Hurricane season is upon us again and is forcing us to recall images we'd probably rather forget from last year. Hurricane Katrina was in the news again recently. The President of the Baptist Seminary in New Orleans told the Southern Baptist Convention that Hurricane Katrina "washed away the Sin in New Orleans".
I'm actually going to agree with him ever so slightly, although I will take the statement in an entirely different way than he meant it. He meant that the hurricane was God's judgment on the city, a la Soddom and Gomorrah, and that there was now more openness to evangelical Christianity in the city. I can't pretend to agree in the slightest on this one.
I would, however, say that Katrina (which, admittedly, does mean "purity") 'washed away' a particularly insidious sin, or at least made it harder for us to commit said sin. The sin I'm talking about is the sin of omission- the sin of willful ignorance.
In New Orleans, as in most cities in the world, the gap between rich and poor is severe, and as with most cities in America, the racial divide among the rich and poor is very stark. But this was very easy to ignore. When you visited New Orleans you only went to the nice downtown areas, the French Quarter, and saw the nice houses on State Street. We never thought about the poor areas and their mostly African-American population, so it was almost as if they were not there. Out of sight, out of mind.
Katrina changed all that. Those who had the means to get out did so (including, thankfully, Jessica's uncle and his family). Those with the money to purchase adequate insurance were able to replace most of the things that were destroyed. While it was by no means easy, those who had wealth were able to rebuild their lives.
But there were many who did not own cars or couldn't pay for transportation out of the city before the storm. We saw endless news footage of these people standing on the roofs of their houses, pleading for the news helicopters to come in and rescue them. Clean-up crews are still finding these people's bodies in homes destroyed by the flood. They couldn't get themselves out and no one else bothered to help them.
In the Hebrew Bible we read again and again how God commanded the nation of Israel to take measures to provide for those who could not provide for themselves. To allow your neighbor to starve while you had food to spare was a great sin. I believe that is still true. I believe that we as a society sin greatly everyday by allowing our neighbors to suffer while we have become experts at pretending that they're not even there.
So in a sense, Hurricane Katrina did wash away sin in New Orleans. But it wasn't the sin of "those other, godless people". It was our own sin. The flood waters washed away much of our ability to pretend that our suffering neighbor did not exist, and that we had no responsibility toward them.
I would like to believe that there has been some repentance, some attempt at reconciliation. But that remains to be seen. We will see the extent of our repentance and reconciliation when the next natural disaster comes. Jim Wallis summed it up when he said that it took a horrible natural disaster to expose and even worse social disaster.
Now that hurricane season has begun again, the next natural disaster is just around the corner. What will the natural disaster show about us as a society? Will we have turned from our sin of omission? Or will we need another, possibly worse example to show us the depth of our communal sin? I pray that will not be the case, because it is the poor and powerless who suffer because of the sins of those like me who do have wealth and power.