The Churches of


Fenny Bentley Parwich Thorpe Tissington

Trinity 16 Year A

Hurricane Katrina

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2005 has been a year when the world has been cruelly reminded how powerful the forces of nature can be, and how vulnerable our civilisation is to extremes of weather, and shifts in the earth’s tectonic plates.   We are told that hurricane Katrina produced   as much energy in a single hour as the total energy consumption of the USA in a whole year.   The power of the wind and the waves can be truly colossal – which is not surprising, when you think how heavy even a small quantity of water is.

The world has once again been numbed and horrified by the scenes of devastation which we have seen in recent days.   It has remembered once again how easy it is for human life to be extinguished on a large scale, and for thousands of livelihoods to be suddenly taken away.    Having seen the horrendous pictures on television and in the newspapers, millions of people around the world have no doubt felt a tremendous compassion for those in the various refugee centres, and for those who never got there.    A great number of countries have offered emergency assistance, from the large and powerful to the very small – such as little El Salvador.

As usual, after such a disaster, commentators have been seeking – quite rightly – to distil from the chaos and confusion the lessons for the future which should be learned.

These responses are all important, and are all to do with trying to ensure that future disasters of this kind do not cause similar consequences.   They are all to do with good government and responsible management.  

But for us as Christians, where does our faith fit into all this?   Can our faith help us to understand better what some people have called a defining moment for the USA?   Can the Christian faith help the world to respond better to this and similar disasters?

In the days of the Bible, devastating events were sometimes seen as examples of God’s judgement.   The people of Israel, for example, saw their defeat at the hands of King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, the sacking of Jerusalem, and the subsequent exile of its people to Babylon, as punishment for sins they and their rulers had committed.   Today, not many people see world events in quite such terms – if all disasters were examples of God’s punishment, then many innocent people would seem to be punished quite unjustly.

However, any country that suffers from a disaster on the scale of Hurricane Katrina should consider afresh what God might be saying to it.   Some words spoken by Abraham Lincoln at the time of the American Civil War are just as relevant now as they were then:   “We have grown in numbers, wealth and power, as no other nation has ever grown.   But we have forgotten God … Intoxicated with unbroken success, we have become too self-sufficient to feel the necessity of redeeming and preserving grace, too proud to pray to the God that made us!   It behoves us, then, to humble ourselves before the offended Power, to confess our national sins, and to pray for clemency and forgiveness” (The Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, in The Times, 10 th September 2005).

The USA is a land of idealism, of energy, of opportunity.   It has done much to create a better world.   But, without blaming particular individuals, there are those in its leadership who have become seduced by the power of what is in effect an empire, and by the pride and over-confidence which world domination can so easily breed.   I doubt whether President Bush will follow the example of Lincoln’s proclamation of a national day of prayer and fasting for a country torn apart the Civil War.

Hurricane Katrina will probably bring out the best in many Americans.   But it should also be a reminder that no nation is invulnerable; that power needs to be tempered by humility, and that even the richest nation in the world has areas which are similar in many ways to Third World countries.   And it reminds the world that in many ways, disasters are great levellers.   The USA should have been far better able to withstand the effects of Hurricane Katrina than the countries around the Indian Ocean were to withstand the tsunami.   It will be much more able to mount a reconstruction programme than most of those poorer nations which are still struggling desperately to get back to normal.   But if these disasters can bring the people of the world closer together; if they lead to a new upsurge of generosity and compassion, maybe those who died will not have died in vain.   The task is to ensure that the dark side of disaster – the lawlessness and social breakdown which we saw in New Orleans – does not undo the good which, as we see time after time, refuses to be extinguished by even the most extreme calamity.  

Christopher Harrison