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Commentary: We must rebuild on a rock of justice


Commentary: We must rebuild on a rock of justice

Sept. 16, 2005

“To be poor in America was to be invisible, but not after this week, not after those images of the bedraggled masses at the Superdome, convention center and airport. No one can claim that the…orthodoxy of low taxes and small government, which does wonders for the extremely rich, also inevitably does wonders for the extremely poor. What was that about a rising tide lifting all boats? What if you don’t have a boat?”
- Eugene Robinson, columnist, The Washington Post, 9/09/05

A UMNS Commentary
By the Rev. Chester Jones*

I have been glued to the TV in recent weeks, watching the crisis in the storm-ravaged cities of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama unfold. Hurricane Katrina’s destruction and devastation have spared few. The pain and loss so many people are experiencing are unfathomable. 

As Katrina demolished the beautiful coastline and the rising waters covered the historic city of New Orleans, a harsh reality was exposed. This reality was not caused entirely by the hurricane. It was, instead, the impact racism and classism have on our society — a reality that was present long before the high winds and rising waters. 

So often, the Commission on Religion and Race staff hears questions and comments expressing doubt about the impact of racism in today’s society. Cross burnings have become rare (though unfortunately, do still occur); blatant racism is considered unacceptable in the public sphere; and institutionalized segregation is illegal. Yet, after watching TV during the past few weeks, it is impossible to deny that racism still rears its ugly head.

As Jim Wallis, editor of Sojourners, said, “Sometimes it takes a natural disaster to reveal a social disaster.”

To be sure, racism alone is not to blame for this social disaster; poverty certainly plays a large role. But all too often, the lenses of poverty and race overlap. The area hit by Hurricane Katrina has some of the highest poverty levels in the country. New Orleans has a poverty rate of 28 percent. Of that, 86 percent are black. While so many people have been hurt by this disaster, people of color and the poor have suffered disproportionately.

There has been much criticism of the city, state and federal governments for their slow response in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Our society and the church also must take some responsibility. One thing has been made clear to all of us: there is a wide gap between the haves and the have-nots. The tragedy of the storm left the tragedy of injustice and inequity clearly exposed. We as a church and as a larger society must renew our commitment to the struggles of those who are left behind because of their race, class, age, gender or other reasons.

The ones left behind are subjected to injustice, prejudice and oppression. They were left behind simply because they are the least of many. And this reality must call our church to long-term action on behalf of justice and equity.

It would be good for us to remember that when the disciples were discussing with one another who was the greatest among them, Jesus broke into their conversation to say: “If anyone wants to be first, that someone must be the last of all and servant of all” (Mark 9:35).  For Jesus, service, not rank or privilege, is the mark of greatness. The service to which we are called must extend beyond racial and socioeconomic borders.

The sorrow and exasperation of residents affected by the storm have been immense. This sorrow has spread across the country, sparing no one. The sorrow, anguish, and grief Jesus experienced on the cross were so severe that Jesus’ human nature cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27: 46). This same cry has been heard from the survivors in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Many feel forsaken by God. 

But it is their nation and their brothers and sisters who have forsaken them. I have read the stories of Jamaican immigrants, working on Mississippi’s casino ships, whose visas only allow for work in the casinos. They are stranded, stuck without enough money to get home. I have seen the faces of poor black families, stranded in New Orleans because they did not own a car or have enough money to evacuate. I have heard the cry of the Hispanic baby whose family, in the country illegally, is scared to leave home in Biloxi, Miss., to get supplies because of the influx of law enforcement in the area. I have been told of Native American tribal lands, where water and assistance have yet to arrive.

The lesson that we must learn from Hurricane Katrina is the lesson given in the Bible about the “wise man who built his house on a rock.” (Matthew 7:24). We must be wise enough to go now and rebuild cities like New Orleans, Biloxi, Waveland, Miss., Mobile, Ala., and other places destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, and rebuild them with a just foundation. Justice must serve as our rock.

We will rebuild these cities on strong foundations to withstand nature, but this foundation must be provided for all residents, regardless of their economic status or racial-ethnic identity. We have the gift of opportunity to truly see the reality left behind in the wake of the storm. It is a reality that does not reflect God’s call for justice.

We have the opportunity now to resurrect and rebuild the walls and levees around cities along the Gulf Coast. These levees must be strong enough to hold back the waters of hurricanes and the waters of injustice. This means honestly looking at the bureaucratic and institutional racism exposed. It means ensuring evacuation plans truly provide for everyone. Free public transportation is vital for those fleeing in the face of emergencies.

It means economically and racially integrating our neighborhoods. We must not allow the poor to be pushed out and made invisible in our cities. We must ensure that everyone lives on high ground. There is much work to be done in order that we do not forsake our brothers and sisters again.

The diversity and complexity of these problems should strengthen our resolve to meet the challenges we face, to break down the barriers of race, age, language, gender and class that we have built to separate nations, races and families from one another. 

I pray to God that we will chose as a denomination to work through the United Methodist Committee on Relief in meeting the immediate needs of those affected, but also that we will not just meet people’s immediate needs. We must make a long-term commitment to see those who have been invisible in our society. We must work to eliminate the racism and classism that infest our society and its structures.

We must rebuild on the rock of justice and equity for all people.

*Jones is top staff executive of the United Methodist Commission on Religion and Race.

News media contact: Tim Tanton, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or

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