Oil spill spirituality: the environment & end times theology

Rev. Dr. Rebecca Parker The slow motion catastrophe continues. We watch with alarm and sorrow as more oil pours into … Continued

Rev. Dr. Rebecca Parker

The slow motion catastrophe continues. We watch with alarm and sorrow as more oil pours into the Gulf daily. Whole ways of life and livelihood will likely disappear. Dead zones in the ocean may grow. Species will die. Meanwhile, the price of oil will rise – a more precious and expensive commodity than ever – and some will gain wealth from the devastation.

What are we thinking? That we can go on living this way? “We must end our addiction to oil!” people cry and few disagree with the imperative. The question is, “How?”

Flipping T.V. channels the other night, a preacher with a Bible in his hand caught my ear: “Build a new green economy with new energy technologies! Reduce consumption of fossil fuels! Release third world countries from the burden of debt so they be won’t be under so much pressure to abandon environmental standards in a rush to industrialize!” “Amen!” I responded. “Thank goodness he’s been reading his Bible and is calling on Christians to put their muscle into working for ecological and economic justice!” Not so. He was exhorting his listeners to oppose this list of dangerous ideas with all the spiritual strength they could muster. Otherwise, he sputtered, the environmentalists will destroy our freedom, ruin our economic security, and disrupt God’s plan for America.

As a progressive person of faith, my heart sank. If we are going to end our addiction to oil, a spiritual awakening is needed – as anyone who has successfully recovered from a personal addiction through the 12-steps knows. Our religious traditions must help not hinder the cause. We need spiritual resources that can sustain us through the arduous task of re-orienting our economic system and changing our way of life so we “live simply that others may simply live.”

Religion in America has not always been a friend to the earth. Biblical injunctions to “dominate and subdue the earth” have been used to justify sucking the earth dry, mining its treasurers, and dumping waste into its rivers and air. These atrocities have even been regarded as an appropriate prelude to the Last Days. Apocalyptic theology, made immensely popular in the Left Behind books, or Hal Lindsey’s best seller The Late Great Planet Earth, has made its way into the corridors of power, affecting public policy. “We don’t have to take care of the environment,” one secretary of the interior famously said. If the end times are near, we might as well grab what we can before the Rapture.

TV evangelists are not the only ones attached to the worldview that a new and better world is coming, making care for this one superfluous. Our culture frequently thinks this way. After all, America itself began as “the new world” and we are habituated to the belief that something better is ahead either through the awesome power of God to save us or by our own ability to create that better world through our technological advances.

But what if this faith is faulty? What if we are destroying things faster than we can fix them? What if God has already given us the gift of life but we are squandering it? How much further do we have to go to hit bottom? I hope that the Gulf catastrophe will be enough to bring us to our knees and pray to be released from our life-destroying habits.

It’s time for a spiritual awakening in which we turn from obsession with future salvation and begin to savor and save the world that we are in. “I came that they might have life and life in abundance,” Jesus says in the Gospel of John. Early Christians believed he meant it, here and now. They taught that through Jesus the doors of paradise had been re-opened. Paradise was no longer lost at the beginning of time, or a realm that could be entered only after death or after this imperfect world was replaced by a new and better one. Paradise was all around us, in this beautiful creation, blessed by God. A fourth century Christian baptismal ritual instructed the newly baptized to open their eyes to see “this paradise before us.” No less a theological giant than Augustine taught that the seeds planted in the paradise garden have been scattered throughout the whole earth, so that now Eden is everywhere.

Assuredly, paradise is not a place free of struggle with temptation and evil – the snake does lurk in the garden – but paradise was, and is, a place where beauty abounds and life flourishes in myriad forms and intricate interrelationships. We are called to develop the maturity and wisdom that makes us worthy citizens of paradise. Our task in life is to wake up to where we are and who we are; to use our capacities to rightly honor this sacred world.

We need a rebirth of reverence for life here and now on planet earth. We need to foster spiritual depth that drinks deeply from the waters of this life and that recognizes the preservation of those waters is necessary for God’s will to be done on earth as in heaven. Refreshed at the wellspring of love for life, I believe we can and will find the spiritual stamina we need to recover from our addiction to oil and convert our way of life to be just and sustainable for us all.

Rev. Dr. Rebecca Parker is president of Starr King School for the Ministry and co-author with Rev. Dr. John Buehrens of A House for Hope: The Promise of Progressive Religion for the Twenty-First Century (Beacon Press, 2009).

  • heidilee2

    We are part and parcel of our ‘mother’ earth and we ‘sin’ against the Holy Spirit when we let her be defiled and raped and destroyed in such a reckless way. This is a tremendous sin and we need to seriously reevaluate our priorities

  • motormike67

    Christ left us with one task. That task was to spread the gospel. The “green movement” is an honerable idea. We are called to be good stewards to the Earth. But don’t loose sight of the fact that we are living on and in a dying creation. It has been dying ever since the apple consumption in the Garden of Eden. All that needs to happen in a Christians life to turn their eyes away from the task that Christ left for them is something exactly like the green movement. A giant distratction that will send them into a life dedicated to saving the planet, reducing our dependance on fossil fuels and you have a Christian who has turned away from the most important message they should be writing about and blogging about and fighting for. This is exactly how the devil works. He distracts, ever so slightly and derails your true calling. The calling of every one of us to pick up The Cross.

  • shalom-makers

    In our consumptive society, we are programmed to have a voracious (but conservative) appetite for “things”; however, the counter-voices that motivate us to be good stewards (wise-caretakers) of our environment from which all “things” come are far less prominent. Why? Wise care-taking does not satiate the gnawing hunger created by consumptive desire: we just can’t get enough of that good-time stuff. With regard to Scripture and what its messages admonish us to “do” with regard to care-taking are these (and more): to love one another (John 13:34), to set the oppressed free (Luke 4:18), and to be shalom-makers (Matthew 5:9). Perhaps we consumers are the oppressed; yet, who will set us free so that we can truly love one another and fully participate in holistic care-taking as shalom-makers? A strong thread of shalom-making is caring for the earth (creation) for which all humanity is responsible. For a well-researched and developed discussion of “shalom” and “shalom-making”, see Robert C. Linthicum’s The Shalom Community: The Thread That Ties the Bible Together: And, for a good article and additional resources on caring for the garden (earth) in which we live and for which we simply “must” care, see the Winter 2009 issue of Divinity: Finally, this 2007 statement of support for evironmental stewardship by an array of evangelical leaders and scientists is a testament to broad support of wise care-taking as a necessary component of responsible consumption:

  • DonJuan59

    I appreciate this article because I’ve seen a lot of “prophets of doom” stuff on the oil spill from Christian “dispensationalist” types. Hopefully, the disaster in the Gulf will be the eye-opener that we need in order to make some real changes in the way that government approaches energy supply/consumption/sources.As a Christian, and an ordained minister, it’s been a difficult process to come to terms with my feelings on the oil spill. One of the biggest temptations we can face is to throw in the towel in despair or fear. What’s called for is individual courage: we need to take heart and be strong. We’ve got to look to tomorrow with a positive view. Part of that will be making a commitment to the life of this planet and the survival of humanity for the future generations. The green movement is not a distraction from Christian faith (or any other faith), rather it expresses an important essence of having mature faith.