Oil from the Deepwater Horizon/BP catastrophe is burned to reduce the amount in the water, May 19, 2010. Credit: Creative Commons/U.S. Coast Guard.
Oil from the Deepwater Horizon/BP catastrophe is burned to reduce the amount in the water, May 19, 2010. Credit: Creative Commons/U.S. Coast Guard.

Tikkun Magazine, July/August 2010

OYL! Corruption, the Spirit, the Earth, and Us

by Arthur Waskow

This is not an oil "spill" we are facing, the way water might spill from a dish or oil from a tanker—a finite amount in the first place, and then we clean up.

This is more like piercing a hole into the Caverns of Hell, so that they pour forth without limit.

But we can take this disaster as a teaching toward a turning in our lives and action. To that end, I will present some concrete proposals for action at the end of this essay. But let me begin by assessing the depth of our distress.

1. Spiritual Failings

First and most basic, there is a spiritual teaching in all traditions that the U.S. government and global corporations have been systematically violating.

The gulf disaster is an issue of power and the Spirit, not technology. It is rooted in a spiritual disease. One passage of the Hebrew Scriptures—Leviticus 25-26—and millennia of human experience describe this as refusing to let the earth have its Sabbath rest.

When Leviticus 25 calls on us to let the earth and ourselves make a yearlong Sabbath every seventh year, it is not talking about the minutiae of an Orthodox Jewish Sabbath. It is talking about not blowing up mountains to recover every last chunk of coal, not piercing the mile-deep ocean floor to recover every last gallon of oil.

And Leviticus 26 starts by reminding us of the joy we can take in the earth's abundance if we act with this sabbatical self-restraint; it warns us of the disaster that will follow if we let our greed swallow up the earth, trying to gobble up the abundance all around us; and finally, it calls us to turn in a new direction—and celebrate:

Ye shall make you no idols by carving out a piece of the Whole to worship, neither rear you up a standing stony image against the flowing living breath of all Earth's life-forms, to bow down unto it: for I am YHWH the Breath of Life your God.

Ye shall keep my Sabbath-times of restfulness, and revere my holy places: I am YHWH, the Breath of Life.

Then I will give you rain in due season, and the land shall yield her increase, and the trees of the field shall yield their fruit. And I will give peace in the land, and ye shall lie down, and none shall make you afraid: 

But if ye will not hearken unto me, so that ye break my covenant, I also will do this unto you; I will even appoint over you terror, consumption, and the burning ague, that shall consume the eyes, and cause sorrow of heart: and ye shall sow your seed in vain.

And I will make your cities waste, and bring your holy places unto desolation, and I will not smell the savor of your sweet odors. And I will bring the earth into desolation.

Then shall the earth enjoy her sabbaths, as long as it lieth desolate; even then shall the earth rest, and enjoy her sabbaths. As long as it lieth desolate it shall rest; because it did not rest in your sabbaths, when ye dwelt upon it.

Yet—if they shall confess their iniquity and their trespass which they trespassed against Me, and that also they have walked contrary unto Me, then will I remember my covenant; and I will remember the earth.

What does it mean to "confess our iniquity" and turn in a new direction?

It means to confess our own addiction to the oil and coal that are burning up the earth, and turn as well to face the drug lords of that addiction. For just as Big Tobacco addicted millions of us to lethal nicotine, so Big Oil and Big Coal have addicted millions of us to burning up our planet, our home.

Should we do our best to end our own individual addictions to burning fossil fuels? Yes, and we should also realize that we are indeed caught in a structural addiction that the drug lords helped create. Just as many people with physical addictions to nicotine did their best to force legal restrictions on Big Tobacco, those of us who are forced by the structure of our society to use autos should be working to change that structure.

So we must strip these oil and coal lords of the power that a drug lord has.

On the streets and in the corridors of the Capitol, we must face them down.

The Bible addresses the use of arrogant power to shatter the earth as well as human society in the story of Pharaoh and the Ten Plagues. Indeed, if I believed in the kindergarten version of the Exodus story, in which a disgusted God looks at Pharaoh and says, "Slavery? ZAP! Frogs! Killing newborns? ZAP! Locusts, hailstorms, darkness, death!" If I believed that, I would think that the same God listened to President Obama announce he was opening our coasts to off-shore oil drilling and then just three weeks later said, "Oil drills? ZAP! How's that for ‘Drill, baby, drill?!'"

I do believe the blowout was an act of God, but in a much more complex way: God as the deepest process in our web of life, the YHWH Interbreathing. (Try pronouncing that "Name" with no vowels; what emerges is the sound of breath and wind. The sound of the breath that we humans breathe in, from what the trees breathe out; the sound of the breath that the trees breathe in, from what we humans and other animals breathe out.)

The difference between Pharaoh on the one hand and Moses, Aaron, and Miriam on the other was that Pharaoh thought, in the immortal phrase of Pharaoh Rumsfeld: "Frogs? Oh well, stuff happens. Locusts? Oh well, stuff happens. Oil blowouts? Oh well, stuff happens."

But Moses, Aaron, and Miriam knew that all life is interwoven, that YHWH is the One that Breathes us all. So as the Sh'ma (that crucial Jewish affirmation of God's Unity) teaches that if we reject that Unity and bow down to "gods" of greed, ambition, power—bad things will happen.

If we try to gobble up the earth's abundance, if we leave no room for self-restraint, then the abundance will vanish and we will face famine, drought, impoverishment, death.

Our self-restraint must be rooted in a sense of community that balances the impulse to control. I-Thou must balance I-It. And this attitude toward human communities and toward the earth is what Pharaoh rejected.

2. The Pharaohs of Our Day

Start from a simple technological question. In many of the world's offshore oil wells, there is a remote-controlled "acoustic switch," a shut-off device that is the last resort when the technology malfunctions and a blowout nears. Some countries mandate the acoustic device, and many companies insert them even when they are not required. But the United States does not mandate them, and BP did not insert one.

When I say "the United States," in this case I mean a division of the Interior Department called the Minerals Management Service. What do we know about it?

That on September 10, 2008, at the end of the Bush years, Charlie Savage of the New York Times reported:

In three reports delivered to Congress on Wednesday, the department's inspector general, Earl E. Devaney, found wrongdoing by a dozen current and former employees of the Minerals Management Service, which collects about $10 billion in royalties annually and is one of the government's largest sources of revenue other than taxes. "A culture of ethical failure" pervades the agency, Mr. Devaney wrote in a cover memo.... Two other reports focus on "a culture of substance abuse and promiscuity" in the service's royalty-in-kind program. That part of the agency collects about $4 billion a year in oil and gas rather than cash royalties.... "The investigation also concluded that several of the [Minerals Management Service] officials ‘frequently consumed alcohol at industry functions, had used cocaine and marijuana, and had sexual relationships with oil and gas company representatives.'"

Each acoustic switch costs half a million dollars, according to the Wall Street Journal. It costs much less than that to provide enough gifts, outings, booze, drugs, sex, and promises of future employment to keep the Minerals Management Service happy. Here's the political balance book: invest a hundred thousand bucks or so to buy gifts for the agencies that oversee you, make billions in profit from the absence of oversight, use the billions to invest in election campaigns if some clueless sheriff starts complaining about your giftshop. A sweet deal, all around.

The Minerals Management Service gave British Petroleum (BP) a blanket exemption from having to prove the safety, both short-term in rig technology and long-term in ecological implications, of its highly profitable investment. Why not? Being bribed by sex and drugs is so sweet!

Now this kind of corruption is bad enough. And the Gulf disaster, a kind of blowup of the picture of this corruption, is surely bad enough. But even the Gulf disaster is small potatoes compared to the global disaster Big Oil is cooking up for us, colluding with Big Coal to see how much they need offer to buy the government.

If it took sex, drugs, and dollars to corrupt the Minerals Management Service and enable the Gulf oil disaster, it will take much more to corrupt Congress and enable a global disaster.

3. Making Policy Choices

As for a Climate Healing Act from Congress: Senator Graham, a Republican who was originally among the sponsors of one of the Senate climate/energy bills, began to whine that the oil blowout was ruining the chances to pass a bill.

Why? Because now the big payoff to Big Oil, permission to do offshore drilling, was in danger. Those offshore permits were to pay for Big Oil's tolerating a climate act full of other sweet goodies for itself. And without the permits, Big Oil would go home sulking, not ready to pay the House of ill repute called the Senate enough to buy their votes any more.

There are two climate bills before the Senate. Most of the Big Media are mentioning only one—sponsored by Senators Kerry and Lieberman. That was the one Senator Graham quit. But it still panders to the power of Big Oil, Big Coal, Big Nukes. Because it does, say the Big Media, it has a bare chance of passing.

Because the other bill does not contain lollipops for the Bigs, the media say it has no chance of passing. This other bill, by Senators Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) is the only one that is bipartisan, the only one that has women among its sponsors. It has supporters from parts of the environmental community but not from Big Coal, Big Oil, or Big Nukes.

What's the difference? The Kerry-Lieberman bill is almost a thousand pages long, the better to supply many, many goodies for Big Nukes, Big Coal, and Big Oil. For example: Until the oil eruption in the Gulf, the draft bill opened the door wide for rampant oil drilling. Now, a little ashamed or a little scared, its authors changed it a little.

It still opens the door to drilling but now says coastal states can veto drilling near them. But to do it, they have to get the legislature to pass a law, and give up lots of federal money. When Big Oil gets New Jersey or Florida in its sights (remember the bribes of money, drugs, and sex Big Oil used on the Minerals Management Service in Washington?) we can all kiss goodbye to the beaches, fishes, and oceans of the Atlantic Coast.

The Kerry-Lieberman bill also gives Wall Street the gift of a system of carbon credits that can be sold like the derivatives that made such a mess of our economy in 2008.

And the Kerry-Lieberman bill cripples the ability of the EPA to set rules for emissions of carbon dioxide and other heat-increasing gases, and cripples the ability of states to set higher standards than Congress does. If those provisions stay in the bill, our planet and we are better off without it.

The Cantwell-Collins bill is much simpler. Just forty pages long. Where Kerry-Lieberman feeds the money to the derivatives market, Cantwell-Collins sets a national cap on carbon dioxide emissions, has the U.S. government auction all under-the-cap permits to emit carbon dioxide, and then passes on 75 percent of the auction proceeds as a dividend to every legal resident of the United States—about $1,000 a year (so it's called "cap and dividend").

The rest goes to research and development for solar, wind, and energy-conserving measures, and for green jobs.

Fuel costs based on carbon would rise, but the $1,000 dividend would more than pay the extra cost for working-class and middle-class families.

At the Shalom Center, we view the Collins-Cantwell bill as far, far preferable. And we think there must be a halt to offshore oil drilling. So if you go to http://tiny.cc/shalomletter you will find a draft letter to senators urging that Congress make strong climate/energy law the highest priority for national and global security, including these steps:

  • Prohibit, at once and permanently, all new offshore oil drilling in U.S. waters, and end all offshore drilling by July 4, 2020.
  • End all federal subsidies to oil and coal production, and raise the liability limit from the present ridiculous $75 million to $10 billion for companies that, like BP, wound the earth and our country.
  • Channel large subsidies to research, development, and installation of energy-conserving practices, solar and wind energy production, and the creation of green jobs.
  • Pass strong climate-healing laws that cap all greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. and return fees for emissions as dividends to all legal U.S. residents.
  • Encourage stricter emissions limits by the states and the EPA.
  • Provide crucial support to poor countries that are already suffering from the effects of global warming, and to help them pursue a non-fossil fuel path for economic development.

We provide two different versions of the letter, and we encourage you to make either one your own, in your own words, your own language. The more personal the letter feels when a senator reads it, the better.

4. Prayerful Public Empowerment

While traditional letter-writing to Congress members is necessary, it will not be enough to move them. We need the kind of nonviolent direct action that brought about the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965. At last, in New Orleans and in Houston the American people are beginning to stir. Demonstrations have begun. Are the rest of us ready to turn our country—our world—in a new direction?

Start a boycott of BP in your community.

Use the days from July 18-20 for prayerful study and public action to prevent climate disaster and toward building a new worldwide sustainable economy.

July 20 is the three-month anniversary of the BP oil blowout, and it is also Tisha B'Av, the traditional Jewish day of grief for the destruction of the Holy Temple (which today means our earth itself) and of hopeful action toward the healing of the world.

How can we create a grassroots response that is rooted in spiritual commitment and effective political action?

My model and my motto is what Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said as he came home from the March on Selma, Alabama, that brought about a Voting Rights Act at the height of the Civil Rights Movement: "I felt as if my legs were praying."

For there is only one answer to the disgusting, lethal—literally lethal—mess that we confront, imposed on us by the overweening power of Big Coal and Big Oil to purchase parts of our government.

That is prayerful public empowerment: Enough citizens angry enough about the poisoning of our planet and hopeful enough about the healing of our earth to answer the oil blowout in the Gulf by creating a democratic blowout across America. Small "d." A movement now as powerful as the Civil Rights Movement was forty-five years ago, when it forced Lyndon Johnson to bring Congress the Voting Rights Act.

That movement got laws passed by using both the conventional forms of lobbying (writing Congress members, visiting their offices, etc.) and unconventional forms (nonviolent direct action, civil disobedience, sit-ins, marches, freedom rides, freedom schools, mass mobilizations, vital vigils).

It took concerted action by Congress, as well as many local governmental and private bodies, to end racial segregation and to make sure that African American communities were included in the American political process. Just so, it will take concerted congressional action—as well as many actions by local and state governments and by "private" bodies such as businesses, religious congregations, labor unions, and PTAs—to go beyond the dangers that the over-burning of fossil fuels now pose to our country and our planet.

Let us turn to the Jewish fast day of Tisha B'Av (July 19-20 this year). It commemorates the destruction of two Holy Temples in Jerusalem—one by the Babylonian Empire in 586 bce and one by the Roman Empire in 70 ce. In the rabbinic tradition, that disastrous day was also the day when Mashiach (Messiah) was born—born but hidden away because humanity was not yet ready to usher in the Messianic Days of peace, justice, healing.

So Tisha B'Av is a day of both grief and hope.

I propose celebrating it in a new way. For many of us in this generation, the Holy Temple is not just in Jerusalem but is the whole round planet. Earth. In danger of destruction, and begging us both to grieve and to give birth to a planetary community that actually treats the whole web of life with respect.

So we could draw on the spiritual depths of Tisha B'Av in a politically activist way: "praying with our arms and legs."

We could address our grief as we watch disasters like the Gulf oil blowout, the droughts that are destroying large parts of Africa, the melting snows and glaciers. And we could hold high the vision of a planetary community (Birthing of Mashiach) that is also part of the tradition of Tisha B'Av.

In order to draw on large numbers of people who might not be able to take part on a regular work day, public events to do this might be held on Sunday, July 18, in Washington, D.C., and perhaps in many communities throughout the country (and beyond).

In regard to Washington: imagine gathering anywhere between fifty and one thousand Jews (and others if they feel so moved) at either or both the Capitol and White House, reading all or part of Eicha (the Book of Lamentations), interspersed with Kinot (laments) for the earth. (Tamara Cohen, who is the Barbara Bick Memorial Fellow of the Shalom Center, is working on a liturgy for Tisha B'Av that will focus on the endangered earth as Holy Temple.)

There should also be time for hope—for singing songs, for kids as well as grownups to paint pictures of the decent future, and for other joyful expressions of Mashiach-time.

Depending on what is happening at that time earth-wise on the Gulf Coast, in the Senate, etc., the Tisha B'Av gatherings could put forth specific demands/proposals for healing the earth. Demands like:

  • Prohibiting any further oil-well drilling off the coasts of the United States.
  • Insisting that Congress plan step-by-step for the shift from coal to wind and solar power for generating electricity in America, in a ten-year time frame.
  • Setting the Chanukah standard for using oil by 2020—one day's oil meeting eight days' needs, as the story of Chanukah says happened when the Maccabees rededicated the Temple.

The Shalom Center will provide the new earth-centered Tisha B'Av liturgy to those who are ready to do this in their own locales, perhaps at politically sensitive places like EPA offices or BP installations, or perhaps in their own congregations.

And if there is a "critical mass" of Washingtonians who will join in doing this, the Shalom Center will be glad to send out information on this, inviting people from say, New York City to Virginia, to come to D.C.

Some participants in D.C. (or elsewhere) might feel moved to do nonviolent civil disobedience, others not. Some might observe the full twenty-four-hour Tisha B'Av fast from food and water, others not. Some might extend the no-food part of the fast beyond Tisha B'Av. Some might want to visit specific congressional representatives.

I suggest this as a model for similar actions that might be undertaken by varied American communities—actions like proclaiming our independence from fossil-fuel domination and damage on Independence Day, July 4. Like focusing the fast of Ramadan on learning self-restraint in our urge to gobble up the earth's abundance. Like renewing and transforming the meaning of Labor Day.

Please write me at awaskow@shalomctr.org to let me know what you think of this possibility, what you would want to add to it, how you would want to change it, and what you yourself would bring to make it real.

Rabbi Arthur Waskow is the director of the Shalom Center (theshalomcenter.org), co-author of The Tent of Abraham, and author of Godwrestling—Round 2, Down-to-Earth Judaism, and a dozen other books on Jewish thought and practice, as well as books on U.S. public policy.

Waskow, Arthur. 2010. OYL! Corruption, the Spirit, the Earth, and Us. Tikkun 25(4): 21

tags: Eco-Spirituality, Judaism, Toxic Environments, US Politics  
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