Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Facing Limits
distributed 4/5/01 - ©2001

"Pulling together the pastoral and the prophetic" is one of the phrases that I use to describe Eco-Justice Ministries. Often, those inward and outward perspectives on faith and ministry are seen as mutually exclusive. The assumption is that we are either pastoral, caring about the feelings and the spirituality of the people in the pew, or prophetic, boldly proclaiming words of judgement and instruction.

How can the pastoral and the prophetic be disconnected, though, if both are proclamations of how God relates to our world? If what we are saying is true, there will be harmony in the messages about our personal lives and our collective life. When the church can discover how to bring together both parts of our experience with a unified proclamation, then our message will be powerful for people and for society.

The pastoral and the prophetic come together well in a message that is all too pertinent for today. Let me start with the prophetic slant, because it is the most urgent.

The Bush administration is pushing hard and fast for dramatic changes in policies having to do with public lands -- snowmobiles in parks, oil drilling in national monuments and wildlife refuges, logging and road-building in national forests, and so on. The recent announcement of a total rejection of the Kyoto Protocols is philosophically in the same category. As Bush made clear in the statement about climate change, he will reject anything that places limits on the US economy.

The prophetic word calls for realism. We are limited. There is only so much oil, so much timber, so much wilderness. There is a limit to the abuse that we can inflict on the Earth's atmosphere. No matter how much the administration wants the economy to grow, there are limits to the resources that are available. We can face those limits today, and begin to retool our economy and infrastructure toward efficiency and sustainability, or we can face an even greater crisis in the near future when shortages become more acute. The longer we wait, the greater the damage to human communities and to environmental systems.

There is a pastoral side, too, in the message that we must face up to our limits. It is the message that has been internalized by a cancer patient who chooses hospice care and death with dignity over invasive and expensive chemotherapy. Many in our society need to hear about learning to live within the limits of their income, rather then burying themselves in credit card debt. Many families are in need of a pastoral word about limits, as they try to pack more work hours, longer commutes, more school activities, and more sports commitments for the kids into the 168 hours of a week.

Theologically, only God is without limits. All of what God has created human knowledge and wisdom, the resilience of our bodies to aging and disease and stress, the supply of natural resources, even the abundance of oceans and the atmosphere all of that is limited. The Gospel has a message of good news in accepting those limits.

The travesties being committed by the Bush administration act out on a larger scale the errors being lived by countless individuals and families. The belief that we can have it all and do it all, that we can transcend all limits, is theologically and ethically and pastorally wrong.

The pastoral message is the same as the prophetic. For the sake of the planet, and for the sake of the people in the pew, we in the church must articulate a joyous acceptance of the fact that we are creatures, not gods. We are limited, not omnipotent. We are called to disciplined and responsible lives, not reckless freedom and waste.

The anti-environmental policies of the Bush administration are stupid and dangerous. Our opposition to those policies is urgently needed. As we bring our activism into the churches, let us use theological as well as pragmatic tools, and let us name the parallels between personal belief and public ideology. It is when we find those connections that our message gains the power to transform both individuals and society.

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There are challenges on many levels as we try to live gently and justly on this Earth. Many of the changes that must come can be measured and quantified. We can reduce energy use, lessen sprawl, decrease the enormous disparity between rich and poor, preserve land and protect fisheries. As we look for guidance toward sustainable life, those measures are far more important than the stock market and the GNP.

But there are also ways in which the changes we seek are not quantifiable. They are matters of spirit, as well as numbers. Wendell Berry writes with wisdom and grace about the difference that our attitudes make:

To live, we must daily break the body and shed the blood of creation.
When we do it knowingly, lovingly, skillfully, reverently, it is a sacrament.
When we do it ignorantly, greedily, destructively, it is a desecration.

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If you find these messages meaningful, please pass along copies to your friends and colleagues.

On our website ( you can find an archive of these messages with better formatting than the e-mail version. The site also offers forms where folk can subscribe to these periodic mailings.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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Eco-Justice Ministries ended all programming on July 31, 2020. This site is an archive of writings and resources.
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