican congressional candidate from New
Orleans has made public his outrage. "George Bush has forgotten us,"
Joe Lavigne's campaign ads complain. "He's… not living up to his
promise to rebuild New Orleans."

With the first anniversary of the tragedy looming, Bush has tried to
divert attention from his administration's still painfully slow
response by telling Katrina's suffering victims to be patient. "A one
year anniversary is just that," he said, "because it's going to require
a long time to help these people rebuild."

Yet Bush has rushed this country into every policy measure he thought
important, from an unnecessary war to multiple tax cuts for the
wealthy. He even rushed disaster aid to victims of the tsunami in two
days, and they were half a world away. Yet tragically, when it comes to
alleviating the suffering of America's Katrina victims, Bush speaks not
of urgency, but of patience.

The Gospel of Luke tells us that in his inaugural sermon Jesus
announced the purpose of his earthly ministry with these words, "The
spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to preach good
news to the poor." Throughout the Gospels Jesus makes it clear that
care of the poor and vulnerable is one of his deepest concerns, so much
so that he gave this as the primary yardstick of faith in him: "As you
did not do it to the least of these, you did not do it to me." In other
words, the Jesus that George Bush claims as his Lord not only taught
that we can meet our neighbors' needs if we have the will; he also
taught that we must have the will.

In the coming election season, President Bush and politicians aligned
with him who also trumpet their Christian faith will try to trade on
that faith to garner votes. They will try to hide their abandonment of
America's most vulnerable citizens behind distracting religious
sloganeering and hot-button issues like gay marriage. But we must not
allow it. We must remind Bush and his congressional cohorts that the
Christian faith they profess calls for them to make alleviation of the
suffering of the Gulf Coast poor – indeed, of all America's poor – this
nation's immediate domestic priority.
 
In Mark's Gospel Jesus asks, "Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,' and do
not do what I say?" That is the question we must ask President Bush and
those politicians who strut their Christian faith while ignoring the
care for the needy that their faith demands: "How can you call Jesus
‘Lord,' and not do what he says?"

By Obery Hendricks
Author of The Politics of Jesus: Rediscovering the True Revolutionary Nature of Jesus' Teachings and How They Have Been Corrupted

 


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