Stuck in the Oil Spill: Lamenting Our Way of Life

June 10, 2010


[Ed. note: This article is part of our series of weekly reflections, called Deep Down Things, published on Wednesdays.]

by Ragan Sutterfield

When I was young, around 10 or 12, there was a small forest behind my house with a creek running through it. I spent much of my day in that forest, watching birds, exploring every animal hole and rabbit trail. One day though, I arrived in the forest to find a thick slick of oil on the creek and several dead birds and frogs along the water. I felt angry, I wanted revenge for whoever had committed this crime, and I wanted to cry with sorrow and rage.

The same feelings come to me as I listen to the news and scroll through pictures of the devastation being wreaked by the BP oil spill along the gulf. I have spent time bird watching along the gulf and I have watched plovers and pelicans living their creaturely lives along the ocean that is now drenched with oil. I feel helpless and sorrowful and I feel angry at BP for their carelessness. But more than that I feel outrage at the way of life that few have dared to challenge, the way of life that is at the heart of the destruction and devastation we now see across the gulf coast. But in this outrage I must admit that I am a part of this way of life, that I fly and ride in vehicles and use plastic containers that all come from the oil economy. Unlike my experience as a child, I now know that I am to blame as much as anyone else. And so now with anger and mourning I lament the oil spill.

Lament is a kind of mourning, but it also carries with it a sense of regret, a sense that the pain and sorrow we experience was in some ways brought on by our own actions. This is the sense we see in Lamentations, and I believe that it is the only appropriate response to the oil spill. But lament also carries with it the need for repentance—we cannot truly lament without a desire that our lives be otherwise. We must not only mourn the oil spill, we must change our lives so that we do not require such destruction.

During a week-long Summer Institute put on by the Duke Center for Reconciliation, many Christians from various denominations, nations, and backgrounds gathered together to discuss and consider how we might join Christ’s reconciling work in the world (Col. 1:15-20). We talked about lament and many of us saw the need to lament the oil spill. So we gathered together, collected our ideas, and drafted a call for lament that we hoped to bring back to our churches. Dave Allen, a Duke Divinity School Student, wrote a beautiful litany of lament that congregations could use to lament the oil spill together.  We felt that even though it was soon approaching, we should mark June 20th as a day to encourage all Christians to lament the oil spill. June 20 is both the two-month anniversary of the beginning of the spill and a Sunday, making it a perfect day to live into a Sabbath practice of avoiding oil-dependent travel and consumption.

We hope that Christian communities everywhere will join us in mourning the toxic economy on which we have become dependent by signing our call for lament and taking on the recommended practices spelled out there. We have also developed a Facebook page where we are providing updates and resources such as flyers for congregations.

Let the church stand together as a witness to the gifts of lament, repentance, and reconciliation!

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