Rivers of our Moment
One River, Ethics Matter
I’m delighted to be with you today both because of the topic of this conference and because ever since I was asked to participate in a similar conference in Spokane two years ago, I have hoped this information would be shared in other places of the Columbia River Watershed. Since Boise is the second major city in my Lutheran synod, I’m very glad to be with you today.
As I begin today, I give thanks to Creator, for the long stewardship of this land by Shoshone, Paiute, Nez Perce, and Bannock brothers and sisters.
It’s good to be in Boise and along the Boise River, a river whose song and cooling refreshment so many of us enjoy as we play in the water, eat our meals at restaurants, or relax in the parks along the river. Thank you Boise for the way you have protected the critters and land along the river.
And of course the Boise flows and is joined in the Snake by the Owyhee, the Payette, and the Malheur; and the Snake is joined by the Salmon and the Clearwater, then the Tucannon and flows into the CheWana at Lake Wallula . . . the recitation of names is almost a song itself, isn’t it . . . so many tendrils coursing downhill in drips and drops and giant pools, cascades and waterfalls. This is the song of the great watershed of the Columbia River, a unique piece of the glorious creation of our land and the subject of Ice Age floods, fire, legend, multiple uses to serve the human family, and controversy.
As introduced, my name is Martin Wells and I’m here for several reasons:
First, it has been my privilege to be familiar with the Roman Catholic Bishop’s letter on the Columbia Watershed since right after my election in 1999. It is titled “The Columbia River Watershed: Caring for Creation and the Common Good.”
At breakfast with the irrepressible Bishop Bill Skylstad, now bishop-emeritus of the Spokane Diocese, he could hardly wait to tell us about the letter which was then under development and is now framing this conversation. Former Bishop Michael Driscoll, of Boise, signed the letter along with 11 other bishop signatories from the U.S. and Canada.
I’m here as well because, at its 20th anniversary, I signed a letter of apology from nine denominations to Pacific Northwest First Nations and Native American tribes because of the Churches complicity in the violent wars of the 1800’s where among other things, their spiritual practices were assaulted. In the letter of apology I promised to work for recognition and rectification of these wrongs.
I’m also here because of the map of the Columbia/Snake River watershed you have in your packet of materials. It was that map of the watershed that issued a holy call to me to pay attention, our church territory almost completely defined by this magnificent watershed in Eastern Washington, Idaho, and the parts of Wyoming where I work. The map showed me in graphic form that I was to be a steward of this watershed because it is where I live and work with 90 congregations
Bishop Skylstad used the terminology of “sacramental commons” for the River and it was a life-changing term for me, and though that language didn’t persist in the final draft of the letter I couldn’t shake it: “Sacramental commons.”
As Lutherans, we recognized a sacrament as a natural element joined to a promise of presence by the creator God. It is a place where ”the finite bears the infinite.” Seven sacraments are celebrated in the Roman Catholic tradition, but shy Lutherans only have two, baptism and Holy Communion and the elements are bread, wine, and water.
Water. It was a welcomed imaginative stretch for me to see the religious promise built into creation as good, and the life-giving element of water as joined in these magnificent tributaries and this singular river system!
To imagine that this might be a sacramental presence permanently invoked in our midst as a place of common good and common nourishment, was easy and joyful. I’m grateful one of the scholars associated with the letter, John Hart, has written a book by that name, “Sacramental Commons: Christian Ecological Ethics,” and I commend it to you.
The Bishop’s letter appeared in 2001 and was received around the world as a welcome provocation and encouragement to care for and steward this magnificent watershed. There was celebration and joy because our best selves were being summoned by the bishops for the work of stewardship of this treasured river, her complex ecosystem, her critters including the great salmon, and all the values the River brings to life.
The letter’s approach is one of respect for first peoples, early ranchers, farmers, loggers, miners and their hard work. No one is blamed in the letter. To quote:
We call for a thorough, humble, and introspective evaluation that seeks to eliminate both economic greed that fails to respect the environment and ecological elitism that lacks proper regard for the legitimate rights and property of others.
The preservation of the Columbia Watershed’s beauty and benefits requires us to enter into a gradual process of conversion and change. Our goal is to review very broadly the present situation of the watershed; to reflect on our common regional history; to imagine a viable, sustainable future for the watershed; and to seek ways to realize our vision.
It’s a 45 minute flight from the northern part of the watershed to this, the great Snake River watershed, but from 35,000 feet it is easy to see the topography and the reality that this is all one great watershed, begun as a small river flowing north in British Columbia, and as another part flowing SW from Yellowstone and Jackson Hole and then across Southern Idaho to its northly flow through Hells Canyon, joined by the Salmon and Clearwater, and then across Southern Washington State to the great confluence with the main stem of the Columbia River, south of the Tri-Cities in Washington.
Along the way of the Snake and the Columbia are more than 29 dams, built for power production and flood control. We have all benefited from this power and protection. But much of this territory is the ancient home to First Nations and Native American tribes, tribes not consulted on the building or operation of the dams or the 1964 Columbia River Treaty with Canada.
This great watershed is the home to one of the premier salmon habitats in the world, with some salmon, call “hogs,” weighing in at more than 100 lbs, before the advent of the dams and the loss of a salmon fishery all the way to Northern Nevada. Timothy Egan, one of the premier writers of our Northwest home, writes this: “The Pacific Northwest is simply this: wherever the salmon can get to. Rivers without salmon have lost the life source of the area.”
The Bishop’s International Pastoral Letter was written to celebrate and call attention to this wondrous watershed. To quote from page one of the letter,
“We, the Catholic Bishops in the international watershed region of the United States and Canada, write this pastoral letter because we have become concerned about regional economic and ecological conditions and the conflicts over them, in the watershed. We address this letter to our Catholic community and to all people of good will. We hope that we might work together to develop and implement an integrated spiritual, social and ecological vision for our watershed home, a vision that promotes justice for people and stewardship of creation. “
The bishops hoped their letter would be a catalyst for conversations such as we’re having today.
Lutheran Bishops officially affirmed this letter in 2009 in order to give it additional life among our people and the 500 Lutheran parishes from Alaska to Idaho and Washington, Wyoming, Oregon and Montana.
Why? Because water, and particularly fresh water, is, with our planet itself, the most precious gift of creation, a creation we recognize as a gift for the whole human family.
Water. We are walking pillars of water; we are born on a flood of amniotic fluid, it is our sustaining drink and it is for the gift of cleansing and poured over us for the rebirth of baptism. In the books of Ezekiel and Revelation it is an eschatological sign of the Kingdom of God, water flowing from under the temple of God, and refreshing the world by the Tree of Life and 12 fruits and leaves for healing of all the nations.
The Bishop’s letter calls for human stewardship of this gift so that the common wealth and this common treasure, are served.
And the moment to encourage conversation is now, as the Columbia River Treaty is renegotiated between the United States and Canada. What was ignored in haste can now be acknowledged: the native peoples and their ancestral homes, the ecosystem itself as a unique treasure threatened by changing weather patterns especially snowpack–and the great salmon runs that might be restored above human-made obstacles.
This Bishop’s letter lays a groundwork of respect for all people, accommodation of various uses in flood control, irrigation, and power production, while pressing for those values previously overlooked or dismissed.
I’m here before you today knowing full well that water is a highly charged issue in Idaho and the West, but the reality is the pressures are going to increase, not decrease, and we’ll either talk to one another, accommodate one another, or bow to voices that deny this water is a common gift and a human treasure meant for all.
Idaho is to be thanked and celebrated for the difficult work done to adjudicate water rights. But with Pope Francis in the encyclical Laudato Si, and Pope John Paul the Great before him, every private right must also recognize a “social mortgage” that represents the unalterable character of fresh water as public gift, a trust, and sacrament of creation.
The alternative is the privatization of a common gift and a further erosion of any natural qualities, the mechanization of the river and her tributaries. The future is depicted in “Mad Max, Fury Road” where the prize for horrendous violence is water.
This week they will dye the Chicago River green for St Patrick’s Day. Will the sparkling blue arteries of our continent be turned red in violence, or black as oil and coal shipments mar the shared water-courses? The most toxic radioactive dump site in the world, The Hanford Nuclear Reservation, sits just 400′ above the only free-running section of the Columbia.
The Bishops’ letter calls us to this watershed moment when we still have a chance to protect and enhance the gift of the Columbia watershed. This is the moment to bend the arc of history on behalf of the rivers of the great Columbia watershed, one of God’s most stupendous gifts to humankind.
We have successes to point to along the Walla Walla River and we have hard fought failures along the Klamath in Southern Oregon. I hope today is a step along the “Walla Walla Way” where irrigators, tribes, orchardists, wine-makers, and water districts found a path of just accommodation. I believe the International Pastoral Letter contributes to this path of wisdom and grace.