The devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina was worse than projected. The graphic images of people struggling for survival are heart-wrenching. The destruction of the communities along the Gulf Coast is overwhelming. People everywhere have been touched by the suffering, the despair, and the depth of misery faced by the victims of Katrina.
One sad thing in this wretched situation was the inadequate preparation of local, state, and federal agencies to deal with the situation. After disaster struck, the governmental agencies were ill-prepared for the unprecedented chaos that followed. If one lesson can be discerned from this tragedy, is that the local, state, and federal governments must learn how to prepare better for emergencies, those created either by natural events such as Katrina or by man-made catastrophes caused by terrorists. We were caught unprepared on 9/11 and in New Orleans. The lessons taught by the chaos in New Orleans should be learned, discussed, and incorporated into any planning for future emergencies.
The devastation left behind by Katrina created what an editorial in The New York Times called “a total breakdown of organized society.” As a result of the lawlessness in New Orleans, the city descended into a condition that can only be classified as anarchy. Women are being raped, citizens are being attacked, people are being killed, and groups of destructive individuals are plundering stores and ransacking homes already devastated by the storm.
In the chaotic situation that followed Katrina, people were taking food, water, medicine, and clothes from stores. When men, women, and children are confronted with the pains of hunger and thirst, people will forgive those who are forced to commit larceny just to survive. But when armed marauding mobs go on a rampage and loot stores for plasma televisions, arms, jewelry, and other things that are not a necessity for survival, people cringe.
The seeds of violence and anarchy seen on the streets of New Orleans were planted long ago by people who reject the notion that moral values should be taught in school. To many people, the notion of morality has to do with poverty, homelessness, AIDS, racism, and other social evils. The truth is, none of these social evils should exist in our country. Americans are a compassionate people, willing to help the needy in our midst.
The moral values that change people come from another direction. The Bible says: “When people do not accept divine guidance, they run wild” (Proverbs 29:18). The same Hebrew word translated “run wild” also can be translated “become ungovernable.” This verse in Proverbs expresses the truth that when people do not live by God’s Word they cast off restraint, and this is what is happening in New Orleans.
Walter Kaiser, in his book Preaching and Teaching from the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003), commenting on this passage in Proverbs said: “Can we in our day and generation recognize that the very same results come from biblical and theological illiteracy? Surely, there is deep concern about a society that seems to have lost its moorings. Our cities and towns have become more like human jungles in which we devour each other for little or no apparent reason. Only a word from God can save us from the path of self-destruction that we seem to be on” (p. 78). Kaiser also said: “The price for allowing a famine of the word of God to fester is that an outbreak of evil appears in almost all the other areas of life” (p. 82).
What word from God can “save us from the path of self-destruction that we seem to be on?” How about some of the words found in the Ten Commandments? But some people in our society do not want our population to hear the words of the Ten Commandments. In the debate about the Ten Commandments people ask: which version should we teach: the Catholic, the Protestant, or the Jewish version?
The fact is, when it comes to “You shall not steal” (Exodus 20:15), this commandment is in all three versions. The same is true with ”You shall not covet anything that belongs to your neighbor (Exodus 20:17). The commandment dealing with coveting is concerned with the actions of the heart and mind, those actions that lead to the possession of that which does not belong to one’s self. The prohibition against coveting another person’s property is intended to prevent envy, greed, or lust, the kinds of behavior that lead to abuse and crime.
How unfortunate that our society has lost those principles that made our nation great. The desire to possess what belongs to another person cannot be regulated by the government or be enforced by the good will of human beings. The truth of the Commandment against coveting can only be inculcated in the hearts of people when the Commandment is taught and learned.
Terence Fretheim in his book Exodus (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1991) wrote: “Only God can look upon the heart, can observe the presence or absence of obedience within the human spirit. In the commandments one has to do most basically with one’s relationship with God. Or to put it in other terms, sin against one’s neighbor is not simply an interhuman matter. It involves God, and the passion with which God can respond is soon to be noted” (p.239).
There is no other solution to the looting of New Orleans. Unless our hearts and minds are transformed by God’s Word, the looting will go on until we learn that we do “not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord” (Deuteronomy 8:3).
Other Posts on Hurricane Katrina:
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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