This week, in President Barack Obama's Oval Office speech on the oil spill, he used the term "mission." That's the right word. Most of the media coverage, and even much of the presidential address Tuesday night, was about "management" -- but the real and deeper meaning that is now emerging out of the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is indeed the call to a new mission.
The ongoing discussion about who's to blame, who's responsible, and who's in control of the oil spill disaster -- which is now the worst environmental catastrophe in U.S. history -- has been constant in the media, and the speech was in response to many of those questions. The clear financial, and perhaps criminal, responsibility of BP is a fundamental moral and political issue here, of course; as is the continuing frustration of people in the Gulf Coast region with the government's response and leadership in the crisis. The need for more skimmers, more boom, more equipment, more people, more help, and much more coordination in protecting and cleaning up the endangered Gulf Coast from the gushing assault of toxic oil is very clear; but missing the deeper meaning would be an even greater disaster now.
It will take a purposeful commitment to a mission of change, of transformation in the way that our entire society and culture is energized and powered, to truly respond to the epiphany in the Gulf. After Obama described what he plans to do in response to the immediate and long-term consequences of the oil spill, he returned to more moral and even theological language in admitting how "our addiction to fossil fuels" had taken us to deeper and more and more dangerous waters -- drilling more than a mile under the ocean.
"For decades, we have known the days of cheap and easily accessible oil were numbered," Obama said. "For decades, we've talked and talked about the need to end America's century-long addiction to fossil fuels. And for decades we have failed to act with a sense of urgency that this challenge requires. Time and again the path forward has been blocked, not only by oil industry lobbyists, but also by a lack of political courage and candor. The consequences of our inaction are now in plain sight."
But will the consequences in plain sight be enough to change us? Last night, Jon Stewart did a very funny and very sobering review of how the last eight Presidents now -- Obama, Bush 2, Clinton, Bush 1, Reagan, Carter, Ford, and Nixon -- have called for and promised to end our dependence on foreign oil. It's time to indeed call this an addiction -- and it is time for an intervention.
Obama continued, "today as we look to the Gulf, we see an entire way of life being threatened by a menacing cloud of black crude. We cannot consign our children to this future. The tragedy unfolding on our coast is the most painful and powerful reminder yet that the time to embrace a clean energy future is now. Now is the moment for this generation to embark on a national mission to unleash American innovation and seize control of our own destiny."
But to change our addictive oil habit -- which is killing the environment, killing wildlife, killing us, killing the Gulf, and threatening our children -- will take a mission to:
- Change the practice of seeing oceans as mere drilling opportunities for our insatiable addictions, instead of as an integral part of Gods' creative ecosystem.
- Change an economic ethic based on growth at any cost to one governed by the ethics of sustainability.
- Change corporate greed and recklessness into accountability and even commitment to the common good.
- Change government accountability and regulation from the cozy relationship of political appointees looking for future work in the industries they allegedly oversee, to an independent and respected vocation as civil and public servants.
- Change the vocational trajectory of millions of our poorest youth from flipping burgers to retrofitting a society for a clean energy future.
- Change our foreign policy based on dependence on corrupt oil regimes, on sending our sons and daughters off to fight and die for their crude product, on both fueling and paying for the violent terrorism that is eventually used against us.
- Change the political will to overcome the entrenched, special, selfish, and partisan interests of Washington.
- Change a culture to find new ways of living, thinking, working, transporting, and even measuring success.
- Change our values and very spirituality to rewire both ourselves and the energy grid for a cleaner and renewable energy future.
- Convert the faith community to provide a leadership role both by example and prophetic witness and advocacy.
At the end of his speech, President Obama described the tradition on the Gulf Coast of "the blessing of the fleet" -- before the region's fishermen head out to sea, often for weeks at a time -- and quoted a priest and fisherman who once said, "The blessing is not that God has promised to remove all obstacles and dangers. The blessing is that he is with us always, a blessing that's granted even in the midst of a storm." Then Obama said, "Tonight we pray for that courage, we pray for the people of the Gulf, and we pray that a hand may guide us through the storm to a brighter day."
It will take seeing this as mission of God, and not merely our own; and it will take our faith in God to see this mission through.
Jim Wallis is the author of Rediscovering Values: On Wall Street, Main Street, and Your Street -- A Moral Compass for the New Economy, CEO of Sojourners and blogs at www.godspolitics.com.