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The responsibility of government and the ethics of humanitarianism

The responsibility of government and the ethics of humanitarianism


 


The storm is over, but the toll is still rising. New Orleans is 80% submerged. In the broader scope, the level of destruction in the Crescent City has now overshadowed (at least in the press) the utter destruction which was unleashed on the rest of the Gulf Coast at points east such as Biloxi and Gulf Port, MS, and Mobile, AL, which was also flooded. The cleanup can't even begin until the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers figures out a way to keep the water out of the Big Easy. Truth be told, the story in points east is not over, it just isn't dramatic any more so it has been shelved for the time being.


 


So now for the big question. Someone asked me earlier today what I thought was the government's responsibility to all the people from New Orleans who are now homeless. My immediate reaction was an easy answer; provide the necessities of food and shelter. "But what is the responsibility of the government after that?" My response to the questioner continued, "I think everything boils down to two things; welfare and security." Those, I believe, are the most basic responsibilities of any government to it's people. I'm not talking about welfare in terms of the "welfare system." I mean that the government works to facilitate an environment which fosters commerce and business success. That, after all, is how most people live. We get up, we go to work, we pay the bills. If we don't have a job, we can't pay the bills, generally speaking of course.


 


The question has already been raised in other arenas whether or not the government should be responsible for rebuilding New Orleans. Personally, I think the answer is a resounding "maybe." But that's because I don't know how much of the reconstruction will be covered by insurance. Most of us know that if New Orleans had been flattened by 150mph winds, insurance would cover it. But that isn't what happened. Two levees failed and the city was flooded. Floods aren't covered in standard insurance policies, you have to buy a "Flood Policy." If you have a mortgage on your property it's probably required in a city which sets 10 feet UNDER sea level. But the poor people who don't have mortgages probably don't have flood insurance either. Here's where we get into the "ethics" portion of this exam.  Many thousands of people have lost everything. Do we, as a nation, have an ethical responsibility to replace what little these people had? Just how far does humanitarianism go?


 


I have had opportunity to work very close to disaster relief. I know that FEMA has worked with storm victims and helped them obtain low-interest SBA loans as seed money to begin the rebuilding process. But what if you are elderly and on a fixed income, handicapped, or otherwise unable to prove sufficient income to qualify for a loan to rebuild? Lets face it, right now almost nobody in New Orleans has a job to go back to, either. But the destruction is going to create many thousands of jobs rebuilding the city. Maybe this is one of those times when the government should consider funding a temporary work program such as the TVA or WPA; provide jobs to the jobless people of New Orleans so they can rebuild their city.


 


This very moment, however, is where the Church comes in. We cannot sit back and just assume that the government is going to "fix" this, because it has limits, also. Even if the government was capable of taking care of this, Jesus has directed us to act. We are to be His hands and feet.


"Then the King will say to those on his right, 'Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.'


"Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?'


"The King will reply, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.' (Mat25:34-40, NIV)


No matter what the government does, we, as Christians, have been called to reach out to the victims of the hurricane. We should be the first to step up. I ask everyone to do what you can. Go through your closets and "cull the herd." Donate to charities such as Feed the Children, which is mobilizing efforts to distribute food. I know the phone lines at the Red Cross are overburdened and their system is unable to take your calls, but keep trying. This is one of those times when we should "give 'til it hurts." Please don't let the fact that so many people ignored Mayor Nagin's mandatory evacuation order color your heart. Remember, these people would have lost everything whether they left or stayed. Keep praying. We'll have time to continue the funding debate later.