Bush’s “culture of life” does not include rural Appalachians

Bush’s “culture of life” does not include rural Appalachians August 25, 2007

Our self-proclaimed “pro-life” president proves yet again that, beyond a few minor gestures suggesting a personal opposition to abortion, he has no interest in truly promoting a “culture of life.” The Bush administration is gearing up to release new regulations that would expand the devastating mining technique of mountaintop removal, a process that is used to extract about half of the coal that comes from the Appalachian region of the United States. Certainly, blowing up mountains is an efficient way to extract coal, requiring less time and less workers. It is, to the miners at least, a “safer” mining technique as well. But the ecological and health costs are astonishingly deadly: in addition to polluting the air and contaminating water supplies, mountaintop removal contributes to land instability, causing mudslides and other destruction of homes and property.

The Catholic Church has long recognized the link between human life and the environment, both at the local level and at the level of Vatican teaching. John Paul II often wrote and spoke of the emerging ecological awareness and its link with human life. The United States Catholic Bishops wrote in their 1991 pastoral letter Renewing the Earth that “above all, we seek to explore the links between concern for the person and for the earth, between natural and social ecology. The web of life is one.” The bishops of the Philippines, in response to their own localized ecological crisis, called environmental concern the “ultimate pro-life issue.”

The bishops closest to this disastrous reality, the Catholic bishops of Appalachia, have expressed concern as well, most strongly in their 1995 pastoral letter At Home In the Web of Life which clearly connects the way in which industry attacks both human life and the life of the entire ecosystem:

[B]y our sin we humans
have attacked God’s beloved creation,
both socially and ecologically.
The evil power of our sins
has spilled over into human institutions
and has also wounded God’s holy creation….

Thus, the deep root of the social crisis,
that is, the wounding of the poor,
and the deep root of the ecological crisis,
that is, the wounding of the Earth,
can be found in human sin….

According to the Bible,
the breaking of living communion
between humans and the land
is linked to the sins of idolatry and injustice,
which the prophets constantly denounced.

The healing of social and ecological sin
requires, therefore,
both our reconciliation with the land
and our reconciliation with the poor.
Gratefully this reconciliation is already given to us
in the person of Jesus.

Sadly, the connection between ecological and human destruction is not merely a conceptual one. The destruction of the environment has a direct, and very real impact on the lives of real human beings, and it is frequently the poor and marginalized who bear the heaviest impact of the havoc caused by corporate greed. As Fr. John Rausch of the Catholic Committee of Appalachia writes:

“An Eastern Kentucky University study found that children in Letcher County, Kentucky, suffer extraordinarily high rates of nausea, diarrhea, vomiting and shortness of breath – symptoms associated with blue baby syndrome – tracing the causes to nearby streams containing sedimentation and dissolved minerals drained from area mine sites. Most tragically, three-year-old Jeremy Davidson of Inman, Virginia, was killed in bed when a bulldozer operating without a permit above his house dislodged a thousand-pound boulder from a mountaintop removal site that rolled two hundred feet down the mountain, crashing through the house wall to crush him.”

Bush has proved time and time again that his understanding of a “culture of life” is severely out of step with the vision of the Catholic Church. It’s high time that Catholics learned to object loudly to the co-opting of Catholic language by politicians who do not share our values. And it’s high time that we learn to expand our circle of concern beyond our often sentimentalized “pro-life” politics. The culture of death is more insidious than we realize, stretching beyond the obvious cruelties of murder in utero and into the hidden lives of “expendable” persons on the periphery that “we” rarely think about unless it is to ridicule them with jokes about their supposed “backwardness.”

Who are the crucified ones that remain outside of my circle of concern? To what reaches, beyond my everyday awareness, does the culture of death extend? Am I willing to go there to speak a word of life and of hope?

For more information on mountaintop removal, see the information page at Appalachian Voices and the End Mountaintop Removal Action and Resource Center.

NOTE: While this post deals with many of the same issues, it’s technically an “aside” from the series on Appalachian social teaching that I have been running over the last week or so (see part one here). That series will continue after we here at Vox Nova take care of some “behind the scenes” technical upgrading. Thanks to those who have expressed interest.

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