Martin E. Marty: What Katrina Tells Us About Ourselves

Roundup: Media's Take

[Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, upcoming events, publications, and contact information can be found at]

For once, a homily seems in order in Sightings. Sermons need texts; this one is from Ephesians 4:25. Type the phrase "we are members one of another" into your Internet search engine, and you'll sight 23,800 uses of the phrase -- or at least mine found that many. Not a biblical theologian or even technically a theologian at all, I have to say that I remember enough to know that metaphors from a specific religion do not translate easily into trans- and non-religious settings. So "members" (of the body of Christ) in the New Testament can only be used analogously when we think of "members" of the body politic, or of global society, or of one nation. Within those limits, let us proceed.

Some years ago -- it's tucked in my memory book, not my journals -- at a historian's convention, a presenter spoke about the mass of southern Protestant clergy just prior to 1861. Almost to a person -- he was setting us up -- they came across as moral, devout, pastoral, learned, caring, informed, and generous preachers. And also to a person they defended human slavery, claiming that it was a response to divine mandates and divine will, biblically authorized.

That evening, some of us gathered and smarted off: "How could they have been so blind?" Then the wisest one among us had us all write on a piece of paper what we thought would make people a century from now ask of us: "How could you have been so blind?" What are we overlooking? To a person, with variations, the response was: "How can we so blithely settle for the development and general ignoring of a permanent urban and rural under-class?" The pro-Confederacy preachers had lacked proper ideas, will, imagination, and resources. So did, and do, we.

The images left over from Katrina after two weeks ought to refresh those of us who assessed things that way. Yes, the privileged and underprivileged and unprivileged alike suffer(ed). Yet it was manifestly the huge number of poor, a number not unique to New Orleans and the devastated area, who were revealed to be most vulnerable. We -- the present writer is not exempt from this judgment -- have lacked "ideas, will, imagination, and resources" to help alter this situation.

One cheering signal among all this is that churches on the scene with their Christian and Jewish suppliers of funds, goods, and personnel, were on the front line. So much for all of us individualized spiritual seekers who have and see no place for the "organized church" or "institutional religion." Baptists, Catholics, Jews, and others opened their doors, provided roofs and walls, and spread goods and comfort. Yet that heart-warming volunteer network, crucial to our national survival, is only part of the "members one of another" theme. Government has often failed us, but we had failed its instrumentalities too, as we cut taxes for the rich and services for the poor. Many had set out to "starve the beast" and now are relearning that we must feed the beast, as we in part depend upon it.

We historians do not tend to be optimists about the possibilities of human change, but we still can chronicle that more awareness, at least for the moment, of the need for better ideas, will, imagination, and resources may be part of the legacy of this national trauma. When Los Angeles quakes, or the water that supplies Las Vegas runs out, will we have realized our "membership" better? Amen.