Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

ANWR Lament
distributed 3/18/05 - ©2005

For a quarter of a century, the US Congress has fought over the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Through the years, that precious corner of Alaska has become a symbol of far larger debates about energy policy, wilderness preservation, and the goals of the nation.

Year after year, there would be proposals to open the refuge to oil drilling. Year after year, those proposals would be defeated -- sometimes only by filibusters from a passionate minority, and once by a Presidential veto.

Last Wednesday, a Senate vote in favor of drilling opens the way for a rapid series of political actions that will take roads, pipelines and drill rigs into that fragile place. And because ANWR has become the symbolic center of the larger debate, the Senate vote conveys a larger message: no place will now be safe from our insatiable quest for oil.

For many of us, the hurt that comes with the Senate action itself is compounded by the political techniques that were used by the Republican leadership to secure this vote. It was only for reasons of political expediency that the Arctic Refuge issue was bundled into this year's budget bill -- precluding the use of a filibuster, and fast-tracking the political process. The damage this week is not only to tundra and wildlife, but to the democratic institutions of the US.

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Truth exists on many levels. Often, our challenge is not to reconcile and harmonize the different forms of truth, but to live in the tension between them.

This week, I recognize at least two forms of truth. There are complex and nuanced matters of political strategy, and there is a stark truth about the realities of power.

For three days now, a blunt truth expressed in some Holy Week words of Jesus have been at the front of my mind and in the depths of my heart. My spirit resonates with his laments over Jerusalem.

In the Gospel of Luke -- between the joyous Palm Sunday procession and the tumultuous cleansing of the temple later that day -- there is a poignant moment: "As he came near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, 'If you, even you, had only recognized on this day things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes."

In Matthew, Jesus voices this lament: "'Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those that are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!'"

The Holy Week narratives bring Jesus to Jerusalem -- the center of government, the site of the temple, the city at the center of Israel's life and identity. But Jesus turns the conventional expectation of Jerusalem's glory and triumph upside down. Rather than praising the city, he mourns over it.

The laments of Jesus acknowledge that Jerusalem is wrapped up in its own power -- both political and religious. He speaks truth when he says that the "holy city" always has refused to hear the faithful words of prophets.

As I listen to the news this week, I cry in lament, too. I echo the words of Jesus over the capital city: "Washington, Washington, the city that ignores and abuses the prophets." I too, weep as I say, "If you, even you, had only recognized this day things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes."

In this time of anger and grief, in this symbolic battle, on one of many levels of truth, I have the audacity to claim to be on the side of the prophets and of peace.

  • Through the decades, the policy statements and political advocacy of mainline Christianity have tended toward -- perhaps even been unanimous about -- the exclusion of oil exploration in ANWR.
  • The moral case for preserving the refuge has been less tinged with self-interest than the opposing case, for drilling will provide direct transfers of great wealth to the people of Alaska and to oil companies.
  • The case for preservation considers matters of intrinsic worth, and not only instrumental value, it brings a confessional approach to our society's gluttonous and inefficient use of energy, and it takes a far longer historical view.

While neither side is pristine in its motives or strategies, I do lament that the prophetic and faithful cause has been defeated this week. In my own emotional turmoil, I hear truth in the words of Jesus, as he grieves about the propensity of power and self-interest to overwhelm peace and righteousness. I cry out in lament and judgement.

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When Jesus went to Jerusalem, he was not going to lobby his legislators about details of public policy. It is dangerous to stretch the Holy Week resonance too far.

Truth exists on many levels. Blunt statements and strategic nuance stand side-by-side.

For 25 years, advocates of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge have held off those who would open the land to drilling. This week's decision hinged on a single vote. The voices that I see as righteous have been a significant and effective presence.

It is true, too, that several more decisions must be made before ANWR is violated. One Washington lobbyist said after Wednesday's vote, "there is still a lot of political tundra to cross before this fight is over. We'll keep battling every step of the way."

The blunt truth about power and self-interest stands beside another truth about complex politics. Lament stands next to the ongoing work of innumerable, committed advocates.

In the days and years ahead, may we be honest about both realities. Washington, and other seats of power, will always stone the prophets. And the prophets do make a difference. Lamenting and political organizing are both faithful acts in these days.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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