The Common Good

Why I’m Praying President Obama Will Reject Keystone XL

Editor's Note: Today’s #EarthWeek action: Join us for a prayer conference call at 2:30 pm Eastern Time as we hear from the evangelicals standing against the Keystone XL pipeline, and pray a blessing over them and their work. Click here to RSVP.

Maybe I’m a near-sighted, Bible-thumping holy roller, but I can’t see angel wings flapping on oil executives. No doubt some are community pillars. They’re Little League umpires, tithers, and PTA volunteers. They’ve got lovely houses and manicured lawns.

But they’re also flawed like the rest of us, and their professional bias screens out the obvious: The proposed Keystone XL Oil Pipeline would do little good and could wreak enormous harm. I’m compelled to halt my timid thy-will-be-done prayers and join a band of evangelicals boldly pleading for the permit’s denial. We’ve even launched a Facebook page, called “Pray No KXL.”

I’m adding my personal prayer: I pray we’ll see the disease of which Keystone is a symptom and which French theologian and sociologist Jacques Ellul pinpointed in the late 1940’s: Our addiction to industrialism’s technical religion shrivels our soul. We’ve spawned a “civilization of means.” He explained: “In the reality of modern life, the means, it would seem, are more important than the ends.” Values no longer hinge on qualities like “good” or “holy” but on a malignant form of utilitarianism. Volume, efficiency, and marketability reign. Spirituality is impractical and morality is snubbed as a “value judgment.” Humans serve the economy, not vice versa, and everything is measured with a dollar sign.

The proposed pipeline, which would funnel sludge-like bitumen oil from Alberta’s Tar Sands project, illuminates Ellul’s prescience. A. Karim Ahmed, the international director of the National Council for Science and the Environment, warns of its dangers in an open letter to President Obama, which he wrote on behalf of the Interreligious Echo Justice Network, Connecticut’s affiliate of a national religious-environmental organization called Interfaith Power and Light. I and other IREJN board members signed it.

Ahmed says satellite photographs show Tar Sands “as a clearly visible blot” scarring North America. The industry has mowed-down primeval boreal forests and peat bog wetlands, rendering them casualties of “our insatiable demands” for fossil fuel. This project of “unprecedented scale” paves the path for the demolition of First Nation homelands in the Athabasca River watershed, already prey to poisonous runoff. Meanwhile, reports of havoc from present-day climate change keep piling. To quote Katharine Hayhoe, a climate scientist and fellow evangelical: “Around the world, many of the impacts of climate change are occurring faster and/or to a greater degree than were predicted 20 or even 10 years ago.”

Keystone proponents dangle employment opportunities, but Ahmed calls them “a gross exaggeration.” Up to 3,950 positions will be created per year during the construction phase and a mere 35 permanent and 11 part time jobs will remain. No wonder Canada’s Communication, Energy and Paperworker’s Union – representing 35,000 oil and gas workers – objected to the Keystone Pipeline, as did the Transport Workers Union and the Amalgamated Transit Union.

Approving the pipeline, says Ahmed, “would, in effect, be aiding and abetting the continuing destruction of our planet.”

And it’s all for oil – a means for travel, heating, and plastic. Our means are strangling God’s world. We needn’t vilify Pennsylvania’s original 19 th-century wildcatters, who drilled for an alternative to whale-oil for lamps, nor the early auto manufacturers. No one could foresee a world of 7 billion people with a billion car owners and an expressway-laced landscape, nor could they predict acidified oceans and bleached coral reefs.

But we’re here. We live today. We should see.

Yet we seem wrapped in a pall of propaganda, which Ellul described as technical society’s myth-spinning machine, invading “every arena of consciousness.” We’re coaxed into conceiving Keystone XL as a “need” when alternative energies abound and when that ugly scar lies in the far north, out of view.

Regrettably, many evangelicals themselves have succumbed. Previous generations supplied the nation’s counter-cultural abolitionists, pacifists, and anti-materialist reformers. They would have protested. Today, we’re so myth-saturated that we mistake the propaganda for the Gospel and see the means as ends. Some preachers even brand all nature lovers as “earth worshippers,” leveling misplaced accusation instead of engaging the issue.

So I’m praying for much more than a presidential decision. I pray that we’ll see the illness behind the symptom and, in the process, that evangelicals will wrench themselves free and recapture their identity. They can begin by praying for an ailing world and against a potentially disastrous pipeline.

Charles Redfern is a community leader, writer, and clergyman, now serving as the interim pastor of the Quaker Hill Baptist Church in Waterford, Connecticut. He sits on the boards of three environmental organizations and has written extensively about the intersection of religion and politics, with articles appearing in the Huffington Post, truthout.org, Christian Ethics Today, and Beloved Planet.

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