Prayer and the Spill

What is hell on earth? It may be there in those terrifying photos of oil-soaked pelicans in the Gulf. The endless spewing from underground has a darkly surreal quality, as if it were not of this world.

Lawmakers in Louisiana, helpless in stopping the spill, are now looking to the heavens. They officially declared Sunday the Statewide Day of Prayer, marshaling the state to clasp hands, bow and call for “God’s grace to bring an end to the devastation.”

State Senator Robert Adley summarized the move in a statement after the unanimous vote:  “Thus far efforts made by mortals to try to solve the crisis have been to no avail. It is clearly time for a miracle for us.” Sarah Palin agreed.

At first glance, this appears absurd. It comes across as the work of deeply religious politicians trying to infuse their church into state business. There is also the vexing problem of theodicy and an intercessory deity. The satirical Twitter feed BPGlobalPR, which first pointed me to the news, voiced this issue, a little indelicately:

Pray all you want, but if God can stop it, why did he let us let this happen to begin with? #GodIsAMeanie

But there is a tragic earnestness to this desperate gesture. If anything, the Gulf spill has underscored the inadequacies of us mere mortals. Scientists scramble for any workable, crackpot fix. Agencies and companies point fingers, competing for who was least responsible for the shabby standards that allowed the spill. Tony Hayward, BP’s blundering CEO, has fitfully proven that he, like all of us, is a fallible sinner. One with a yacht named Bob.

The Louisiana legislators are merely trying to grapple with the dispiriting, soul-crushing catastrophe. Although it mentions “our Almighty God,” the actual text of the bill (pdf) attempts to be inclusive. All citizens are urged “to pray for a solution to this crisis, each according to his or her own faith.” It is not a religious dictum, but a creation of commemorative day for a collective means to adjust to the spill. And it’s clearly valuable to mindfully consider the spill’s devastation, the lives it continues to impact, the conditions behind it. KtB has done just that before.

In a dire, necessary piece at Slate, Dr. Marc Siegel warns that the psychological toll of the spill will remain long after the gushing is capped. Research on past spills reveals that environmental tragedies leave devastation in their wake in surrounding communities. Siegel writes:

Hospitals and clinics are sure to see a huge influx of patients, more than they can handle, so special clinics and emergency hotlines should be set up to deal with the severe mental-health crisis that is sure to occur.

Let us pray that the faithful in Louisiana’s halls of power hear his call.

Mark Bergen is a contributing editor at KtB. He lives in Chicago and blogs here.