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Oil spill prompts environmental soul-searching

June 25, 2010

WASHINGTON, D.C.

The constant loop of disheartening images from the Gulf of Mexico — oil-covered pelicans, dead sea turtles, despairing fishermen — has prompted many Americans to seek ways to do something, anything, to take better care of the Earth.
   
But what, and how?
   
While the political debate over the oil spill’s cause and ripple effect remains polarized, Christian environmentalists pondering the familiar question “What Would Jesus Do?” believe part of the answer includes cutting back on fossil fuels.
   
“He would probably take the bus,” said Matthew Sleeth, co-founder of Blessed Earth, a nonprofit dedicated to spreading environmentalism among churches.
   
In the weeks since the April 20 Deepwater Horizon disaster, religious leaders and faith-based organizations have issued an array of responses, both in words — prayers for help, comfort and wisdom — and deeds, such as organizing aid and urging people to reduce energy consumption.
   
Regardless of the response from the government and private sector, the solution must involve changing individual behavior to recognize and respect the divine gift of creation, and the costs of carelessly pushing its limits, they agree.
   
An online petition from the Summer Institute at Duke Divinity School’s Center for Reconciliation urges Christians to observe an oil fast on Sunday (June 20), the two-month anniversary of the spill. The Sabbath observance includes abstaining from motor vehicles, adopting a local-food diet, and “reflecting on the aspects of our lives that are so entrenched in the oil economy that we cannot even quit them for one day.”
   
Nature-based religions welcome this growing recognition that caring for the environment is a spiritual calling, and that the oil spill is “a wound in the earth,” said Selena Fox, a high priestess at Circle Sanctuary, a Wisconsin-based pagan resource center.
   
Fox said she has been meditating and conducting outdoor prayers several times a day, lighting a pentacle of ritual candles to channel her energy toward five areas: stopping the leak, helping the cleanup, healing the impact, learning from the disaster, and hoping that people become more respectful of the circle of life.
   
Prayer is an important part of the response, particularly for distant viewers who feel helpless about the images of tarred beaches and frightened fishermen, said the Rev. Mitchell Hescox, president of the Evangelical Environmental Network, which is leading a prayer walk through Gulf Coast communities directly impacted by the spill.
   
“The first thing we have to do is pray for the people, pray for the engineers and technicians who are trying to figure out how to stop this mess, then pray for the nation to find a way to find renewable and clean energy,” he said.
   
“There’s a tremendous emotional and spiritual need there, and the best thing we thought we could do as Christians would be to go and spend our initial resources listening and praying with the people to find out how the church could help those in need.”
   
Beyond BP’s obligation to plug the leak and pay for the damages, and the government’s responsibility to ensure this does not happen again, all Christians have a sacred duty to take care of the environment, said Russell D. Moore, dean of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and a native of Mississippi’s Gulf Coast.
   
Though he hesitates to call it a silver lining in the murky underwater plume, Moore believes this oil spill may finally be the “apocalyptic” disaster that rallies Christians behind the environmental movement, just as Roe v. Wade brought together people of faith opposed to abortion rights.
   
“Ultimately, the issue is the same — if you believe that human beings are creatures and not gods, then that means that human beings have limits, and so we must respect the dignity and sanctity of human personhood and we must respect the world that God has created around us,” he said. “Evangelicals have to reclaim our emphasis on protecting God’s good creation.”
   
Politically, the environmental movement’s long-term impact remains unclear — abortion remains the predominant issue for many Catholics and evangelicals. But protecting the environment is consistent with protecting all stages of life, explained the Rev. Jacek Orzechowski, a Catholic friar active in the Franciscan Action Network, which has dedicated June to prayers and deeds in response to the oil spill.
   
“Nature is a window onto the divine,” he said. “When we contribute to the harm that is done to creation, it's a sin and we need to repent, by changing our individual habits and by becoming much more involved in the political process, as well.”
   
Orzechowski’s Maryland congregation, St. Camillus Church, recently held a prayer vigil about the spill and has been phasing out use of plastic bags and disposable water bottles; some members are also active in green-gospel lobbying efforts in the nation’s capital.
   
While the rituals of confession and repentance are more closely associated with Catholicism, green-minded leaders from other faiths make similar references when preaching personal responsibility for the oil spill and urging more conservative use of nonrenewable resources.
   
“When I fill my car up, if I’m not combining my trips, I am part of that oil spill in the Gulf. It is a reminder that we live with the consequences for the way that we obtain energy,” Sleeth said.
   
“The church is waking up,” he concluded. “We’ve forgotten that nature is how God communicated — through bushes that didn’t burn, through waters that parted. God cares about these dolphins and birds, and we should too — period. It’s a biblical responsibility.”

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