Oil spills, stewardship and accountability

May 13, 2010

The disastrous ongoing oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has dominated the news for days (is it weeks?). Energy is one of those areas that lie at the very center of our lives today on which the Bible is virtually silent. Pollution is another one. I’ve been reading biblical analysis and commentary for two decades—dozens of books and articles. Not once have I read a description of energy sources or human waste management in ancient Israel or Judea. Not once.

Books on the Dead Sea scrolls sometimes mention this because the Essenes were obsessed with ritual purity and went to extreme measures to manage their waste. Thus, we know that Gehenna, the word that the Bible usually translates as “hell” in the sayings of Jesus, was Jerusalem’s municipal landfill, where human waste was dumped (including unclaimed bodies). It was a deep, narrow ravine just outside the city that was once the site of Canaanite human sacrifice. It was always kept burning. The Essenes had their own gate in the city wall near Gehenna, just outside of which they had built a complex of latrines and baths. You couldn’t do that stuff inside the walls of the sacred city.

Thus, people concerned about the health and restoration of our landbases who look to the Bible for support, maybe even for guidance, are forced to abstract principles from scattered passages that sort of apply and that, when you look just below the surface, often have meanings and associations that compromise the positive message you were digging for in the first place. The Bible just has very little to say, and almost nothing comprehensive or coherent to say, about land use. (On the other hand, it has a lot to say about land tenure; but that’s another post.)

Jesus has nothing at all to say about land use (but is deeply preoccupied with land tenure). Earth stewardship writers often mention how full of agricultural metaphors his parables are and quote his stewardship parables: the parable of the tenants, Mt 21:33-44; the faithful servant, Mt 24:45-51; the shrewd manager, Lk 16:1-8; the master and his servant, Lk 17:7-10. But these parables aren’t about land use, they’re about economics (secondarily) and about judgment, primarily. The message is that bad stewards will pay. When? At the final judgment.

This is one of the deepest flaws in Christian earth stewardship thinking so far. This theology has grown up inside the sin-salvation paradigm of traditional Christian thinking, in which consequences for sin are deferred to after death (for the individual) and to the endtimes, for civilization. Having thrown out Torah under Paul’s misguidance (at least from the ecologist’s perspective), Christians have abandoned any meaningful covenantal framework for holding each other accountable in real time. As a result, Christian environmentalists have nothing concrete to offer when it comes to accountability—on virtually any topic, let alone environmental policy. So they leave it to the state.

Presumably, some of the executives responsible in the various companies involved in the current oil spill crisis attend church, love God, and even fear judgment. But how can their congregations hold them accountable for their lapses given their community’s eschatology, the belief that God is in charge of all consequences, and that that will all happen—later. Much later.

I have read lots of books on Christian earth stewardship and these writers very consistently try to recover the language of covenant in their work. But they have done very little to develop practical models for accountability at any level—the congregation, the regional synod or diocese, the denomination, or the macro-ecumenical organizations. With no models, no meaningful institution building has been done, either.

The one exception I’ve read about is a movement in Africa, which has green prophets who guide the development of land use and actually police family practice. This is mostly about soil erosion and deforestation, if I remember correctly. I also seem to remember that some aspects of this movement made me very uncomfortable. But it’s worth looking at, I think. Maybe I’ll have to find that reference and read it again.

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One Response to “Oil spills, stewardship and accountability”


  1. the oil spill in mexico really affected the eco system around that area, it would take years to clean those mess “

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