Hurricane Katrina, and the Good Churchgoers of the U.S. South
By prole cat
Like many frustrated Southerners in the aftermath of the hurricane named Katrina, I drove a small truck-and-trailer full of food and water to South Mississippi. I met some refugees at a camp site, during the trip down. They appeared to be poor whites. One, a native of Bay St. Louis, was snarling against the "looters", using racial epithets. When informed that I planned to take food straight to the hungry people in the streets, this man (who had already taken offense when I challenged his bigotry) snorted, "Good. You gone find out then. Great. You go right ahead." His words left me more determined than ever.
Later that night, one of the man's campmates approached me. He had been told of my plans. He was on the verge of tears. "Hey man, I'm not wanting to be all hateful, or racist, or anything. Really, I'm not. But please, please don't just drive down there, and open up your truck, and start giving stuff away. Please don't. You don't know these people. You don't know what it's like, down there."
He seemed sincere. His words accomplished what neither his friend's words, nor the media news reports, had been able to. I hadn't been frightened before. But now I was scared.
The role of the good church people
We went first to the rural town of Wiggens, but relief had arrived there earlier in the day. We went to Poplarsville, which was militarized to an alarming degree. Soldiers carrying submachine guns guarded the gas pumps. (As it turned out, President Bush was doing a photo op in Poplarsville that day.) A National Guardsmen with rank told us that aid was still desperately needed (ironically enough) in Bay St. Louis, sixty miles outside of New Orleans. So we took off. (We believed New Orleans itself to be unapproachable due to martial law.)
The sunlight was beginning to dim on the second day of our trip as we approached Bay St. Louis. Adding to my apprehension, was the otherworldly sight of automobiles upended in drainage ditches. Motorboats were perched in the tops of trees, either thrown there by the wind, or perhaps nested there as the flood waters receded. Cars traveling on the road became rare, consisting mostly of military vehicles. Power was out, and so of course no gasoline was available. Occasionally a man in a bucket truck with a chainsaw was in evidence. I decided against camping in the area. We would drop the food as close as we could get to the people who needed it, and then get the hell out before nightfall. I, for one, had a family to return to.
A man in front of a wrecked convenience store directed us towards a National Guard armory, as the nearest exchange point for relief aid. Was this what I had traveled so far to do, hand the supplies over to the U.S. government, who had already demonstrated their callous indifference to all but the richest people in the area? A knot in my stomach tightened as we advanced.
Then we came to the intersection of two main roads. In the parking lot of a darkened K-Mart, a large tent had been erected. People were busily unloading food and water from trucks, and carrying them into the tent. Smoke rose from a large grill out back of the tent. All around the tent, people sorted through piles of clothes, carrying away what they needed, without paying. Inside the tent, blacks and whites mingled without apparent distinction. Immediately upon approaching, we were offered a meal. In the short time we were there, we saw a pair of men in cheap jeans and mill-worker tee shirts approach, carrying canned goods wrapped in the stomach portion of their shirts. Presumably, instead of hoarding, they were bringing what little they had, and throwing it into the common pile with everyone else's. It was the polar opposite of all the looting, murder, and rape that we had been told to expect.
We begun to unload the truck. I was so relieved not to have to give up the goods to the government soldiers, I never thought to ask under whose authority (if anyone's) the operation was being carried out. But as we stacked box after box, I was hardly surprised to note crosses hanging from chains around the necks of many of the relief workers, and Christian messages on tee shirts. This was Deep Dixie, after all. I struck up a conversation. I learned that a circle of volunteers from a small Baptist church in southeast Alabama, near Mobile, had been instrumental in organizing the particular relief site we had stumbled up on. We had been saved from the clutches of the soldiers, by common folks who had organized among themselves. And they had done so, in large part, by employing the mostly unofficial networks of their church contacts.
I was touched. I have long been antagonistic to the self-righteous evangelicals of my region. But here they were, in the vanguard of some fine, compassionate work. A new evaluation of their role in our society was surely in order.
In addition to my newfound appreciation for these kindhearted individuals, I was also moved to wonder, "Why does the government allow this?" It has long been apparent that the government and the corporations demand a monopoly on power. They either absorb, or infiltrate and destroy, unions, active community groups, food coops, coordinated anti-war activists, grassroots political organizations of all types, in short, any and everything that tries to operate outside the framework of the market place, and its corollary, the election booth. But churches are granted a remarkable, an incredible, amount of latitude. For example, everyone had been warned not to try to take food into, or even near to, New Orleans, because putting a stop to "looting" and "lawlessness" was being given a higher priority than relief. "If you go near the soldiers guarding the stores, you might get shot", was the clear-if-implicit message. But here were these good, simple people from the far corner of Alabama, a scant sixty miles outside of New Orleans, actually being allowed to give food away- out in front of a store! For what reason, I wondered, were they granted this exemption? Did the government have a secret soft spot, reserved solely for born-again Christians? Or was there a darker underlying motive?
The role of the Deity
A man approached my traveling companion (who had recently had a finger surgically removed, due to disease.) The stranger took my friend's crippled hand in his, and petitioned "God, through our Savior Jesus Christ", to heal the illness that caused the deformity. This, I found more spooky than touching. To change the subject away from invisible Physicians in the Sky, I commented that it was some mighty fine, generous work that was being done in that parking lot.
The man replied, "It's the Lord's work, son. The Lord is doing it all. We're born into sin, and left to our own devices, we would rip each other up, just like you see on TV. Only the grace of God can heal your friend's hand, or make a sinner help his brother."
So I had my answer.
Here is how it works: the little country churches are granted an exemption from the restrictions that the government (working for the corporations) places on everyone else. For example, churches are allowed to give food away, at the same time that kids doling out chow under the banner of Food Not Bombs are prosecuted for vending without a business license. Heck, churches don't even have to pay taxes! In exchange for all this special treatment, the churches agree to promote the fiction that "charity", giving, helping, is something otherworldly, "spiritual", exceptional. Helping out a sister in need, they insist, runs counter to "human nature". Only the mystical "Lord" can make a person give.
It is all lies, of course. To begin with, science has long known that there is no such thing as "human nature". The behavior of the human animal varies so widely according to the surrounding conditions, that talk of the innate goodness of humanity, or its evil nature, is nonsensical.
We do, however, have instincts, that were honed by eons of evolution. The deepest instincts of women and men, after tending to their own survival and that of their children, runs to helping their fellows. Now, the bosses know this. The CEOs and politicians know that we have to be conditioned to be selfish and fear our neighbors, if the reign of the corporate marketplace is to continue. And they also know that when a disaster strikes, they can't stop us from helping each other, in the process doing an end run around the structures of domination, the Wal-marts and Exxon stations and government offices. The U.S. government can barely subdue the Iraqi people right now; they don't have enough soldiers left, to put the entire South under martial law, and so prevent the free exchange of goods (as was done in New Orleans). Because they can't physically stop us, they have to find a way to limit the damage, to make sure that when the crisis is passed, we don't continue to give things to one another (and so undermine the buying and selling that they spend millions of dollars to promote, on television and elsewhere.) They have to, they must, have a means, in the months following a disaster in which communities have come together in sharing, to coax the good, common folks back into the old routines of acting selfishly.
Enter the churches. The churches assure us all that it is not possible to be giving and caring, all the time. We are born into sin. It is normal to live under the watchful eye of security cameras, to sleep with a loaded gun under one's pillow, to hoard one's goods, and to gouge one's neighbor. "Let the buyer beware". It is just human nature, they claim, to lie and cheat and strive to dominate, to separate ourselves into bosses, and servants of the bosses. Twas ever thus. "There will be poor among us always." It can't be helped. And it is a rarity- no, it is a by-god miracle- when a storm wrecks havoc on a region, and the people come together to help each other.
And miracles, though awesome, are of course brief. When the crisis and its attendant miracle are past, it will be time to go back to "reality", to hoarding and gouging and cheating and most of all, to turning a blind eye to the suffering of our sisters and brothers. We will return to blaming the victims, and insist that "if they were not so lazy, they would get jobs, and not be poor anymore." By treating compassion as something alien to humanity, the churches dutifully play their role in this sorry state of affairs.
The mystery is solved. Now we know why the politicians and their commanders, the corporate bigwigs, grant the various churches access and permissions that are denied to so many. Because they can't trust anyone else with the job.
(prole cat member of the Capital Terminus Anarchist-Communist Collective. This article was written in personal capacity, for anarkismo.net)