"An End of All Flesh": Twelve Sins that Led to the Devastation of New Orleans

Tuesday, 20 September 2005

God said to Noah: An end of all flesh has come before me, for the earth is filled with wrongdoing through them; here, I am about to bring ruin upon them, along with the earth. . . . As for me, here, I am about to bring on the Deluge, water upon the earth, to bring ruin upon all flesh that has rush of life in it, from under the heavens, all that is on earth will perish. (Gen 6:13, 17, Shocken Bible)

For years New Orleans has been my favorite U.S. city to visit. The majestic view of the Mississippi River, the wail of jazz, Jackson Square, the smells of the Cafe du Monde, the unique accent of natives, Cajun food, and the St. Louis Cathedral combine to form an experience that cannot be found anywhere else in the country, or indeed in the world. Despite the fact that my personal encounters with the city and its people have been all too few and too brief, I watched with anguish first as Hurricane Katrina hit and then as the waters of Lake Pontchartrain flooded the city. A former New Orleans resident, who is currently a leader of efforts to help evacuees, told me that he thinks that huge sections of the city will be uninhabitable, both because of the structural damage caused by the water itself and because the contaminants in the water will make the ground toxic for years to come. I hope he's wrong, because I know that the majority of the population of New Orleans, now living as refugees around the U.S., eagerly anticipate the rebuilding of the city.

As we ponder the future of this great American city, I think it is also necessary to reflect theologically on the causes of the devastation that Katrina wrought on the city. Some from the far fringes of the theological right are proclaiming that the flood was God's judgment for the sins of the inhabitants of New Orleans. Such people overlook the fact that every city has its share of crime and immorality; in those areas New Orleans is hardly unique. They also seem unaware of God's promise to Abraham not to destroy the cities of the plain if only ten righteous people could be found within them. While I reject without reservation the claim that God singled out New Orleans for judgment because of the people's sins, I do believe that the destruction of the city is the result, at least in large part, of sin.

When I teach the book of Job, I always begin by asking my students whether the catastrophes that befall Job are the result of sin. After they answer "no," I ask them to consider the question again as they examine the text more closely. While some of the losses that Job suffers are the result of natural disasters (fire from God, a strong wind), others are indeed the result of sin. When the Sabeans take Job's oxen and donkeys and kill his servants, and when the Chaldeans steal his camels and kill other servants, Job's loss is the direct result of the sins of the Sabeans and the Chaldeans. My students always say, "But we thought you were asking whether Job's losses were the result of Job's sins!" The reason we don't see the sins that often underlie human suffering is because, first, we haven't asked the right questions and, second, we don't understand the power and pervasiveness of structural sin.

We usually think of sin as a personal matter, but sin can also inhabit human social structures. Structural sin (also called structural injustice) is inherent in laws, customs, religious beliefs, and even worldviews. Like personal sin, structural sin causes alienation both from God and from our fellow human beings. Because most of us were raised to think of sin in purely personal terms, when the commandment says "You shall not kill," we naturally apply it to individuals rather than to society at large or to nations. However, a society that tolerates egregious differences in access to health care based on the net financial worth of an individual or on a person's ethnic background or nationality violates the commandment just as surely as a murderer. A nation that goes to war against its neighbor without sufficient cause (see my article "The Unjust War Theory") also violates the commandment. Although we are generally taught to focus exclusively on the evils of personal sin, it is my contention that while personal sins do indeed damage the fabric of society, structural sin is a far greater problem for two reasons.

First, structural sin tends to impact larger numbers of people in more profound ways than most personal sins. A successful burglar steals perhaps a few thousand dollars' worth of valuables from a few dozen houses over the course of his "career," but in a single year regressive taxes steal billions of dollars from millions of people who can afford it the least. Al Qaeda terrorists killed 3,000 people on September 11, 2001, but the subsequent American invasion of Iraq, purportedly in retaliation for the attacks (though Iraq was not involved in the 9/11 plot), has killed tens of thousands of people. The worst serial killers of our time have killed a few dozen people, but famine kills millions of people worldwide every year.

The second reason that structural sin is a greater problem than personal sin is that it lies below the radar of the vast majority of people. Whereas personal sin is often blatantly obvious, structural sin is insidious. A bank robbery makes the headlines of the evening news, but multinational corporations that hide their assets in the Cayman Islands and so avoid paying income tax, forcing taxpayers to pick up the slack, are only rarely mentioned, and then only on the inside pages of the newspaper. The disappearance of an American teenager in Aruba attracts extensive media coverage, but the desaparición of thousands of people each year in Latin America receives scant coverage.

It is important for progressive Christians to be aware of structural sin and to learn to recognize its effects on both historical and current events. To that end, I offer a list of twelve structural sins that had an impact on the disaster that has befallen New Orleans since Katrina struck three weeks ago.

Insufficient Funds for Infrastructure Maintenance and Improvements

One structural sin that is glaringly obvious after Hurricane Katrina is the insufficient resources dedicated by the government--federal, state, and local--to infrastructure maintenance and improvements. Money that the state government requested from the federal government to maintain and strengthen the levees was not forthcoming, even though experts had been warning for years that a breach of the levees was inevitable. An Army Corps of Engineers report in 2001 said that hundreds of millions of dollars would be required to make the levees impregnable to a major hurricane, but the Bush administration balked at spending the money. More recently, the Corps of Engineers asked for $27.1 million to improve the levees in 2005; the Bush administration reduced the proposal to $3.9 million (a reduction of more than 80%), though Congress increased the allocation to $5.7 million. Similarly, the Southeast Louisiana Flood Control Project requested $100 million from the federal government, but the Bush administration reduced the request to only $16.5 million; Congress ultimately raised it to $34 million. The federal government was clearly not seriously concerned about the possibility of flooding in the Mississippi Delta region of Louisiana, but the state government was also unwilling to raise the funds to pay to protect its own citizens, even though the state has a budget of $18.7 billion in FY 2006. (Louisiana's unwillingness to raise the taxes necessary to maintain its own infrastructure is hardly unique, as witnessed by its western neighbor's inability to muster the political will to raise the money necessary to maintain its public schools.)

Levee repair wasn't the only victim of insufficient funds. The public transportation available to evacuate the poor and the homeless was insufficient. Specialized transportation to evacuate hospital and nursing home patients was far short of what was needed. Not enough buses available? What about arranging to use cruise ships to remove people from harm's way, ferrying them to the ships in large airboats or other flat-bottomed boats, or even helicopters? Infrastructure must be maintained constantly, and deficiencies must be remedied, for the state and federal governments (and local governments, to some extent) to serve their citizens, especially their poorest citizens, well. The failure of government to do so in and around New Orleans is a structural sin.

Emasculation of FEMA

Under the Clinton-Gore administration, FEMA received high praise for its effectiveness in dealing with natural and human-inspired disasters such as the 1993 Mississippi River flood and the 1995 bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. Under previous administrations, FEMA had been an agency largely devoted to preparing to respond to massive nuclear attacks, and their response to other types of disasters was slow and ineffective. When James Lee Witt took over the agency in 1993, he rechanneled most of the nuclear response funds into other areas, because he realized that natural disasters and non-nuclear attacks on domestic soil were much more likely than a massive nuclear attack. After 9/11, George W. Bush reallocated the lion's share of FEMA resources to preparations for a terrorist attack, and natural disaster preparations suffered. He also slashed funds to FEMA and put it under the aegis of the new Department of Homeland Security, where its profile was greatly reduced. So was its effectiveness, and the people of New Orleans suffered for it. To make matters worse, not only was FEMA underfunded and relegated to secondary status by the Bush administration, it was also led by Michael Brown, a political appointee with little or no disaster relief experience.

The structural sins at the heart of FEMA's ineffectiveness are threefold: (1) cuts in the overall budget of an organization designed to help victims of disasters; (2) refocusing the organization on less likely scenarios (terrorist attacks) at the expense of absolutely certain scenarios (natural disasters); (3) subordinating the mission of the organization under the Department of Homeland Security, thereby lessening its importance (its director is no longer a cabinet-level officer). All are related to the failure of society to care adequately for those in time of crisis.

Lack of Focus on Domestic Needs

On the surface, this structural sin may seem counterintuitive. Why focus on domestic needs when needs around the world--poverty, hunger, AIDS, malaria--are greater? It's true that, in general, international needs are greater than the needs of people in the U.S., but the flood in New Orleans and surrounding parishes has unveiled America's dirty little secret: we have Third World conditions in the U.S. as well. In the slums of New Orleans, the Delta region of Mississippi, in south Georgia, along the Rio Grande, and in the ghettoes of New York, Chicago, and other large cities, people are in critical need of nutritious food, adequate housing, safe and effective education, and affordable health care. The problem is difficult for typical homeowners or renters living in these areas, but it is multiplied greatly for the homeless and for the undocumented. As U.S. government opposition (and occasional lip-service) to the U.N.'s Millennium Development Goals demonstrates, we don't do enough to alleviate hunger, poverty, and disease worldwide (current goals call for each nation to donate a paltry 0.7% of GDP to relief efforts, something few nations have achieved and toward which the Bush administration is not even working). The Katrina disaster shows that we don't set aside enough money or plan adequately for domestic needs, either.

So where is all the money going? A huge chunk is going to pay for the president's misguided war on Iraq. In addition to producing huge federal budget deficits, the war is sucking money from other programs that desperately need it. Of course, even without the war the Bush administration would probably be calling for more tax cuts for the wealthy instead of caring for those in our own country who are in need of help. So much for compassionate conservatism!

Information and Education Disparity

Some right-wing pundits have complained that many of the people who died in the flood had a chance to get out of harm's way and chose not to, so their deaths cannot be blamed on anyone but themselves. Leaving aside the lack of sufficient public transportation to remove all the residents who don't own (working) cars, the existence of a huge information and education gap between haves and have-nots in the New Orleans area is another structural sin that exacerbated the problems caused by Hurricane Katrina. Typical middle class families had many ways to get information about the impending storm several days in advance: broadcast TV, cable TV, radio, the Internet, colleagues at work, and neighbors. The poor may have radio and broadcast TV, or they may not. They may work at jobs where informed coworkers regularly converse with them, or they may work the types of jobs in which they have little contact with people from higher social strata--janitors, night watchmen, stock clerks, dock workers, delivery people--or they may have no job at all. Their neighbors may or may not be reliably informed about impended dangers. In any case, it is clear that the typical poor person has much less access to reliable information than the rich or the middle class.

Furthermore, the poor's ability to process the information they do receive and act appropriately may be adversely impacted by their inadequate educations. Let me be clear about this: I am not saying that the poor do not have the intelligence to make wise decisions. I am saying that, because of often substandard education, they may not possess the requisite historical or scientific background knowledge to realize the dangers that a major hurricane threatens. The educational disparity between rich and poor is great in this country, and educational systems in the Old South are particularly poor, as evidenced by annual comparisons of student test scores among the states.

Rising Poverty Rate

Mississippi Senator Trent Lott's home was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, but there is no doubt that it will be rebuilt in relatively short order. In the meantime, Lott has a nice place to stay; he's not in a shelter. I heard a radio interview a few days ago with a man whose home near New Orleans received some flood damage and would probably be uninhabitable for awhile, but who had already bought a new home in Baton Rouge and enrolled his children in school there. When you're rich, it's a lot easier to recover from a disaster than if you're poor. It is clear that the vast majority of people who have had to live in shelters, first in New Orleans and now elsewhere, were poor. Poverty is a great evil in today's world, and it is a persistent structural sin.

When Jesus said, "The poor you will always have with you," he wasn't giving his approval to the existence of poverty, he was just commenting on a seemingly intractable problem. In reality, though, poverty doesn't need to be nearly the problem that it is. While the Bush administration has been busy over the past few years cutting taxes for the rich and, to a lesser extent, the middle class, the number of people in poverty has grown each of the past four years. The Bush administration and its congressional supporters have passed laws making it much harder and more expensive for people to file for bankruptcy, a measure that will drive more people into poverty. The White House is also proposing sharp cuts in spending for Medicaid, the government-sponsored health insurance system that helps 50 million low-income Americans. At the same time, Bush and the Republicans in Congress want to make permanent the repeal of the estate tax, which affects less than one percent of the very richest citizens.

Poverty in the U.S., the richest country in the world, is an unconscionable injustice. Most of the dead and most of those still living in shelters are poor. The rich, after all, had transportation to let them escape the wind and the flood, and they had the means to pay for accommodations. The existence of the kind of poverty we've seen over the past couple of weeks in New Orleans and the surrounding areas--the kind of poverty that many Americans weren't aware existed in their country--is an indictment of the present government and of all past governments that have sacrificed the poor on the altars of tax cuts for the rich and increased military spending.


Many of the dead in New Orleans were homeless people. Few homeless people own cars that run, and even if they did have cars, they couldn't afford to keep the gas tank filled for an escape from harm's way. Many of the homeless had no idea of the size or strength of Hurricane Katrina, and probably only a few heard the orders to evacuate the city, as if they could anyway. A large percentage of the homeless suffer from mental illnesses, so even if they had heard someone tell them to get out, they might not have understood the implications of having a gargantuan hurricane bearing down on them.

Homelessness is a problem in every large American city, and in many smaller cities and communities as well. It's not a problem in the way the city council of Atlanta prior to the 1996 Olympics saw it as a problem, that is, as an embarrassing fact about the city that needed to be hidden. Homelessness is a problem for the homeless themselves, as well as for their families who worry about them. Sociologists teach us that the three basic human needs are food, clothing, and shelter. Every person in this country should be guaranteed a decent place to spend the night and escape the elements, regardless of the ability to pay. I have a friend who is periodically homeless, and in the winter she sometimes shoplifts an item from a store just so that she will be arrested and have somewhere warm to sleep that night. That the homeless sometimes have to resort to such measure just to get a minimal roof over their heads is an indictment of our rich society that just doesn't care enough to help, and it is a structural sin.

Ethnic Disparity

It was immediately evident to everyone who saw the faces of the victims of Hurricane Katrina that the vast majority were African Americans. Although a few of our dimmer bulbs in government tried to make light of their situation, comparing it to summer camp or remarking that many were better off sweltering in the dark at the Superdome, most people sized up the situation right away: it was a tragedy. Many, but by no means all, also made the next logical conclusion: there was great ethnic disparity between those who escaped the storm and those who remained behind in shelters. There are many possible reasons that one could list for the disproportionate number of blacks who suffered the most cruelly from the hurricane. (1) African Americans were just unlucky and happened to be living in those communities most affected by the flooding. (2) African Americans tend to live in poor communities, on less desirable real estate, but it's just because they don't take advantages of the opportunities available to every American. (3) Television crews just took pictures of African Americans, not stranded white people. These, as I said, are all possible reasons that one could list. They are, however, all completely invalid.

The fact of the matter is that blacks don't tend to live in the most flood-prone places in New Orleans (or Houston, or other cities) by accident. They live in flood plains, often in substandard housing, because it's all they can afford. There are at least two tacks that cities can take to alleviate this problem. First, cities should declare flood plains unfit for housing and develop parks, or even wetlands, in low-lying areas. Second, instead of concentrating all low-income housing in one area, cities should spread housing throughout the city, or better yet, cities should give vouchers that will allow people of limited means to rent houses and apartments in many different areas. There is a third point that the citizens of every city must address, and that is that ethnic disparity, wherever it exists, is a form of racism that is embedded in the fabric of society. In other words, it is a structural sin.

Widespread Looting

When discussing the looting that took place in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, we must first distinguish between those who broke into grocery stores because they needed food and diapers and those who broke into stores and houses to steal TVs, jewelry, clothing, and electronic equipment. The former were meeting basic human needs, but the latter were taking advantage of a tragic situation for their own benefit. If we limit our discussion to "looting for profit" rather than "looting for survival," one can argue with a large measure of justification that the looters' sins were personal, because they were committing acts that they knew or should have known were both illegal and morally wrong. How can we say, then, that looting represents a structural sin?

That the looting that took place in New Orleans after the hurricane was indicative of structural sin is evident once one examines characteristics of the majority of those involved in the looting. Most of the looters, at least those caught on TV, were poor and black. Does that mean that the poor and African Americans are disproportionately more criminally inclined than the middle class and whites? No, but it suggests that something in the makeup of our society is seriously amiss. The correlation between the demographics of the looters and the demographics of most of those who tried to ride out the storm in New Orleans suggests a definite connection between the two groups. The common factor is poverty, with lack of education and lack of adequate job opportunities (exacerbated by a stagnant, insufficient minimum wage) strong contributing factors as well. We've already discussed poverty and poor education as structural sins, and these are certainly involved in the looting problem that the city witnessed, but why did most of New Orleans' poor and poorly educated respond to the crisis with dignity and a sense of community, while a minority responded with antisocial behavior?

Often when poverty and lack of education are rampant in a community, another structural sin emerges: hopelessness. When a person has hope of overcoming her poverty and poor education, she can persevere with hope. Even if she sees possibilities for her children, she has hope. However, when generation after generation fail to scratch their way out of poverty, hope fades, and catastrophes like Katrina bring out the worst side of their natures.

Looters are not just people who smash windows and steal anything they can carry or wear. Our TV screens captured those people, but what wasn't evident on TV was the much greater looting that was going on by the large oil companies, who, when their pumping capacity was reduced by 5%, raised gasoline prices by 20% at the pump. Some local merchants who remained open similarly raised the prices on their wares, capitalizing (as good capitalists) on the misfortune of others. In contrast, other stores in the region steadfastly kept their prices the same in order to serve their customers better in their time of need.

Superfluity of Guns

Shots rang out in the Superdome, in the New Orleans Convention Center, and in the streets. Gangs of thugs were trying to assert their authority over their newly claimed territories. Others were shooting at police. Some were even shooting, inexplicably, at rescue vehicles and helicopters. Those who used their guns to perpetrate violence certainly committed personal sins, but a larger, structural sin lies behind the gun violence that played itself out in New Orleans: a superfluity of guns. We are a violent nation, the most violent industrialized nation on earth (unless you count Russia, including Chechnya). We have almost as many guns in the U.S. as we have people, something over 200 million. With this many guns on the street, it's not surprising that more than 10,000 people in the U.S. are killed by guns, mostly handguns. Gun control opponents claim that recent trends show that the number of guns in the country has increased while violent crime has decreased, but minor fluctuations in the crime rates are unimpressive next to the raw numbers of people killed by guns in this country.

The quantity of guns on the streets in the U.S. is only part of the problem, of course. Equally important is the attitude our society has toward violence. We execute criminals, we launch unjustified wars for political or even personal reasons, and we idolize the cowboy and the warrior. In a country where more than 75% of the population claims to be Christian, pacifism is considered a dirty word. Patriotism trumps peacemaking. Even the decidedly low standards for waging war contained in the Just War Theory are regularly ignored by political leaders, with the support of many leading Christians. The abundance of guns in our society is symptomatic of our embrace of violence, which is the structural sin that lies at the root of the gun problem.

Dependence on Oil

When Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, the governors of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama were unable to make full use of the very organization whose principal task is the protection of citizens in times of crisis, the National Guard. Although most available Guard troops were summoned to the region, about a third of the National Guard from the affected Gulf states are currently deployed in Iraq. Perhaps even more problematic is the fact that a large portion of their equipment--including Humvees, helicopters, and communication equipment--is in the Middle East rather than at home where it is needed.

Regardless of the precise reason(s) for the U.S. war on Iraq--personal vendetta against Saddam Hussein, desire to reshape the Middle East in America's image, desire for cheaper oil--the structural sin that lies at the base of our military involvement there is our dependence on oil. The oil crisis of the 1970s was a harbinger of tough times ahead if the nation remained so dependent on oil, but after a brief flirtation with alternative fuel sources under Jimmy Carter, succeeding administrations turned the nation back onto oil once again. The U.S. depends on oil in much the same way that drug addicts are unable to break away from the substance that is draining their strength and their resources and threatens to kill them. As a nation we have been unwilling to make the decision to wean ourselves from oil, which pollutes our air and water and compels us to wage war in the Middle East. Developing alternatives to oil dependence will cost the U.S. a substantial amount of money in the short term, but in the long term we will reap the benefits in decreased pollution, energy self-sufficiency, and fewer wars of choice. And maybe then we'll be able to bring the National Guard home.

Wetlands Destruction

When New Orleans was founded by the French in 1718, the city was almost entirely above sea level, and it was buffered on the south by several miles of forest, as well as extensive wetlands beyond the forests. Today all of the forest south of New Orleans is gone, and Louisiana is losing wetlands at a rate of between 65 and 90 square kilometers per year. This loss of land mass was evident when Katrina slammed into New Orleans at almost full strength. Hurricanes rapidly lose strength over land, and wetlands also help to absorb the storm surge that accompanies hurricanes. Destruction of the wetlands led directly to greater wind and water damage to the city.

Why are the wetlands of the Mississippi Delta disappearing, and why is the city of New Orleans gradually sinking? The answer to both questions is levees. Early residents built levees to protect themselves from the flooding of the Mississippi River and of Lake Pontchartrain. The levees seemed to make perfectly good sense at the time. If you can push a potential flood further down the river, what could be wrong with that? What is wrong is that both the city of New Orleans and the wetlands of the Delta rely on sediment from the Mississippi River to replenish the soil. When the Mississippi was flowing naturally, the Delta grew and the area that is now New Orleans remained above sea level. Now the wetlands are rapidly disappearing, and the city is sinking.

In addition to the human toll caused by the removal of the wetlands as a buffer against hurricanes, destruction of the wetlands also takes a toll on nature. Wetlands harbor a great diversity of plant and animal species, many of them endangered as the wetlands south of New Orleans disappear. As the wetlands disappear, the salt water of the Gulf invades territory that was formerly fresh water marsh, and the environment is further degraded. The destruction of the wetlands was an unintended consequence of the building of levees, but the results are as real as if they were intentional, and it can justly be called a structural sin. The question now is, what can be done? The levees can't be completely torn down if the city is to survive, but modifications will have to be made that will allow regular flooding of selected areas and the consequent deposition of layers of alluvial mud. Over time, with the right plan in place, much of the wetlands can be restored, and the pace of New Orleans' descent into the underworld can be reduced or perhaps even reversed.

Global Warming

The Bush Administration for years argued that global warming wasn't a generally accepted scientific theory. He was wrong, of course, but while he and his oil-industry-supported political appointees quashed the voices of scientists who were trying to work within the administration, sea ice over the North Pole disappeared during the summer, Mount Kilimanjaro has lost 82% of the glacial mass covering its peaks, and the island nation of Tuvalu is on the verge of being engulfed by the rising Pacific Ocean. The administration now admits that global warming is occurring, but they continue to dispute whether humans are playing a significant role in increasing temperatures worldwide. Can Hurricane Katrina be blamed on global warming?

The short answer is no. Hurricanes arise in the Atlantic every year, and many of them move into the Gulf of Mexico. Global warming doesn't create hurricanes. However, it can increase both the intensity and the frequency of hurricanes. At one point Katrina was a powerful category 5 hurricane, whose reach extended at one instant from Florida to Texas. The frequency of Atlantic hurricanes has been unusually high this season, as has been their intensity. Hurricanes Dennis and Emily both reached category 4, and both set records for being the strongest hurricane to form before August (Dennis held the record for a mere eight days before Emily beat it). Hurricane Rita, which is currently churning westward across the Gulf toward Texas, is the ninth hurricane of the season and the seventeenth named storm, both numbers that are well above average for the entire hurricane season, even though more than two months remain.

When human activity plays a significant role in creating or exacerbating global warming, it becomes a structural sin, in part because it creates adverse conditions that disproportionately affect the poor, and in part because it destroys natural habitat and biodiversity, a violation of the divine command to care for the earth.


In the aftermath of World War II, as he looked at the devastation that had overtaken the planet, Elton Trueblood wrote a book called Foundations for Reconstruction, in which he argued that the only way to create a peaceful and just world was to build it on the foundation of a fresh understanding of the Ten Commandments, read through the lens of the Sermon on the Mount. Our world today is desperately in need of reconstruction, and the devastation of New Orleans at the hands of Hurricane Katrina suggests some of the structural sins that we need to address in order to build the kingdom of God. Spending $200 billion or more to rebuild the city will not solve the problems revealed by the storm unless significant structural changes are made in our society. Martin Luther King, Jr., said, "True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring." Christians need to learn to recognize the structural sins that hold us and our fellow global citizens in bondage, and we need to devise strategies and begin to work to restructure our society in a way that is more just and equitable for all.

© Copyright 2005, Progressive Theology

Progressive Theology