May 30–Supra-Nationalist Moral Imagination

When I was a boy, I was really interested in the physical sciences.  I set up a lab in my bedroom where I did experiments on all sorts of things.  I remember being fascinated by the flammable qualities of birch-bark. Much, I’m sure, to the horror of my parents.  I burned holes in my clothes from the sulfuric acid, but never burned the house down!

Perhaps those little experiments with birch bark as a fuel, prefigured my later interests.  When I was in high school, and college, I turned my attention to a course of study designed to make a biologist out of me.  I was particularly interested in environmental sciences.  In the seventies, during the height of the oil crisis, I was an impressionable seven or eight year old who thought that we were destroying thewonderful outdoors that I so loved with our gasoline addiction.

Later in college I realized that my interests, relative to that birch-bark experiment, had to do with ideology.  Even then, as a 10- year old, I recognized, if only implicitly, a basic philosophical flaw in our thinking, and I wanted to be a part of thinking around it.   I also recognized that I gained my first inkling of that flaw in our thinking by having been raised in the church, by  having been exposed every week to the notion that our highest given task is to transcend our inclination to think only about ourselves, that much of ethics was about the nurturing the ability to have a moral imagination that does not stop at the borders of my body, my family, my community, my country, even my species.  That, at least, was how I heard the great commandment.


The basic philosophic flaw in our thinking, to which I just referred, is not a result of our ideology being too complex.  The problem, instead stems from not having advanced in our thinking beyond the days of the economists Rinaldo Ricardo and Alfred Marshall who viewed land us unlimited resource and unlimited sink for waste by-products.  The ideology that has not significantly changed,  is simply this:  our economy has unlimited capacity to grow because we have unlimited resources on this planet and unlimited sinks  for the waste by products of our economy.  Some very few are beginning to realize there’s a problem with this thinking — that our resources and our sinks are limited.  But for Ricardo and Marshall, the world was still expanding.  The theory was not “wrong.”

Nevertheless, I find it interesting that the wisdom of the ancient Hebrew prophets and poets could articulate a sense of the idiocy of that ideology.  Perhaps Isaiah was just way ahead of his time.  Perhaps the anonymous poet of the Proverbs was simply poeticizing and not to be taken seriously.  But the tradition has nevertheless recorded their plaintive cry: “live in accord with the way things are, and not with the way you want them to be.”  We want our sinks to be unlimited, so that we can consume without concern. But that ideology is killing us.

What, exactly is killing us?

The oil gushing out of the unplugged hole drilled into the oil field deep beneath the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico will not kill us.  The BP executive who made a comment when this all began that the amount of oil being released into the ocean is very tiny relative to the volume of the ocean was correct (even is somewhat un-politic).  Yes, there are birds being killed, and yes, massive die-off’s of the marine life, deep in the gulf will likely occur due to the microbial activity going nuts, trying to digest all of this crude and using up all of the oxygen.  Yes, a hurricane now would render  New Orleans finally unlivable.

The oil gushing out of the unplugged hole drilled deep into the oil fields a mile below the surface will not kill us.

But if it’s not a wake up call for what is killing us, it is hard to imagine what could be.  For every gallon of the stuff that we actually use, in our cars, in our jet planes, in our homes, we release over 20 lbs of carbon dioxide into the air.  It’s this sink, our preciously thin atmosphere, that we really must be worried about.  Oil by-products have been spilling into the atmosphere for the last 40 years in quantities, that if we could see it, would make the DeepWater Horizon disaster look like a game.

The result of this bigger spill, the one about which we should be mobilizing in massive quantities to do something is that, so far, we are trapping about two watts per square meter of extra energy from the sun.  Now that may not sound like much.  But the combined result of that extra energy is that everything that was frozen in our polar regions is melting.  As Bill McKibben put it recently, “Those famous Apollo pictures of the planet from outer space? They’re about as useful as your high-school year book picture.  There is much less white up top.”  Apparently there is about one third less ice on the top of the planet today, and about 2/3’s more white on the tops of our heads.

Even the oceans are being effected more by the carbon dioxide released as a result of our burning the oil, than by all of the spills combined.  The oceans are almost 30 percent more acidic than they were 40 years ago.  At some point, as that number continues to rise, the oceans will stop being able to support some of its bottom of the food chain creatures. At that point too, the ocean will begin absorbing less carbon dioxide.  I care not to speculate on the challenges that will pose us.


I do not see how we can look at this as anything but a “woe to you,” a la the prophet Isaiah.  We are being challenged to hear Wisdom and to learn her lessons.  Perhaps because her lessons seem so fanciful and so happy, we have  heard time teasing the lesson out of the text.  Wisdom cries out though because her venue is being destroyed — because what delights human kind does not delight equally the whole world.  Wisdom cries out because the proportion between what was created beautiful and what is now wasted is growing.

Whatever else scholars may suggest about the feminine lacking from the religious lives of churches, and people in them,  this much has to be true:  we humans struggle to to attain a moral imagination that transcends boundaries, that meets the full impact of the great commandment head on.  I knew that I wanted to preach today about the oil spill, but it was all I could do to think beyond the terrible pictures of oil washing up on beaches, of birds soaked in sticky, stinky crude.  It takes both an appreciation for the accumulation of data regarding the carbon dioxide build up in our atmosphere and what high concentrations of carbon dioxide do to atmospheres and an ability to imagine how I contribute to the problem.


Let me finish this morning by drawing a parallel to the civic holiday we celebrate tomorrow.  Memorial day is designed to commemorate our war dead.  I know that.  But our religious texts from the Old Testament prophets, to the Wisdom literature, to Jesus and Paul, all seek to lift our vision from beyond our own boundaries.  Our religious texts do not stop there: they warn us of the unfortunate consequences of a failure to attain a supra-nationalist moral imagination.

In the 1990’s the Germans erected a public memorial with the words “To All Our War Dead” inscribed on it. A person, or perhaps a group of people, covertly inserted a German possessive which allowed the inscription to read, “To All the Dead of Our Wars.”  The addition of that single possessive broadened the Germans’  imaginations so that not only might they mourn those of their own nationality, but those of the great many other nationalities killed in the two wars for which they had so much to do in instigating.

On memorial day, we will remember, I presume, those first, innocent victims of the war on terror — the 2,982 deaths at the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.  Let us also remember that among those almost 3000 deaths, 80 countries are represented.

The mourning of foreigners requires courage and a moral imagination that is about as popular in any country as the feminine Wisdom is in our churches.   Perhaps we can hear her as a call to clean up our act, not only with respect to the suffocating of her planet, but with respect to the well being of all her creation, men and women from around the globe who suffer and die in war too.



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