Eco-Justice Ministries  

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

The Dieting Sumo Wrestler
distributed 5/17/02 & 6/17/05 - ©2002, 2005

The 6/17/05 distribution of this Eco-Justice Notes is underwritten by John & Vicky Graham, of Boulder, Colorado. Their generous support helps make this publication possible.

I have a picture of a Sumo wrestler taped to the side of my computer monitor.

Sumo -- where two huge guys try to knock each other out of a circle -- is a very respected, traditional sport in Japan. The best wrestlers are national celebrities.

I use the picture occasionally in presentation to church groups. I ask the audience, "What would it take to get that obese wrestler to lose 150 pounds?"

  • There are certainly some good arguments to offer about the health risks of being chronically overweight. Heart disease and diabetes are only two of the risk factors that will probably shorten his life.

  • Both environmentally, and in terms of global justice, it is better for him to eat less, and to eat lower on the food chain.

  • And there are purely practical considerations. He could save lots of money through reduced grocery bills. It must be hard for him to get clothes that fit well. Fitting into a seat at the theater or on an airplane is next to impossible.
We can roll out many factual, important reasons why the wrestler would do well to lose weight. And I'm sure that he knows about all of them already.

But the fact of the matter is that dieting goes against all of his notions of self-interest and self-image. He is a hero, respected and wealthy precisely because he's big, fat and strong. Why would he want change?

The Sumo wrestler is an image for our modern society.

Our society is dramatically "overweight" in its consumption of resources. Our excesses drive global climate change and a host of other problems.

It is not that we are unaware of problems and costs of how we live. It is not that we don't know of options for simpler and more sustainable living, or for alternative energy sources. There are many factual, important reasons why our society would do well to be more sustainable. And we know about all of them already.

But, as a culture, making those changes goes against all of our notions of self-identity. They conflict with how we have understood our self-interest.

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Many of the readers of Eco-Justice Notes consider themselves activists. They are working hard on many fronts to shift the direction that our society is headed.

The Sumo wrestler is a reminder to me that we're not going to achieve the changes that we desire with logic and whiz-bang technology and carefully crafted legislation. Those strategies are not going to be persuasive to those whose self-identity and self-interest is tied up in a culture of gluttony and excess.

Paul Gorman, founder of Nation Religious Partnership for the Environment put it well:

We don't believe we are going to reverse the environmental crisis by simply passing laws. We have to change the human understanding of its place and purpose in creation. Unless you have that fundamental change in values, many of us believe environmental degradation will be irreversible.

Dealing with the technical and legislative issues is important. But dealing with questions of self-identity and self-interest is at least as important.

In my work with churches, I bring a reassuring message to pastors and church leaders. They don't need to become experts in energy policy, urban planning, the intricacies of the International Monetary Fund, or the subtleties of environmental racism. They don't need to stir up fights among church members about controversial legislation.

What they can and should do is strengthen the core of what being a church is all about. They can call their people to deal with questions of what is really important in their lives. They can help folk find everyday applications of what it means to live faithfully, with compassion, and with a commitment to love and justice. They can broaden notions of community to consider future generations, and the whole of life on earth.

It can be transformative for individuals and communities when an honest and faithful Christian perspective is applied to those sorts of questions and issues. Ministry that delves into the deep questions can bring about shifts in our sense of our place and purpose in creation. Caring and persistent ministries can guide people into new understandings of self-identity and self-interest.

The church has the perspectives, programs, ethics and community that are needed to bring about dramatic changes. The church can "get the Sumo wrestler to go on a diet."

Religious communities are one of the few places where that sort of transformation can occur. I pray that we'll use our gifts to make that sort of a difference.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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