Belief in God has always been widespread in Appalachian societies. How religion is presented has major influence upon the people for good or bad. Within Appalachia are representatives of all the major religions, Christianity and its Bible being the most prevalent. Thus how the ancient Bible is read and applied to the current milieu, here and today, makes or breaks its potency to influence people toward more just, whole, community-minded lives.
Jesus Throws Out Exploiters
It was almost time for the Passover Festival, so Jesus went to Jerusalem. There in the Temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and pigeons, and also the moneychangers sitting at their tables. So he made a whip from cords and drove all the animals out of the Temple, both the sheep and the cattle; he overturned the tables of the moneychangers and scattered their coins; and he ordered those who sold the pigeons, “Take them out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” His disciples remembered that the scripture says, “My devotion to your house, O God, burns in me like a fire.”
Thousands of Jewish people from many lands were crowding into Jerusalem for the spring Passover to commemorate when God had delivered their ancestors from slavery in Egypt. The Passover with its purification sacrifices was a holy celebration that God had freed their ancestors from Egyptian bondage. The Temple was to remember the delivering God who dwells with them.
Yet instead of treating the people and their festival as holy, aristocratic religious leaders and their merchant cronies exploited the people. They required the people to trade their unclean Roman coins for Temple-issued scrip, gouging the people in that exchange. And since people walking long distances over many days to Jerusalem could not transport their own animals for sacrifice, by necessity they had to buy sacrificial animals from the Temple at an outlandish price. The Jerusalem priest cabal was extraordinarily wealthy and conspired with privileged merchants and the Roman occupiers to prey upon the masses of desperately poor common people.
Jesus was outraged. How could his Father God’s house be so profaned to have become a place run by thieves? In the Bible, all four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John) say that Jesus cleansed the Temple, shouting, “My house shall be a house of prayer for all, but you have made it a den of robbers.” (Mark 11:17). Fearing for the exposure of their greed, the religious leaders decided to get rid of the troublemaker Jesus, so they plotted his crucifixion.
Mother Jones, Troublemaker to the Early Coal Industry
Mary Harris (Mother) Jones would have understood why Jesus drove out the exploiters of the common people. She, too, was infuriated at the exploitation and oppression of the working class. A person’s work to support a family was honorable and worthy of safe working conditions and fair pay compensation. Mother Jones determined that miners have justice.
Coal miners as young as 8 years old worked long days underground in unsafe, torturous conditions. Injuries and deaths were commonplace, with families not compensated but kicked out of their coal camp lodging. Pay was in in company-issued scrip that could only be used to pay for company lodging, the company doctor, and company store products. And even that pay was very low. Workers of foreign origin or who were black were treated even worse. Desperately poor wives or daughters sometimes yielded their bodies in sexual service to lecherous coal bosses in exchange to escape crushing debt.
Coal dominated the region. King Coal, it was said of the industry. King Coal controlled business, newspapers, churches, schools, and the government. Sometimes beleaguered miners sought to form a union to better their working conditions, enraging King Coal to marshal its considerable resources to stamp out unionizing. Many miners felt resigned to their fate of working bone-tired, being poor, and dying young. Mother Jones would have none of that!
In the Bible book of Exodus, 3500 years ago, the king of Egypt was called Pharaoh. He hoodwinked the citizenry to believe he was a god to be worshiped and absolutely obeyed. In return, the dutiful citizenry might have some food stability. A lesser class of people were enslaved to make the ruling class wealthy and powerful such as building pyramids to venerate the pharaoh. Working under harsh conditions, one group of these slaves, the Hebrews, cried out to God for deliverance from their miserable living conditions.
God raised up Moses to deliver the Hebrews from Pharaoh’s slavery. God sent plagues upon Egypt to convince Pharaoh to release these enslaved people. Pharaoh would promise their release, and then renege. After all, slaves were cheap hard labor for Pharaoh and his court. Yet Moses kept up the pressure, and finally Pharaoh had to let the Hebrew people leave. Their leaving is what Passover is about, freedom from bondage. Which is why Jesus was so angry that Passover had corrupted into economic oppression for the Hebrew descendants.
So also in the early era of the Appalachian coal industry, suffering coal miners cried out for deliverance from harsh, poorly paid working conditions. Union organizers such as Mother Jones began to put pressure on “Pharaoh (King) Coal.” Pharaoh Coal had of course instituted laws to make it illegal to form unions, to strike, to resist. Furthermore, Pharaoh Coal had its own armed, vicious goons to terrorize dissidents. Moreover, Pharaoh Coal called upon its puppets of government and media to crush coal miner organizing. Miners marched, went on strike, organized their own micro-communities to help one another. Some organizers were killed. Many were demonized as agitators, communists, troublemakers.
One challenge Mother Jones and other organizers faced was that many discouraged miners were resigned to their miserable fate. They were numb. They had lost hope. Why risk what pittance they had for what might be a losing cause? Would they be fired from their jobs, kicked out of company housing, leaving their families destitute and starving? Mother Jones and organizers first had to convince the miners that their plight was unjust, they were being wronged, and that resignation to their exploitation was exactly what Pharaoh Coal wanted. Second, the organizers had to envision the miners to a brighter future. Just as Moses inspired and led the Hebrew people to a promised land of peace and plenty, Mother Jones and labor organizers envisioned miners that an honorable good life was achievable with persistent, sacrificial, collective dedication to overcome the grip of Pharaoh Coal.
It took Moses 40 years to lead his people out of Egyptian slavery into the Promised Land. The people he led faced hardships, setbacks, disgruntlement, and at times inner dissension. For the most part, it was a later generation that made it to the new land.
Like Moses and his people, the coal labor movement had hardship and setbacks. Mother Jones herself never saw the full blossoming of the labor union with improved conditions for the miners. Yet the bright vision and valiant efforts of those like Mother Jones who struggled for human decency opened up a better future for their offspring and communities.
Central Appalachia in 2021
King Coal (aka Pharaoh) has laid waste much of central Appalachia. The easy-to-mine coal is gone; meanwhile the nation is replacing coal as its primary energy source. Yet mountains are still decapitated and valleys rubble-filled to extract thin seams of coal. Coal-contaminated streams run lifelessly orange from acid water. Toxic coal slurry impoundments loom dangerously over communities, while other slurry that is buried in abandoned mines creeps into wells of drinking water. With labor unions mostly broken, miners work at the whim of their employers. To speak against mine safety or environmental violations is to risk being fired. Blasting from mountaintop removal throws massive volumes of micro-sized particulates into atmosphere, contributing to high rates of cancer, respiratory disease, cardiovascular disease, and birth defects.
King Coal and its cousin, “Prince Gas,” continue to exert control over their many puppets in local, state, and federal government, media outlets, and business interests. Their tired chant is that if environmental regulations are further relaxed, coal will make a comeback. That is a lie! Another snake-tongued promise is that fracked shale gas will boom West Virginia’s economy. However, studies are demonstrating that gas-producing areas have poor employment. The industry is clearly boom/bust.
Appalachian poverty rates run high. Depression and hopelessness is pandemic. Substance abuse is a plague. Talented young people move away. Small local businesses fold, unable to compete with larger city shopping centers and direct mail. Underfunded local governments and schools struggle to provide even minimal services.
Many Appalachian people feel left behind by the rest of America that disdainfully looks over its shoulder to stereotype and belittle them. Religious and political charlatans prey upon many of them by promising a mirage of hope they have no intention of delivering.
Yet kindled lights of hope and renewal are penetrating the darkness of despair and resignation.
Mother Jones Community Foundation is a secular organization. Yet the mission and objectives of MJCF dovetail into biblical justice principles.
First, MJCF seeks to empower disenfranchised, discouraged, impoverished communities through revitalizing traditional Appalachian cultural strengths. Too often people have been conditioned to believe in a mirage that outside corporations and government relief programs will bring economic prosperity to communities. History bears witness that when outside decision-makers foist projects upon local communities, any profits go outside. MJCF works with local community leaders to develop grassroots projects and businesses that benefit the locale.
MJCF challenges government regulatory agencies and policymakers to treasure the land, water, air, diversity of plant and animal life, and beauty. Desecration of God’s beloved creation through pollution, irreversible destruction, selfish greed, or a conquering spirit is sin. God has given humans the job to protect, nurture, and strengthen creation, and in return we get our livelihood as long as we do not exceed boundaries. (Genesis 2:15-17) Proper government is to serve the good of people, their communities, and nature, not special moneyed interests. MJCF exposes shabby or corrupt government to shape up or be shipped out.
MJCF lauds the dignity of honest industrious work. Unemployment and underemployment breaks the human spirit. Demeaning work harms our land and people. MJCF empathizes with miners unemployed due to the demise of coal. Coal miners that fueled the American Industrial Revolution must not be left behind. MJCF fights for a just economic transition that brings back well-paying honorable employment and that revitalizes communities. Accessing into the billions of dollars in the Abandoned Mine Land Reclamation Fund could fund projects such as to restore of mountaintop removal sites and deal with dangerous slurry impoundments. The Isaiah prophet speaks a vision where the oppressed, discouraged, and captive shall rise up from the ashes to display God’s glory when they “will rebuild the ancient ruins, they will raise up the former devastations; and they will repair the ruined cities that are the devastations of prior generations.” (Isaiah 61:4).
MJCF trumpets the positive cultural traits of traditional Appalachians. Honest hard work. Family bonds. Love of the home place. Resilience and survivability in the face of adversity. Neighborly friendship and helpfulness. Knowledge and appreciation of nature. Ability to forage food from the wild, grow food in gardens and small farms, capability to preserve food, and talents with heritage seeds, recipes, sewing, furniture making, repair, and jack-of-all-skills. Farmer markets and local produce marketed regionally. Knowledge, tradition, and lore passed down through generations. World-renowned traditional arts, crafts, storytelling, and music.
MJCF believes in the importance of education that includes accentuating the traditional Appalachian cultural values. Older people teaching younger people. Parenting skills. Responsibility for the hard-up. Neighborliness. Hands-on learning. Learning gardening, food preservation, wild edible food gathering, nature lore, and developing skills in traditional arts, crafts, and music. In other words, confidence and pride in being an Appalachian.
Mother Jones Community Foundation invites into our partnership people who believe in a renewed Appalachia of harmony with one another, nature, respect for past ancestors, and a bright promise for future generations.
Biblical/Theological Considerations on Resource Exploitation
As a barebones starting point, we offer the following considerations on industrial exploitation of coal and gas in Appalachia.
1. “The earth and all that it contains belongs to God” (Psalm 24:1) is a key scripture regarding the use of the creation. This and other similar scriptures show clearly that the earth’s “resources” are ultimately God’s property. Those of us who hold title to courthouse property deeds must recognize that our ownership is subservient to that of God’s “ownership” prerogative for the purpose of creation.
Coal and shale gas are under the rightful authority of God.
2. Genesis 2:15-17 concisely demonstrates that our human responsibility is to nurture, enhance, and protect creation. Creation then reciprocates by providing for our human substance to live. Furthermore, God places a boundary that is not to be transgressed, most pointed, to not attempt to usurp God by pretending ourselves to be gods to make up our own way to run the planet.
Is the drilling, transport, use, and sale/profit of coal and shale gas congruent with the overarching human responsibility to nurture and protect creation? Is human hubris (self-idolatry) active as a boundary transgression (playing God)?
3. “Love thy neighbor.”
On one hand, mining and drilling may provide jobs, energy, lucrative royalties for mineral rights owners, and less dependence upon foreign imports. Some people will gain. On the other hand, drilling may cause toxic, health damaging air and water pollution, noise, light, day and night disturbance, noxious dust, property value deflation, ecological degradation, and a change in the living quality of an area. Other people will lose.
4. Intergenerational Covenant. What responsibility do we have to future generations?
Fossil fuel resources including coal, oil, and natural gas are finite. “Drill, baby, drill” mantra assumes that our present generation is entitled to as much nonrenewable energy resources as can be mustered. This is selfishness, and furthermore, theft from future generations who will have much more limited access to such resources.
5. Mammon, the lust for money and power. Just as gold fever can possess people, so can “black gold fever.” That is, the allure of riches from coal (black gold) and shale gas extraction can cloud moral sensitivities. Jesus warns that one cannot love both God and Mammon, but will love one and hate the other. Money lust is incompatible with Christian faith. (Matthew 6:24). The sin of covetousness is denounced in the 10th Commandment. Greed is equated with idolatry (Colossians 3:5).
Financial decisions should be made in light of the will and purpose of God, not first of all for considerations of profit or wealth.
Additional Faith Related Articles:
West Virginia Council of Churches statement against mountaintop removal.
A list of denominational statements against mountaintop removal.
Corrine Almquist’s superb research paper on Christian Responses to Mountaintop Removal.