Jim Wallis on the Deepwater Horizon spill

Jim Wallis is an evangelical Christian writer and political activist, best known as the founder and editor of Sojourners magazine and of the Washington, D.C.-based community of the same name. He is author of God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It (Harper) and The Soul of Politics (HarperCollins).
I interviewed him June 2.

What are your feelings about the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico as the technological solutions continue to fail?

I think the announcement last weekend that the top kill had failed marked a critical shift in the issue. The conversation up until then has been dominated by technological issues, how to make oil drilling safe. The fact that they can’t fix it now until late summer shifted the whole picture.

To me, it’s a picture of addiction. What happens with addiction is that after a while it makes your life not work. There’s a lot of denial until you lose your job or family or home or self respect, then finally there is a moment of epiphany and conversion. “Hello, my name is John S. and I’m an alcoholic.” That’s a moment of redemption and redirection.

What we see in the heartbreaking pictures of out-of-work shrimpers, wheezing clean-up workers, or oil-soaked wildlife are the effects of this addiction. I was doing the Chris Matthews show last weekend; his focus was on politics, BP and Obama. But now these pictures from Louisiana show that our life as we have organized it isn’t working. Our addiction to oil is making our lives dysfunctional.

Whether it’s the Gulf coast wetlands, tourism, or livelihoods -- when this touches Florida then it will become a national issue. Mississippi, Alabama or Louisiana are just southern states but Florida is America, the destination state for East coasters.

What does our Christian moral and spiritual vision bring to the discussion?

It’s heartbreaking as we see how this is spilling out of control. The only redemptive thing here will be if it really does change us, if we take a long look in the mirror. It reminds me of Chesterton when asked what he thought was most wrong with the world. He responded, “I am.”

We did a powerful piece on our blog by a young woman, Tracy Bianchi, who drove her family from Illinois to Wisconsin on the Memorial Day weekend. She reflected on being in bumper to bumper traffic as Illinois people conveyed themselves to Wisconsin “ …so we could be next to a lake watching all this unfold and criticizing BP. But rarely do I hear anyone getting angry with themselves. Really though, I am part of the reason for that oil spill. As I sat on the highway with thousands of motorists, all fresh off a weekend that chugged down gallons of gas to fuel boats and other recreational toys, I was reminded once again of the total dichotomy that is my life. On the one hand I want to sit back all smug and hope for the demise of BP and all things petroleum. But I cannot be so quick to hate the oil companies since I really like their product. It gets me from point A to B on a daily basis and it launches me into the state of Wisconsin whenever I need a vacation.”

It’s not just that BP is lying. BP is a lie. Everything BP stands for is a lie. It’s not just them, though, it’s our participation as well.

I’m not often touched by advertising but some of the ads I’ve seen of soldiers who come back from Iraq and Afghanistan, saying that to change our lifestyle would be hard but no harder than what we all asked those soldiers to do in Iraq and Afghanistan, have gotten to me.

“I was fighting because I thought my country was under attack, not for oil companies,” they say.

We’ve had many teachable moments over the last 10 years, like 9/11 or Katrina, which we chose to move beyond without learning much. Whether this can be another moment we can miss or one that finally gets our attention is the question.

The faith community can and should now get involved. When it was a who’s in charge, who’s going to pay issue, there wasn’t much role for us but now there is. Chris Matthews told me: “Well, Jim, you’re going further and deeper than we usually get on this show.” He was right: Further and deeper is what is called for.

The nation needs a moral teacher. Matthews is convinced it can only be politicians but I think we of the Christian faith community need to step in. To move from fossil fuels to clean energy sources will take a re-wiring of our energy grid but it also will take a re-wiring of ourselves, our assumptions, demands, expectations, our requirements. I think this could be the beginning of a serious national reflection about our whole way of life. I’m not saying it will be so, because the forces against that are enormous, to keep us from really looking at how we live.

We have a moment of opportunity, especially as the quick fixes fail. It’s clearly a moral issue. It’s time for moral reflection about our whole way of life, and the Christian community has a key role to play. It’s bipartisan as well. Both parties are equally guilty. Once you move beyond politics it’s about a conversion process, about changing our habits of the heart, our way of living.

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