Dirty Oil, Messy Faith

by Andrew Stephens-Rennie

On Sunday afternoon, the CBC posted an article on a fact finding mission to the Alberta Oil Sands. It’s a short piece, doesn’t say much, except that a delegation will be headed to Fort Mac from May 21-27th.

It mentions that the delegation is organised by Kairos, a group that according to their own website “deliberates on issues of common concern, advocates for social change and joins with people of faith and goodwill in action for social transformation.”

In short, the news article – in no condescending way points out that members of the church are going to check it out for themselves. And this simple fact has lit the news post’s comments afire.

Reading through the pages of comments, I was both shocked, and not. The majority of responses, as ill-informed as they were, basically said “get lost, go away, this is none of your business…something about separation of church and state…oh and keep your priests away from my kid.”

The fact finding mission, according to campaigns coordinator Sarah Stratton, is entirely relevant to the life of the church, and such facts (whatever they may be) should inform her approach to them:

When you look at something as large as the oilsands…there are going to be people [in any one of our churches] who work in the industry as labour, who work in the industry as management, and [some] who very clearly oppose the industry.

I think it’s important that this mission is taking place, and that they are consulting widely with stakeholders involved. Inasmuch as the oil sands bring up serious justice issues, they also bring up important pastoral concerns for those whose livelihood is somehow tied to the oil and gas industry. Furthermore, very few of us are able to make outright condemnations, seeing as our rather privileged lifestyle is wholly dependent upon cheap oil.

I’ve written about this stuff before in a series of posts on the church and her dependence on cheap oil here.

I don’t really know the demographic of folks commenting on this news story – it seems to me it brought out some of the lunatics. Maybe they’re just average Canadians. Whatever the case, I think it says something both powerful and clear about public perception of the church.

Hordes of commenters tell the church to go and focus on managing their own problems and issues, insinuating that concern with dirty oil has nothing to do with religious belief. No matter how hard we try to battle back against Lynn White Jr., there’s still a lot of work to be done.

But today I’m not writing to defend the church. I’m writing to suggest that the church has painted herself into a corner.

Sure there are fantastic organisations like Kairos and CPJ who are engaging in justice and policy issues. There are individual Christians, churches and denominations who run social services, care for the poor, who are seeking to lead the way in environmental stewardship. There’s all kinds of good stuff.

And yet, somehow this caricature of Christians is still out there. My suspicion is that part of the problem is that Christians with a social conscience are not nearly as visible as those who are concerned simply with saving souls and blowing up the earth so Jesus can come back sooner.

I’m not suggesting the development of a media arm for the socially conscious parts of the church. Rather, I’m suggesting that those old mainline liberals simply need to recover some of the evangelicalism they long ago abandoned.

Some readers may have just started to choke.

To clarify – what I’m suggesting is that those folks in the mainline need to share the good news of a more fulsome gospel, rather than shuddering in a corner, waiting for the death blow to their dwindling congregations.

Because seriously, God is at work in all corners of the church, God is practicing resurrection throughout the world, and we all need to testify to this transformative work that is taking place throughout our world. It will do us no good to hide it under a bushel, or whatever…

The answer to reductionistic evangelism is not no evangelism. It’s about sharing the good news in as full a manner as we humans possibly can. I suppose I get the fear of those who might rather consider themselves post-evangelical, amongst other things. The PR campaign is a slow slog and an uphill battle. But it’s not just about PR. It’s about embodying the good news of Jesus Christ in word and deed.

My suspicion is that if more socially conscious Christians actually lived this social engagement out in the midst of their communities – if our churches actually connected with the people and institutions around them – some of these comments would, over time change. If you’ve never met a socially conscious Christian, you’re more likely to caricature and stereotype.

But if you’ve met one in the flesh, it becomes harder to do so. So I guess what I’m saying on this Victoria Day Monday is that I simply wish that more Christians would get off their hands to both live and tell the story of Jesus, proclaiming as full a gospel as humanly possible. Not just to counteract the ignorance of posters to the CBC website (altho perhaps CBC would be grateful) but also to just get on with what we’re supposed to be up to.

You know, things like a long afternoon drive in the country, or throwing pound after pound of factory farmed meat on the gas-fueled grill. Happy Victoria Day, Canada!

Andrew Stephens-Rennie on FacebookAndrew Stephens-Rennie on Twitter
Andrew Stephens-Rennie
Andrew is a writer, dreamer and organizer with a keen interest in developing leaders in faith, compassion and justice.

He currently serves as the Director of Missional Renewal for the Anglican Diocese of Kootenay on the unceded territories of the Sinixt, Syilx, and Ktunaxa nations. He previously served as the Director of Ministry Innovation at Christ Church Cathedral in Vancouver, BC.

Andrew is cofounder and contributing editor at www.empireremixed.com, and co-editor of "A Sort of Homecoming: Essays Honoring the Academic and Community Work of Brian Walsh" with Marcia Boniferro and Amanda Jagt.

8 Responses to “Dirty Oil, Messy Faith”

  1. Michael

    Not only the CBC masses, but Colby Cosh at the Post commented on it, which was enough to get my blood boiling before I read your post. FYI, I excerpted a bit of your report and Cosh’s tirade here: http://buttrey.ca/michael/2009/05/the-church-and-the-oilsands/ (your trackbacks don’t seem to be working?)

    • andrew

      Weird – it seemed as tho trackbacks were working. Don’t know what’s up with that. Great thoughts on the whole situation…and that Cosh character appears to be quite ignorant, if he thinks that there is nothing scriptural to back up ecojustice, care for God’s good creation, or whatever else you want to call it.

  2. Beyond the secular canopy

    The Church and the Oilsands…

    Recently a ecumenical group of Canadian church leaders (including representatives from the CRC and MCC) announced they were going on a tour through Northern Alberta to “listen, discuss and learn more about the Alberta tar sands projects and their…

  3. Michael

    Actually it’s looks like the problem is at my end. Sorry about that.

    Anyway, it’s sad, but typical for the mainstream media, it seems. Perhaps Kairos shouldn’t bother sending out press releases?

  4. Ecological Sustainability in the Dominion of Canada « Empire Remixed

    […] to the matter at hand. In the comments to my earlier Dirty Oil, Messy Faith post, Michael pointed me to Cosh’s piece. As I read the article, I just rolled my eyes. […]

  5. Brian Walsh

    Speaking with John Mihevc the other day from Kairos he said that this trip to the oil sands has generated an incredible amount of press for their group. That’s really interesting. The good folks at Kairos can send out press releases on all kinds of things dealing with social justice issues like “free” trade relations, poverty, homelessness, etc. and get no response whatsoever. But gather together some church leaders to go to the oil sands and people get interested and sometimes incensed. It seems to me that folks can dismiss these classic justice issues because they have to do with someone else’s misfortune. But the Canadian public does seem to understand that the production of oil is directly related to our “standard of living.” And for many that means that this is an industry that we will bitch about at the pumps when the prices are “too high” (when in fact that have always been too low!) but will not countenance any serious critique of the production processes themselves.

  6. andrew

    I think there’s probably something to that, Brian. Somehow this is an issue closer to home than poverty, homelessness or free trade.

    Certainly a lot of the responses online and otherwise have been directly from Albertans – it could be construed as an attack on that economy, province, way of life.

    Beyond that, it’s an attack on the way we all live our subsidized lives fuelled by cheap oil. And in an economic crunch, who wants to think about paying $4/litre for gas?

  7. Paul Abell

    I’m not sure if you’re aware but the CBC also ran a story (on different programs but all about the same issue) a few months earlier as a response to statements made by the Roman Catholic bishop for the diocese that the tar/oil sands is within. The bishop was likely part of the Kairos delegation that you comment on. What’s different about this coverage from that of the one about the Kairos delegation is that it’s about the bishop’s comments on the moral implications of the development. I heard one of the stories on As it Happens but Rex Murphy also spoke to it on The National. See http://www.cbc.ca/national/blog/video/rex_murphy/highminded_hypocrisy_1.html. The bishops letter that the newstory is a response to can be read at http://www.dioceseofstpaul.ca/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=135&Itemid=11.

    Although national, or perhaps even provincial, newsmedia never picked up on it, a conference at Regent College a year or so earlier addressed the oil/tar sands issue. There have been a spattering of Christian groups commenting on the moral implications of developing the oil/tar sands; it was probably only a matter of time before their efforts were to get picked up by the national newsmedia.


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