Healing Frac(k)tures

Luke 8:26-39

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Their pigs were dead. A whole herd of them driven into the lake. And now, the man previously possessed by demons, who was naked and living in the tombs, is somehow normal again; fully clothed and calm. The people of Gerasenes, swineherders (and of course Gentiles), were afraid. Not only were they afraid, but someone or several someones just lost their basis for economic foothold. The narrative in Luke which precedes this story of healing is the calming of the sea by Jesus in the presence of the disciples, which leaves them in awe and wonder of Jesus’ power. In this narrative, there is fear, and most likely, anger at the conclusion, drawing a stark contrast in how Jesus is perceived within different communities. A community that once maintained status quo by excluding one member, a fractured community, must now attempt to heal itself through God’s presence. The once-possessed man is given the order to turn around and be the voice that conveys God’s will to the community that isolated him, and still fears him.

We know very little about the legion of demons that possessed the man, but we know their effects: physically, the demons made the man strong, able to break through the shackles that his community had laden him with. Socially, the demons were an alienating force – the man lived in the tombs, isolated and naked. He was not a member of the community proper. In Jesus addressing the man’s demonic possession, he is not healing in the sense that we have come to attribute the medical idea of healing. Instead of addressing a sickness, something that makes the individual’s body ill, the healing of the demoniac is a social healing; healing the illnesses which create exclusion and prevent individuals from fully loving one another as God intends. Jesus challenges the way Gerasene society has made a comfortable existence with the demoniac. Their status quo is maintained within the community by making him an outcast. When he comes back a healed man, they are afraid because it challenges their perception of how society should function. Jesus’ actions in healing the man do not bring comfort, but fear of change.

The narrative of the healing in Gerasenes is not unlike many situations of fractured relationships we encounter today. Socially, we experience disparities between individuals based on economic status, race, sexual orientation, and religion. But we are not just fractured in our relationships with other people. We are also fractured in our relationship with the Earth. Climate change, water pollution, and deforestation are all symptoms of a fractured relationship with our environment. As an aspiring ethicist, I’m interested in how Christian belief can play a part in defining an ecological ethic – an appreciation of and respect for Earth and all its creatures, including humanity. Ecological ethics looks at issues of environmental degradation and provides analysis of the situation as well as suggestions for what may be the best course of action.

Our reliance on the Earth is essential for everyday life. The air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat (well, at least most of it) derive from natural processes. We could not exist without support from the Earth and its processes. We are, in fact, one of the most dependent organisms on the planet. But we tend to take the Earth and its processes for granted. We expect that the Earth will always provide for us and that the cycles will continue to function in the same way they always have. However, the way we use the Earth has become unsustainable. Our perceived possession of nature to use how we see fit has led to its abuse. In this context, the Earth is viewed as an object rather than a subject. A commodity rather than possessing its own inherent value. To use Martin Buber’s terminology, an “it” rather than a “thou.”

The ecological ethicist Jim Nash, former professor of Social Ethics at BU School of Theology, advocates in his book Loving Nature that as Christians we must come to understand nature as our neighbor. This requires us to be in a similar loving relationship with nature as we are instructed to share with our human neighbors. Nature has its own inherent value, separate from the utilitarian value human beings assign to it when they view it only in economic terms. From a Christian perspective, nature’s inherent value can be identified in scripture. In Genesis 1:31, God declares the whole earth “very good” not just because it is useful to humans, but because it is good in itself.

There is one example among many of current environmental crises that I’d like to highlight today. Hydraulic Fracturing, or fracking, as it’s commonly called, is a process used by natural gas companies to access and release natural gas deposits a mile or more within the Earth so that it can be used for energy purposes. Some of you might be familiar with it from films such as GasLand or the recent Matt Damon movie Promised Land. Described simply, the process involves drilling into the Earth, first vertically, then horizontally, to access gas pockets within shale formations. A pipe, enclosed in concrete, is then placed in the drilled well, and chemically treated water is pumped into the well, fracturing the rock formations below and releasing the gas. Natural gas companies have established or are establishing fracking sites in many states; California, Texas, Ohio, and Pennsylvania just to name a few. New England has yet to experience this form of energy production.

On the surface, fracking seems an ideal process to provide a domestic energy source. Natural gas is cleaner burning than oil or coal, and if spills occur, it just vents into the atmosphere instead of creating a huge mess. Many of us rely on natural gas to heat our water, cook our food, or even heat our homes. Fracking also brings with it the promise of economic prosperity through jobs and the leasing or purchasing of land owned by individuals who sit on top of these shale formations.

Earlier this year, I was fortunate enough to travel to my home state of Pennsylvania to visit Bradford and Sullivan counties, located in the Northeast of Pennsylvania. Bradford county has the highest number of fracking sites in the state of Pennsylvania, and Sullivan county has seen an increase in well drilling in the past few years. I was concerned about the reports I was hearing regarding the practice of fracking in the media, which tended toward focusing on both the economic benefit and the potential threats. I was also concerned because fracking sites are starting to come into the county where my extended family lives. I wanted to see first-hand what it was like to live in an area where fracking was happening and how people who lived in these areas felt about the process. So on a chilly day in March, my dad and I set out in a rental car to visit two Lutheran churches, one in each county, where parishoners were feeling the effects of fracking. Most people I encountered expressed an overall satisfaction with the gas companies’ presences in their communities. This was because the natural gas companies brought economic stability to areas which five years prior had struggling economies. Both communities lacked industry suitable for providing enough meaningful work for its citizens. Sullivan county, especially the town of Dushore, which I visited was at one time mostly farm land. Now, an aging population was finding it hard to maintain farming lifestyles and saw fracking as an economic opportunity.

If a section of land is identified as containing gas deposits or would make for a good fracking site, gas companies will sign leases with the landowners to allow them to access those pockets of gas underground. A fracking pad is where the actual drilling takes place to establish a well, and can vary in size. The ones we saw were about the size of a football field. Once the company begins accessing natural gas, the landowners receive monthly payments from the gas companies. Individuals can also sell portions of their land for gas pipelines to be installed, an important part of the gas collection process. Additionally, the gas companies improve infrastructure, such as roads, which the state has not attended to. Local businesses see an increase in sales and patronage. There is also the promise of jobs within the gas companies for individuals living in those areas.

My experiences in Pennsylvania left me torn. Environmentally, I believe that a continued reliance on fossil fuels is not the solution to our energy needs. I am also fearful of the fracking process itself for the damage it causes to the Earth. However, the people in these communities could easily be my relatives. When put into a situation of economic hardship, any opportunity for gain seems like the best, and in some cases, the only option. But thinking to the larger picture, to our global community, the practice of fracking is attempting to put a band-aid on an energy and economic situation that requires stitches. Not just a band aid, but a band-aid that has been dropped on the floor and is potentially spreading infection. Just as the people of Gerasenes thought that the solution to their problem was to separate the demoniac from their community, we are seeking the wrong solution to maintain our status quo of energy needs.

Looking at fracking from an “outsider” perspective, there are several key questions one might raise about the practice. First, is it safe? Not just is it safe for human communities, but is it safe for our Earth community as well. In ecological ethics we utilize an idea called the “precautionary principle.” The precautionary principle is the sentiment that action should not be taken if the consequences are uncertain and potentially dangerous. With fracking there is a great deal of concern regarding the health of human beings and the environment. There is potential for contamination of drinking water by chemically treated water and methane, either through improper disposal/containment of wastewater or cracks/breaks in the piping or concrete casing. Also, improper disposal and treatment of fracking wastewater, which contains unspecified chemicals considered trade secrets for each company poses a threat. Natural gas is highly explosive, so there is also potential for explosions occurring at fracking sites. Finally, loss of already dwindling fresh water supplies, as an individual frack requires 7 to 8 million gallons of water, some of which is unretrevable once it enters the ground. Fresh water is an ever-increasingly more precious resource as our world’s population grows and our impacts on the environment limit its amount. Can we really afford to use water in this manner? While gas companies claim that they are refining the process of fracking so that accidents and concerns become less numerous, there is still potential for great harm. When is that potential too much? Is it fair for some communities to bear the potential effects of the fracking process so that we can continue our reliance on fossil fuels? Are those potential drawbacks being communicated effectively to these communities?

Additionally, how sustainable is fracking as both an energy and economic resource? Natural gas is still a fossil fuel. It does burn more cleanly and efficiently than oil and coal, but it still produces carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas. Not to mention the fact that natural gases themselves, such as methane, are also greenhouse gases. Methane does not last as long in the atmosphere as carbon dioxide, but it is more efficient at trapping radiation. The EPA states that at equivalence, the impact of methane on climate change is 20x greater than carbon dioxide over the course of a 100-year period. One must also consider the amount of natural gas present in within the United States, and the rate at which we consume this form of energy. Natural gas is a nonrenewable resource, and just like coal and oil it will eventually run out. When that time comes, what will happen to the areas that rely on it for economic growth?

Sometimes conveying the important messages of life put us in tough places. We are called to speak the word of God through justice and love. We do not only share that message of justice and love with each other within our congregation and Christian community, but with the whole world. The demoniac in today’s Gospel wants to go with Jesus, but Jesus tells him that he must go back and declare what God has done for him. Returning to a community which had already excluded him because he did not fit into their social order to share the good news is a difficult task. We share in this task, though, when we speak or show how God’s love and concern for justice shapes our understanding of what is good and right in our wider society. Speaking out about fracking seeks justice for the earth as well as the communities who experience it, including the overall impact on our global society.

Today’s message is that we cannot remain comfortable with the status quo when it comes to our reliance upon fossil fuels. In doing so we create and continue to foster the fractures between humanity and the environment.  Just as the people of Gerasenes are afraid after Jesus’ healing of the demoniac because it challenges how they understand their society to properly function by excluding those who are deemed to be lesser, so too are we afraid to change our ways of life that might lead to a less convenient or less comfortable situation when it comes to energy production and use. We need to heal our fractured relationship with the Earth, learning to work with it rather than against it.

So what can we do? For such a large scale issue, considering how we can make an impact at individual level can be overwhelming. One place to start is revisiting those three words we hear repeated when speaking about the environment: Reduce. Reuse. Recycle. Often, most emphasis is placed on recycling – don’t throw it away if it’s paper, plastic, aluminum or tin, put it in the green or blue bin! But recycling is at the end of the list of principles because it should be our final attempt at reducing waste. Recycling requires energy input to convert goods into new products, even if the material input is less. It is not the final answer to our energy consumption problems.

Reusing is a concept that many of us forget about. When it comes to energy, it’s impossible to reuse energy already spent. However, by reusing products that require energy to be made or processed – nearly everything we purchase – we can reduce the amount of fossil fuels, like natural gas, expended in the manufacturing process. I’ll give you one example. Thanks to the performer Macklemore, a whole new generation is becoming familiar with reusing. His hit “Thrift Shop” encourages people to find unique treasures at their local thrift shop, making it stylish to realize that “One man’s trash, that’s another man’s come-up.”  (For those of you who don’t know, a “come up” is a bargain). I’m proud to say that today, I am reusing – this cassock that I’m wearing was given to my dad 45 years ago by my Great Aunt for his ordination into the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

Reducing, on the other hand, is much more difficult than recycling or even reusing, but it probably the most important of these three principles. It challenges our notion of our status quo. Just as the people of Gerasenes had created stability in their community by separating the demoniac from interacting with them and became afraid of bringing him back into their society after Jesus healed him, we are also afraid of challenging the status quo of our Americanized existence. We live in a consumerist culture, which tells us if there is not a steady-state of growth in our economy, then our society is in peril. We are encouraged to consume. It’s the American way. But we do not have to “buy-in” (pardon the pun) to this way of existence. For example, when it comes to energy, we can reduce our use by employing sustainable practices, such as taking shorter showers, weatherizing our houses/apartments, and consuming less (reusing comes back into play here). We can investigate alternative energy sources – find out how we can effectively access resources that are renewable, like solar, wind, and geothermal power and parlay them into sources for green jobs.

Additionally, we can share our understanding of God’s presence in the world by speaking out against injustices to our neighbors, whether humankind or otherkind. Grassroots organizing against fracking has been especially effective in New York state, where local communities utilize the precautionary principle, insisting that greater proof of the safety of fracking processes must be made in order to allow it to occur. Through these processes the citizens of small townships have managed to ban fracking in their areas and have convinced the governor to continually place moratoriums on fracking within the entire state. We can also seek out alternative forms of economies, which can provide communities with work options that build relationships between community members and the Earth.

When we begin to recognize ourselves as part of a larger community, both human and earthly, we must consider how our actions impact those around us. Part of our faith as Christians is that there is always hope in the face of challenges, and that love and justice will prevail. We cannot maintain a status quo that continues to alienate and fracture our communities. We must hear what God has done for us and utilize that knowledge to our best advantage. Acting through our faith, we must seek to be those agents of love and justice to our earth community; we must seek to heal our fractures.


~Jessica Chicka, Chapel Associate for Lutheran Ministry


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