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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It is clear that the vast majority of victims of this catastrophe were black and poor. While God's grace may account for why some poor folk lived, it appears that class position and skin color kept others from facing the fury of the storm. Those who were able to escape before the wind and water did its worst were richer, and often whiter, than those who were left behind to sink or swim.
Black religious faith offers prophetic criticism of the contemporary American social, racial, and economic arrangements that perpetuate inequality and which make millions of our fellow citizens more vulnerable to natural disaster. That is why the sorrow song from slavery, "Go Down Moses," still resonates in black sacred circles, as it instructs the leader to "tell ol' pharaoh to let my people go," and to release them from the brutal conditions that cause their suffering.
Not all potential victims of Katrina were created equal. 120,000 folk in New Orleans make less than $8,000.00. The lower 9th ward, where a great deal of damage was done, is 94 percent black and 40 percent poor. 100,000 people in New Orleans owned no transportation, making their escape less likely. Most of them couldn't afford a plane or bus ticket even if they could have made it to the airport or bus terminal. Neither did many of the poor have relatives or friends who could help them financially.
Long before the wind and water battered them, the black and poor had been blown away by a society and government that refused to attend to their plight or needs. Black prophetic religious faith relentlessly speaks against the social injustice and economic inequality that reinforces disparities that are just as deadly as the natural disaster that drowned the poor. From Henry Highland Garnett to Martin Luther King, Jr., from Frederick Douglass to Jesse Jackson, and from Sojourner Truth to Bishop Vashti McKenzie, black prophet leaders have argued that the gospel must be used to transform society and bring the Kingdom of God closer to our time and community. And long before the government abandoned the black and poor in New Orleans-it is inexcusable the way President Bush and the federal government neglected to make it to the Gulf States in a timely fashion to stem the tide of death and suffering-it had already pushed them to the margins of our society through joblessness and severely low wages. Even as right-wing evangelical faith sanctifies the state, worships the market, and genuflects before conservative government, black prophetic faith must uphold the blood-stained banner of a God who so identified with human suffering and oppression that that God descended to earth to die as one of the poor and outcast.
Black prophetic faith must also help guide the national discussion about race in the aftermath of the unprecedented dispersion and migration of Katrina's poor black survivors across the country. While many of the evacuees were initially welcomed with open arms, the racial hostilities that usually accompany the influx of black people into white enclaves must be anticipated. And we must address the fear that the black poor carry with them of being displaced from one home only to find themselves in even more tenuous conditions are they attempt to build new lives. Moreover, if New Orleans, especially, is rebuilt with an eye to regentrification that pushes already economically marginal folk further to the social periphery, then we have done little more than collude with nature's despotically indifferent will to uproot and exploit the poor.
Third, Katrina challenges black churches to recapture their prophetic anger and to transform that passion into social action. During the 2004 election, conservative blacks voted for Bush because of his opposition to gay marriage, diverting critical attention from Bush's failure to address the social and economic inequities that continue to hamper progress and equality for millions of poor blacks. Not only did such a shift among black voters reinforce ugly homophobia, it also absorbed precious cultural resources that might have relieved the suffering of the black poor instead of increasing the suffering of gay, lesbian, transgender and bisexual brothers and sisters. The greater tragedy may be that such efforts were sparked by conservative forces and ideologues who have proved hostile to the interests of black folk.
Along the same lines, black churches must be sharply critical of the gospel of prosperity as the measure of authentic faith that has swept our sanctuaries. The black church has been flooded by theological justifications of material acquisition that threaten to drown our heritage of radical identification with "the least of these." It is tragic that so many leaders and faithful in the black church have been seduced by facile formulas of upward mobility and social status while surrendering Micah's prophetic imperative to love mercy, do justice, and walk humbly with God.
Katrina reminds us that black pastors and their flocks must refocus on their mission to the downtrodden, the heavy-laden, the socially outcast, the bereaved, and those imprisoned by hopelessness and despair. Too many black churches have reneged on the translation of the gospel into concrete demands for social justice and have instead tailored their theologies to fit the market and morality of a conservative culture that despises our history and tramples on our best traditions.
The black church must reclaim its legacy as a center of prophetic expression of outrage at the forces that make the lives of the poor and vulnerable hell. Otherwise, we forfeit our right to be called sons and daughters of a God whose first love is always those who are last.
Katrina didn't happen to make us learn these lessons, but if we take them from the horror we have witnessed, then Katrina's hellish fury, and the injustices it washed into our faces, won't have the last word. And our poor brothers and sisters won't have died in vain.