Oil spill may awaken Christians’ ecological conscience

August 21, 2010
By Ray Column
The Tennessean

A low moment early in the agonized public reaction to the Gulf oil disaster was when Texas Governor Rick Perry suggested the deadly explosion and poisonous spill were acts of God.

He was referring to the contractual, legal definition — act of God as an extraordinary, unforeseen natural event beyond our control. But it trivialized the divine name to drag it into a human-made mess. As if to say: sooner blame God than an oil company.

The shame of the tragedy soon pushed us past cheap rhetoric to fresh self-evaluation. Southern Baptist educator Russell Moore recently identified the dubious bargain struck between American Christians and American business.

"For too long, we evangelical Christians have maintained an uneasy ecological conscience. I include myself in this indictment," Moore, dean of the school of theology at Louisville's Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, wrote in a June blog.

"We've had an inadequate view of human sin. Because we believe in free markets, we've acted as though this means we should trust corporations to protect the natural resources and habitats. But a laissez-faire view of government regulation of corporations is akin to the youth minister who lets the teenage girl and boy sleep in the same sleeping bag at church camp because he 'believes in young people.' "

This remains a minority view. Now that BP is capping the poison spill, pressure will be great to return to normal consumption assumptions. For churches, this means resuming the role of weekly oasis of stability and tradition, not leading protests against empty materialism and corporate virtue.

The oil disaster briefly unveiled a nest of contradictions burdening modern life. Our unrepentant consumerism ignores religion's call to reverence, courage and sacrifice. Consumer culture hourly trumpets the illusion that there is no friction between overspending and gospel belief, no contradiction between ostentatious display and biblical values, no connection between our own personal energy demands and the Gulf well explosion that killed 11 people and desecrated the deep sea.

But change is possible. A recent online initiative gives churches ideas for an honest response to the Gulf squalor. It suggests worship-service prayers that mourn our "participation in an economy based on toxic energy that has made such death inevitable" and calls for restoration.

It urges a weekly Friday fast from foods that are trucked long distances and rely on petroleum-based fertilizers and pesticides. It asks that Friday be a day to walk or carpool or take the bus to work rather than drive. (See

Even these small steps will be nervously denounced. But the alternative is to forget the Gulf misery happened, forget the contradictions we live by, forget that God and God's world will not be trivialized.


Columnist Ray Waddle is a former Tennessean religion editor who lived in Nashville 20 years. Now based in Connecticut, he can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).