By Dane Neufeld
During the summer I spent a beautiful evening with family and some friends on Burrard Inlet, overlooking downtown Vancouver. As the sun set through a smoky, copper haze, I found it difficult to relax completely on the shores, without being disturbed by political thoughts. The Trans Mountain pipeline expansion has divided western provinces and indeed all of Canada, as it has raised deep issues about the character of Canada and the realities that hold it together.
I am a native Albertan for whom pro-pipeline arguments surface in the mind with little effort. I am also a Christian and an Anglican, and these realities bind me to greater affiliations that trouble my Albertan instincts. It reminds me of Stanley Hauerwas’s essay “A Tale of Two Stories: On Being a Christian and a Texan,” in which he addresses the divided loyalties of Christians in America. The conflict and integration between the kingdoms or cities of God and the world has been a theological theme that has challenged every generation.
It is not exactly clear what would happen if we were to apply the gospel to this pipeline dispute. Imagine Jesus’ injunction: “if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles” (Matt. 5:41). This might mean that pipeline opponents should not only concede and allow the pipeline to be built, but in addition, they should offer to pay for it. It could also mean that Albertans should stop insisting on having this pipeline built and proceed to dig up and remove the existing line.
Or consider Jesus’ words about acquisition and wealth: “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions” (Luke 12:15). Surely the pipeline only serves the interest of the greedy and wealthy, those willing to risk anything to satisfy their insatiable desire to accumulate more and more. Or perhaps, as Albertans are quick to argue, because the province’s wealth is distributed to the country as a whole, the pipeline expansion would provide another opportunity to fulfill Paul’s admonition that the rich “be generous and ready to share, thus storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly life” (1 Tim. 6:18-19).
Gospel teachings can sometimes appear lost or naïve in such complicated circumstances. There are ways the pipeline both harms and benefits the interests of the poor, indigenous peoples, and the environment. Most indigenous communities along the route oppose the pipeline, but a significant number hope to benefit from it. The environmental concerns over increased tanker traffic and the health of orca whales may not be outweighed by the prospect of increased oil by rail shipments, but both are concerns. You could dispute the inevitability of oil production, but you would then need to propose constructive and emergency measures to deal with the radical consequences that would no doubt ensue.
The high-flying moral arguments on either side of the pipeline debate often belittle or cloud the regional and personal interests at stake. Hauerwas has argued that Christians best serve the interests of the nation by serving the people with whom we live and worship: “Let us rather be parochial people. For the only way we will be saved from the temptations to serve the universal ideologies of the empire is through the concrete relations which make our actual lives possible” (“Being a Good American: A Christian Meditation”).
Though the pipeline is a national industrial project, what makes the conflict so contentious is it that places local and even parochial concerns against each other in ways that are difficult to sort through. There are northern resource communities that are worried for their survival, and it is difficult to ask these communities to endanger their future for the impossibly large idea of climate change, or for the sake of whale populations. But it is not any easier to overlook the deep concerns of coastal First Nations that have already had to give up so much and are trying to draw a line in the sand. There are countless other overlapping and interweaving concerns that are pulled between the immediate and distant moral realities that make claims on our lives.
Governments have naively thought we could have it all — the environment, the economy, reconciliation — but it is quite clear that one side or the other often loses. How could one possibly tally and assess the competing costs and benefits of a single pipeline? Accusations of greed or reckless and ideologically driven motives are often made to tip the scales one way or another. This seems like the easiest way to find a path through the confusion, because I do not know anyone who could not concede at least one of the points made by the other side.
Some Christian institutions have taken clear positions on the pipeline while most churches have not made statements. Christians advocate on both sides of the debate with Christian reasons derived from Christian sources. As with so many political realities today, we are engulfed and enlisted by our society’s divisions.
Luther once argued that Christians were only justified in fighting as soldiers if they were fighting on behalf of another’s welfare, not their own. It is not a faultless argument — why is another’s interest defensible by violence but not your own? The benefit of the argument is that it at least places a certain level or restraint upon the decision to act as a soldier and it rules out the darker motives: revenge, greed, or the pursuit of glory.
It is not a perfect parallel to the pipeline debate, and as Luther was well aware, any conflict can be seen from two or more sides. Christians of all people should take the time to examine their positions. There is nothing objectionable about personal gain until it begins to cost someone else who is not willing or interested in paying. In addition, wealth and reputation are not the only things we fight for — victory can easily become the driving goal in such disputes. As Mark Clavier’s post on Augustine argued yesterday, it takes little to drive us toward conflict for conflict’s sake.
Self-examination may not reveal the rectitude or absolute superiority of our cause, but it can assure us to some degree of our involvement in it. When the benefits and costs to others whom we care about are apparent, then our actions and involvement should be tempered accordingly. For this reason I cannot say that I am unreservedly for the pipeline even though it has become a powerful symbol of my own community’s future, and probably has some bearing on the value of my house. Of course, in the end it does not really matter what I think, this matter will be decided by courts and governments. But like every high profile political conflict, the attitudes, resentments and conduct of the active players publicly rehearse feelings and commitments that enter into our interior lives and form who we are. How we handle these issues privately and in our own communities has a deep relevance to the character of our discipleship and common life as Christians.
From certain perspectives the pipeline makes complete sense, from others it is a betrayal of deeply held values. In our fragmented and confused society this is just one more instance in which we find ourselves reaching around in the dark for something more than our own values and interests on which to anchor our choices and actions. As Christians we should not despair or simply give ourselves over to these divisions, but receive these moments as opportunities to dig deeper in our vocation as a Church.
The recent court decision to suspend pipeline construction until further consultation with First Nations promises among other things to drag out this wearisome conflict even further. But perhaps this is an opportunity for Christians and — we can only pray — our entire society to grapple more deeply with the words of Scripture and gospel teachings. The world has never been an easy place to live faithfully as Christian people, but in a region of the world that has so much to be thankful for, surely it is not too simple to suggest that we somehow learn to love our neighbors as ourselves.