Those aren’t the words of a starving prisoner of the New Orleans Superdome, radicalized by the realization that he or she may well die for lack of a school bus. They’re the words of Col. Terry Ebert, director of Homeland Security for New Orleans. FEMA’s response — or lack thereof — he told The New York Times, has been “criminal.”
Also notably lacking in the response to this disaster are suggestions that Katrina is a punishment sent by God. When the tsunami struck Asia, such notions came from across the spectrum, but most pungently from Christian conservatives who noted that Aceh, an “exporter of radical Islam,” as National Association of Evangelicals president Ted Haggard put it, had been hardest hit. Such neanderthal theology apparently does not apply to the U.S.
Rather, the God invoked most often now is the distant, inscrutable deity responsible for other no-fault acts such as earthquakes and tornadoes. The “acts” of this God are not willful so much as “natural” — hence the rise of the term “natural disaster” in the late 19th century. “The concept of an act of God implied that something was wrong,” writes scholar Ted Steinberg in an important book called Acts of God: An Unnatural History of Natural Disaster in America, “that people had sinned and must now pay for their errors. But the idea of natural disaster may have implicitly suggested the reverse, that something was right, that the prevailing system of social and economic relations was functioning just fine.”
Indeed. The cavalry — or, in this case, the shock troops — are on their way to protect those economic relations. Three hundred troops directly from Iraq have landed in the city, and “they have M-16s, and they’re locked and loaded,” blusters Louisiana Governor Blanco. “These troops know how to shoot and kill, and they are more than willing to do so if necessary, and I expect they will.”
In addition to bullets, the rescuers are bringing Bibles. Crates of them reportedly await refugees in Houston, and FEMA has listed Pat Robertson’s “Operation Blessing” as a suitable destination for donations.
But if this is a religion story, it’s not about an act of God or the banal use and abuse of the Bible as substitute aid for people dying of literal thirst; it’s about sin. And no vague, blustery “pride of man” stories about ill-preparedness or mistakes by the Army Corps of Engineers will address the original sin of this event. We need theologically-charged, morally outraged, investigative historical reporting to tell us why and how the dead of New Orleans died, and when their killers — not Katrina, but the developers and politicians and patricians who are now far from the city — began the killing. It wasn’t Monday, and it wasn’t last week. We need journalists, not just historians, to look deeper into the American mythologies of race and money, “personal responsibility” and real responsibility. This isn’t a religion story because God acted, but because people acted. It’s not about what they didn’t do, it’s about what they did do, under the cover of civic development and urban renewal and faith-based initiatives that systematically eradicate the possibility of real, systemic response to a crisis that is more than a matter of individual souls.
The root of the word “religion,” “religare,” tells us what kind of religion story can be reported from the Superdome. Religare means “ties that bind.” Those should be bonds of community. But in New Orleans — and in every other poverty-stricken city in America — they’re chains.