July 7, 2010
By Bruce Nolan
Christian, Jewish and Muslim clergy leaders from around the country cruised through the oil-fouled upper reaches of one of the nation's richest seafood nurseries Wednesday, and some came away saying the BP Gulf oil spill looks to them not only like an accident, but also a sin.
"From my perspective, it's an insult to God and a sin against creation," said the Rev. Canon Sally Bingham, an Episcopalian priest and environmentalist from San Francisco who heads Interfaith Power and Light, a nonprofit agency that helps congregations and communities adopt energy-saving techniques.
Bingham and almost a dozen others motored through the upper reaches of Barataria Bay on Wednesday, a day after assembling at First Grace United Methodist Church for a prayer service calling for restoration and renewal of the Gulf Coast.
"This is not a spill; it's a spoilage" of God's creation, the Rev. Jim Wallis, editor of Sojourners magazine, told the congregation.
Oil spill a wake-up call
Bingham, Wallis and others framed the oil spill as a wake-up call with not only economic, but also moral dimensions to people of many faiths.
Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, head of the Rabbinical Assembly and its 1,600 Conservative rabbis nationwide, said the larger lesson of the spill is a call to reduce energy dependence on petroleum. "We all need to turn from short-term gratification ... rather than indulge ourselves with this unlimited consumption," she said.
Bingham, Wallis, Schonfeld and other visiting clergy from Washington, Chicago, California and elsewhere assembled in New Orleans on Tuesday for a three-day visit to see first-hand the effects of the spill.
On Wednesday they met Mayor Mitch Landrieu and toured part of the coastal zone to talk to cleanup workers and fishing families, and to see what, if anything, their ministries back home could do to help.
Beyond scouting for relief opportunities, some also work for policy-making bodies within their denominations. They said they wanted to see whether their denominations should press Congress and the White House to alter domestic energy policy.
Caring for environmental is a theological command
The pastors and representatives were assembled by the Sierra Club, which regards them as partners in pursuit of its energy agenda. By definition, their faith communities already accept environmental care as a theological command, rather than a matter of mere self-interest.
Still, some were not easily pigeon-holed as conventionally liberal.
The Rev. Chris Seay, pastor of the 1,400-member Ecclesia Church in downtown Houston, described his evangelical community as Bible-centered, anti-abortion, anti-death penalty and environmentally aware. He said his congregation includes oil industry workers, among them a woman now drilling the relief well that is the best hope for killing the runaway BP well 50 miles off the mouth of the Mississippi River.
"We have a remarkable number of people in the oil industry keenly aware of their responsibility to care for the environment," he said.
As for himself, "Many of the times I think God has spoken to me most clearly, I've been on Galveston Island looking out at the Gulf."
Oil spill an offense against creation, clergy say
In various ways Jews, Christian and Muslim leaders on Tuesday invoked their sacred texts to frame the spill as more than an isolated industrial accident, but as offense against creation, and a consequence of industrial society's addictive reliance on oil, with the hazards that brings.
Mahmoud Sarmini, a New Orleans-area doctor and a Muslim, cited a passage in the Qur'an referring to man as God's viceroy on earth, with its implications for humans' responsibility for creation.
Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism, a public-policy group, referred to Jewish tradition holding that creation is only on loan from God to man, and only for wise use.
And in an interview before the service, Seay said "all things that exist were birthed by God ... and if God birthed them and loved them that much, that we do have a responsibility to care well for them."
After the tour, several in the group said they saw the spill as a "wake-up" call for a change in energy policy.
"That doesn't mean we don't need to use fossil fuel, or drill for oil until we get ourselves off," Saperstein said. "But we have to move more quickly to get off, and while we relying on these fossil fuels we have to be much more insistent that there be safety precautions."
The visiting clergy's response -- that the spill is symptomatic of overconsumption and disregard for the environment -- has not often been heard in local pulpits, where many parishioners have made livings in the petroleum industry for two generations.
Faith communities' responses locally have been much more focused on providing on-the-ground relief to families devastated by the spill's economic effects.