Tuesday, July 13, 2010

How Does the BP Oil Disaster Impact Our Faith? (Dialogue Column 7.13.10)

This post was originally written for The Dialogue, the newsletter of First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) of St. Joseph, MO.

Each day’s news brings images and updates regarding the on-going spewing of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. Politicians trade barbs about an off-shore oil drilling moratorium. People in chemical suits wash off oil-soaked wildlife. Gulf shore residents bemoan their fate. BP executives do damage control. Still the oil gushes on.
The news that has dominated the summer seems to have little effect upon daily living here in St. Joseph, MO, as far as I can tell. Gas prices have not risen noticeably. The seafood we eat around here comes out of freezer trucks rather than fresh from the Gulf. Our city’s employment numbers are bad, but they would be anyway regardless of what happens in the Gulf. I do know of one couple that changed their vacation plans to a place other than the Gulf; they had a great time anyway. So, how does the oil disaster in the Gulf affect us or does it at all?

I would offer that it should at least affect us as people of faith.  First, the BP oil disaster (I choose to call it a “disaster” rather than a “spill,” because of the magnitude of the crisis.) should cause us to think anew about the power of sin, both individually and corporately. The oil disaster reveals the false ideas that either government regulation or the free market alone can ensure that human organizations will operate in the best interests of our environment and humanity. Short-sided greed drove both oil company employees and government regulators to disregard safety measures that might have prevented this disaster. Yet, even if government and industry had worked together in concert for responsible oil drilling, they would still be part of an system that chooses the short-term profits of a fossil-fuel industry over the long-term benefits of energy produced by renewable resources. In other words, the system supplies cheap fuel to consumers like you and me that helps our pocketbooks in the near term but deteriorates the quality of life on our planet in the long-term.

I believe that most people in the world care about environment and the long-term viability of humanity as a species—at least in the abstract. In concrete terms, however, our actions place our individual self-interest above these larger concerns. I think we (me included) sense our individual actions make little or no difference in the overall scheme of world politics and economics, and since we do not perceive an immediate threat to our well-being, we do not question whether our helplessness is true or not. In other words, since it doesn’t seem to affect me directly and I can’t do anything about it anyway, why should I change? I choose to believe, however, if each of us really was conscious of the impact our decisions have upon the wider world, we would make different choices. Yet, we are not conscious of such things and so we operate according to self-interest.

In theological terms, the intertwining of selfishness and fatalism from the level of the individual all the way up to transnational corporations and governments is called sin. The apostle Paul described sin in terms that resemble an alien force or power (Romans 5-7) that enslaves us. We choose to think of sinfulness as individual acts, but I think Paul’s words challenge us to think about the cumulative power of all our individual sinful acts as taking on a life of its own. Our refusal to make any real sacrifices as individuals and as a nation that might change the damage produced by our dependence on oil, even though we know it is neither in the long-term best interests of humanity or the environment, demonstrates what Paul described as being “slaves to sin” (Romans 6:17, 20). Indeed, Paul speaks of sin’s power literally alienating humanity from creation (Romans 8:19-21). Our voluntary enslavement to oil provides an analogy to our involuntary enslavement to sin, and both demonstrate our need to seek out a different master—one that provides life for all rather than death.

The second and most important theological point the BP oil disaster should cause us to consider is that there is a power greater than sin. The power of Christ allows us to become (in Paul’s terminology) “slaves of righteousness” (Romans 6:18) we can serve the causes of justice and righteousness, even though we face problems that defy easy solutions. In other words, out of love, we can make sacrifices that serve the interest of others and of creation. In Christ, our individual actions can change from contributing to the cumulative sin of the world to contributing to the universal saving work of God.

To use the example of the oil disaster, those of us far removed from the disaster can be motivated by Christ to make different decisions as circumstances allow. If we have the means to buy a new car, we can buy one that gets better gas mileage or even a hybrid. For transportation, we can be conscious of ways to walk, ride a bike or combine trips. We can join our voices (via phone calls, letters, e-mails or financial contributions) with like-minded people who want accountability and change in both the private and government sectors. We can choose to view our actions as a part of a larger effort of God to heal our world rather than as futile responses to a system of greed beyond our control. In your response to the oil disaster and in all your actions, may Christ enable you to “not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the good and acceptable and perfect will of God” (Romans 12:2).

Grace and Peace,


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