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Katrina, God and Social Morality
by Rabbi Michael Lerner

  It didn’t have to happen. And it didn’t have to result in so many deaths and social chaos.

Before going down the route of spiritual analysis, let me pause for a moment of prayer and sadness for the suffering of the people of New Orleans, prayers for comfort of those who are mourning losses, and prayers for the survival of those who are still in danger. Prayer must always be accompanied by acts of tzedaka, righteousness or charity. The American Red Cross is playing the lead support role here, so you might consider donating to them: call 1 800 HELP NOW.

But this is a classic case of the law of karma, or what the Torah warns of environmental disaster unless we create a just society, or what others call watching the chickens come home to roost, or what goes around come around:

* Environmentalists are making a strong case that the escalated number and ferocity of earthquakes is a direct product of global warming, caused in large part by the reliance on fossil fuels. The persistent refusal of the U.S. to join the nations of the world in implementing the Kyoto Accords emission limits, and to impose serious pollution restrictions on the cars being sold in the US, is a major factor in global warming.

* The development for housing and commercial purposes combined with massive oil and gas investments destroyed the natural protections from storms that the coastal wetlands has previously provided.

· Funds that were specifically allocated for New Orleans which could have been used in rebuilding levees and for storm protection were cut from the federal budget so that President Bush could use those funds to wage the war in Iraq.
· The white majority of the people of Louisiana elected Congressional representatives who enthusiastically support the war in Iraq and the Bush Administration’s environmental irresponsibility. When economic devastation hit workers in northern cities over the past several decades, Louisianans voted to downsize the federal government and to let others fend for themselves. Many talked about the glories of relying on the free marketplace rather than on the “handouts” from a national government that they abhorred. Or they told the poor and the homeless in northern cities that “if they worked harder or had better habits or were smarter they’d have employment and wouldn’t have to depend on others’ help. Or they saw that suffering of others as “the hand of God.”

And yet, the law of karma or Torah doesn’t work on a one to one basis, delivering “just rewards” to those who have been directly involved in causing evil, as JOB noted in the Bible and as we can note watching global warming play out. The terrible truth is that it is the POOR, the MOST VULNERABLE, who are the first to suffer. The wealthy built their homes on higher ground, had better information, more insurance, and more avenues of escape. So whether it is in facing the rising waters in Bangladesh or Malaysia or Lousiana and Missippi, it’s going to be “the least among us” who will suffer most immediately. This is why it is inappropriate to blame the victim: because the way the world has been created, the consequences of past social injustice, war and ecological irresponsibility come to a whole planet--because from the cosmic perspective we are one, we are all interdependent—and those who suffer most are often not even those who are most culpable. Ditto with environmental cancers—it’s often not the oil company executives but poor people living in proximity to the air and water polluted by corporate irresponsibility and abetted by the lawmakers who depend on corporate contributions and pay them back by imposing the weakest possible environmental regulations.

When some Christian fundamentalists talk about these as signs of the impending doom of the planet, they are laughed off as irrational cranks. It’s true that these fundamentalists see no connection between the doom and the environmental irresponsibility that the politicians they support have brought us. But nevertheless, their perception that we are living at “the end of time” can’t be dismissed by those of us who know that the life support systems of this planet are increasingly “in danger” if politics continues the way it has been going, with politicians in BOTH parties capitulating regularly to the ethos of selfishness and materialism that is sustained by our corporate plunderers but is validated by the votes of ordinary citizens.

Yet the fundamentalist message is deeply misleading also, because it seems to suggest that all this is out of our hands, part of some divine scheme. But it’s not. The biblical version is quite different from what they say: it insists that the choice between life and death is in our hands. After laying out the consequences of abandoning a path of justice and righteousness, the Torah makes it clear that it is up to us. CHOOSE LIFE, it tells us. That choosing of life means transforming our social system in ways that neither Democrats nor Republicans have yet been willing to consider—toward a new bottom line of love and caring, kindness and generosity, ethical and ecological responsibility, and awe and wonder at the grandeur of the universe replacing a narrow utilitarian approach to Nature. This is precisely what we have been calling for in our Interfaith organization, the Tikkun Community, and in our new project of the Tikkun Community called The Network of Spiritual Progressives. We need a New Bottom Line—a fundamental transformation of what we value in this society. We want to take that message into the public sphere, into the political parties, into the media, into the schools, into the corporations.

What too frequently happens when disasters like this hit is that everyone gets momentarily worked up about helping the victims, then a few weeks later forgets the whole thing, and rarely do we get a serious discussion (much less “follow through”) about how to solve the underlying problems. Let’s not let that happen again. Please join the Network of Spiritual Progressives of The Tikkun Community. For more information about our perspective, go to the Core Vision at

There is one beautiful thing that sometimes happens during these kind of emergencies: the cynical realism that teaches us that people just care about themselves, a teaching that makes most of us feel scared to be “too generous” or “too idealistic” temporarily falls away, and people are allowed to be their most generous and loving selves. When the restraints are momentarily down, there is a huge outpouring of love, generosity and kindness on the part of many Americans. People do things like this that I saw yesterday: advertising on the internet’s Craig’s List that they are willing to take in to their own home for many months a family that has been displaced by the floods. This kind of selflessness is something that people actually yearn to let out, but under ordinary circumstances they’d fear to do so. So watch the goodness show itself.

Not to deny that ugliness will also appear. The looting of stores in New Orleans momentarily revealed the “bottom line” of government responsibilities when the New Orleans police announced that they were going to switch policing priorities from saving lives (of the poor) to saving the property of the wealthy and the corporations from the looters. It’s this kind of misplaced priorities over the course of many decades that makes some poor people (and not only poor people, but others who feel that they have a deep sense of social grievance) think (mistakenly and unjustifiably) that it makes sense to take advantage of this moment to rectify a long history of social injustice by taking from the “haves” to provide for themselves as the “have-nots.” It’s hard to witness this perversity on the part of both looters and police without a deep sadness of heart about the depths of depravity that reveal themselves in these moments, alongside the heights of goodness mentioned in the previous paragraph.

For me, this is a prayerful moment, entering the period just before the Jewish High Holidays (starting Oct. 3), realizing that the Jewish tradition of taking ten days of reflection, repentance and atonement is so badly needed not just by Jews but by everyone on the planet. I hope we can find a way to build this practice among secular as well as religious people, because America, indeed the whole world, so badly needs to STOP and reflect, repent and atone, and find a new way, a new path, and return to the deepest truths of love, kindness, generosity, non-violence and peace.

Rabbi Michael Lerner
Editor, Tikkun and co-chair (with Cornel West and Sister Joan Chittister) of the Tikkun Community
Author, The Left Hand of God (forthcoming in January from Harper San Francisco)





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