Historically, Christians and people of good conscience have done a bang up job drilling wells and rolling out programs to help the global poor access clean drinking water. But when it comes to the Flint water crisis it’s radio silence.
So why aren’t more Christians mad as hell about Flint?
The Flint water crisis: a recap
You can’t understand the Flint water crisis by listening to random sound bites on the nightly news. If you’re confused about Flint, here’s a quick recap and timeline of events:
- Pre-2014: Flint, Michigan was a hotspot for auto manufacturing. But when the auto industry fell on hard times, so did Flint. For years, it’s been one of the poorest and most economically desperate cities in the nation.
- April 2014: To cut costs, officials switched the city’s water supply from Lake Huron to the Flint River. The Flint River had a reputation for being foul and residents immediately complained about the smell and taste of the water. When researchers analyzed the water, they discovered it was corrosive and caused lead from the service lines to contaminate the water supply.
- October 2014: The local General Motors plant demanded that government officials provide its facility with a different water supply because Flint River water corroded parts on assembly lines. Michigan Governor Rick Snyder allocated more than $400k to hook GM back up to Lake Huron water. Flint residents were forced to continue drinking water from the Flint River.
- Jan 2015: The state begins buying bottled water for employees and guests at the state office building in Flint, based on concerns about the quality and safety of the tap water.
- February 2015: An EPA official told Michigan officials that Flint’s water supply contained dangerously high levels of lead and other contaminants.
- October 2015: Governor Snyder switched Flint back to Lake Huron water — a year after he learned Flint River water corroded car parts and 8 months after the state learned that Flint’s water contained high levels of lead.
- Now: Every Flint resident (100,000 people, including all 9,000 kids under the age of six) has been exposed to a toxic brew of lead and other contaminants, setting them up for a lifetime of impaired brain function, learning disabilities and other diseases.
In a nutshell, those in power took advantage of an impoverished community. The switch to Flint River water was part of a series of cost-cutting measures to pay for a multi-billion dollar tax break for corporations and wealthy taxpayers. And when Governor Snyder and other state officials discovered they made a mistake they did nothing for at least eight months.
The real irony? The Flint water crisis could have been avoided for $100 a day — the cost of federally mandated additives that seal lead pipes from leaching lead into drinking water.
Our (unnecessarily) complicated relationship with Flint
Clean drinking water is a basic human right. According to Water.org, 663 million people (1 in 10) around the world lack access to safe water.
Over the years, countless faith-based organizations and NGOs have worked to provide clean drinking water to the less privileged, assuming we could trust our government agencies and elected officials to ensure that we have clean drinking here at home.
If the Flint water crisis had happened somewhere else, U.S. Christians would have raced to the scene and expressed their moral outrage. Instead, it’s barely a blip on the radar.
I suppose there could be a lot of reasons why more people aren’t outraged by the Flint water crisis:
- It’s political. (Governor Rick Snyder is Republican.)
- It smacks of environmentalism. (And that’s a dirty word for some Christians).
- It doesn’t affect them. (They’re still serving Starbucks during coffee hour, right?)
But when it comes down to it, I think one of the reasons why Flint falls on deaf ears is because it’s happening here. At home. In the U.S.
We’re better than this
One of the things I love about American Christianity is a seemingly endless capacity for serving the global poor. People of faith donate money, travel halfway around the world and sometimes even devote their lives to the full-time service of people who live on less than $2 a day.
But we’re not nearly as passionate about advocating for the poor in our midst. We willfully ignore the plight of impoverished communities in the U.S. — communities filled with people who can’t afford to relocate even when their children are being poisoned by their drinking water — because in the land of opportunity, the poor are considered slackers. If you don’t work, you don’t eat.
Or in the case of Flint residents, if you don’t work, you don’t get clean drinking water.
It’s easy to ignore the honest-to-God humanitarian crisis that’s happening in Flint because community residents aren’t living in a rain forest or a refugee camp. They’re living here. Voiceless and powerless, but they’re living here. And so we go on, eating and drinking and trusting that the people who represent us will do the right things, even though time and time again they’ve proven that they won’t.
I could quote scriptures about Jesus’ love for the poor. Or I could talk about the connection between clean water and baptism. But I won’t. Instead, I’ll just say, we’re better than this.
Regardless of where you fall on the Christian spectrum, it’s time to set aside politics and pettiness, and say enough is enough. It’s time to turn our passion and advocacy toward the needs of Flint and other impoverished communities who are being exploited by special interests.
The gospel demands it. The people of Flint deserve it. And you and I are the ones who are called to do it.