Ecological Catastrophe and the Uneasy Evangelical Conscience
I've left my hometown lots of times. But never like this.
Sure, I've teared up as I've left family and friends for a while, knowing I'd see them again the next time around. And, yes, I cried every day for almost a year in the aftermath of a hurricane that almost wiped my hometown off the map. But I've never left like this, wondering if I'll ever see it again, if my children's children will ever know what Biloxi was.
As I pass that sign on Highway 90 telling me I'm leaving Biloxi, I can look out behind the water's horizon and know there's a Pale Horse there. A massive rupture in the ocean's floor is gushing oil into the Gulf of Mexico, with plumes of petroleum great enough to threaten to destroy the sea-life there for my lifetime, if not forever. Everything is endangered, from the seafood and tourism industries to the crabs and seagulls on the beach to the churches where I first heard the gospel of Jesus Christ.
This is more than a threat to my hometown, and to our neighboring communities. It is a threat to national security greater than most Americans can even contemplate, because so few of them know how dependent they are on the eco-systems of the Gulf of Mexico. This is, as one magazine put it recently, Katrina meets Chernobyl.
I am leaving this morning, but I am leaving changed.
Someone once described Roe vs. Wade as the "Pearl Harbor" of the evangelical pro-life conscience. Pearl Harbor is an apt metaphor. Before that date of infamy, foreign policy isolationism seemed to be a legitimate American option. The "America First" committees and some of the most influential figures in the United States Congress argued that Hitler's war was none of our concern. We should tend to ourselves, and we could deal with whomever won in Europe and the Pacific when all the dust had settled.
After Pearl Harbor, the shortsightedness, and indeed utopianism, of isolationism was seen for what it was. After Roe, what seemed to be a "Catholic issue" now pierced through the consciences of evangelical Protestants who realized they'd not only been naive; they'd also missed a key aspect of Christian thought and mission.
For too long, we evangelical Christians have maintained an uneasy ecological conscience. I include myself in this indictment.
We've had an inadequate view of human sin.
Because we believe in free markets, we've acted as though this means we should trust corporations to protect the natural resources and habitats. But a laissez-faire view of government regulation of corporations is akin to the youth minister who lets the teenage girl and boy sleep in the same sleeping bag at church camp because he "believes in young people."
The Scripture gives us a vision of human sin that means there ought to be limits to every claim to sovereignty, whether from church, state, business or labor. A commitment to the free market doesn't mean unfettered license any more than a commitment to free speech means hardcore pornography ought to be broadcast in prime-time by your local network television affiliate.
Caesar's sword is there, by God's authority, to restrain those who would harm others (Rom. 13). When government fails or refuses to protect its own people, whether from nuclear attack or from toxic waste spewing into our life-giving waters, the government has failed.
We've seen the issue of so-called "environmental protection" as someone else's issue.
In our era, the abortion issue is the transcendent moral issue of the day (as segregation was in the last generation, and lynching and slavery before that). Too often, however, we've been willing not simply to vote for candidates who will protect unborn human life (as we ought to), but to also in the process adopt their worldviews on every other issue.
Moreover, we've seen some of the theological and ideological fringes in the environmentalist movement, fringes that enabled us to see them as not "with us," and, frankly, to enable us to make fun of the entire question as a silly enterprise. But perhaps the void is being filled by leftists and liberals and wannabe liberal evangelicals simply because those who ought to know better are off doing something else. Working with our secular progressive neighbors on, for instance, saving the Gulf no more compromises the evangelical witness than our working with feminists to combat pornography or with Latter-day Saints to protect marriage.
We've had an inadequate view of human life and culture.
What is being threatened in the Gulf states isn't just seafood or tourism or beach views. What's being threatened is a culture. As social conservatives, we understand…or we ought to understand…that human communities are formed by traditions and by mores, by the bond between the generations. Culture is, as Russell Kirk said, a compact reaching back to the dead and forward to the unborn. Liberalism wants to dissolve those traditions, and make every generation create itself anew; not conservatism.
Every human culture is formed in a tie with the natural environment. In my hometown, that's the father passing down his shrimping boat to his son or the community gathering for the Blessing of the Fleet at the harbor every year. In a Midwestern town, it might be the apple festival. In a New England town, it might be the traditions of whalers or oystermen. The West is defined by the frontier and the mountains. And so on.
When the natural environment is used up, unsustainable for future generations, cultures die. When Gulfs are dead, when mountaintops are removed, when forests are razed with nothing left in their place, when deer populations disappear, cultures die too.
And what's left in the place of these cultures and traditions is an individualism that is defined simply by the appetites for sex, violence, and piling up stuff. That's not conservative, and it certainly isn't Christian.
Finally, we've compromised our love.
A previous generation of evangelicals had to ask the question, "Is the fetus my neighbor?"
As I've seen the people I love, who led me to Christ, literally heaving in tears, I've wondered how many other communities have faced death like this, while I ignored even the chance to pray. The protection of the creation isn't just about seagulls and turtles and dolphins. That would be enough to prompt us to action, since God's glory is in seagulls and turtles and dolphins (Gen. 6-9; Isa. 65).
Pollution kills people. Pollution dislocates families. Pollution defiles the icon of God's Trinitarian joy, the creation of his theater (Ps. 19; Rom. 1).
Will people believe us when we speak about the One who brings life and that abundantly, when they see that we don't care about that which kills and destroys? Will they hear us when we quote John 3:16 to them when, in the face of the loss of their lives, we shrug our shoulders and say, "Who is my neighbor?"
I'm leaving Biloxi today, with tears in my eyes. But I'll be back. I'll be back whether the next time I see this place it's a thriving seacoast community again or whether it's an oil-drenched crime scene. But I pray I'll never be the same.