Occasionally, I listen to C-SPAN radio’s "Washington Journal" in the morning. It features call-ins from ordinary citizens that range from the brilliant and insightful to the ridiculous and insulting.
A few days ago, I was driving my car when a caller commented on U.S. aid to earthquake-devastated Haiti. The discussion had described the catastrophe on the ground, so the caller was not ignorant of the situation. Nonetheless, she said, “We’re sending aid to Haiti, but we need it a lot more aid here. We need it more here.” I was so stunned I almost went off the road. “We need it more here? More than people who are starving, homeless and injured without any medical care? More than people who have just lost everything they have in life, including loved ones?”
I was incredulous at the selfishness in that remark.
But the vast majority of C-SPAN callers and Americans in general do not -- thank God -- share that sentiment. Most are generous, giving people, moved by the incredible suffering of the people of Haiti to share what they can.
Religious relief agencies of many faiths are in motion, providing aid on the ground. Catholic Relief Services, Church World Service, Jewish World Relief, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, the Salvation Army, Lutheran World Relief, World Vision, Islamic Relief USA and the Mormon Church are just some of the groups funneling money and supplies into that devastated nation.
But more is needed from religious groups as emergency aid gives way to plans for the re-development of Haiti. As many people have noted, this tragedy provides an opportunity to rebuild from scratch. But that rebuilding has to include more than good roads and new building codes. The whole history of Haiti speaks to the need for a societal re-building based on some semblance of social justice. And religious voices are needed in that quest.
Anyone who knows the history of Haiti knows that it has long been ruled by a small, wealthy elite, cut off from the rest of society. The vast majority were, in normal times, wretchedly poor, illiterate and without hope that their lives would ever change.
On Jan. 18, The Washington Post painted a picture of what it called a “feudal” divide, even in the midst of the earthquake. Petionville, the area where the wealthiest Haitians live, was spared much of the devastation of the quake. Yet here, a pharmacy was open for regular business… while poor Haitians in the city wandered around with amputated limbs and open wounds begging foreigners for medicine. Here, among the wealthy, police trucks sit idle in a parking lot while poor Haitians are struggling to pick up the dead and transport the wounded.
Yet, according to the Post, these are the people most likely to receive a large portion of U.S. and international aid and reconstruction money. As a parishioner at St. Louis Catholic Church in Port-au-Prince was quoted as saying, “They have given money to these families to help Haiti for 50 years, and look at Haiti. I say the Americans need to make up a new list.”
And the need for social justice is not just internal to Haiti. It will require a re-examination of international trade policies. For example, Haiti used to grow almost all its own rice, a common staple in the Haitian diet. Yet, after 1986, when Haiti was forced to remove its tariff on rice, US rice took over 75% of the market. That sent Haitian farmers from the countryside into the city without means of support.
Discussions of trade policy can lead to a lot of yawns among the public here, but to poor Haitians, it’s real. Their rice paddies disappear; they become jobless, and wander to the city. And that’s just one example.
So, yes, by all means -- give and give generously to emergency relief for Haiti. It will save lives. But then, check your Scriptures. All the major religious traditions of the world teach social justice, but the voices that call out for it are few and far between.
We recently celebrated the legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King. He knew what that social justice meant economic justice as well as racial justice. If we honor Dr. King, we will create a chorus of voices calling for building a new and just Haiti.