On refusing to sell your soul

I have never been to Nebraska and I don’t know anyone who lives there. The more than 7,000 entries in my address book include no one from Nebraska. Yet, Nebraska, dear Nebraska – you are in my prayers.

Nebraska sits squarely in the path of the proposed 1,700-mile Keystone XL pipeline, and for months the state has been divided over the project. There is still no pipeline route through Nebraska, which is one reason that building the Keystone XL pipeline has repeatedly stalled.

A friend of mine here in western Massachusetts shares ownership of a Nebraska farm. One recent weekend she leaves me a long voice message. TransCanada has approached her family and wants to run the Keystone XL pipeline across a corner of her land. Every member of the family has to sign the contract in order for the deal to go through, but she doesn’t want to sign. Her husband is standing with her, but her brother and two cousins disagree.  They have decided to sign it.

Of course, they tell her, they would prefer not to. They know that the excavation of the tar sands is leaving an environmental catastrophe in Alberta. They’ve heard the reports that extracting the tar sands in Canada and transporting the dirty fuel by pipeline down to the Gulf of Mexico risks causing leaks that would contaminate the region’s soil and water. They know that burning the tar sands could aggravate climate change, including severe weather and drought. None of them wants the pipeline to go through their land. But what can you do? The oil industry looks unstoppable. The pipeline seems inevitable. Besides, TransCanada is sweetening the deal by offering to pay premium prices upfront before it receives state and federal approvals, promising landowners that they can keep the money even if the pipeline is not approved. One cousin does the math and figures that if they refuse to sign the contract, they could end up with only a quarter the price that TransCanada is now offering, plus they would sacrifice pocketing $55,000 now. You might as well bow to the inevitable: sign the paper and get the best possible deal.

My friend is a gentle person, an Episcopalian so soft-spoken that people often have to lean forward to catch what she is saying. By nature she is a peace-lover and she has no desire to create dissension in her family. But when it comes to justice and to doing what she believes is right, she has a spine of steel. The lawyer for her farm checks the fine print and finds loopholes that leave little protection in the case of a leak. She researches groups in Nebraska that are fighting the pipeline, among them Bold Nebraska, Nebraskans for Peace, the Sierra Club, and Natural Resources Defence Council. She learns that she is not alone: 115 Nebraska landowners are holding out and have not signed contracts. She offers to pay each of her family members the money they would have received from TransCanada if they’d signed, for she doesn’t want them to suffer financial loss for doing the right thing.

And she contacts each of them to say that she is not signing and that she hopes they understand.

Three days after phoning me, she tells me the outcome. Her husband continues to stand with her, and her other relatives have now accepted her decision not to sign.

“My brother said that he was willing to sell his soul, but that he didn’t mind too much if I didn’t sell mine: by not selling my soul, I prevented him from selling his. My cousin who manages the farm confessed last night how relieved she was that I’d said ‘No.’ She didn’t really want to take ‘blood money,’ and she knew from past dealings with the pipeline company how sleazy it was.. My other cousin, the one I was afraid of talking to, refused my offer to pay her the amount of money she would have gotten from the pipeline company. She said, ‘No way. I don’t feel good about this.’”

My friend added, “So I haven’t ruined all my family relationships and no one has accepted my offer to pay them the equivalent of pipeline money, though for now I’m leaving it on the table.  I guess we’re all in there with the other pipeline resisters.”

My friend’s story gives me hope. You never know how many people will be changed when you refuse to submit to apathy and resignation. You never know what will happen when the Spirit impels you to speak out, even when doing so causes conflict with family members. You never know – until you do it – how much energy for life will be released if you stand up and resist the forces that are destroying life. You never know if taking care of your own small corner of the world may end up changing the course of history.

Curious about our fellow Episcopalians in Nebraska, I checked out what that Diocese had to say about the Keystone XL pipeline. I was delighted to find an Easter reflection by Archdeacon Betsy Blake Bennett. Her message connects our Easter hope with the landowners, activists, and people of faith who are resisting the pipeline. It concludes:

When Bill McKibben’s Do the Math tour visited Omaha, he said that he became discouraged at first when people pointed out that he was involved in a David and Goliath situation, but then he remembered how that story ends. Easter tells us the end of the story, and it calls for an alleluia response.

Alleluia! Christ is risen!
The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!

I have just added a new entry to my address book: the Episcopal Diocese of Nebraska. Let’s keep the prayers coming.

14 Responses to “On refusing to sell your soul”

  1. Leigh

    Thank you for a beautiful, moving, and timely telling. I do feel strengthened by it.

  2. Mary Hall

    I so appreciate this. & am grateful for all who are praying.

  3. Jeanette Erard

    What extraordinary courage! Thank you. I’m very proud of you.

  4. Judy Eiseman

    Just when I was feeling discouraged, things are brightening everywhere. Every day hope is just a little big stronger.

  5. Bill Lab8ch

    Thank you, Margaret,
    Great title. I had forgotten that phrase, “don’t sell your soul.” It is a very powerful reminder that some (maybe all) our decisions affect both the world outside and the one inside us. Seeing all the world as a connected community of spiritual beings, the how of our living , the ways we choose to live our lives can be loving and inspiring to ourselves and each other. Thank you, again, for that gentle reminder.

  6. Randy Wilburn

    I am leaning in to listen to this soft-spoken peace-maker and hear her soul she refuses to sell.
    Randy Wilburn

  7. laura ricard, ph.d.

    I thank God for people like this. Thank you, God, Thank you, God!!!

  8. Jolene Jonas

    Hurrah for that family and all the protestors in Nebraska. Oregon has a similar struggle with the coal industry trying to move endless coal trains through our communities along the Columbia River. More and more NO voices with each passing day. If we all hang together, great things can happen!

  9. Pris Kerr

    Great courage that celebrates the thoughtful choices of our lives that impact current and future generations. A great blog for Mother’s Day weekend and our hopes for future generations!

  10. Nerissa Nields

    Thank you, Margaret. What a story of steadiness and quiet courage! I needed to read this today.

  11. Ruth

    This vignette reminds me of everyday choices we make. Small maybe in comparison to a pipeline, however, our souls’ only know moral depth. So paper or plastic, China for cheap or US.
    It is everyday.

  12. Steven Abdow

    How inevitable is inevitable? This is an encouraging story. I was reminded the other day of something MKL Jr. said. “The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Amen.

  13. Annie Scarff

    I guess you never know when you might be a tipping point and how grateful people can be to be given a chance to change their minds.
    Thank you Margaret

  14. Joel Russell

    Margaret, thanks for sharing this wonderful story of courage, strength, and resistance to economic forces that can seem overpowering. Your metaphor of selling one’s soul is apt and puts all of our everyday decisions (and not so everyday ones) in a meaningful moral context. Truly inspirational!

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