The Common Good

Oil-Covered Birds, Andrew Bird, and a Chance for Redemption

Andrew Bird is one of my favorite musicians. I love the way he makes a one-man band, looping over his own violin playing, singing, whistling, and stomping to create beautiful songs. No two live performances are the same. And once, when I saw him in D.C., he played a new song that was still being written — one that had come from his heart, but he hadn’t yet finished and didn’t think it had an end.

He told us he wrote the song during the BP oil spill, often called “Deepwater Horizon,” that happened in the Gulf of Mexico. During that disaster, over 200 million gallons of crude oil spewed into the Gulf for days on end from a hole nobody could plug, and the whole country watched it happening live. Engineers and child inventors sent a creative range of wacky ideas for how to stop the steady stream of black sludge, and BP told us all they were working very hard to contain it. If only they’d worked hard to prevent the spill, or to invest some of their profits into clean energy instead of unruly deep water ocean drilling, maybe we could have avoided the whole mess.

Andrew Bird told us that one night, in the midst of the horrible news in the Gulf, he woke up from sleep and could hear all of the animals crying — all the birds and mammals, covered in oil, crying out. These are the lyrics he sang:

I woke with a start
Crying bullets, beating heart
To hear all God's creatures
Roaring again

Not a cricket was creaking,
Or a floorboard was squeaking,
And all the world was snoring again

There's a hole in the ocean floor
There's a hole in the ocean floor
Gonna stop bleeding alone

When I heard that, it made me think of Jesus, appearing to Saul on the road to Damascus saying “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”

Perhaps you’ve seen the latest spill on the news — an oil barge collided in Galveston Bay, spilling 170,000 gallons of sticky crude oil very close to the Gulf that is still suffering from BP’s spill (http://www.weather.com/news/science/environment/oil-spill-texas-galveston-bay-20140323). And while we reflect on the 25th anniversary of the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska — which happened when I was 3 years old but was always referenced in my environmental science classes as “the” oil spill — I realize Exxon Valdez wasn’t the spill. It was just a spill.

These spills, this persecution of the birds, fish, mammals, water, and soil that God has given into our care, are not rare. They don’t just happen as a big accident every 20 years. They happen all the time. Lately, there have been oil, natural gas, and coal ash spills in Texas, North Dakota, Ohio, North Carolina, and Michigan — all within the past week. They’ve polluted a nature preserve, a critical bird migration habitat, drinking water supplies, and farming land. In the past year, Arkansas, Michigan (again), North Dakota (again), and many other states have seen the toxic sludge of our fossil fuel transportation — pipelines, trains, and boats — spilled out onto God’s creation. And we haven’t learned. Oil drilling is still allowed in the Gulf, and now BP is allowed to compete for deep water drilling rights, not quite four years after the fateful 200-million-gallon leak from BP’s Deepwater Horizon endeavor.

Isaiah 24:5-6 puts it well:

The earth lies polluted
under its inhabitants,
for they have transgressed laws,
violated the statutes,
broken the everlasting covenant.
Therefore a curse devours the earth,
and its inhabitants suffer for their guilt.

As Ellen Davis points out in the Green Bible, the prophet Isaiah wasn’t talking about oil spills. He was addressing a national crisis, a failing in political and religious leaders, a failing in the faithfulness of the people. Davis says, “Probably none of us would see in such evils a direct threat to the physical integrity of the planet. Yet Isaiah ... insisted upon a truth we have too long overlooked: the moral order of the world cannot be neatly separated from its physical order.”

“When did we persecute you, Lord?” we might ask.

The response: “When you ruined my shrimp company’s harvest for the year, forcing us to work not as shrimp catchers but as oil catchers. When you allowed a thick, black sludge to cover my wings. When you carelessly put profits over these beautiful, abundant places that I told you in the beginning to till and to keep.”

When we think back to Saul, the good news is that Saul’s story didn’t end when Jesus condemned him for persecuting the Jews. He received the Word, and he renounced his old ways and old title and old cushy lifestyle, and he became the Apostle Paul. And this gives me hope for all of us today. We, too, can change because Jesus offers us redemption.

But as anyone in recovery will tell you, we must first end the denial. We must move away from watching in horror briefly when an oil spill makes the news, and recognize that this is an ongoing problem. There will probably be another river or town spoiled by a spill before Easter arrives. How long before we do something about it? How long before we become the prophets God needs, and tell our leaders that we must go in a new direction?

Andrew Bird finally finished that song, now called “Hole in the Ocean Floor.” But truthfully, I think the song still doesn’t have an ending. The song of lament for God’s creatures and God’s waters continues. When will we change our ways, turn from Saul to Paul, and be caretakers of creation?

Liz Schmitt is Creation Care Campaign Associate for Sojourners.

Photo: fish1715/Shutterstock.com

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