Big Oil and Matthew 5:43-48

Scene from the Y.E.C.A. prayer rally outside the presidential debate at Hofstra University, October 2012
Scene from the Y.E.C.A. prayer rally outside the presidential debate at Hofstra University, October 2012

As a young evangelical who is working to overcome the climate crisis as part of my Christian discipleship and witness, I am consistently mulling over the ways that faith and activism collide.

I also subscribe to the Flashcards published by the Sightline Institute, “quick reference tools for effective [values-based] communications strategies.” One card, How Brilliant is’s Go Fossil Free Campaign?, has really gotten my wheels turning.

Not even the whole card, actually. Just the first bullet point: Name the villains.

There are lots of reasons to name villains. Most memorable stories have one—and climate change, a threat that is largely abstract and faceless, needs one!

Plus, when we don’t name a villain, we leave the story open to interpretation. In fact, everybody who uses oil—and that’s everybody—can wind up feeling villainzed. As fossil fuel consumers, we may feel guilty, trapped, or defensive.

Fair enough. I want to combat climate change. I don’t want the story about climate change to be indefinitely open to interpretation. I definitely don’t want everybody to end up feeling villainized. These desires are rooted not in an activist spirit, but in a reflective faith that is seeking God’s will for the world.

But because I am not just an activist but also a follower of Christ, this flashcard conjures up thoughts of this common memory verse, a corollary of loving one’s neighbor as oneself:

 ‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.

For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax-collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters,what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

The tension is obvious. Name the villains. Love your enemies.

Finger-pointing jeering and deep-hearted caring. Two things that just do not seem to go together.

I want to suggest, however, that they do. If we dare see this piece of activist wisdom in the light of biblical revelation, I think we can get one step closer to understanding the gospel. Like the wise man who built his house upon the rock, instead of the fool who built his house upon the sand, it is important for Christian activists to get the foundation right before building up the movement.

Who is the enemy?

It is important that we identify, as specifically and responsibly as we can, who the “enemy” is.

The divide typically goes thus: climate activists on one side, climate skeptics on the other. It is a common cable news narrative, but a false dichotomy.

Think about how inherently hypocritical it is for a climate activist like me to villianize a climate skeptic! If I genuinely believe that climate change science points us to a grim outlook for the future, then should I not welcome anyone who brings even a shred of genuine information to me that the climate crisis is not quite as bad as I fear? Like the skeptics, I thirst for good news (indefinite lowercase), although I might be more courageous in taking in the bad news than they are.

There is a sub-variety of climate skeptic worth mentioning: those who believe human-induced climate change is real and a threat, but consider it insignificant in comparison to other issues. If I genuinely believe that climate change is one of the great challenges of the 21st century, and am actively working to bring it into the public consciousness, then it would be hypocritical of me to not pause occasionally and listen to them, hear their beliefs and understand their concerns.

Why only occasionally?

Because, in addition to humankind’s own sad sense of complacency, a true enemy has blown climate skepticism way out of reasonable proportion, using their deep pockets and wide network.

Bill McKibben and the Go Fossil Free campaign get it right: in the story of global warming, the true enemy is the fossil fuel industry.  The plethora of corporations that extract, produce and transport oil, gas and coal, and have a vested interest in making sure our society remain addicted to the habit of consuming their product. Even though, because of carbon dioxide emissions, this product comes with a nasty side effect called global warming.

How then, does a Christian climate activist love the fossil fuel industry?

My enemy has a soul

Although the corporations that make up the fossil fuel industry can be considered “legal people” – having many of the same rights and responsibilities of living, breathing human beings – it is absurd to think of something composed of pipelines and refineries as being an actual person.

That said, good people are a part of this nasty project. Oil-rig operators to CEOs to shareholders. They probably have a heart. Some of them are just trying to make ends meet. Many of them are fellow Christians who we could, have, or will take communion with. More than we may expect, a number of them admit that the reality of climate change requires drastic action.

Yet, even if the good people did not exist, Jesus still calls us to “love our enemies.” At the core of corporations are people, and in the rush to overcome climate change, we need to remember that the Kingdom project is not one of dehumanization but rather rehumanization.

Empire criticism

Empire criticism is an interpretive lens applied to the New Testament. According to my roommate’s notes from seminary, this is a

“…variation of ‘new’ perspective. Jesus being Lord means Caesar is not. Church thus becomes subversive and anti-empire. Subversion is primary motivator.”

I’d go into more detail, but the book I would want to read on this subject hasn’t come out yet. So, in the meantime, I am going to agree with Scot McKnight (professor of said seminary course and co-editor of said book) in saying that “to see large-scale imperial subversiveness throughout the New Testament…overcooks the texts.” But I also acknowledge the fruitful possibility this lens has for cultivating effective political theologies.

At a superficial level, the obvious candidate for 21st century Caesar would be the American President or any other head of state. While there is some truth to this, centuries of democratization and the legacy of Christendom have fuddled any clear-cut comparisons. Subjects of the Roman Empire could not vote for Caesar, we can vote for our elected officials. While Christian praxis is not the law of the land, I would easily take even Richard Nixon versus Nero Caesar.

If the title of 21st century Caesar is up for grabs, I would like to nominate a member of the fossil fuel industry: ExxonMobil.

ExxonMobil is, at over $400 billion in market value, the world’s biggest company. Whether through the price at the pump or through an invisible slice of our investment portfolio, many of us are somehow tied to the rising or falling fortune of ExxonMobil. Like how Caesar placed statues of his likeness all throughout the empire, ExxonMobil feels obliged to present a favorable public image of themselves through marketing campaigns.  But, also like the Roman Emperor, ExxonMobil is not accountable to the common people. Instead, the oil giant listens primarily to its shareholders — the vast majority being a number of mutual funds and institutional owners who, by their very nature, care only about the bottom line.


And, of course, ExxonMobil Caesar is not alone, with many other Brutuses gunning for the title: BP, Chevron, Shell, Total S.A., and ConocoPhillips. Never mind those that don’t have roadside gas stations but are still take part in the process of getting carbon into the atmosphere: Halliburton, Koch Industries, and TransCanada.

For some, the key link between the Roman and American empires are that they are both militaristic. But consider the fact that many of the United States post-Cold War military campaigns have taken place in oil-rich nations. In some sense, even the American military has been co-opted by the fossil fuel industry.

If, as a Christian climate change activist, I am trying to figure out how to love the fossil fuel industry, it seems the best place to look is how Jesus loved Caesar.

Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s

In addition to military oppression, the Roman Empire brought military protection. The resulting Pax Romana, although non-optional, cost a pretty penny in the form of taxes. Jesus discerned that these taxes, but no more, should be paid – “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”

Similarly, we can admit that there is a Pax ExxonMobilia. Whether through transportation, trade or innovation, the whole civilization project has overall been advanced by the cheap, bountiful energy provided by fossil fuels. ExxonMobil and the rest of the fossil fuel industry rightfully deserve a portion of their profits.

The question then becomes: how do we show love to the fossil fuel industry while asking that dramatic action be taken to curtail carbon emissions, cutting into their bottom lines?

The trick is in remember that the command to “love your enemy” is a corollary of the greatest commandment, which calls in part “to love your neighbor as yourself.” Which means we need to think about what it is that all human beings care about and want and desire.

Here’s one desire relevant to our conversation: when financial desperation is not an issue, human beings have an inherent desire for meaningful work (as a recent college grad who just entered the so-called ‘real world,’ I can testify to this desire!). We want what we do to matter.

For the fossil fuel industry, there is certainly something worthwhile in meeting the world’s energy demand. Much of that meaningful work, however, is voided by the destructive reality of climate change. Oil, coal and gas prices reflect the former but without factoring in the latter.

It may be easy to assume that the entire fossil fuel industry is banking on this free ride, but here’s the kicker. Acknowledging climate change, both Royal Dutch Shell and British Petroleum have called against these easy profits. Last year, they signed the Carbon Price Communiqué, and on their websites call for market-based mechanisms to counter climate change. Both Shell and BP want their revenue to reflect meaningful work.

ExxonMobil, quite frankly, doesn’t have the guts to take the same stand. Neither do the oil-and-gas magnates, the Koch Brothers, who have invested tens of millions into super-inflating climate skepticism. (In some ways, Koch Industries, a privately-owned company with a presence in about sixty countries, makes a better candidate for being the 21st century Caesar than ExxonMobil). Their inherent desire for meaningful work has been corrupted by the fallen desire for more and more unearned money.

If we truly want to love the fossil fuel industry, we need to remember that their bottom line is mostly irrelevant. The bigger question is whether or not our society has put the proper incentive structures in place, so that the work these profit-hunting corporations do is truly meaningful.

The ExxonMobil HQ outside of Houston, sometimes referred to by employees as "the Death Star."
The ExxonMobil HQ outside of Houston, sometimes referred to by employees as “the Death Star.”


The personal and the practical

In addition to the political response, loving the fossil fuel industry has a personal and practical element as well. It is best to reflect on this side of the equation, so that one does not become jaded.

I am often confident that something is true love when one actively seeks to genuinely understand the other, instead of when one tries to fit the other into a preconceived box. If what is true for dating and friendship also applies to enemies, then perhaps the easiest way for a climate change activist like myself to love my enemy is to read regularly – and without agenda – from an even-handed book such as Steve Coll’s Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power. An even better way would have a relational aspect. If there was someone part of the fossil fuel industry who I could regularly grab lunch with, or go on runs with, or sit beside in the pews!

If we look at the activist wisdom to name the villains, and see it in the light of biblical revelation to love your enemy, we might see that naming the villain could be an act of love in itself. If we do not specify the problem, what would spur the enemy to change their fallen ways? There is, of course, the dangerous temptation for Christians to name the villains with judgmental hubris! But also for certain Christians is the dangerous temptation of being too nice, of not acknowledging legitimate grievances. Only through honesty can true reconciliation, or at least a compromise, take place.

There is a risk that by saying all this “love fossil fuel companies” stuff that I am muddying the activism. But that is the nature of love; love is a simple act that makes people intertwined and things complicated. But it a beautiful complexity, a tapestry drawing us closer into community and understanding and redemption.

The love option is worth it. Even if, as a Christian climate activist, my fellow activists and myself were able to mobilize a million young evangelicals against climate change, and the resulting movement put a just price on carbon and then saved the planet, but at the end of the day the net gain of love was zero, the whole thing would have been a resounding gong, a clanging cymbal.

Because, at the end of the day, I want my work to be meaningful as well.

To be sure, although I am part of the steering committee and serve as the campaigns assistant for Young Evangelicals for Climate Action, the opinions expressed in this post are my own and not necessarily that of Y.E.C.A.  

This is the final part of a three-part series reflecting on what it means to love my enemy. Prior, I wrote from my experience as a youth minister a post titled Thou shalt love thy frenemy, which appeared on The second was more a tad more personal, titled Will you be my enemy?. While research, I also discovered I might later need to read this book, somebody remind me in a couple of months.

Big Oil and Matthew 5:43-48

3 thoughts on “Big Oil and Matthew 5:43-48

  1. “An even better way would have a relational aspect. If there was someone part of the fossil fuel industry who I could regularly grab lunch with, or go on runs with, or sit beside in the pews!”

    Or you could talk to an engineer.

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