Early last month I received a telephone call from Cora Jones, a parishioner of the Church of Jesus at Rosebud and the Superintendent of the BIA on the Rosebud Reservation. Cora called to express her concern and to solicit support and help in defeating attempts to establish a dump site on the Rosebud Reservation. In sharing her fears, she cited the pollution and potential disease such a dump could bring for residents, especially children, in the surrounding communities.
Shortly after my conversation with Cora Jones, I read a persuasive article in The Sioux Falls Argus Leader concerning the Lonetree dump site proposed for the area outside of Edgemont, South Dakota. The editorial pointed out the need to anticipate the long term consequences of such a dump site rather than concentrating on short term financial gain for the community and state.
At the same time these local concerns for the environment were being expressed here in South Dakota, the disturbing news of the oil spill in the Persian Gulf became known. A new form of terrorism was reported; terrorism against the environment itself. The wanton and destructive pollution of the Gulf presented an all too vivid picture of the atrocities occasioned by war. The innocent victims of terrorism now include the entire ecosystem.
While the connection between waste dumps on the Rosebud or outside of Edgemont and the oil spill on the Persian Gulf may seem tenuous, there is an important parallel. In all three cases there is a violation, of a deep and pervasive kind, against the earth, the environment, and finally ourselves in these acts of terrorism. While “terrorism” may seem to be too strong a term in describing the dump sites, the pollution caused by such waste disposal is no less odious than the terrorism of the oil spill in the Persian Gulf.
Regardless of the cause, be it the Exxon Valdez or the deliberate dumping of oil on the ocean, the net effect is the same; terrorism in which an innocent and passive earth is destroyed; unable to speak, unable to protest. Nor is the motivation all that different. Our insatiable thirst for oil, our wanton and knowing destruction of our environment, through pollution motivated by greed, present us with a different kind of terrorism which often is not recognized. Perhaps the war “on the Persian Gulf’ through the intentional fouling of the Gulf will help us to realize what we do both intentionally and unintentionally in terrorizing the environment.
We are often shocked at how certain nations and peoples in the course of history have been so insensitive and callous in administering torture and crimes against humanity. In such insensitivity we recognize that repeating any practice, no matter how destructive, can blunt the horror and pain of such torture. Our insensitivity born of the acceptance and continued torture of the environment itself, however, should be equally shocking.
Our justifications and rationalizations are similar to those who torture prisoners of war. The excuses are obviously different. Rather than “interrogating prisoners for information,” our interrogation is in the form of stripping the earth for its resources to satisfy our own immediate needs and security. While “national security” may not be at stake as in questioning prisoners of war, we offer “economic development,” “jobs,” “progress” or “consumer demand” as justified excuses. But the net effect is the same.
Through such rationalization and habitual behavior, we eventually believe the excuses and have no compunction or reservation about inflicting such torture. We convince ourselves that it is for the good of the nation, the economy or business to commit such atrocities.
While for many there is a war “in the Gulf” and for others, “of the Gulf,” there is also a war “on the Gulf’ that should focus our attention on our complicity. The irony is that the very oil which is in part the subject of this war “on the Gulf’ is used to terrorize the Gulf itself. Burning and smoking refineries further underscore the irony.
On Ash Wednesday, we were invited to the observance of a holy Lent through prayer, fasting, alms giving, reading of the scripture and other forms of discipline and self denial.
In self-denial we discover how intemperate we are in our use of the gifts God has given us. It is my hope and prayer that during this Lent we may hear the invitation to this season; not only in individual terms, but perhaps, more importantly, in national and global terms, as the wars “on the Gulf, on the Rosebud and on Edgemont” continue to be waged. If our repentance is only individual, we unwittingly participate in the idolatry of the self in further reinforcing the idolatrous narcissism of our time.
Our repentance needs to move beyond the privatization and fixation on the individual to communal repentance. Our prayers for forgiveness should include those acts of terrorism, known and unknown to us, that we perpetrate not only against other human beings but also the earth itself. It is important for us, especially during this Lenten season, to recover a sense of community responsibility, obligation and penance.
The oil spill and the war “on the Persian Gulf’ indicts us all.