An ex-priest I know just returned from visiting his old parish in Louisiana. "Even with oil destroying their marshes and livelihoods," the man who used to be Father Joseph, told me, "many of the faithful are still posting Facebook pledges to Support Offshore Drilling."
Father Joe is a tall, lean man who has moved to the more eco-friendly Northwest. "Maybe it will take this oil spill to launch another Great Awakening among religions," he suggested.
"Yeah," I laughed. "And maybe it will take a triple digit heat wave along the East Coast to pass climate change legislation."
We launched into an "eco-theology" dialogue asking: Are the godly going green?
There are signs and wonders everywhere. A recent Associated Press headline proclaims: "Green Religion Movement Hopes Spill Wins Converts."
A young Southern Baptist, James Merritt, just published a book on Earth Day -- Green Like God: Unlocking the Divine Plan for Our Planet. Of the split between conservatives and liberals on the environment, Merritt says, "the right stole God and the left stole green . . . I think God and green go together."
But Green evangelicals have a tough row to hoe -- or spill to stop. There is still much resistance. Only 34 percent of white evangelicals believe that climate change is human-caused. A federal appeals court in Louisiana just turned down Obama's moratorium on deep-water drilling in the Gulf. Conservative evangelicals -- especially in the South -- are skeptical of what they see as "earth worship."
I told Father Joe, "My Southern Baptist Sunday School teacher, Mrs. Eula, always taught us that we were in this Earth, but not of it. She said that Baptists do not worship creation -- we worship the Creator."
My teacher also taught, "God is super-natural, or above nature." According to Mrs. Eula, God was far beyond His creation. True paradise was not here in this sin-stained world -- it was in heaven.
This was my first moment of doubt. "You mean God doesn't live here anymore?" I demanded of Mrs. Eula.
I wondered if God was like a landlord who'd moved on to a better neighborhood, so didn't repair what was not working in His world. Did God just want to suck souls out of the Earth for heaven -- and leave our dead bodies behind? Was this Earth just a big, dead body? And since paradise was already lost when we left the Garden of Eden, why would God care if we ruined this world?
That version of God prefigures British Petroleum today. Like an absentee landlord with a god-complex, this corporation cares only for oil, not where it comes from. It shows contempt for the oceans and "small people" who live by these waters.
Father Joe concluded our eco-spirituality conversation with what might have been the best sermon I ever heard. "Well," he said in his mellifluous Louisiana drawl, "if God so loved the world -- why can't we?"
It does seem this Gulf ecological nightmare is now waking up evangelicals. Their revelation is not a burning bush, but a burning oil rig. Conservative evangelicals are praying with Gulf fishermen and trying to save oil-stained marshes as much as their souls. They are reconnecting the Creator with Creation.
A new generation of eco-evangelicals could be a fourth Great Awakening in this country. The first Awakening coincided with the American Revolution, the second with the abolitionist movement, and the third with the social gospel of humanitarian activism. Could green religion be the next movement? Instead of evangelicals fixating on a Rapturous end-of-the-world Revelation, could we see a save-the-world green evolution?
Consider this an invitation, like the pulpit call evangelical preachers issue at the end of their sermons. Please join the rest of us sweltering, oil-stained souls in the modern miracle of cleaning up and conserving our Earth. Can we at last bow down together and also include the earth in our definition of the Divine? Can worship and prayer also embrace oil spill clean-ups and rescuing sea turtles from the burning hellfires of Gulf waters?
What if churches and sermons recognized the oil staining out Gulf as a call to repent? To clean up and conserve? Change our lives. Stop drilling holes in our world. What if, instead of being transfixed on the afterlife, we actually fought against losing our paradises -- like these soulful Gulf waters? The Garden of Eden is still here on earth, though struggling to survive our abandonment.
We are still in the thrall of this terrible gusher. Over 300 million gallons have sullied our Gulf and now there is fear that the spill might taint the Eastern seaboard and spread as far as Europe.
The Internet is abuzz with claims that this is an "oil spill apocalypse" and perhaps a sign of Tribulations, or End Times. Here is my plea to all true believers: The tribulations are now. We're still here. Please lend a hand. Come home.
Brenda Peterson is the author of the recent memoir I Want To Be Left Behind: Finding Rapture Here on Earth. For more: www.IWantToBeLeftBehind.com
To get involved and pass around:
"Conservative Evangelicals embrace God and green" Christian Science Monitor, http://www.csmonitor.com/layout/set/print/content/view/print/287774
Evangelical Environmental Network, "National Day of Prayer for the Gulf," July 18th http://prayerforcreationcare.creationcare.org/
Catholic Conservation Center, http://conservation.catholic.org/
Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism: http://rac.org/
National Religious Partnership for the Environment: http://www.nrpe.org
Ecological Buddhism: http://www.ecobuddhism.org/
Muslim Environment Watch: http://muslimenvironment.wordpress.com/category/environment-from-islamic-perspective/islam-environment-from-islamic-perspective/
Earth Ministry: http://earthministry.org/