To loot or not to loot?

Community members express frustration at the widespread looting following Katrina.

I like to ask questions.  Questions help direct and focus thinking in ways that dialogue cannot.  I also admit that I’m one willing to ask the tough questions.  And I think that’s ok.  We need to be asking the tough questions – about ourselves, our churches, our communities, our nation and our world.  Sometimes the questions I ask reflect my opinion, but other times they don’t.  That’s the nature of a question…trying to learn and grow and figure things out.

The internet has been inundated with details of the widespread devastation in Japan.  The pictures and stories are tragic.  Probably the closest disaster we can imagine would be Hurricane Katrina – although even Katrina, I think, pales in comparison.  But what really has struck me is the incredible difference in (some) people’s responses to the tragedy.

During the aftermath of Katrina, we frequently heard (and saw) of widespread looting.  People took advantage of the disaster to not only grab groceries and water for themselves, but TVs, jeans, shoes, and more.  Some of the abandoned stores became a veritable free-for-all, despite the watchful eye of Police or the National Guard.  Military intervention became necessary to forestall looting in Chile following their earthquake.  Haiti (2010 earthquake) and England (2007 floods) also experienced significant looting after their natural disasters.

So one would think that looting is a “natural” reaction of people under stress, and in a state of crisis.  Well, one might think so, until they pause long enough to notice that no looting has been reported in Japan.  In fact, the UK Telegraph even reports the vending machine owners are giving away free drinks and grocery stores have cut their prices.

Japanese wait in long lines at grocery stores following the tsunami

So, maybe looting isn’t such a “natural” reaction after all.  If that’s the case – what’s the difference?  Why aren’t the Japanese responding to this disaster, arguably one of the worst in history, in the same manner?  Is it their culture?  People?  Community vs individualistic orientation?  Is there something we can learn from the Japanese?

Psalm 41:1-2 says, “Blessed is he who has regard for the weak; the LORD delivers him in times of trouble. The LORD will protect him and preserve his life; he will bless him in the land and not surrender him to the desire of his foes.”  I think it’s incredibly interesting that a country which is only 10.6% Christian would respond in such a “biblical” manner.  It’s humbling, really.  I mean, I’d like to think that I would respond biblically as well.  But, I can’t say with certainty that I would.  I’m not sure any of us can, unless, and until we found ourselves faced with similar challenges.

In fact, I have to wonder just how much we/you/I currently “loot” the weak and poor.  Sure we may not be filling grocery sacks with stolen items and packing them off.  But as we sit in our comfortable homes, outside of harm’s way, we’re surrounded by the weak and poor.  How do we respond to their needs?  They may not be the victims of a natural disaster, but they are vulnerable and in need.  As I often tell my kids, failing to make a wrong right is often just as bad as doing something wrong.  So our “looting” may not be something we can capture on video, but it’s wrong just the same.

I guess it all comes down to honestly asking ourselves a question:  when we see a need around us, how will we respond?  Will we choose “to loot or not to loot?”