John Gehring is the Media Director and Senior Writer for Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good

As an urbanite fortunate to live within walking distance of
work and trendy restaurants, I rarely drive these days. But running late to a
pickup basketball game recently, I was low on gas and quickly pulled into the
first station on the road. It wasn’t until my tank was nearly full that I
looked up and saw a glowing CHEVRON sign. My stomach sank. Last Friday, I
attended the premier of “Crude,” a
powerful documentary that chronicles the 16-year lawsuit waged against the oil
company on behalf of nearly 30,000 indigenous people living in the rainforests
of Ecuador.

The lawsuit alleges that Texaco (bought by Chevron in 2001)
dumped more than 18 billion gallons of toxic waste into the Amazon from 1964 to
1990. Plaintiffs for the indigenous tribes believe the ecological disaster
poisoned an area the size of Rhode Island and is at least 30 times larger than
the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska. The once pristine waters that nourished
generations of indigenous communities now run black with oil. Infants are born
with birth defects, cancer is ravaging villages, and a way of life dating back
500 years has been destroyed. Chevron executives deny responsibility and have
used deep pockets to drag out the case. The company, based in San Ramon,
Calif., recently reported profits of $3.8 billion and has no shortage of savvy
PR consultants or expensive legal minds at their disposal. The non-profit Amazon
Watch is leading a coalition of international groups demanding accountability from the oil
giant. Rep. James McGovern of Massachusetts, who attended the premier in
Washington, DC, visited the affected areas of Ecuador last year and in a letter
to President Obama described what he saw as a “terrible humanitarian and
environmental crisis” that as an American left him “angry and ashamed.” 

The film raises haunting questions for those of us
privileged to live in comfort while others suffer from the greed of U.S.
corporations. How do we reconcile our call as Christians to live simply and
seek justice for the most vulnerable amid a culture of excessive consumerism? How
do we avoid becoming indifferent to human rights abuses far from our daily
experiences? “Crude” shakes us out of the cocoon of complacency. It forces us
to consider how personal choices relate to systemic injustices.

I grew up steeped in the intricate vocabulary of sin. In
classes that should have been called Catholic Guilt 101, I learned about mortal
sins, venal sins, sins of omission and sins of commission from the good sisters
at Immaculate Conception Elementary School. It was also a sin, I was sorry to
hear, not to confess all my sins
during confession. I suspect most of us still think about sin as personal slights
and wrongdoing against another individual. Christian conservatives are
particularly fond of railing against sexual sins and could barely contain
themselves when Bill Clinton got into trouble in the Oval Office. But we hear
much less indignation about “social sins” that include environmental
exploitation or the humanitarian impact of war. Consider the potential for
progress on some of our most urgent moral challenges if we could channel some
of the anger fanning the flames of our ubiquitous “culture wars” into campaigns
against global poverty, preventable diseases and ecological disasters.    

While some elected officials like Sen. James Inhofe of
Oklahoma still deny the reality of global climate change and lobbyists for Big
Oil engage in what amounts to legalized bribery on Capitol Hill, I’m proud that
Christians are on the front lines of a growing movement for environmental
justice and corporate accountability. Sister
Patricia Daly
and her fellow Dominican sisters of Caldwell, N.J. challenge
companies like Exxon Mobile, Dow and General Electric at shareholder meetings.
The Catholic sisters are part of the Interfaith
Center on Corporate Responsibility
, an association of
275 faith-based institutional investors that press companies to be socially and
environmentally responsible. Each year religious institutional investors
sponsor over 200 shareholder resolutions. Pope Benedict XIV has been dubbed the
Green Pope for his resolute commitment
to environmental justice. The Vatican even became the first “carbon neutral”
state in the world. The pope’s latest encyclical addressed the need for

sustainable development, and the responsibility wealthy nations have to help
developing countries escape the deadly traps of debt and poverty. Last spring,
the Catholic
Coalition Against Climate Change
launched A Catholic Climate Covenant: the St. Francis Pledge to Care for Creation
and the Poor
As Christians, we recognize that
ending the poisoning of our planet is a pro-life issue central to defending
human dignity.

Colonialism, in the official sense, is the shameful legacy
of a bygone era. But multinational corporations that plunder and exploit the
rainforests of South America or the mines of Africa continue this brutal cycle
with tragic consequences. If those of us who know the truth fail to speak out,
we stand complicit in our silence.

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