On Pandora, Congo, the Gulf, and Wall Street

This Sunday, I’ll be preaching a sermon at my home church in a series called God in the Movies, where we seek to draw theological insight at the intersection of contemporary cinema and biblical revelation. I’ll be exploring themes in Avatar, and their eery imitation of today’s news. Let me mention three connections.
First, all of us who fly in jets, use computers, and talk on cell phones are complicit in the plundering of one of earth’s Pandoras – the Congo. My friend Tom Austin explains the connection on his blog. Quotable:

Of course the situation in Congo is not as simple as the theme in the wildly popular Avatar. But the similarities are striking. Congo has the second largest rain forest in the world, and in it live some exotic wildlife such as mountain gorillas.
Congo also has its own little black rock called coltan. It’s a critical ingredient in rockets, jet engines as well as as a wide array of consumer electronics — from cell phones, to digital cameras and laptop computers. Congo possesses 80 percent of the world’s coltan and also has abundant reserves of gold, copper and diamonds. The developed world, including the Chinese, want coltan.
What’s more, foreign multi-national corporations have been deeply involved in the exploitation of Congo’s coltan, gold and other minerals as has Congo’s predatory neighbors Uganda and Rwanda. A witches’ brew of outside interests, proxy militias, corrupt Congolese army, and ineffective UN peace keepers, have left villagers, particularly in the Eastern Congo vulnerable to attack and rape… More than 5 million Congolese are estimated dead because of the wars, related disease, and ongoing violence.

Second, closer to home, the extraction of unobtanium in Pandora mirrors our extraction of oil in the Gulf of Mexico. Pushed by greed, corporate elites repeatedly have transgressed legal, environmental, and moral limits, all the while shielded by their political protectors and apologists. Together they privatize profits but socialize costs – creating a big return for their big men and a big mess for the rest of us “small people.”
And third, the machinery of the unobtanium industry evokes the deep structures of Wall Street – which remain largely unreformed even after Congress passed a so-called reform bill yesterday. An elite group of investors aided by supercomputers continues to privatize profits and socialize risk. They continue to build too-big-to fail entities that bulldoze and steamroll forward in their addictive quest for shareholder return. They trade in something more elusive than unobtanium: debt. And they extract not coltan and not oil, but fractions of a penny millions of times a day. In so doing, they seduce us all into in their clever Ponzi schemes, creating digital profit without adding real value, ultimately at the expense of the common good.
At the center of both Pandora and the biblical narrative, there is a tree – the tree of life. It tells us that what matters most is not profit, but a sacred connection … connection to God, to one another, to all of creation. That’s what I’ll be exploring in my sermon this Sunday – our choice between an economy of extraction and an economy of connection.
Novelist Walker Percy suggested that descending into the darkness of a movie theater is like descending into Plato’s cave, as on the wall, shadows trace the story of the world outside. I think he would agree that something similar happens in the sacred drama of worship week by week. Through the stories that unfold on the screen – and in the biblical narrative, we have a chance to see ourselves, come to ourselves, and turn in a new direction.
Through good art and good religion, our world’s extractive, destructive, and violent economies can be exposed – for those who have eyes to see and ears to hear. As the credits roll and as the benediction is pronounced, we must walk out into the world imagining what may seem impossible: the creation of a new kind of economy – an ecologically regenerative, financially sustainable, socially responsible, and morally defensible economy of connection. That kind of economy will steer us away from rather than into Gandhi’s seven deadly sins:

Wealth without Work
Pleasure without Conscience
Science without Humanity
Knowledge without Character
Politics without Principle
Commerce without Morality
Worship without Sacrifice

From David Korten to Jim Wallis to Bill McKibben to many others, more and more of our most thoughtful leaders are challenging us to imagine, create, and participate in this new kind of economy – and a different way of life. In that pursuit, moviegoers and churchgoers can become unlikely colleagues. May it be so.