Eco-Justice Ministries  

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

Being There
distributed 9/7/01 - ©2001

I guess you had to be there.

That's what people say when their hilarious story falls flat.

"I guess you had to be there" because something happened that my storytelling didn't capture. The saying, of course, is true. The in-person experience has a richness and complexity that far surpasses any written or spoken account, any film documentation, any virtual reality.

But recently I've been led to question whether "being there" deserves the status that we often give it.

Last spring, a US Senator suggested that I have a limited ability to speak to issues about the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, because I have not been there.

My Senator, and Gale Norton, and oil executives, and members of the Inupiat people have been there, and they say that it is OK to drill for oil in the refuge.

But I also hear from members of the Gwich'in people, from other members of Congress, environmentalists, religious leaders, and even some petroleum geologists, and they have all been there, too, and they say that it is not OK to drill for oil in the refuge.

Being there may be a rich experience, but it is clear that we filter that personal experience through our values, background and self-interest. "Being there" does not give us access to some objective truth. Folk who have "been there" often disagree.

Terry may love to tell the story about the time Chris slipped on the ice, but Chris (who was certainly there, too) may not find the story at all funny. Being there does not mean that we share the same experience, or find the same meaning in the events.

When we hear the debate about drilling in the Arctic, it is important to ask questions that go beyond, "have you been there?" Let us also ask about the values and interests that each of the observers brought to their time in that place.

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The need to look carefully at experience is not only true about the Arctic.

Recent studies have shown wide disparities in experience and perceptions about racial discrimination in the US.

  • 38% of white Americans believe blacks and whites are "treated the same", but only 9% of black Americans believe this

  • 55% of white Americans think "racial profiling by police is widespread", but 83% of black Americans think this.
On some levels, people of all races in the US share a common experience of "being American." But in other ways our experiences are very different. Even when we are in the same place at the same time, our perceptions are taken in different directions by our histories, the emotional content of the event, by divergent language and relationship styles.

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So is it all subjective mush? Is it one person's word against another, with no way of balancing my perception and yours?

Liberation theologies remind us that God has a preference for the poor, the oppressed and the powerless. While the transforming and renewing love of God reaches out to all of the creation, God's actions and intentions have a special focus on those who are marginalized and excluded.

Principles that lie at the core of my faith call on me to listen carefully to all sides, but to give a preference to the experiences and the perceptions of those who stand outside the circles of power, to those who have the most to lose and not the most to gain.

In a time of racial turmoil, Simon & Garfunkel sang, "The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls and tenement halls." The prophetic voice of God comes to us more frequently on protest signs than in corporate press releases.

An eco-justice perspective broadens the notion of the powerless and the outsider. Not only should we listen carefully to the people who are poor and oppressed, but we must listen for the interests and needs of those who literally have no voice, the non-human parts of God's creation.

As we seek to live lives that are loving, ethical and just -- as we encounter urgent political and social choices that call for decisions and action -- may we join with God in giving credibility to the marginalized and the powerless.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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