June 1, 2010
By Max Carter
The Washington Post
Q: The catastrophic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is a widening environmental, economic and political crisis. Is it also a moral crisis? How does religion influence our use and abuse of the natural world? Does religion help or harm the environment?
Whether it is the demand for cheap coffee that has in the past encouraged oppressive military and economic activity in Latin America, the demand for exclusive ownership of land that has led to the dispossession of populations and the destruction of the natural environment in the Americas, the Middle East, and elsewhere, or our insatiable appetite for fossil fuels, we "sow the seeds of violence" by our consumptive behavior and lifestyle. It is easy to point the finger at others, but if we didn't have such a desire for "the goodies," companies such as BP wouldn't be engaging in risky behavior. As one who works with college students most of the time, I recognize "risky behavior" when I see it - and it almost always boils down to ones "desires."
The default setting for many Quakers on issues such as the massive oil spill in the Gulf (or any other disaster resulting from our cravings, for that matter) is "WWJWD" - "What Would John Woolman Do?"
Woolman, an 18th century Quaker tailor, orchardist, and mystic from New Jersey, is famous for dedicating his life to addressing the sin of slavery, the abuse of Native Americans, and the demeaning of laborers through unfair economic systems and overwork. Woolman saw clearly that there is a direct line from our own desires and cravings to the justification of so clear an evil as slavery, the dissipation of the original inhabitants of the land in order to steal their property, and the oppression of workers to maximize profits.
Woolman linked the great social evils of his day to a failure to see the interconnection of classic religious values such as a deep and inward spirituality, integrity, simplicity, equality, community, and peace. If we were attached more to the lasting things of life rather than transient material objects, we might look upon physical possessions with less sense of ultimacy; if we simplified our lives and "made do" with the basic necessities instead of pursuing "wants," there would be plenty to go around; if we saw others as equals, all living in the same community of humanity and nature, we would be more careful about how our decisions affected others; if we recognized that our own lifestyles directly lead to violence done to others and to nature, we might, in Woolman's own words, "Examine the clothing we wear, the food we eat, and the very furnishings of our houses and try whether the seeds of war lie in these, our possessions."
During my life, I have tried to decrease the amount of my dependence on fossil fuels by biking and walking whenever possible and by using alternative energy sources for heating and cooling our home. Yet I, too, have contributed to the Gulf oil spill by using petroleum products on a daily basis and by not altering my lifestyle even more intentionally. I share in the blame.
As we all contemplate the meaning of this disaster, it is my hope that we contemplate the experience of another of my faith tradition's central figures, George Fox, who turned down early release from imprisonment if he would join the militia. Committed to the way of Jesus, he rejected the offer with the reply, "I live in the virtue of that life and power which removes the occasion for war." Perhaps if we all "lived in the virtue of that life and power which removes the occasion for a gluttonous desire for cheap, nonrenewable energy," BP and other companies would not feel the need to engage in such risky behavior.
Being the campus minister I am, it is also my hope that we recognize risky behavior in ourselves, rather than pointing to others as the source of our problems. And when that happens, I am convinced that, almost James Watt-like, we will be in the "Last Days" - and we won't have to worry as much about the earth! Holding ourselves accountable, indeed, is for me one of the signs of the impending millennial reign of peace!
I won't be holding my breath, though!
A recorded Friends minister, Max Carter serves on the Board of the American Friends Service Committee and the Advisory Board of the Earlham School of Religion.