When Africans were torn from their mother soil and forced into bondage in the New World, millions of lives were lost on the angry seas of the Middle Passage. Still, even as their brothers and sisters perished, their faith allowed many Africans to preserve life and limb and to symbolically book passage on the "Ol' Ship of Zion." When blacks were plunged beneath the harsh waves of chattel slavery, they sought refuge in the community of faith they carved amidst their brutal existence. When the civil-rights movement was drenched with the foul spray of white supremacy and Jim Crow, it took cover in sanctuaries across the land.
Black faith and spirituality offer believers at least three resources in the face of Hurricane Katrina. First, they provide moral and theological insight into "natural disaster." Many have claimed that this calamitous storm is "God's will," while others ask what "we" did wrong to deserve such a cataclysmic rebuke from nature, and hence, from God. Black religious faith, especially Christianity, discourages such a narrow interpretation of nature and God. The suffering that human beings endure is never God's will. The evil that is wrought by human beings, and the chaos unleashed by nature, express neither God's vision nor vengeance. God's will is for human beings to flourish and for us to live in harmony with each another and nature.
To be sure, our shortcomings poison human community. The vicious and sinful character of human beings constantly interrupts God's ideal of love as the basis of our relations with one another. And nature's unpredictable fury can with little notice crush or destroy human life. God intends none of this.
This does not mean, however, that our faith fails to help us to extract meaning from our misery, or to make sense of our suffering. Our faith can give us the comfort that God walks with us, and will not forsake us. That may seem like small solace in the face of our finitude, but the knowledge that God refuses to let us go ultimately calms the soul in distress. That is the only guarantee we have that the universe that has betrayed us at one turn through wind and water will stand behind us through the divine Word.
Even if God does not wish for us to experience tragedy, our suffering, when viewed through mature faith, can provide a window into existence and a measure of relief. Suffering is an unavoidable aspect of our human pilgrimage; the deepest faith cannot prevent our walk through the valley of the shadow of death.
For the victims, and survivors, of Hurricane Katrina, black faith refuses to offer pat answers or theological clichés. It is a tragedy of untold proportion, a catastrophe that causes the heart of God to break. And while the survivors are surely blessed, we must resist the notion that they are better than those who died. Black spiritual wisdom tutors against such presumptuous faith that feeds on pride, even if it is implicit, and against any degree of ethical arrogance. Those who lost their lives were victims of a force of nature that might have as easily besieged those who escaped. This is one of the paradoxes of black faith that we must not let collapse into black-and-white theological certitude: Yes, God's grace spared the survivors, but that doesn't mean that they are superior, just fortunate, and therefore charged with responsibility to live even more fully and purposefully in the awareness of their mysterious fortune.
Not all victims are created equal
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