Who is responsible for what? Unfortunately, the two most popular interpretations offer little help in answering this question. They do, however, provide useful illustrations of the kind of thinking that helped create the crisis. They will also lead me to suggest a fuller interpretation in light of faith in God.
The first interpretation I will call a version of the Giant Man’s theory of history. As the label suggest, this theory assumes that history is made by giant personalities (or in this case corporations). There is a wide consensus that BP and its leader, Tony Hayward, are to blame. Not only is BP thought to be ultimately responsible for the spill, but also for the spill’s becoming a full-blown crisis with devastating long-term consequences. In our frustration, however, we aren’t content with merely one villain. President Barack Obama has become Mr. Hayward’s accomplice, not really at fault, just standing by. The president’s critics are frustrated because no matter how much they rant and rave, they can’t seem to cause him to do the same. How can he maintain such self-control, they seem to ask, when he has lost all control of the situation?
Taking responsibility and assigning blame imply a sense of control on our part, that despite the spill we remain productively at work determining who is at fault and who should now take charge. There’s something delusional at work in this busyness, however. To be sure, blaming BP and Obama nicely performs the work of a morality play by highlighting the vices of the central players. The problem, however, is that focusing on these two “giants” causes us to neglect the less obvious causes of the crises. These underlying causes remain hidden under the assumptions that BP and Obama exercise absolute control. Nothing could be farther from the truth. For weeks, we witnessed their lack of control. Our questioning, then, should shift to why; why aren’t they in control?
This brings us to the second interpretation of the oil spill, what I’ll call the Act of God theory. The name comes from Texas Governor Rick Perry, who boldly suggested that the spill might have been an “act of God.” I suspect that he invoked God in the conventional manner that lawyers often do in discussing insurance claims — to point to something beyond human control; the term “accident” might have worked as well, which is what Rand Paul later suggested.
If the Giant Man theory is somewhat distorting, the Act of God theory is utterly self-deluding. Both Perry and Paul adhere to a form of libertarian political theory that places a strong emphasis on individual responsibility. Their political agenda is to free individuals from what they see as the burdensome, even oppressive control of government by lowering taxes and decreasing government spending and regulation.
The cruel irony is that the spill appears to have been caused in part by the lack of tough independent government regulation. Such regulation might have required that a relief well be dug before the oil rig begins pumping oil, as is the case in Canada. Such added “burdens” now appear to be sensible safeguards, given the catastrophic threat posed by the oil leak. And who will ensure that BP actually cleans up its mess? The federal government, in coordination with many partners, is the ultimate guarantor that BP will make good on its promise to restore environments, businesses, and individuals.
There’s a second irony to the claim that “accidents happen” in that this is precisely what the libertarian theory seems to deny about individuals. If someone is poor, it seems to follow necessarily that she is to blame or at least that she alone is responsible. The same is true if someone is ill. The poor and the ill are responsible — we are told — for using the means available in the market. Government’s only role is to free the market. Governmental aid to individuals only makes them dependent on government. Missing is any talk of accidents, of debilitating diseases, or of whole industries disappearing. Gone is the sense that life is often subject to forces beyond one’s control.
What are we to make of this, that talk of accidents and life’s contingencies should be reserved for multinational corporations? Are the BPs of the world really the most vulnerable?
The third irony is that the Act of God theory looks to help one of the world’s most powerful corporate entities evade its responsibility, morally if not legally. To hide from the bright light of criticism behind the robes of God, if you will, is a cynical use of sacred language and beliefs. Moreover, it is deeply ironic that we live in a technological age obsessed with control. Indeed, it is hard to imagine a more controlling business than that of the oil industry. In our high tech age, we have reduced God to a God of the gaps — a God invoked to explain gaps in our knowledge, like those seemingly random events that lie outside our patterns of understanding.
Of course, the God of the gaps reigns in modern hearts and minds for a reason. With the rise of science and technology supernatural notions of God have been forced to retreat to the margins of knowledge. As our understanding of our world expands, the realm of God appears to shrink. The same is true with the oil spill. What at first might appear an accident becomes, upon further investigation, an outcome of a series of events.
Where is God in all this? Isn’t it for such a time as this that even skeptics would welcome a good and powerful God? God, however, seems absent or at least hidden. Certainly, God has not intervened to prevent or stop the flow of oil. Indeed, God seems just as powerless as the rest of us. Paradoxically, it may be God’s lack of power that revives us. If God is powerless, then God suffers along with us, and even with the poor miserable creatures poisoned by the oil.
Whether God suffers with us is a theological question of the knottiest kind, but the images of suffering evoke sympathy, a sense or judgment, and perhaps even guilt that someone is to blame for the suffering of the innocents. Writing during the Second World War, the theologian H. Richard Niebuhr interpreted the cross of Christ as a symbol of God’s judgment that falls not on the innocent but on those who cause the suffering of the innocent irrespective of position or privilege.
In the case of the oil spill, there have surely been wrongs on the part of CEO Hayward and President Obama. Both have failed to treat oil exploration with the seriousness it deserves. In the case of BP (and the other corporations involved) this failure may rise to the level of criminal negligence. We must not forget that 11 workers lost their lives to what appears to be, at its base, corporate greed, pride, and sloth.
Obama’s case points out that not all sins are of equal moral weight. The president appears to have failed to press for regulatory reform at key governmental agencies. The lack of strong, independent regulation made it possible for BP to become the monstrosity it has.
That’s the easy part. The hard part is considering that judgment does not end safely with BP and Obama. Transcendent judgment continues all the way down to me. I too am guilty. Why do I say this? Well, one only needs to ask why it was that Obama did not act more swiftly to reform the federal agencies responsible for regulating oil exploration. Here one returns to the recent history of suspicion of all government regulation, to the chants of “Drill, Baby, Drill!” The guilt, however, runs deeper than George Bush or Sarah Palin. It runs to all of us who have a hand, any hand, in the lack of strong, independent regulation. This is a long list with guilt flowing in multiple directions for everything from apathy to self-righteousness, but near the center of that motley crew are those of us whose lifestyles indicate a religious-like devotion to cheap oil.
Earlier I listed several ironies, but the deepest irony of all is that BP, along with the other oil companies, has come to function as a god. The truth buried under all the oil and punditry is that our devotion to this false god has led to the suffering of the innocents, in the ocean waters and on the beaches, in the marshes and through the ecosystems, and in our communities. We have been slow, too slow by far, to realize that the oil industry is a devouring profit center that cares little for the weak and vulnerable, be they of the sea or land, animal or human. Even now, it remains a real question if we have finally woken up from our dream of perpetually cheap oil, free of all cost, free of all sacrifice.
And yet the events in the gulf call out for confession, for corporate confession and repentance. By corporate I mean BP, but even more importantly I mean our society as a corporate whole. We must move beyond defensiveness and self-righteousness and work toward a cultural consensus that acknowledges the vital work of regulation, the dangerous nature of oil exploration, and the fragility of natural ecosystems. To build a consensus on these points is the work of repentance, whatever our sins, our party, and our position.
DAvid true is associate professor for religious studies at Wilson College, Chambersburg, Pa., and co-editor of Political Theology.