Like most people born and raised in Biloxi, Miss., theologian Russell Moore grew up about 10 minutes from the Gulf of Mexico.
It cost too much to live near the water, but that didn’t really matter since the sights, smells and rhythms of the coast defined the whole community. Driving away from his hometown has always been emotional, but the last time he pulled onto U.S. Highway 90 was different.
Hurricane Katrina was terrible. Now, the locals are facing what some writers have called “Katrina meets Chernobyl.”
“I’ve never left like this, wondering if … my children’s children will ever know what Biloxi was,” wrote Moore, in an online meditation about a recent visit. Gazing at Gulf, he knew that “there’s a Pale Horse” out there, the rupture in deep water that is creating “plumes of petroleum great enough to threaten to destroy the sea-life there for my lifetime, if not forever.
“Everything is endangered, from the seafood and tourism industries to the crabs and seagulls on the beach to the churches where I first heard the Gospel of Jesus Christ. This is more than a threat to my hometown. … It is a threat to national security greater than most Americans can even contemplate, because so few of them know how dependent they are on the eco-systems of the Gulf of Mexico.”
It would raise few eyebrows if Baptists such as Al Gore, Bill Clinton or Bill Moyers voiced these views. Russell, however, is dean of the theology school at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., a vital hub for conservatives in the 16 million-member Southern Baptist Convention and in the wider world of evangelicalism.
Moore served as chairman of the resolutions committee this past week in Orlando when Southern Baptists gathered for their annual national meeting. Thus, in addition to dealing with scores of internal SBC issues, the convention also expressed its concerns about the unfolding catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico.
Noting that the Bible teaches that those who harm the vulnerable should be held accountable, the convention called on “governing authorities to act determinatively and with undeterred resolve to end this crisis; to fortify our coastal defenses; to ensure full corporate accountability for damages, clean-up, and restoration; to ensure that government and private industry are not again caught without planning for such possibilities; and to promote future energy policies based on prudence, conservation, accountability, and safety.”
The resolution (.pdf) urged Southern Baptist churches to recruit waves of volunteers for clean-up crews, just as they did after hurricane Katrina.
The resolution stressed that “our God-given dominion over the creation is not unlimited, as though we were gods and not creatures, so therefore, all persons and all industries are then accountable to higher standards than to profit alone.”
The key, said Moore, is that Baptists need a broader view of a key word — “sin.”
“A solid doctrine of sin is what has kept most evangelicals from sliding into a utopian view of government,” he said, in a telephone interview. “We understand the sin nature of human beings. We understand that checks and balances are needed, when you are dealing with human institutions. Well, now we need to understand that corporations must be watched carefully. Planned Parenthood is a corporation. Playboy is a corporation. British Petroleum is a corporation, too.”
The April 20th explosion in the Gulf, said Moore, could be a turning point for many conservative Christians on issues of pollution, ecology and environmental stewardship. It will be hard to ignore the worst oil spill in U.S. history, especially when the wider economic and human toll begins to close church doors and threaten generations of Bible Belt traditions — like youth camps on or near the beach.
It hasn’t helped that the first things most conservative Christians think about when they hear the word “environmentalism” is Hollywood, New Age spirituality and politicos who suggest that human beings are “parasites on a world that would be better off without them,” he said.
This evangelical silence has not been constructive.
“This is one of those issues that, if evangelicals concede it to extremists on both sides, we are going to miss our opportunity to let our voices be heard on what the Gospel says about God’s creation and our stewardship of the resources we’ve been given,” said Moore. “Without a biblically conservative voice in that debate, something vital will be missing.”