How the Oil Disaster is Tainting Our Soul

I had a hard time breathing when I saw those pictures; my chest began heaving when I realized those were birds covered in oil. I felt as if the soul of our nation was drowning in the muck, along with our precious wildlife. You see, for my first job out of seminary, I decided to serve a tiny church in the swamps of Louisiana. I moved to the heart of Cajun country while I was still in my twenties and became a solo pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Abbeville.

I was warned before moving there. Many of my friends worried that my liberal politics and theology would never be tolerated in the town. I considered all of the cautions carefully and tucked them into my pocket when I visited. Then I saw the tangled moss dripping from the trees, the grand oaks hovering over the dirt, and the swampland situated around us. I felt drawn there. Inexplicably, it was as if the land itself was calling me. Of course, it could have just been me. I love the swamps. After growing up in Florida and visiting relatives in South Carolina, the musty smell and damp air feels like home. I tear up every time “Seminole Wind” comes on the radio. I relish Carl Hiaasen’s novels, because they seem to play out all of my very non-pastoral fantasies of extraordinary torment heaped upon those who have unjustly developed that sacred Florida land. For me, the books are like those Psalms in the Bible, the ones that I tremble to utter, because they ask that God will do violence upon our enemies. I learned my primary spiritual discipline in the wetlands: walking meditation. So, in a particular way, I imagine God lives in the swamps.

As I spent the next three years in Louisiana, I found people who sang and danced every chance they got. Art seemed to flow out of their pores, and church potlucks were made up of the best food I’ve ever tasted. When I got sick, I was encouraged to go to the doctor and the traiteur, the healer who lived in the swamps, who used herbs and magical prayers. I learned the poetic expressions that Cajuns and Creoles utter. For instance, if there was a gentle snow on the ground, they would say, “It looks like the baker and his wife got in a fight last night.” I listened to beautiful stories and consumed the great literature that was written in sole of that Louisiana boot. I even experienced my own religion more fully there, because everyone seemed to live by the Liturgical Calendar–the one that marks our church days. To visitors, Mardi Gras may seem like a cheap trick to attract tourists, but once you spend a couple of years there, you realize that it is a celebration that honors a sacred transition. And though I felt like an outsider most of the time, we seemed to share something important — my new friends were bound to the land. There were Cajuns and Creoles who lived in stilted houses, in the midst of the swamps, collecting alligator teeth for jewelry and painting cypress knees.

When I went back to Florida and explained the difficult economic position that many people in South Louisiana are mired in, with oil booms and bust and with hurricanes blowing through, my family and friends would shrug and say, “Why don’t they just move?” I tried to communicate that James Carville is an anomaly. Most Cajuns and Creoles don’t just move. Those swamps have fed their families for hundreds of years. Everyone knows everyone else’s “Mama.” It’s difficult for most of us in the United States to understand people who are driven by something other than economic opportunity. But they are. Cajuns and Creoles have an intimate bond that has been kept alive by deep tradition, loving families, incredible music, flowing art, and that land. Though there are many cultural practices that horrified me, I cannot help but think that South Louisiana, at its creative best, is not just the sole of Louisiana, but the soul of the U.S.

Looking at those white graceful egrets covered in slick, black oil reminds me of what we have done. There is something majestic hidden in that marshland, something that we have destroyed. In many ways, our soul lives there, and it is irreparably damaged. As we struggle to stop the oil from spewing into the Gulf, it will be a task on which every brilliant mind in our country needs to concentrate. As soon as that fatal flow stops and we begin to collect the bodies of the dead wildlife and fish, when we attempt to clean up this disaster, we will have to reflect on our own spirits and our addiction to oil. Why, when we know how much damage our dependence on petroleum causes our earth, do we not concentrate more creativity on developing other means of energy? Why, when we realize that the rapid urbanization of China and India will be an increased strain on our global resources, are we not figuring out ways to drastically reduce our reliance on fossil fuels? Crying out “Drill, baby, drill” in this phase of our history feels to me like begging “More cigarettes, please!” while dying of lung cancer. And like every addiction, it is a reminder that we will need to find physical, as well as spiritual, solutions to our problems. We can no longer neglect our soul.


20 thoughts on “How the Oil Disaster is Tainting Our Soul

  1. A beatuiful piece Carol, poetic, thoughful, poignant.

    Your position on drilling clearly comes from deeply personal and spiritual convictions, rooted in your experience and you understanding of creation–and we need a whole lot more of that in our public discourse about what is good and bad for us.

    The one point over which I would quibble is your assertion that;

    “In many ways, our soul lives there, and it is irreparably damaged.”

    It is easy to hear that your words come from a place of despair, but it is always worth remembering that damage done to a soul is never irreparable. That’s what the gospel of Jesus Christ is all about–replacing sickness with health, captivity with freedom, oppression with justice, filthy oil slicks with clear, clean water; and death with new and abundant life.

    I don’t know what the future holds for the gulf, and I spend plenty of my time furious with BP and the administration for a stunning lack of results during this disaster. But I am absolutely convinced that God is working for the redemption of all things, and I have to believe that the damage to our soul is not irreparable.

    Thanks for your good work Carol.

  2. It’s insightful that you picked that out, Sam. I wrestled over that line myself.

    I thought about Jesus’ resurrected body, and how it still had the scars. I thought about the “old humanity and the new humanity” in Romans 5 (For as through the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, even so through the obedience of the One the many will be made righteous), and how Jesus’ obedience did not take away the fall…. Even in our redemption stories, there seems to be indelible reminders of our sin.

    I hope that you are right. I hope we will be able to restore creation, that God’s natural healing and our hard work will be able to bring new life out of this. But I just couldn’t ignore the fact that sometimes we live with the scars.

  3. Beautifully written. We are indeed connected to this great creation, and we are all diminished by our abuse of God’s gift to us. Thanks for sharing your experience and perspective. -Chuck

  4. “For the law, having a shadow of the good things to come, and not the very image of the things, can never with these same sacrifices, which they offer continually year by year, make those who approach perfect. For then would they not have ceased to be offered? For the worshipers, once purified, would have had no more consciousness of sins.” (Hebrews 10:1-2)

    So, Carol, being redeemed by Christ still leaves us with indelible reminders of our sin? Would not this mean that the sacrifice of Christ was no better than the Old Testament sacrifices? If I hear what you’re saying correctly, the sacrifice of Christ neither purifies us from nor removes consciousness of sins.

  5. I just flipped through the latest issue of TIME magazine, that features some nauseating pictures of the disaster. Rivulets of oil flow, seemingly charted by their own current on the surface of the open ocean, with countless gallons still unseen below the surface. I have never been to Louisiana, or anywhere near that part of the world, yet I feel a part of my soul ripped out when I see those photos. “That is being done to my home, to OUR home”, I said to myself. The older I get, the more conscious I am of how interconnected, not just everyone, but everyTHING is.

    You ask, “Why, when we know how much damage our dependence on petroleum causes our earth, do we not concentrate more creativity on developing other means of energy?”. The answer, of course, is raw economics. New means of energy is focused on when it becomes economically meaningful to do so. I wish it were otherwise, but I fear that is the reality of the situation. What to do? I have no idea. I am a fan of capitalism, and it seems to be the best economic option we have come up with, but it sure can come with nasty consequences. What do you think, Carol?

  6. By the way, I understand this mentality:

    “…my family and friends would shrug and say, “Why don’t they just move?”…”

    Carol, have you ever been to the American southwest? I have lived here in the desert most all of my life, and I currently live mere minutes from Cuidad Juarez, one of the violent cities in the world. Most of your article could be re-written to focus the distasters across the border here. Culture, heretige, religion, economics, politics – it is all intertwined. To simply move from an area in which ancient roots are bored in, is to rip the life-giving cord from the navel.

    …or is it? I also think that humanity is tremendously resilient. Can cultures be reforged? Is it easier for people to “just move” than we think it is? Human diasporas are a common theme in history, and many cultures are lost in the past because of it. Are diasporas now anathema in our modern culture?

    You got me. Just thinking aloud here on your comment box. Thanks Carol.

  7. Murray,

    You present a good challenge, and I may be wrong… but it seems as though even when we have been fully forgiven by God, sometimes we still have to live with the physical, and even spiritual consequences of our sins. That’s what I fear.

    Of course, I hope that I’m wrong. I pray for a new heaven and a new earth… and that God will be able to restore all things in the midst of this devastation.


    It’s good to hear from you again. I hope that all is well with you. That’s fascinating to hear about the Southwest. I’ve only been there on vacation. Growing up in Florida and living in D.C., I am so used to transient people. But there is a beauty and creativity that flows in those places with deep roots.

    It seems that capitalism will need to be tempered. It may be that we are coming to a transition in our society… there have been studies that have shown that the wealthier that we have gotten as a nation, the more depressed and anxious we have gotten. The more community that we share, the more satisfied we are. I guess that’s something that those in S LA and the desert can teach us.

  8. Carol, I am a very strong believer in redemption. There are only those things that have been redeemed and those which have yet to be.

    This does not mean we ignore problems. Instead, it gives us a hopeful and balanced approach to solving them.

    Satan and those who remain loyal to him of course will not be redeemed, but these are the only exceptions.

  9. I think some folks are forgetting the law of sowing and reaping in this discussion and I believe this is what Carol is saying. When a dedicated Christian woman slipped into a sinful relationshp with her boyfriend 29 years ago, she got pregnant. That pregnancy pushed her back to the Lord. Yes, God was able to redeem her and the child she had has been a great blessing but she had two choices have a child or an abortion. Either decision had consequences that were distasteful. God didn’t erase the child or the many other consequences of have this child, even 29 years later.

    I remember a very wise teenager once told me, “I’ve looked at people who have lived godly lives and people who have delved heavily in sin. While each has been redeemed by the blood of Jesus, there are always results from the sin that are not pleasant. I think it’s better to live a godly life.”

  10. What Christian delves heavily into sin?

    Is it not truly written, “How shall we who died to sin live any longer in it?” (Romans 6:2)

  11. Great post, Carol! The hardest thing about this event is that we are all culpable for it. The lives we lead and the energies we consume to lead them are directly tied to our need to take greater and greater risks to get oil. At some point, we need to realize this and turn away from it.

    @ Murray: The answer Paul gives to that is quite simple: Every Christian. All of us. (Romans 7:7-25) It’s not a question of being sinless. It’s refusing to be governed by or setting our hearts on sin.

  12. Thanks for joining me in my counterpoint to LG’s example of a supposed Christian who delves heavily into sin.

    You are exactly right imo. We Christians are not sinlessly perfect but we are not governed by sin either.

    A pastor friend of mine likes to say that someone who is under grace does more good by accident than someone who is under law can do on purpose. Pretty cool saying. Wish I had thought of it.

    Here is one I came up with that I’d like to share.

    “The gospel is inseparable from the person of Jesus Christ and Jesus Christ is inseparable from his grace, which is the gospel.”

  13. Guess I didn’t make my point clearly. The people I was talking about were people who were redeemed AFTER they had delved heavily into sin. Even after they have been redeemed, there are consequences to their former lifestyle. Sorry, I wasn’t clear.

  14. Does not God work all things together for good to those that love Him, to those that are the called according to His purpose?

    Does not He restore the years the locust and the canker-worm have eaten?

    I say resoundingly yes! Not only do I simply believe these things, but I have witnessed them countless times in my own life and in the life of others.

    I would never be one to mitigate how tough life can be and the suffering we often endure. But I would also never limit God’s ability through Christ to redeem and restore us from the ill effects of whatever harm comes our way, even if it was of our own making.

  15. I’m totally unaccustomed to posting on blogs where people go days at a time without contributing and where people make comments and do not defend their point when challenged.

    Where’s the passion?

  16. Murray,

    There’s probably not much traffic, since I haven’t posted much recently. I’m in the midst of three major deadlines… Those who have responded (at least the ones I know) have great passion! But, they’re probably using it elsewhere.

    As for me… I know a lot of Christians who habitually sin. That’s why I’m part of a church where we have a time of confession each week… but this may be a point where our theology does not agree. Over the years, I’ve just learned that many people have different views, so I don’t get caught up in arguing to much….

    Take care.

  17. Carol, I was once a Christian who habitually sinned and defeat seemed as natural to me as breathing. Then I undertook an extensive and intensive study on biblical grace and everything changed dramatically for me as I began to understand the staggering implications of what it really means to be under grace, God’s unmerited favor.

    During the course of this study, I came across a verse that I probably read dozens of times before but do not recall ever meditating upon or having been taught to me. It is, “For sin shall not have dominion over you, for you are not under law but under grace.” (Romans 6:14) Another verse that I do not recall having previously learned is, “The sting of death is sin, and the strength of sin is the law.” (I Cor 15:56) And I recently became aware of the following verse from “The Message” and this one really speaks to me. “All that passing laws against sin did was produce more lawbreakers.” (Romans 5:20)

    As I began to make application of what I was learning to my own life, I discovered that knowing little about grace had caused me to approach life legalistically. Furthermore, I learned from some of the verses I quoted above and others, that sin was a strong influence in my life because I was living as if under law and not as if under grace.

    My life has been being dramatically transformed as areas of persistent difficulty have literally been dissipating as I have yielded more and more to the grace that God has been pouring out on me all along. However, due to gross ignorance of grace and what it means to live under grace, the promise of Romans 6:14 that sin would not have dominion over me was not in effect.

    I would also add that confession many times has the effect of mentally rehearsing sin and dooming the person to repeating it. As we discussed before, the intended effect of the sacrifice of Jesus is that we would have no more consciousness of sins. (Hebrews 10:2)

    One of the common objections to grace is that taking a strong teaching stance on grace will somehow lead to licentiousness. I can provide no better answer than the one Paul gave when he answered that same objection which was, “What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound? Certainly not! How shall we who died to sin live any longer in it?” (Romans 6:1-2)

    Likewise to being surprised to learn in the course of my studies that grace is the biblically prescribed way for sin to lose influence over us, I also learned that grace is the biblically prescribed means by which we learn how to live godly. Yet another passage that also had previously escaped my attention addresses this as follows, “For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men, teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly in the present age, looking for the blessed hope and glorious appearing of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ….” (Titus 2:11-13)

    Therefore, as ministers of the gospel, when we minister to people, we are to be teachers of grace in the preponderance of what we share with them and then trust grace to be their teacher in detailing out how they should be living.

    Churches that teach this way are exploding in both numbers and faithfulness by every measure.

  18. P.S. The themes I shared in the above post are similar to those I offered under the Duplicity In Family Values topic.

    Emphasizing behavior and making certain behaviors wrong is known as legalism/moralism and these have long been known as enemies of the gospel. Sinful behavior increases to the extent we make an issue of it and pass laws against it. (Romans 5:20) The Bible calls this “the law of sin and death.” (Romans 8:2)

    However, the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has made Christians free from the law of sin and death by grace through faith in Him and His finished work on the cross.

    As I shared in the previous topic, politicians inevitably set themselves up for a fall by emphasizing and espousing “values.” Unwittingly, they have placed themselves under the law of sin and death and nothing good can come of that.

    In this topic, the issue of sin was raised and its alleged indelible effects on our soul. Again, we are unwittingly focusing upon the law of sin and death. Truly, Jesus does remain scarred but those are indicative of ours having been removed and the price that was paid by Jesus for that to happen. This should only serve to make us fall more deeply in love with Him and to make us more grateful for having been redeemed. Truly, he who has been forgiven much, loves much.

    It is good to stop at the cross and remember the sacrifice He made and the death that He died but, as prefigured by the Old Testament sacrificial system, we are to understand that we walk away free because all of our “stuff” was transferred to the substitute. I sometimes think that the Old Testament worshipers understood the meaning of the sacrifice better and appreciated it more than we. This should not be because we have a better covenant based upon better promises.

  19. I saw your recent contribution to the Huffington Post, Carol, and I was interested to see the theme of hypocrisy potentially being rooted in legalism.

    Put a food off limits and you crave it more.

    The toy the kids want to play with most is the one of which you restrict its usage.

    Sounds like some of the same arguments I made here a time or two before, not that I think you needed me to make them first before you were able to articulate them yourself.

    However, neither you nor any of the other participants here have yet to engage me on this theme here on this forum. Obviously, I think it is an important one and it’s good to see you exposing it to a broader audience on Huffpo and perhaps getting a few more folks to consider this important biblical theme.

    The strength of sin is the law. (I Cor 15:56)

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