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Politics of Scripture

God’s Clean Water Act

Humans have grown exponentially in our propensity and power to conquer the earth itself. Despite being newcomers relative to neighboring species, humans usually behave as if we owned the place. But Psalm 95 speaks clearly: When we come into God’s presence—and there is no place God is more vividly present to us than in creation’s midst—the psalm says to come with thanksgiving, the polar opposite of greed.

In God’s hand are the depths of the earth;
    the heights of the mountains are God’s.
The sea belongs to the One who made it,
    and the dry land, God’s hands formed.

Psalm 95:4–5

For alert readers, Psalm 95 provides a fundamental reason for safeguarding the earth and its ecosystems: They do not belong to us.

Historically, humans have treated creation the way the first European immigrants treated the new world. Rather than arriving respectfully, as newcomers to the home of others, they acted as conquerors, conquistadores, taking the Americas violently from inhabitants and spreading disease, displacement, and destruction from sea to sea. In similar ways, especially in recent generations, humans have grown exponentially in our propensity and power to conquer the earth itself. Despite being newcomers relative to neighboring species, humans usually behave as if we owned the place.

But Psalm 95 speaks clearly: When we come into God’s presence—and there is no place God is more vividly present to us than in creation’s midst—the psalm says to come with thanksgiving, the polar opposite of greed. Psalm 95 enumerates the things that belong to God: the earth’s depths, the mountains’ heights, the sea and dry land, and even ourselves, the people of God’s pasture and sheep of God’s hand. According to the psalm there is nothing we may call our own, not even ourselves, nothing we may conquer or exploit for our sole benefit.

According to Psalm 104, in fact, divine interests extend far beyond human borders:

You make springs gush forth in the valleys;
    they flow between the hills,
giving drink to every wild animal;
    the wild asses quench their thirst.
By the streams the birds of the air have their habitation;
    they sing among the branches.
From your lofty abode you water the mountains;
    the earth is satisfied with the fruit of your work.

Psalm 104:10–13

When Europeans claimed the new world, many honestly believed they were doing God’s work. We might wring our hands at the mayhem they wrought. Yet most of us continue to imagine that acting in our own immediate interests coincides with doing right, letting short-term benefits outweigh the damages inflicted on humans and nature alike.

The Exodus story exposes the destructive power of human exploitation. Israel’s national story begins with an Egyptian ruler who, by resisting his slaves’ bid for liberation, unleashes severe human and environmental wreckage on his own land. Escaping with Moses to the wilderness, the Israelite slaves discover an economic system that was the polar opposite of the Pharaoh’s, a system not of mindless exploitation, but of ceaseless providence.

Three crises in quick succession inspire acts of divine benevolence: crises of water (Exod 15:23-27), food (Exod 16:1-36), and water once again (Exod 17:1-7). Each time, the crowd’s understandable fears lead to testiness and quarreling. Each time, God intervenes equally and without discrimination, not because of exemplary behavior, but because of need.

Water remains so precariously essential to life that in 2010 it was officially recognized by the United Nations as a fundamental human right, entitling everyone in the world to “access to sufficient, safe, acceptable, physically accessible and affordable water for personal and domestic use.” According to the U.N., nations bear the responsibility to “guarantee rights to water and sanitation equally and without discrimination.”

This ruling comes at a moment not only of voracious water privatization but of severe and unpredictable climatic changes. Across the U.S. and the world, private interests are shrinking citizens’ access to clean, free-flowing water, which used to be a right of the commons. Climate chaos disrupts rainfall patterns, and lives are threatened by unprecedented scarcity in some places and torrential flooding in others. As glaciers recede, deserts grow, and water is diverted, a billion people subsist without safe drinking water.

As noted by Colin P. Kelley, the tragic violence that persists in Syria, for instance, was triggered by five years of drought beginning in 2006, exacerbated by the government’s inequitable redistribution of agricultural lands and water resources. Neighboring countries suffered some drought, as the Middle East frequently does, but not the disaster that Syrian policies precipitated. Over the past fifteen years of turmoil, more than half of the country’s population has been displaced.

Syria’s suffering is exceptional, but Americans need not look overseas to see crisis unfolding. In January of 2014, a coal-related chemical spill into the Elk River upstream from Charleston, West Virginia—a U.S. capital city—contaminated the water supply for 300,000 people.

The event came to light three days before a group of Louisville Seminary students left for Israel and Palestine. When we arrived in Bethlehem, some asked if the water there was safe to drink. Yes, I said. Water is expensive and sometimes scarce for Palestinians in this occupied West Bank town, but it’s clean. The irony was not lost on my student from West Virginia. Two weeks after the spill, he said, his family members in the land of the free still couldn’t drink from their own kitchen faucets.

As it happened, I was leading a retreat near Charleston soon after. More than a month past the spill, the crisis had not yet abated. “You know that burnt pizza feeling in your mouth?” someone groaned. “That’s what this chemical is like. It smells like licorice, but it burns the roof of your mouth, your throat, your gums.”

“What was the chemical?” I asked.

“It’s called 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, or MCHM. It’s used to clean coal. That’s its only purpose. The company responsible filed for bankruptcy, so they won’t fix it. The instructions the water utility gave residents for flushing out their systems didn’t work.”

“What do you think will happen?”

“We hope it will cause people to wake up to what is happening here. It’s a beautiful state, but our resources are being ruined. And now we’re paying for water we can’t use, and buying bottled water to drink and cook with. And that gets expensive.”

That’s true. At my house, one penny buys more than a gallon of tap water. A gallon of water in nine 89-cent single-use half-liter bottles costs 800 times as much, an 80,000% mark-up for water that is less regulated than most tap water. Charleston’s citizens were forced to turn to bottled water, and water crises are well known elsewhere in the U.S., notably Flint and Newark. But drinking bottled water where public water is good generates piles of plastic and squanders cash. What would happen if we followed God’s example of generosity instead, sending that wasted money to communities that actually need water?

For nearly half a century, the U.S.’s Clean Water Act of 1972 has prevented much of the discharge of pollutants into the nation’s waters, and has restored many waterways. As polluting industries have attempted to limit these protections, confusion has grown. In response, in 2015 the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers helped devise the Clean Water Rule to provide science-based guidance for protecting water sources for more than 117 million Americans.

But among recent efforts to overturn Obama-era environmental regulations is the current administration’s replacement of the Clean Water Rule with what environmentalists are calling the “Dirty Water Rule,” excluding from clean water standards one in every five streams, many lakes and ponds, and more than half of all wetlands, all to aid and abet corporate dumping.

In the Exodus story, God showed compassion for thirsty people, giving them good water right out of the rock. The Gospel stories repeatedly show Jesus likewise caring for neighbors’ health in basic ways, healing the sick, multiplying loaves and fish, preaching compassion for the poor. To care for fundamental needs is to do as Jesus did. What would happen if we took Jesus’ words seriously, “I was thirsty and you gave me drink?” What would happen if, as in John’s story of Jesus meeting the Samaritan woman (John 4:5-42), thirst created the opportunity for understanding that transcended cultural barriers?

These scriptures invite several responses. First, they invite gratitude toward a Creator whose open hand freely gives all good things, most especially the food and water that should never be overlooked nor taken for granted. Second, they invite prayers for thirsty populations, people nearby and around the world who lack safe drinking water.

Third, and most of all, they invite, and even compel, actions that help bring clean water to everyone God loves—that is, every person and every creature. The Tennessee-based organization Living Waters for the World, in its own words, “empowers everyday people to change lives through clean water. We train, equip and support volunteers in forming global clean-water mission partnerships [to] empower international communities to install and sustain water purification systems and health education programs that transform lives.” Over a thousand communities worldwide have hosted volunteers who have been trained to install new water systems, bringing “water from the rock” to thirsty communities.

The earth and its resources do not belong to us. Living Waters for the World is one of many volunteer organizations reminding us that greed and exploitation cannot offer societies the abundance that grace freely provides. The Creator of sea and dry land, the One who gives water in the wilderness and rivers in the desert, beckons us likewise to resist those who exploit and give drink to those who thirst.

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