After Katrina, Some Hard Questions

By Johann Christoph Arnold

Scenes of Desperation Two Days after Hurricane KatrinaIn the catastrophic wake of Hurricane Katrina, America is no longer the same, and should never be the same again. Watching the news and hearing the chilling firsthand accounts of people who were trapped in this tragedy, how can one not be affected? All of a sudden, our country has been faced with a calamity we cannot keep at arm’s length—the sort that, up till now, only happened to people in far-off Asia, Africa or Latin America.

One could say plenty regarding our government’s response (or lack thereof), and about how many more lives could have been saved if those in power had been more on the ball. But this is not the time to point fingers: we have been struck, unprepared, by a mammoth refugee crisis, widespread lawlessness, martial law and a degree of public panic practically unknown in the United States.

Not surprisingly, the news media is obsessed with the economic consequences of Katrina: the skyrocketing cost of gas, the instability of the real estate market, and the weakening of the dollar, to name just a few. As usual, it seems that the financial and material aspects of the disaster are of paramount importance. For many people, the biggest question seems to be, “How long will it be before the price of gas goes down again, and I can return to ‘life as usual’?”

Very few people seem to be asking what sort of a spiritual impact this disaster will have on our consciences and on our collective soul. Will it lead to a spiritual renewal and a new era of justice and love?

Over the past week, I found myself thinking of the Old Testament story of Nineveh, and of Jonah, whom God sent to preach repentance there. At first Jonah refused, but when he finally obeyed, the people of the city listened to him and proclaimed a fast—everyone put on sackcloth, including the king. When God saw the change of heart that had occurred among the people, he changed his mind about the calamity he had threatened to bring on them, and showed them mercy. This story ought to speak to us now, in the wake of Katrina. We too should be on our knees, asking God to change our hearts and show us mercy.

Over the last century, America has, for the most part, been immune to disaster on its own shores. Wars, famines and epidemics that have killed millions of people in the Third World have had no lasting effect on us. American soldiers were killed or wounded in action, but the vast majority of us were never in harm’s way.

We have made an idol of our invincibility and our status as an economic giant and a military superpower. We have made an idol of our high standard of living, and our supposed closeness to God.

Until last week, when Katrina blew in, we thought we could handle any and every crisis that came along. But in five short days, some of our most cherished ideals—take “government for the people,” for instance—have been exposed as illusions. To the despairing and the dying in New Orleans—and thus to everyone—all our glorious American achievements mean absolutely nothing.

This should not depress us. It is a chance for us as a country to learn that suffering can bring us closer to each other. Most other nations have suffered war, famine, diseases and natural disasters. It has humbled them, and now it is our turn. That is good, because we are not as big and strong as we have made ourselves out to be.

Americans have long been known as a nation of generous do-gooders. But it is easy to be generous when one has plenty of money and food. Now, in the aftermath of Katrina, we are finding that our safety nets have gaping holes. The big infrastructures we believed in seem to be collapsing around us. We are floundering.

If we took this warning seriously, we could find out what role we really ought to play in today’s world. If we were ready to admit that we need the help of other nations and cultures, we might find out that all people around the globe are really one family.

Tremendous things could happen if we used this opportunity to rediscover the significance of all human beings. So let us not miss this chance to band together in solidarity with those who are suffering.

Johann Christoph Arnold ( is an author and a pastor with the Bruderhof Communities (