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The Wolf at the Door

This year the wolf has showed up in spades.

Every year the Army Corps of Engineers sends a letter to people living in the flood zones of the Mississippi River, reminding them of where they live and that this could be the year it becomes necessary to distribute flood waters to their communities.

Perhaps after receiving that letter for so many years, the residents of those low-lying basins, most of which sprang up after the system of dykes, levees, and spillways was constructed in the 1920s and 30s, had begun to look at them like the boy who cried "Wolf!"

This year the wolf has showed up in spades.

The "cities first" policy of the Army Corps of Engineers first came into play this spring to rescue Cairo, IL, a town of some 3,000, from the rising waters of the Mississippi and the Ohio Rivers. Levees were blown open to allow water to flood into farmland and small communities, relieving pressure off the town.

It was a portent of things to come.

As the flood crest of the Mississippi continued its way downstream, at the rate of 1.5 million cubic feet of water per second, it was inevitable that more such actions would need to be taken.

On Saturday the Corps opened the flood gates at the Morganza Spillway in south Louisiana. By Monday or Tuesday, some 11,000 structures will be submerged and 25,000 people will know that the Corps' cry of alarm was a serious one.

Half-a-dozen parishes will be flooded to some extent in order to keep the waters from inundating Baton Rouge and New Orleans. The historic flood levels have necessitated these drastic measures, at least, according to the utilitarian ethics which shapes this policy.

And I'm not sure there's a better way of doing this. When you build a community or start a farm on a flood plain, you know there's a possibility of experiencing some damage in the spring, when northern snow covers are melting and spring rains have arrived. But it doesn't happen every year, and the really historic floods - such as this year - only come around every generation or so.

So perhaps an informed "cities first" policy is the best we can do. Ensuring the greatest good for the greatest number is practical and efficient. A good many people are spared suffering while many endure it as a consequence of their own informed choice.

But what does neighbor love require, not only from the people of Cairo, Baton Rouge, and New Orleans, but from the rest of the nation as well, toward those folks who are in the process of experiencing the greatest misery and upheaval they will know in their lifetimes?

I have no doubt that Americans will rise to the challenge, and, doubtless, already are. We are Americans, and these are our people. And even though we may shake our heads and wonder aloud how people can choose to live in an area they know is going to flood sooner or later, still, we care, and we will give as much as we can to meet their needs.

Utilitarianism may be efficient, but I would not want to live in a society where utilitarian ethics operated apart from the persistent sense of neighbor love that seems to run in the blood of just about every American. Whenever there is a disaster, anywhere in the world, Americans know instinctively what to do: Pray and give. And they do, more consistently and more generously than all the other nations of the world combined.

And this generosity is not the legacy of John Stuart Mill; it is the lingering legacy of the Christian worldview that shaped the founding of this country and that demonstrates its latent vitality every time storm winds blow, eartthquakes ravage, or flood waters rise.

And for this we should remember to give thanks and praise to God.

Additional related texts: Leviticus 18.1-5; Matthew 22.34-40; Galatians 6.1-10

A conversation starter: "Why do you think Americans are so generous and self-sacrificing whenever some major crisis befalls a people somewhere in the country or the world?"

T. M. Moore

T.M. Moore

T. M. Moore is principal of The Fellowship of Ailbe, a spiritual fellowship in the Celtic Christian tradition. He and his wife, Susie, make their home in the Champlain Valley of Vermont.
Books by T. M. Moore

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