GRIEF, REPENTANCE, AND THE BP OIL SPILL, Guest Contributor, Debra Dean Murphy

What a cool thing it is to connect with so many people, from so many places, and with so many perspectives.  This is a post that was birthed out of my OPEN MIC blog post (BTW- still accepting submission ideas).  I want to hear from others, about how God is at work in their own theological, philosophical, cultural, and social ethics journey.  I personally do not endorse everything that the guest contributors have to say; and it is possible that I will outright disagree with them on some points, but I am always open to dialogue :-) Here is our second guest post by a Facebook friend, Debra Dean Murphy.


The current crisis in the Gulf of Mexico is being packaged and sold as a story of blame and gross incompetence, and there’s plenty of both to go around. But it’s perhaps more instructive to see what the oil spill spin–and the ecological catastrophe itself–reveal about America’s shifting self-understanding. This latest, lamentable, preventable tragedy, thankfully, is beginning to encourage the kind of deep self-scrutiny that has always been disallowed in this land of eternal optimism and no limits.

In some ways, the modern project that is America has always been a bit like the gifted child who is told she can do anything, be anything–that she is different, special, unique among her peers. Even when it becomes clear that our darling will never be a ballerina or a veterinarian, we continue to feed her ego and her false hopes.

In the community of nations, America has historically been the precocious youngster no one could refuse–or speak the truth to. The fact that the U.S. also had wealth (i.e., power) contributed to her popularity and irresistibly. (Who doesn’t want to be friends with the pretty girl with lots of money?)

But maybe we’re growing up. Maybe we’re about to get real. Maybe we’re realizing just how ridiculous we’ve looked for so long, carrying on as if we’re still the adored, special child when everyone else has known for a long time that we are ordinary–valuable and vital, yes, but ordinary.

And with ordinariness comes the sobering realization that we have delayed far too long any sort of reckoning with the destruction that our prolonged adolescence has wrought. It turns out we may not have the ingenuity, the wherewithal, the American inventiveness to fix the monstrous spill on the ocean floor. We may need to defer to others who are smarter, more creative, more practiced in the art and science of addressing failure because they never assumed themselves immune to it.

Growing up means we will have to acknowledge that the highly-prized ”American Way of Life” was always unsustainable and unjust–epic folly. And this myth rested on another one: that a limitless economy was not only desirable but our birthright.

With characteristic bluntness, Wendell Berry puts it this way:

In keeping with our unrestrained consumptiveness, the commonly accepted basis of our economy is the supposed possibility of limitless growth, limitless wants, limitless wealth, limitless natural resources, limitless energy, and limitless debt. The idea of a limitless economy implies and requires a doctrine of general human limitlessness: all are entitled to pursue without limit whatever they conceive as desirable—a license that classifies the most exalted Christian capitalist with the lowliest pornographer.

This truth is painful to hear but necessary if we are going to see our way out of the messes we have made and the lies we have lived–if we are going to do the work of repentance, which literally means to turn around and go in a different direction.

TV’s talking heads are pointing fingers in the aftermath of the oil rig explosion; it’s a truism of broadcast journalism that such a strategy will increase viewership. Maybe so. But in the midst of the spin we see real-world implications–dire consequences–for the whole created order. We’ve been given the gift of looking with clear-eyed honesty at our flawed past and our uncertain future. In accepting this gift, we must refuse to take refuge any longer in that other destructive myth that offers easy answers: America’s so-called exceptionalism.

We will grieve as we leave our childhood behind–not because we wish to return to it but because of our growing awareness of the responsibility we forsook while inhabiting it. Such grief can heal since it is not a sign of weakness but of growth and maturity. It is an act of profound humility. And such humility can be, for a grown-up America, the beginning of wisdom.


Debra Dean Murphy is assistant professor of religion at WV Wesleyan College and the author of “Teaching That Transforms: Worship as the Heart of Christian Education.” She has also written for numerous publications including “Modern Theology,” “Cross Currents,” and “The Christian Century.” She is on the board of the Ekklesia Project.

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  • Debra is one of my favorite bloggers on faith. Thanks for featuring her excellent work.

  • The clarity, boldness, honesty, and richness in metaphor this post exhibits are truly prophetic. Thank you.

    • Ann Penick

      Debra–I couldn’t have said this better myself. WOW! Thank you! A co-worker of mine who is in the Coast Guard has just been called up to go down to the Gulf to help with the clean-up.

  • I take extreme exception. Oil spill or no oil spill or political spin or pious spin, America is exceptional and has a great heritage of doing good. Spoiled, precocious child? Epic folly? Pornographer? Save the chastisement for YOUR children.

    • Sally… I have to disagree with you in an extreme way. America is exceptional in many ways, however it has come at the cost of extreme over consumption. We do good… but, lets be honest. The good we do is always a good that is good for us. I am not sure that being a country with 6% of the global population but consuming 40% of the resources is really oppressive and things really need to change. We need to see our selves as part of a global family rather than being entitled Older brothers who see other nations as lowly step brothers and sisters.

      Also… “a great heritage of doing good.” Hhhmmm… Do you remember how this country was founded? Our heritage is slavery. But not only so, we also killed hundred of thousands of the native American people. And… As if that were not enough; we killed the English because we were not getting representation in Parliament. We killed over taxation… That is not “good” either. Actually, our foundation is in great antithesis to the kingdom of God.

      Now, USA as it is: I am glad that I live in this country. But, the “end” (which is still rooted in self-serving ideals at the moment) does not justify the “means.” I would have a bit more “pride” for my nation if it would begin to look to the needs of others rather than simply fighting wars of agenda, and making “Christianity” look globally oppressive.

      I personally am thankful for Debra’s prophetic post!

  • James

    This oil spill is not the first in America’s history, nor will it be the last. It is, however, the first major man-caused disaster to be broadcast and streamed live 24/7. Anybody remember the Lakeview Gusher spill of 1909 – largest in recorded American history? For all you CA valley folks that took place in Kern County. The Gulf War oil spill also is a much more massive spill then the most people like to remember, but what happens in Iraq isn’t of much concern beyond price at the pump.

    People seem to think that the constant bombardment of facts about a situation makes us more likely to react. Like Twitter is going to change the world…

    We are quick to be shocked and outraged and even quicker to totally forget. Don’t worry America, the next Twilight movie is coming out…you can forget about the oil now.

  • Jon Tomlin

    Wonderfully written piece. My issue with alot of the criticisms leveled on America from within is that its not done with any sense of greater perspective because we are all so engrossed in the culture. When you look at the Biblical narrative, most prophets, apostles or Christ( Nathan who rebuked David, Jonah rebuking the ninevites, John the Baptist crying out in the wilderness, Jesus the God man, Paul who wrote alot of epistles from jail or from elsewhere). They all were able to speak into the culture because they actually had a sense of perspective because they either geopraphically werent part of the culture(judah speaking to the northern tribes as an example) or in the case of John, Jesus & Paul they left there home & there profession and there family to follow there calling. Where as we American Christians hang our hats on the “in the world but not of the world.” axiom. Meaning, I raise my hands on sunday and read my bible so therefore I have the right to critique the consumer culture that I am just as equally in debt to. Do i see anyone selling there car, selling there home, emptying there accounts, leaving the country and humbly serving our fellow man with our all & everything.. Until we can ascend to that level of commitment to the Cross, than we should learn to walk a little more humbly and not be so quick to rebuke the country & the culture that we arent willing to break the shackles of.

  • Janie Mock

    I must say, this piece is extremely offensive to me. Ms. Murphy has some talent as a writer, but the stuff she has written is supported only by her animus toward this country, and not much fact. And the quote from Berry that links ….”the most exalted Christian capitalist with the lowiest pornographer”…. Nasty stuff, that!

    You know, I’m pretty big on Christianity and theology… but the material you are posting on this blog appears to be largely political….extreme leftist political!

    You know living here as I do in central Texas, you would be surprised at the incredible diversity of population. I have many friends and neighbors from other countries who have chosen to live here and raise their children.

    Let’s see, there’s Christine from France and her huband and 2 children; Ala and Pavel from the former Soviet Union and their 2 sons; Lina and Nabil from Lebanon and their 4 children; Erka from Poland and her daughter; Masoud and his wife and two sons from Bangladesh; Sandeep and Shilpa and their two children from India; Colin and his wife and two sons from England; Anne (from the former South Vietnam) and her huband Mina (from Kenya) and their 3 children; and Carmen and her husband and 2 children from Colombia. And the strange thing is that they all grew up in their native countries and have come here by choice to live and raise their families.

    Every single one of them are now U. S. citizens. I shall have to conduct a survey to find out why they have chosen this “American Way of Life.”…that is “unsustainable and unjust–epic folly” (to quote Ms. Murphy). Hmmm, perhaps I should give them a copy of her post so they can see (to use a British expression) what a “hash” they have made of their lives.

    • Janie… You know I respect you. However, it seems that anything that doesn’t fit your reaction-categories against the “left” that you have experienced in your personal life are off limits. Don’t let your reaction from one side, keep you uncritical of the side you now embrace.

      With that said, you need to understand that I am not a conservative… I am also not a liberal. I am a Mennonite. And ultimately I try to practice what John Howard Yoder called: “The Politics of Jesus.” I stand in the tradition of the first three centuries of the church history (before the ungodly marriage of the church and state identities) who are suspicious of empire. I stand in the tradition of the writers of the New Testament that said “Jesus is Lord!” and who believed that the needs of others were always above their own. Look at what my denomination says about the “State” and maybe you will understand where I am coming from… By the way, it is not a mainline liberal position I embrace…

      Here are articles 12-14 of our confession of faith:

      Article 12: Society and State

      The State as Instituted by God

      We believe that God instituted the state to promote the well-being of all people. Christians cooperate with others in society to defend the weak, care for the poor, and promote justice, righteousness and truth. Believers witness against corruption, discrimination and injustice, exercise social responsibility, pay taxes, and obey all laws that do not conflict with the Word of God.

      God has given governments authority to maintain law and order and to punish wrongdoers. Followers of Christ respect and pray for those in authority so that peaceful order may prevail. We deplore the loss of life in the exercise of state-sanctioned violence.

      Christian Allegiance in Society

      The primary allegiance of all Christians is to Christ’s kingdom, not the state or society. Because their citizenship is in heaven, Christians are called to resist the idolatrous temptation to give to the state the devotion that is owed to God. As ambassadors for Christ, Christians act as agents of reconciliation, and seek the well-being of all peoples.

      Because Christ forbids the swearing of oaths, we simply affirm the truth in legal transactions. Believers do not participate in secret societies which demand the swearing of oaths or which otherwise conflict with a Christian’s allegiance to Christ and the church.

      Exodus 20:13, 16; Leviticus 19:11; Psalm 82:3-4; Jeremiah 29:7; Daniel 2:21; Daniel 3:17-18; Daniel 4:17; Matthew 5:13-16, 33-37; Matthew 6:33; Matthew 17:24-27; Matthew 22:17-21; John 15:19; John 17:14-18; Acts 5:29; Romans 13:1-7; I Corinthians 5:9-13; II Corinthians 6:14-18; Ephesians 5:6-13; Philippians 1:27; Philippians 3:20; I Timothy 2:1-4; Titus 3:1-2; James 5:12; I Peter 2:13-17.

      Article 13: Love and Nonresistance

      God’s Community of Peace

      Believers believe that God in Christ reconciles people to himself and to one another, making peace through the cross. The church is a fellowship of redeemed people living by love. Our bond with other believers of Jesus transcends all racial, social and national barriers.

      Christian Peacemaking

      We seek to be agents of reconciliation in all relationships, to practice love of enemies as taught by Christ, to be peacemakers in all situations. We view violence in its many different forms as contradictory to the new nature of the Christian. We believe that the evil and inhumane nature of violence is contrary to the gospel of love and peace. In times of national conscription or war, we believe we are called to give alternative service where possible. Alleviating suffering, reducing strife, and promoting justice are ways of demonstrating Christ’s love.

      Exodus 20:1-17; Matthew 5:17-28, 38-48; Romans 12:9-21; Romans 13:8-10; I Peter 2:19-23.

      Article 14: The Sanctity of Human Life

      We believe that all human life belongs to God. Each person is created in the image of God and ought to be celebrated and nurtured. Because God is creator, the author and giver of life, we oppose all actions and attitudes which devalue human life. The unborn, disabled, poor, aging and dying are particularly vulnerable to such injustices. Christ calls the people of all nations to care for the defenseless.

      God values human life highly. Ultimate decisions regarding life and death belong to God. Therefore, we hold that procedures designed to take life, including abortion, euthanasia, and assisted suicide, are an affront to God’s sovereignty. We esteem the life-sustaining findings of medical science, but recognize that there are limits to the value of seeking to sustain life indefinitely. In all complex ethical decisions regarding life and death, we seek to offer hope and healing, support and counsel in the context of the Christian community.

      Genesis 1:26-27; Genesis 2:7; Exodus 20:13; Job 31:15; Psalm 139:13-16; Amos 1-2; Matthew 6:25-27; Matthew 25:31-46; John 10:11.

      Janie, notice our views of the state… but then also notice our views about abortion. Like I said, not liberal, not conservative… Scripture is much more complex than that! I know that we are probably not going to agree, but perhaps knowing my theological background will help. PS- NT Wright shares Debra Dean Murphy’s opinion about empire and nationalism. Blessings…

  • Odo

    Just another diatribe by a America hating leftist. I will tell you one thing- the old adage “you don’t know what you had until its gone” is a true statement. When the US falters under the weight and burden the socialists and leftists now making policy in this country and destroying it with unsustainable debt–you WILL one day look back and realize what a wonderful place the US was…YOU are the one who is spoiled-being blessed to live in this nation and all you have yet you whine and b*tch. Please pack your Louis Vuitton bag and head for Cuba, they are not so spoiled there.

  • Debra, thank you for this, the most comprehensive, conscious-raising article I have seen yet on the oil spill and it’s repercussions and messages. I am usually long-winded, but your eloquence humbles me. I plan to read it over and over as a powerful reminder of what it really means to be a great country, and about how growing pains are necessary.
    Thank you, Kurt, for posting this link on my blog, though I’m not sure Debra’s sentiments are classifiable as only Christian…to me, they are about love, wisdom, and self-realization. Peace. Gina