Deuteronomy 8 says “the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land, a land of flowing streams, with springs and underground waters ... a land where ... you shall bless the Lord your God for the good land he has given you.
When you arrive in Nebraska, signs on the interstate will welcome you to “The Good Life.” The folks who came up with our unofficial state motto may or may not have had the passage from Deuteronomy in mind, but to witness Nebraskans’ love for their land is to understand that it is a quietly sacred connection.
That connection found its voice in Nebraska citizens’ four-year battle to stop the TransCanada pipeline. In face of the threat of oil spills polluting the underground Ogallala Aquifer, of construction spoiling the fragile Sandhills region, and of a foreign corporation using bully tactics to seize landowners’ property, a remarkably diverse coalition of farmers, ranchers, environmentalists, Republicans, Democrats, Independents, grandmothers, students, and citizens took hold to protect Nebraska land.
Last week, we Nebraskans celebrated sweet victory once again. The Feb. 19 ruling by Lancaster County judge Stephanie Stacy dealt a significant setback to the approval process of the 1,179-mile TransCanada pipeline. The ruling found that a law hastily passed by the Nebraska legislature in 2011 that gave pipeline siting approval authority to the governor instead of the Public Service Commission was unconstitutional. The bill, which also granted eminent domain rights in Nebraska to TransCanada, had been an effort by pipeline supporters in the legislature to fast-track the approval process. The governor has promised to appeal the ruling, ensuring a delay of at least 12 to 18 months before a decision from the state of Nebraska could be issued. Presumably, Secretary of State John Kerry will wait until the legal hurdles in Nebraska are cleared before issuing his final decision on the pipeline.
It’s a good time for those of us who have been on the ground in this long-term struggle to reflect on the faith dimension of our work. In my conversations with my fellow colleagues, four main spiritual themes emerge.
1. Strength is born of diversity.
The “magic” of the resistance that has come from Nebraska is due to the remarkable diversity of its members. No one could remember another issue that brought together such a startling array of constituents. Ranchers came to anti-pipeline poetry readings; Nigerian immigrants spoke out for their adopted homeland; people came to Native American prayer circles; children shone flashlights into the governor’s mansion at a protest; Protestant clergy attended hearings in Washington, D.C.; an Omaha teenager found her voice testifying to the State Department in a cavernous state fair hall packed with hundreds of pipeline fighters wearing matching red T-shirts and black armbands. Strange bedfellows shared laughter and meals, endured snowy treks to small-town hearings, and in the process discovered that they weren’t that different from one another after all.
2. Justice is about true power.
When TransCanada began the Keystone XL project, they assumed they had the power to seize people’s land, to buy off landowners with large payments for easements, to curry favor from the Nebraska legislature, and ultimately to win approval from the State Department. The international machinery guiding this high-stakes petroleum transmission issue was fearsome. What was startling was to find out how much power the people had.
Local author and activist Mary Pipher told me that what was amazing was to witness how little it takes to create power. “You create power by believing that you have power. You create it out of thin air. We created power out of the most ordinary things in Nebraska. We gave apple pies to legislators. We got people together and talked. We started speaking up. We decided to act as if we had power.”
What our movement found is that power resides with what is good and true. The power of dominance is ultimately weak because it is not built on the truth of our connection to God and our commitment to love one another. It turned out that the power of ordinary people fighting to protect the goodness of their land was unstoppable.
3. God calls us to care for the sacred gift of creation.
The land on which we live and the water on which we depend are a gift of life that were given to us from the very beginning. We are utterly dependent on the earth for our survival. Incarnational theology teaches that in the incarnation of Jesus Christ, God claimed the earthly realm as a place for the divine encounter. In this way, the entire biotic community is blessed as a container for grace. This realm is where we learn how to love; this realm is where we are invited to witness the astounding wonder of the natural world, and to cherish it.
4. When problems are too big for us, we need to reach beyond ourselves.
Mary Pipher calls this the transcendent response. When we are faced with an insurmountable problem and have exhausted our inner resources, the only thing to do is to develop greater resources; to get a bigger boat. For Mary and so many others, their transcendent response was to create a beloved community. Joined together out of a dogged determination to stand up for what was right, they tapped into forces much greater than themselves.
Nebraska is usually dismissed as “flyover country” in our national dialogue. But like the story of David and Goliath, the fight against the Keystone XL pipeline has shown the world that people who love their land possess the five smooth stones to slay the giant.
The Rev. Kim Morrow is Project Director of Nebraska Interfaith Power & Light and Minister of Sustainability at First-Plymouth Church in Lincoln, Neb.
Image: Nebraska welcome sign, spirit of america / Shutterstock.com