Eco-Justice Ministries  

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

What Would Jesus Drive?
distributed 11/15/02 - ©2002

We came on the auto accident moments after it happened. Late at night, out in the Iowa countryside, a car had gone off the road and burst into flames. A young man sat sobbing beside the highway, repeating over and over, "She was the best friend I ever had."

It took us a long time to believe that the friend was the car itself, and not a woman trapped in the burning wreck.

People develop strong attachments to their vehicles. They name their cars, and feel grief when the beloved "friend" is sold or wrecked. Our cars become extensions of our personalities. We plaster our political views on the bumpers. In the last year, car flags and window signs have proliferated as mobile expressions of patriotism.

Driving a monster vehicle conveys an assertive or aggressive image. It gives the driver a sense of power and security that has more to do with psychology than physical safety.

Cars are status symbols that proclaim our disposable income, values and social aspirations to our neighbors and co-workers. A glance at the parking lot provides revealing insights about who frequents a restaurant, club, school -- or church.

And, by the way, we use our cars for transportation, too.

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Over the years, I've looked at a lot of resources about automotive fuel economy. It is striking to me that they all look at our cars, SUVs and trucks entirely as transportation options. They seem to assume that we all make careful, purely rational choices when we buy a vehicle.

Yes, we do factor in the rational elements. Don't buy a subcompact if you have 4 kids. Try to keep the payments somewhere in the realm of the family budget. Think about whether the thing will fit into the garage. Some people even think about fuel economy.

But much of the car-buying decision is emotional. And our feelings and desires leading up to those decisions are carefully cultivated by sophisticated advertising.

This month, a campaign to pressure US automakers for higher fuel efficiency is being launched by a diverse alliance of Christians and Jews. (More on this below!) The evangelical Christian part of the campaign poses the question, "What would Jesus drive?"

What would Jesus drive? While it is a great campaign slogan, the question is hard to answer. Fuel economy would probably be an important consideration. But maybe room for the 12 disciples would be an overriding factor in picking a 15 passenger van.

I do feel sure that Jesus, who rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, would not pick a Humvee to make a symbolic entrance into the capital city today. The one who told the rich young man to give his wealth to the poor would not drive a Lexus.

The practical and rational factors overlap with the emotional and symbolic. Those vehicles which exude dramatic wealth and power, or which provide the ultimate in comfort and security, are not likely to be the environmentally responsible choices.

I am totally supportive of the solid work being done by the interfaith coalition to improve fuel economy. But I fear that all such programs will fall far short of their goals if we don't pay attention to the complex relationship that we have with our cars.

In our churches, we can help people make moral choices that touch on status, power and wealth, as well as environmental sustainability. Until all of those factors are taken into account, and some harmonious balance achieved, rational choices about gas mileage will probably take the back seat to emotional factors of image, security and comfort.

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The interfaith campaign for fuel efficiency is coming from both the Evangelical Environmental Network (EEN) and the Interfaith Climate Change Network (ICCN). The ICCN is a joint project of the National Council of Churches of Christ and the Council on the Environment and Jewish Life.

The campaign websites have helpful resources for congregations, and provide specific action strategies that tie into the pressure being placed on auto manufacturers. The ICCN site ( allows you to send faxes to executives of the Big Three Auto makers. The EEN site ( calls on individuals to sign a personal pledge; there's a different pledge for religious leaders.

Next Wednesday, the campaign's Christian and Jewish leaders are going to Detroit. They will hold a press conference, and hope to meet with senior executives of the "Big Three" automakers to begin "a new conversation about cars and their impact on global sustainability, security, health, and justice."

The meeting in Detroit next week will be more effective with an outpouring of support from around the US. I urge you to visit the websites and "sign-on" to these campaigns. Spread the word to members of your congregation, to colleagues, friends and family.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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