The Common Good

We Must Respond to the Needs of the Gulf Coast

Sojomail - June 10, 2010


“It is very hard to teach a starving child ... Even sitting at a desk is difficult for them."

- Anonymous North Korean defector and former primary school teacher (Source: New York Times)

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Hearts & Minds by Jim Wallis

We Must Respond to the Needs of the Gulf Coast

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We are counting the days now: the 49th day of the oil spill, the 50th, the 51st. We now know more every day, too. BP has not only lied, but it has likely behaved in a criminal way, and it is now being investigated for it. The keys to government regulation had long since been turned over to the oil companies themselves, and the cozy oil/government relationship led to this disaster. BP is not making good on its pay promises for the clean-up, perhaps because it is spending millions on desperate public relations advertising. President Obama is being criticized by some for not responding strongly enough, soon enough, or empathetically enough.

When I appeared on a cable news shows last week to discuss the oil spill, Chris Matthews responded to the things I was saying about our oil addiction by replying, “Well, you’re going farther and deeper than we normally get on this show.” Right, and that’s the problem. It is indeed time to go deeper. And if we don’t turn this “teachable moment” into decisions to fundamentally change the ways that we energize our economy, we may never make these necessary changes in our lifetimes.

So how do we go deeper? Maybe by listening more deeply and not just watching. When we listen, we are moved to sacrifice; and when we sacrifice, we are transformed. To whitewash a tomb is change, but it is not transformation. To bill yourself as “Beyond Petroleum” instead of just plain old “British Petroleum” might be change, but it certainly isn’t transformation. To name a new head to the regulatory agency overseeing BP and its oil rigs is change, but it’s not transformation. Without corporate responsibility to the public good and without the government rooting out the regulators who have forgotten what their job is, it’s all just greenwashing. It’s cleaning the outside of the cup while leaving the inside dirty; it’s straining out the gnat while swallowing the camel whole.

At the heart of the Christian tradition lies the belief that transformation requires sacrifice. In fact, I would say that the difference between real movements and mere events is the sacrifice. Deep and abiding change is hard. When we experience conversion, we not only turn toward something new but away from something old. We can look down the road and recognize that in the long run our sacrifice is worth the cost, but it still does not make it easy or comfortable to sell all we have to buy the pearl of great price.

At the root of the crisis today is that BP learned exactly the lesson it was taught by our culture and our government through the Exxon-Valdez spill. Change is easy, quick, and cheap. Americans are hooked on oil, they aren’t going to kick the habit anytime soon, and they have short memories -- so slap on another new coat of paint and then get back to business as usual.

Transformation is not easy, quick, or cheap. Bonhoeffer taught us all to be wary of anyone who would peddle to us easy change, especially in the form of cheap grace. This past weekend, Christians from more than 10 different cities across this country came to Sojourners in groups of three or more to attend Conspire, a faith and justice training conference. I had the pleasure of speaking to and meeting with this small group of Christian activists committed to forming faith and justice networks in their cities across the country. They struggled through the fact that while sending emails to Congress can be effective, they wanted to do more. When they looked around at their neighborhoods and their cities, they could see promise and potential but were not sure how to discern their calling to see God’s spirit breaking through in those places. But most of all, they were ready to sacrifice what was comfortable and easy for what was hard but true. They trained for social change.

Sacrifice starts in the humblest of all places -- with listening. It is in taking the time and creating the space to listen for the leading of the spirit and hear the voices of those who are not always heard that the stage is set for sacrifice. We see and hear from the Gulf Coast more than is comfortable, but have we begun to listen? More information is available than ever before through cable news, blogs, and networking sites, but are we still deaf to what is being said?

I believe it is time for churches to listen to sister churches along the coast that are being assaulted with the contamination of our oil addiction. It’s time to listen to the people in churches we met along the Gulf Coast when Hurricane Katrina brought us to them. It’s time for denominations to listen and respond to the needs of their member churches that are experiencing the trauma of fear, depression, disruption, and destruction of livelihoods.

This week, Sojourners is emailing our readers along the Gulf Coast to hear directly from Christians who are being affected every day by the oil spill. For those of you who feel overwhelmed by the images you see and the stories you hear, I want to challenge you to participate in the spiritual act of listening and discernment. Take an image of the contamination of creation and meditate on it. Romans 8:22 says the whole earth groans. Can you hear it? Read or listen to the story of a person whose livelihood has been destroyed or who died on the oil rig. In 1 Corinthians 12:26, we read that if one part of the body suffers, every part suffers with it. Can you feel the suffering? Listen and pray. Act and sacrifice. Change and be transformed. First we listen, then we decide what we will sacrifice in service, action, and even lifestyle. And only then will we change.

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