The New Testament is filled with Christ’s teachings about helping the poor and alleviating their suffering. But perhaps none of his words have more relevance to the disaster in New Orleans than what he told his disciples in the Gospel of St. Matthew as his crucifixion approached and they asked him how they would know of his return.
In his reply, Christ told of how a day of judgment would come to pass, "when the son of man shall come in his glory" and separate the righteous from the damned. To the good, he would grant entrance to the kingdom of heaven: "For I was [hungry], and ye gave me meat. I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink. I was a stranger, and ye took me in. Naked, and ye clothed me. I was sick, and ye visited me. I was in prison, and ye came unto me."
“Verily I say unto you,” the Lord would command, "Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me."
And for those who did not feed the hungry or comfort the afflicted: "Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels … Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me."
It is hard to reconcile the images of suffering from New Orleans -- where people died in the street and waited days for food, water, medical attention and protection from violence – with the fact that America is a Christian nation. Why were these people allowed to suffer? Why was there such a delay?
Clearly, the state and local authorities in Louisiana and New Orleans bear their share of responsibility for how the disaster unfolded. But it is just as clear that the federal government failed wholly to mobilize the resources to confront the catastrophe. And much of the blame must land at the White House, which possessed the power and authority to accelerate the federal response.
Unfortunately, the president and his cabinet took days to wrench themselves from their vacations and respond to the tragedy. George W. Bush, a born-again Christian, didn’t appear to register the death and chaos in New Orleans until Tuesday, and by Wednesday morning he still hadn’t grasped the fundamentals of what was happening, if his embarrassing interview with ABC’s Diane Sawyer is any indication. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who like most of the afflicted in New Orleans is African-American, took in “Spamalot” on Broadway Wednesday night and was seen shoe-shopping in Manhattan on Thursday. And while no one has ever accused Vice President Dick Cheney of possessing compassion, he declined to cut short his recess and spent most of the week at his home in Wyoming.
There has always been an obvious contradiction between the policies of President Bush and other Christian Republicans like House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, which favor the rich and punish the poor, and the values they espouse. How does one square "compassionate conservatism" with the effort to "starve the beast" of federal bureaucracy, when such a policy means that real people go hungry? It is a rank hypocrisy, using Christian rhetoric to paper over cold-hearted economic policies.
The hypocrisy in New Orleans, however, was of a higher magnitude. No one is saying the Bush administration deliberately allowed poor New Orleanians to die. But there is no question that administration officials did not heed the cries of suffering in the manner one would expect from a Christian administration. Christ taught that every human being was possessed of divinity. That’s not how the poor in New Orleans were treated.