Borrowing against the future

Attempts continue, down in the Gulf of Mexico, to contain the oil spill and to stop the flow of oil from the ocean floor. Attempts are also being continued by BP to cover their corporate behinds. It is not a pretty picture, all around. Images of dead or dying birds, fish and other animals are interspersed with images of weary-looking PR wonks attempting somehow to spin the worse ecological disaster in this nation's history, a disaster brought about by corporate neglect if not malfeasance.

And the real question, as it always is in matters like this, is economic. Who will pay what, to clean up, to make restitution, to pay for what has happened?

Already swimming in the waters of the Gulf of Mexico are the legal sharks who smell the blood in the water, and BP is, I am certain, already planning to mount a massive legal defense to limit as fully as possible their liability for the accident and its ecological implications.

The news stories are constant, about the effects of the spill on tourism and the local economy. The oil spill, in short, is almost entirely viewed in terms of money.

Which is generally when I admit my inherent skepticism of the ability of economic transactions or economic language to deal with the complexity of the Gulf Oil spill, the ethical problems of a corporation like BP or indeed the problems of a society that allows for the rape and pillage of the earth for economic reasons. The spill in the Gulf of Mexico is a ringing indictment of the inability of our society to think or speak correctly. Our language and rhetoric is not sufficient unto the day, or the past nearly sixty days. And it is a disaster of our own making.

Which is why it is interesting that in the Hebrew Scriptures this morning we have a story that is both economic and ecological. It is a story about land and about a conspiracy to take that land from an individual. Naboth refuses to sell his land because he understands it to be his “ancestral inheritance.” He belongs somehow to this specific piece of land, that his ancestors owned and farmed, and there is not a price that can be put on it, per se. Which puts King Ahab, who desires the land, into a bit of a funk. The powerful and the wealthy for time immemorial have always wanted what they cannot obtain easily or buy, and Ahab is no different. His wife Jezebel colludes with the powerful in Naboth's city to falsely accuse him, and execute him to obtain what he will not sell. And, so Elijah the prophet is sent to Ahab with this message “Because you have sold yourself to do what is evil in the sight of the Lord, I will bring disaster on you.”

Which seems like a strange passage to couple in the lectionary with a Gospel passage about forgiveness. There seems to be little forgiveness in the words of the prophet Elijah. And yet, I'm interested not by the contrast of the stories, but by the fact that they both use economic terms. Because you have “sold yourself” says Elijah, and Jesus speaks about debts.

Debt is the metaphor that Jesus uses in the Gospel this morning to deal with forgiveness. The greater the debt forgiven, the larger the gratefulness. Which makes perfect sense in a common-sensical way. And I have no problem applying this to my own life: the greater someone sins against me, or more likely, the greater that I sin against them, the more gratefulness is entailed when forgiveness is given. It is when one starts to talk about systems and corporations and governments that things get a little more complicated. Is there, in fact, the possibility of forgiveness for BP or for Goldman Sachs for causing world-wide economic chaos or for economic systems that destroy people and the earth?

I wonder if that condemnation of Elijah isn't somehow prescient in our own day? It is not a far stretch for me, to read this sentence as a condemnation not just of Ahab, Jezebel and the powerful who enter into a conspiracy with them, but as a kind of condemnation which rings down throughout time: because you have sold yourself to do evil, I will bring disaster.

It would be easy, I suppose, to go the Pat Robertson route and point to the oil spill as a punishment from God, but that's not really how I roll, and I doubt you'd find it very convincing. Or it would be tempting to use that sentence to ring the changes on BP as an evil corporation. But the reality is that BP is only symptomatic, BP is only the current whipping boy, and tomorrow, or next year, or 20 years from now, there will be a new whipping boy for us to point the finger towards (and away from us) and say “You've sold yourself to evil.”

The reality is that we live in a culture, in a world where debt is the fundamental way of life. Debt, but not gratefulness or forgiveness. I was amused recently to read that Ben Bernanke, the chairman of the Federal Reserve Board has warned that “the federal budget appears to be on an unsustainable path,” which is, I think, a dour economist's way of saying “this is a mad house, sell and move to China.” Don't however, move to Greece or Japan, both of which face the kind of debt that as an economic layperson, I find quite unfathomable. How does an entire economic area like the European Union simply implode seemingly overnight? And we've all heard the statistics on individual debt and interest only mortgages in this country, and felt the pinch which has resulted.

Our debt is not simply the “lack of money” kind of debt, it is the debt of borrowing against the future, against the planet. BP is symptomatic not simply of the kind of economic greed which is our own, writ large into a corporation, but of a willingness to refuse to think about the costs beyond our own day, to make a quick buck despite the unsustainability of a system or process, symptomatic of a kind of alienation from creation that allows us to mortgage the future not simply of the human race, but of the whole creation, for money.

The oil spill is an indicator of how deeply sinful, we are as a society, how deep the roots of that sin reach, into the whole structure of our lives and culture, and into our language and speech and thought; and all the ways that we are complicit with BP and Goldman Sachs and all those robber barons in the rape of the earth, and in an economic system that is simply madness. The spill in the Gulf is an indicator of how desperately we need to have our overwhelming and massive debts forgiven.

The wonder of the passage from the Gospels this morning is that it doesn't matter what the woman has done. It doesn't matter how she's sinned. It doesn't matter that the culture she lives in is certainly to blame for some of that sin. It doesn't matter. What matters is that she is contrite, she is sad. She can't possibly pay her debts, which are many, and so she is forgiven without regard to the magnitude of her sins.

I asked earlier if there was forgiveness for BP, and I think that is somehow a pressing question. Not because I think BP is laboring under a heavy load of guilt, but because if BP is somehow symptomatic, then the ability of BP to obtain forgiveness is somehow about my ability to be forgiven. And this unnamed woman, who washed Jesus with tears and anointed him with ointment tells us that there is somehow, somewhere, forgiveness for us, for our complicity in our society, for our final responsibility for a world in which a corporation like BP can exist, for the inability of our language to speak or think correctly, and for our own individual and collective sins and brokenness.

But the message of that forgiveness comes with a warning. The forgiveness that Jesus gives this woman is because she is aware of her sin, and contrite. The Pharisees on the other hand are not aware of their sin, just hers. They are looking for sin in other people, not in themselves.

The oil spill is not a chance for us to point out BP and say “You are evil,” but for us to realize our sinfulness, and to weep maybe a little, and ask that our debts be forgiven, many or few, individual or communal, by the only One who is able to forgive with such munificence and graciousness, God living and true. In the name of that God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Preached by Fr. Andrew Ashcroft

The Third Sunday after Pentecost

Saint Mark's Church, Philadelphia

Posted on June 16, 2010 .