Sunday, August 7, 2011

Golden Oldies: "Sin Boldly"

I shared this as a Facebook note last summer while the Gulf oil spill was still occupying a lot of attention. The good news is that the Gulf of Mexico seems to be doing better than anybody expected back then. The President's recent EPA ruling on increasing automobile gas mileage is also encouraging. That's the kind of thing we're going to have to do a lot more of if we're going to get this crisis under control.

The bad news is that the petro-chemical industry is now attempting to do something so brazenly awful that, should they succeed, it will be, in the words of scientist James Hanson, "essentially game over for the climate."

The proposed Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry crude oil from the tar sands of Alberta to refineries in Texas, is the environmentalist's ultimate nightmare. Simply extracting the oil from the sands requires so much energy that the amount of carbon released into the atmosphere will be triple that produced by burning oil that is drilled. The pipeline itself could create a huge spill right in the middle of America's heartland, and has the potential to contaminate the vast natural reserve of water known as the Ogalalla Aquifer. This project could be so disastrous that huge protests are planned in Washington later this month, and leading environmentalists like Bill McKibben are preparing to engage in civil disobedience to stop it.

Is this phenomenal man-made disaster really going to happen? Once again, there's good news and bad news. The good news is that whether to build it is entirely President Obama's decision. He doesn't have to compromise with anybody. The bad news is that he's under enormous pressure from the same people who brought us the recent near-default and credit downgrade. You can guess what they want this time.

If you care about the future of the planet—or even if you're just mad about their callous disregard for everybody else's financial well-beingplease call the president and tell him he doesn't have to give in this time. 202-456-1111. Otherwise, you may be looking back nostalgically some day at the early 21st century, when the climate was still relatively normal.

Pecca fortiter, sed fortius fide et gaude in Christo

"Sin boldly, but trust and rejoice even more boldly in Christ." This famous advice from Martin Luther is often wildly misunderstood, especially when the second part of the quote is omitted. What Brother Martin meant, as I understand it, is that there comes a point when you know you are doing all you can, but your efforts are still insufficient. That's when you have to cut yourself some slack and discover the saving power of grace.

I have been thinking a lot about this in the context of our increasingly obvious environmental crisis, which this summer's gulf oil spill and record-shattering temperatures have dramatized for those with eyes to see. The environment has long been my number one moral issue. Notice that I said moral and not political, because I don't see it as a political cause—although if it were it would of course be a conservative one. During this long, hot summer, though, I have been tempted to despair about the world in which my children and students will be living out the rest of their lives. Where, I wonder, is the will to take this challenge seriously? Where is the grace to redeem the inadequacies of what we are currently doing or, mostly, not doing?

Here are some of the things I myself am doing to fight the carbon addiction that threatens my children's future:

• Buying my electricity from Green Mountain Energy, which uses only renewable sources like wind, solar, geothermal and hydroelectric.

• Mowing my lawn with a rechargeable electric mower.

• Driving a hybrid car that averages well over 40 mpg.

• Using the most energy-efficient appliances I can find.

• Recycling extensively.

• Using canvas grocery bags whenever possible.

• Eating no beef whatsoever, and less and less meat of any kind.

• Buying local produce when it's available.

Now here are some of the things I wish I could do, and the reasons why, for the time being, I have decided to "sin boldly" instead:

• Walk to work. (I can't afford to send my kids to a private school.)

• Take public transportation. (It's almost nonexistent in Texas.)

• Install solar panels on my house. (I can't afford it.)

• Grow all my own food. (I don't have sufficient space, and my gardening skills are dismal.)

• Travel less. (No single close relative outside of my immediate family lives less than a thousand miles from me.)

• Go vegan. (Maybe someday—yeah, I know how wimpy that sounds.)

And here are some things I've come to realize this summer:

• The government isn't going to do anything about this problem. Honest, good-faith efforts have been made, and they've been crushed by the behemoth of petro-chemical self-interest.

• Therefore, it is up to us, working together, to be the body of Christ in protecting the sacredness of Creation, against which our sins rise like an abomination in the nostrils of God. (If that metaphor doesn't work for you, supply your own.)

Each note I've written recently has been targeted to a specific audience, and this one is written expressly for my former students, who will be living in this world an average of 20 to 30 years longer than I will, and will be sharing the experience with my children. I can't possibly tag all of you, but you know who you are. As I've said before, I try not to write about politics on Facebook (although I've sinned boldly in that regard a couple of times too recently). So I repeat: this has nothing to do with politics, as we normally understand it. I am simply telling you that lone individuals, working on their own, will not be able to head off what is shaping up to be the greatest man-made disaster in history. As Bill McKibben, a self-described mild-mannered Methodist Sunday School teacher, recently wrote, we must act together with the moral courage of the brave people who began the Civil Rights movement in the hostile ground of the 50's south, and we must build the momentum to shame our leaders into doing what we cannot do ourselves. Only then will I be able to pecca fortiter with the fide and gaude that there exists the grace to make up for all of our manifest failures, past, present and future.

That's my sermon for the beginning of the school year. It's also the most important lesson I will ever teach, and I'm giving it to you for free. Go therefore, and make a world in which boldness shames sin into submission.

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