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Gulf oil-spill crisis raises basic questions about how we think of ourselves

We’re at a turning point. The crisis we can’t seem to kill in the Gulf of Mexico puts before us the results of a more foundational crisis than the black goo that is choking the life out of the Gulf. The uncontrolled “blow-out” raises basic questions about how we think of ourselves and the order of nature.

Fifteen years ago I was with a group of pastors who spent four days with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, whose mission is to protect and clean up the Chesapeake Bay. Our time there began with a day on the bay on a Skipjack, one of the last remaining motorless sailing vessels that used to harvest oysters by the tens and hundreds of bushels from oyster beds. The director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and an old waterman named Earl, who had worked the bay for 54 years, took us to school.

Back then the oyster population had shrunk to a fraction of 1 percent of what it used to be. Fifteen years before our visit the oyster population would filter all the water in the bay in three days’ time. A single oyster pumps five gallons of water through its filtration system every day.

The oysters were close to extinction; the bay’s natural filtering system was in danger. “It’s humans who’ve done this,” said the old waterman. “They’ll come back; I have to believe they’ll come back.”

Others were less hopeful. The Maryland Department of Natural Resources discussed the damage to the wetlands and the estuaries, the seedbeds of life. It had sounded the alarm for public action to protect the birthplaces of all the seafood we eat, the places on which the whole chain of life depends.

This week we heard from the Gulf of Mexico that the attempted “top kill” has failed and that the “spill” is spreading in every direction — not only on the surface, but below the surface — a glob the size of the state of Texas. I think of Earl and his Skipjack as I see the poisoned oysters in the hands of Louisiana oystermen whose livelihood depends on clean Gulf waters. “It’s humans who have done this.”

But it’s not every human who has done this violence to the Gulf. It was not the indigenous people of North America, nor was it the Moken people (“the sea gypsies”) who, because they see themselves as part of nature, anticipated the 2004 Asian tsunami while the rest of the world was caught by surprise. It was a specific form of humanity known as Western culture that sees humankind as the conqueror of nature.

Our language is not the language of cooperation with nature. “And God said, ‘… fill the earth and subdue; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth’ ” — (Genesis 1:28), a conquering view based in the idea of species superiority expressed in the phrase “top kill” for the attempt to plug the hole that is killing the oysters and fish of the sea.

Insofar as interpreters of the Book of Genesis have shaped this Western hubris, my Judeo-Christian tradition bears responsibility for this crisis. The idea of human exceptionalism springs from the Bible itself.

But no sooner do I sink into confession and despair than I remember a prayer that Earl called to my attention on the Skipjack 15 years ago, the prayer of St. Basil from the third century that offers a more hopeful understanding of ourselves, a view like Moken people’s that knows that the whole world’s in an oyster:

“The Earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof. O God, enlarge within us the sense of kinship with all living things, our brothers and sisters the animals to whom You have given the Earth as their home in common with us. We remember with shame that in the past we have exercised the high dominion of man with ruthless cruelty, so that the voice of the Earth, which should have gone up to You in song, has been a groan of travail. May we realize that they live, not for us alone, but for themselves and for You, and that they have the sweetness of life.”

The Rev. Gordon C. Stewart is pastor of Shepherd of the Hill Presbyterian Church, home of the Shepherd of the Hill Dialogues: Examining critical public issues locally and globally, in Chaska.

Comments (4)

  1. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 06/04/2010 - 07:12 am.

    1. We are only beginning to recover from one disaster/emergency, in the world’s financial system; and we’re still in the midst of another one, with the BP oil catastrophe;
    2. In the short run, we have to deal with those emergencies as emergencies;
    3. But in the long term it would be criminal to fail to correct the underlying disorders that caused each crisis;
    4. In the economic realm, that means not just dealing with the rigged financial markets but also making sure that we address some of the big, structural issues that will either keep the US economy growing or bring it down;
    5. Those include managing health care costs, improving education, and investing in fundamental science;
    6. Private industry obviously is what makes our economy run, and what will create the business models to solve these problems;
    7. But just as obviously, the government has to play an active part — in setting standards, investing in basic research and “public goods,” containing what any sane observer sees as the self-destructive excesses of the market, and promoting the next big waves of technology growth as it has done for all previous ones through the nation’s history;
    8. This includes taking an active role in shifting the U.S. economy away from its environmentally and strategically damaging dependence on oil in particular, and the way to use market energies toward that end is through a carbon tax.

  2. Submitted by rolf westgard on 06/04/2010 - 08:32 am.

    Thank you, Rev. Stewart for reminding us of our responsibility to the Earth. With dominion comes the duty to care for creation, a duty often neglected.

  3. Submitted by Steve Shoemaker on 06/04/2010 - 01:07 pm.

    We recently picked out an 8 week old collie puppy. He needed to be trained to keep his inside house clean, to not bite–even in play, and to “come, sit, stay & heel.” This domestication, or “taming” is a better translation of the Biblical “have dominion over” animals and the rest of the natural world than has often been taught. Rev. Stewart has great insight into this issue…

  4. Submitted by Gordon Stewart on 06/04/2010 - 05:09 pm.

    As always, I so appreciate Richard Schultz’s thoughtful response. The issue I’m raising seems like the least practical of things – something society’s and cultures don’t do well: examining the assumptions/beliefs/convictions we all take for granted. In this case, the unexamined conviction that we, the human species – are the center of the universe. Unless that belief changes, we are on the path to suicide and planetary destruction.

    In response to an early commentary, Richard asked a vexing question: I wonder what God has been/is up to? I didn’t respond then because to suggest an answer seemed precocious, except to say perhaps, from my faith tradition, that God speaks today the way God was perceived to speak in the Bible – through voices that call us to take responsility for our neighbor and for the Earth, as well as for ourselves. Might it be that God is calling us to repent from the human arrogance that has treated the Earth as our landfill? Might it be that God is calling for an end of the illusion of mastery – a taming of our own prideful exceptionalism – and re-structuring life on the religious assumption that the oysters, the crabs, the whales, the pelicans and the loons are also our sisters and brothers. When an oyster is covered with oil, I hear God crying out from the Gulf of Mexico.

    Ideas and beliefs lie behind every action we take. There will be structural change when, as Steve observes, we get tamed to not dirty our own dog house: “Come, sit, stay, heel!” Without that change of consciousness, we will continue to build the modern equivalent of the Tower of Babel.

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