Eco-Justice Ministries  

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

The Need for Conversion
distributed 1/3/03 - ©2003

Trent Lott will be "sitting in the back of the bus" when the US Senate comes back into session this month. But just a month ago, it looked like he would be in the driver's seat.

Lott's fall from power started when members of the Senate gathered to celebrate the 100th birthday of their colleague, Strom Thurmond. Lott's tribute included a sentence that some heard as affirming Thurmond's old segregationist agenda.

For weeks after his comment, Mr. Lott tried to convince the press, the public and his political colleagues that he's not a bigot or a racist. A series of apologies and a string of public appearances couldn't quell the controversy. Indeed, the longer it went on, and the more investigators dug into the senator's voting record, the worse things got for Lott.

As their leader's credibility crumbled, Senate Republicans let contenders for the leadership seat campaign openly. With the handwriting clearly on the wall, Lott resigned from his leadership position.

The heart of Lott's problem didn't seem to be his unenlightened past. Rather, he was forced out of power because he was not able to document his claimed transition to a more enlightened, contemporary perspective on race.

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As I listened to Mr. Lott try to explain how his views on race have changed over the years, I reflected on my own changing perspectives on race and racism in America.

I grew up white in suburban Omaha, Nebraska. Very white.

In the pattern typical of northern cities, Omaha's unwritten racial rules kept most people of color in well-defined neighborhoods. Indeed, in the late 1960s, my large suburban high school had all of 2 Black students. In its own way, my society was at least as segregated as the one in which Lott grew up.

Through a mix of family, church and friendships, I was blessed with a richer variety of experiences and a far more liberal outlook on race than most of my neighbors. I was able to come of age relatively free of blatant prejudice, and with a fairly progressive stance on public policy questions dealing with race.

But any pride or comfort that I felt about my open-mindedness changed when I went to seminary in Boston in the mid-1970s.

Boston was in turmoil over school integration. There were riots in the streets and massive protest marches. Complicated legal battles filled the headlines. In that highly-charged setting, I was confronted with my own racism through a series of seminary workshops, courses, and intense conversations.

Over a period of months, I came to an astonishing new awareness of the pervasive patterns of institutional racism in the United States, and of my own white privilege. I came to see racism as a "white problem" where the responsibility for change fell on me and my society.

"Conversion" is a word that accurately reflects my changing awareness about racism through those months. I came to see myself, my relationships, and my world differently. As I tell my story, I will always point to the fall of 1974 as the time when my understanding of the core problem shifted, and when my self-awareness and my worldview changed.

I don't see any way to ooze gradually from seeing racism as a "black problem" to claiming it as a "white problem." It took a genuine conversion of my heart and mind.

As Trent Lott tried to talk his way out of his awkward comment, it became clear that he could not point to any moment of conversion where he came to see race and racism from a different perspective. He tried to describe his gradually changing political sensitivities -- but then ran into fresh problems when his voting record did not match his rhetoric.

Without evidence of either a profound change in outlook, or of a transformed voting record, Lott's claims of an "evolutionary" process of learning rang false.

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My seminary-era insights about racism are at the core of my current work for eco-justice.

Institutional racism thrives as a system of values and structures which exclude and exploit some for the benefit of others. Those who benefit most from that system are often oblivious to how they participate in the destruction of racism's victims.

An eco-justice perspective helps us to see the ways in which that same system of values and structures exploits nature for human benefit, and tries to enforce a rigid separation between humans and all the rest of God's creation. We see that the human domination of nature is consistently presented as "the way things should be" -- and thus unquestioned.

The workings of institutional racism and of the systemic exploitation of nature grow from the same roots and thrive under the same ideologies. Eco-justice calls us toward different structures, different values and different relationships that will be liberating and healing for all parts of God's creation.

As I listen to countless leaders in this country -- powerful people in government, business and religion -- I long for evidence of their conversion to an eco-justice awareness. But what I hear tends to hear sound far more like Trent Lott's recent explanations. I hear a comforting veneer of assurance about the need to seek justice and care for the environment, but without any indication of deeply-held core values that turn from exploitation and entrenched privilege. Much of the rhetoric from our leaders is politically and functionally practical, but fails to address the roots of the problem and the need for profound social change.

I do find hope that the Republicans of the US Senate finally realized that they could not be guided by a white southerner whose conventional views on race have not been converted in the last 50 years.

I pray that we may soon come to expect and demand the same sort of conversion of our leaders with regard to eco-justice.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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