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 most of us have gone on to other things. This is a normal and predictable response.
Also predictable: the newswoman thrusting her mike into the face of a harried official and demanding, 'Who is to blame for this?" Also predictable: the Americans who filled their cars and trucks with food and water and headed south, and the thousands of us who sent money. After the fact, we are an astonishingly generous people. Also predictable: the radical-Right Christian who declared that Katrina was 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.]
Quite simply, 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 the way are black or white, male or female, rich or poor, gay or straight, young or old. Nature makes no moral judgments. We do. And our judgments took a hit from Katrina.
We believed we were the can-do people. We pointed with pride to our military tradition of leaving no one behind. Yet we still don't know how many civilians were left behind by officials. We thought we were free and self-reliant; but as the stories began to unfold, we found that many remained in the city not by free choice but because they had no means of leaving. Katrina flooded the streets and showed us the despair and the shadowed violence that lives there.
I am an optimist about the human race: I don't believe we are callous or 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 saw it and did not understand. We live in the richest country on earth. 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 vacations in the back yard and worrying about credit-card debt.
We don't readily understand that true poverty is driving no car at all, going hungry, having the kind of job (if we have a job at all) where time off is wages lost, and lacking the means to obtain a credit card. We did not imagine the lives the very poor live : not through an occasional rough time, but day after grinding day : until Katrina showed us.
Now we have seen. Now the question is whether we as a people 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 each day of every week. We cannot change the past; but we can 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 education 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 work provides a living wage. It will require a society where cooperation is valued and winning carries responsibilities for the common good.