The Unnatural Politics and Religion of Natural Disasters

A man takes a picture of a flooded mobile home park as floodwaters slowly rise in Memphis, Tenn., May 8. (Eric Thayer / Reuters)

This was a post I had been planning to write for some time after some of the major natural disasters we had seen in the news.  It probably began around the Haitian earthquake, but I’m sure my mind was more focused on the horrendous theology of Pat Robertson and his comments surrounding a deal with the devil to overthrow the French in the Haitian Revolution.  I remembered I thought about it again following the Japan earthquake and tsunami, but between work and another topic on the subject I wanted to address, this topic didn’t get published.  However, as I am directly affected by the Mississippi River floods of 2011, I can’t help but write about it this time.

In the wake of the Tornado Outbreak of 2011 and the immediacy of the Mississippi river spring floods, the United States is a bit full at the moment when it comes to natural disaster.  The Japan earthquake, tsunami and now nuclear disaster is well within reaching distance to recall the images of the walls of water coming into harbors and overtaking the streets.  We remember the images of a coach at the University of Alabama filming a massive EF4 tornado rip asunder structure after structure in Tuscaloosa, Alabama only to be replaced by images of houses submerged in West Memphis, Arkansas and farmers watching their crops disappear under a toxic soup of river water on Missouri farmland.

Even though we often times see the good in people after the events occur, it seems that before and during the events we see the horrible marriage of politics and religion manifest themselves in ways that are simply inexcusable.  Although I’m not an ethicist, I will try and parse the ethics of this situation.

Politically speaking, we hear and see local politicians from mayors, city council members, state representatives all the way up to governors pitted against each other all clamoring for attention from the federal government when it comes to what monies to be released after the event occurs and what to do before it occurs.  In Missouri and Illinois it was the difference between flooding 100,000+ acres of farmland for the sake of protecting tiny, yet historic Cairo, Illinois.  Cairo, who’s boom years have long since been behind them is mostly black and mostly poor.  The decision was made to bomb the levees and flood the farmland on the Missouri side of the river and Cairo was spared.  Now farmers have to contend with fields that are covered in river waste and garbage possibly polluting the land for the next season or two.

A river levee is blown up at Caernarvon, Louisiana during the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927. SOURCE: US Army Corps of Engineers

I personally felt in that case, from my armchair perspective that authorities should have just let nature take its course and hope the levees hold.  Cairo was in no more immediate danger than anyone else in the region.  However, in such cases, citizens want something to be done even if it has zero effect or even an adverse affect on someone else.  This was experienced when famously the levee at Caernavon, Louisiana was dynamited below New Orleans on the river in the landmark Mississippi River Flood of 1927; New Orleans wasn’t in imminent threat, but something was done even though it flooded St. Bernard and Plaquemines parishes that were wholly rural and poor.

We see the same anxiety with residents of Baton Rouge and New Orleans in the present.  Baton Rouge’s mayor is advocating strongly for the opening of the Morganza Spillway above the city to flood the Atchafalaya river basin* to take pressure off of levees in his city.  There’s no regard for the people of those lower parishes; we’re more worried about big city infrastructure and revenues than those who have less resources in the first place.

The politics of this go back long before floodwaters flowed down the the river to the zoning and the establishment of homes and business in flood plains.  The land was cheap so naturally less upwardly mobile persons were able to settle it.  What I noticed while watching the scenes of the flooding in West Memphis, Ark. and across the river in Memphis, Tenn. that all of the faces of the metropolitan residents experiencing floods were majority black faces.  Certainly the fact that both cities have a majority black population increases that likelihood, it still shows the income and subsequent race gap that still exists.  It is easier for us to disadvantage those who have less means of recovery after a natural disaster than those who would have the insurance and the money and other resources to recover.

This is nothing new.

In the aftermath of the Flood of 1927, Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover made promises to blacks with regards to recovery, but failed to deliver.  How he promised versus how he handled the situation spurred another wave of blacks to move north in the Great Migration and his failure to deliver on promises resulted in blacks shifting party alliance to the Democratic Party and voting for Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1932 election (not to mention a little thing called the Great Depression).  We see this yet again here in these floods where the faces of victims are oftenblacks with lesser resources than their white counterparts.

If I could push the envelope, I would say that has even less to do with race than it does have to do with how our society deals with the economically disadvantaged.  The well-to-do family cares nothing about persons living in a flood plain regardless of skin color just as long as their well-being and lifestyle isn’t affected.  We do nor say anything on behalf of the poor people of the country, we only pay lip-service to the middle class meanwhile protecting the lifestyles of the rich and famous.

Old River Control Structure at the juncture of the Mississippi and Atchafalaya Rivers

The creation of human made structures to control river flow and spillway flood plains places supernatural power on something that is indeed natural thus giving humanity the false assumption of controlling the supernatural.  If the human fashioned structures weren’t in place, no one would be living in these floodplains in the first place.  If that was the case, the ethical dilemma of flooding out rural residents versus urban dwellers wouldn’t be up for questioning.

Religiously speaking, we can count on the nut jobs to claim any type of divine retribution.  We heard it with Hurricane Katrina, we heard it with Haiti and we can open up our Bibles to Genesis 19 and read about an egotistical deity who not only destroys two entire cities, but goes and turns someone to a pillar of salt just because it’s within their power to do so.  Usually when instances like this happen (and even when it comes to government sanctioned assassinations on foreign soil of terrorists), we run to the seemingly black and white Old Testament that gives us prescribed and proscribed understandings of justice from supernatural sources.  Employing the basic understanding of the sovereignty of divinity, either God caused it or God allowed it to happen.  That leaves us humans wrestling for an explanation of the seemingly unexplainable.  Using a New Testament scripture outside of Revelation might leave you with more questions than answers, so back to the Old Testament we go.

The Old Testament widely uses the dichotomy of cause and effect to get across the idea of retributive justice.  We see it in “you shall reap what you sow” and “eye for an eye” versus “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”  This concept of justice is what we see in western society where everything is supposed to fit into a one-size-fits-all box from our legal system to how we’re supposed to do politics and even religion as a whole.  When it comes to religion we act as though if some malady came upon you, it was because you failed to please God. [Even as I wrote that last sentence I almost wrote “it was because you failed to please the gods” borrowing from the idea that in Greek and Roman mythology sacrifices and behaviors were to be done to please the pantheon of gods.  I think such a parallel is a damning critique against the foolishness of western religion at times.]  

Frankly, I’m tired of hearing fools on Facebook or Twitter in their update status use a natural disaster as a moment to point toward God and further alienate non-Christians from associating themselves with a sentient being that would cause such utter pain on their own alleged creation.  The blind trust and authorative emphasis placed on the biblical scripture, especially rape has been used to justify rape, sexual harrassment, misogyny, gender inequalities, racism and religious intolerance.  It’s certainly time we question our purpose for which we use the Bible to explain supernatural occurences: are we using them to support a myopic view of justice or are we using it to uplift those who are experiencing hardship.

This line of reasoning proves problematic for me because not only are victims hearing this theological agenda preached directly or subversively in their ecclesiastical settings, but it eventually becomes internalized.  I’d suppose that there are hundreds of flood victims who have gotten to this point in their lives and are asking themselves “What did I do to deserve this?” and trying to figure out “where they went wrong” with their relationship with God to allow this to happen.  Even in the understanding of the sovereignty of God and the allowing of an event to happen, deep down we’ll still say God caused to happen somehow and some way.  Victims are left feeling guilty wondering what do they need to do in the future to prevent it from happening again or even to successive generations. 

This internalized oppression, as I see it, does nothing to strengthen communal bonds with other people and does nothing for the already broken spirit.  I’m not advocating that persons brought this on themselves in the traditional sense of “you reap what you sow” but certainly, when you live by a river, you will become a victim of circumstances because one year, it will flood.  Same with persons who live in the midwest who deal with tornadoes or Californians who deal with earthquakes or those on the Gulf and Atlantic coasts who have to encounter hurricanes, it simply is what it is.

A towboat pushes barges down the flood-swollen Mississippi River south of Memphis, May 9. (Danny Johnston / AP)

Religion and politics failure to equip a person’s consciousness to deal with the vicissitudes of natural disasters, both good and bad has resulted in a society that operates out of harmony with the world we inhabit.  We now have added super- to the phrase “natural disasters.”  We act as though there’s something else at play than just the natural ebb and flow of seasons.  No longer does the Mississippi river naturally flood as it did thousands of years ago, but is corralled by levees.  The incredulity of humanity to act so privileged as if this is not supposed to happen stands as a monument to our own arrogance.  These events should be humbling moments, reminding us not just of our mortality, but also of our status as creatures of this terrestrial ball: there are some things that are out of our control.

Rather than feeling powerless going forward, we should be empowered to not make the same mistakes as we did before.  Instead politics allow us to rebuild bigger and better in the same places as a testament to our wanton hubris and religion allows us to go in and conquer the land, then guilt ourselves and question our relationship with the deity if something terrible from nature befalls us.

My word of advice, after placing on the hat of ethicist today, is that we should learn to live in harmony with the natural that surrounds us.  Nature is indeed supernatural in an of itself, much like we are too!  While yes the after effects are devastating and disruptive to our everyday lives I think we should find an inner resolve to seek the inner divine and inner peace that will help us endure the hardship.  As humans, we were designed to endure pain.  It doesn’t make it easier, but our survival is a testament that it takes a lot to break the human spirit.  Even if we emerge on the other side with our bodies bruised and our material accumulations taken away, we still have our minds and each other.

Keep it uppity and keep it truthfully radical, JLL

Possible avulsion track of the Mississippi River through the Atchafalaya Channel.

* The Old River Structure is built at the juncture between the Red River of Louisiana and the Mississippi River. It is a diversionary waterway that keeps 70% of volume down the current meander of the Mississippi River channel and 30% down the Atchafalaya (pronounced as ‘ah-CHAF-fah-Lie-ah’) River, a distributary of the Mississippi River.  It was noticed as early as 1900 that volume flow was ticking upward from 13% to 34% following the 1973 floods where the Mississippi almost changed channels and began diverting through the Atchafalaya basin rather than it’s current course. 

Naturally, this would pose a serious economic threat to both Baton Rouge and New Orleans ports.

6 thoughts on “The Unnatural Politics and Religion of Natural Disasters

  1. A good post. I read the book Rising Tide and have the movie version on tape. Both are really good. I like the pictures you included, very good. I like the way that you’ve tied in everything; religion, politics, race, & greed. All of it perfectly done.

    I think that you’re right in the the false belief that we can control the River, that is an illusion. The River has a Mind of it’s own.

    I have been over the Achafalaya Basin many times and can’t imagine where ther River would go, Out to the sides or Up. In all situations it would change the whole of Louisiana completely. Thanks, Keep Blogging, Keep Writing.

    1. @informationforager

      YEAH!! I forgot to mention Rising Tide as a source. It’s the main book on the 1927 Flood.

  2. Joshua, This is an excellent critical assessment of truth! I agree with informationforager comments and the pictures included are more than a (thousand words). I truly appreciated how you eloquently argued, that this is an ethical issue and question. Those who would associate guilt as a sin or lack of faith and belief in G-d issue. This is rightfully so an ethical and I would add a moral issue. Both are based on the community definition. You state, “we should be empowered not make the same mistakes as we did before”, I agree, one of the continuous mistakes I believe we make is still wanting a spiritual forty acres and a mule blessing from politics within the black church This spiritual mindset has eroded our blessed assurance as our ancestors believed we get our rhythm of life from the earth. I remember Dr. Allen teaching about the bush harbor…how the feet stomping/rhythm would align us with the earth’s rotation. I wonder have we lost our natural rhythm and the earth is ‘tryin to tell us somptin’!

  3. Great post! I have been more than annoyed to see folks declaring ‘judgement day’ and ‘Christ is coming back soon’ on the days following major natural disasters. What gets under my skin the most is how folks point to the bible and God in these times and also further alienate the rest of humanity in doing so, particularly those of our fellow man who are socioeconomically disadvantaged. As you said, much of it is out of our control and we must learn to live in harmony with nature. This includes taking care of our environment (which is an entirely different subject)…many folks fail to understand that IS in our control…the rest? It isn’t…like so many other things in life

  4. Have you been to Baton Rouge or New Orleans, I ask because of your use of the Morganza Spillway in the discussion, as it relates to the poor and the 1927 Flood. If there is a place on the Mississippi with a larger share of the powerless poor until you reach East St. Louis I would like to know of it, as Katrina laid bare, poor in New Orleans means you haven’t a car to your name, nor family, or maybe not a single neighbor with one to drive you away. If you look at a map of where all that water went in 1927 it covers a lot of rural Louisiana people up to their necks for months in flood water, the cure for the cure of a no levee policy and levees built to box in the whole system to Canada was spillways like Morganza. When complete, the agreement was that anyone living inside the spillway did so with the knowledge that one day the cure to the cure would open and pass the whole mess right into their lives. 1927 is the end of the 1922 Flood and argument by those in New Orleans who were demanding a spillway be constructed in the floods aftermath, where an ass of a man, General Beach as head of the Army Core of Engineers at a meeting with New Orleans business leaders gave his emphatic No to a spillway by saying that “If it were my property I would blow a hole in the levee!” This did 2 things outright, afterward any cracker with a pop-gun got to his local levee at first sign of high water to guard against the bankers in New Orleans, and the bankers had the statement by Beach as the head of the Core to use against anyone who got in the way. Natural, Nature, if you look at how things are now and look back, most people seem to keep looking at those acts of man as Natural and Nature and simply look the other way.

    To religious statements by Pat Robertson and his sidekick, who thankfully can’t join in anymore from the grave, 911 was N.O.W. and gay women’s fault, and days later they both were right there seated inside the National Cathedral on national TV sitting in earshot of Bush, then Katrina was because of a gay festival the week before in New Orleans… Haiti, he must be right as his sickness is still passed on as news worthy.

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