Eco-Justice Ministries  

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

What Do We Fight About?
distributed 11/21/03 & 1/26/07 - ©2003

The 11/21/03 distribution of this Eco-Justice Notes was underwritten by Union Congregational United Church of Christ in Crested Butte, Colorado. Their generous support helps make this publication possible.

Larry and I fought it out in public last Sunday night. The question that centered our debate was, "Are Christians called to be stewards for the rest of Creation?"

We were the speakers for a program at a Presbyterian church, part of their occasional series on "Issues that Divide Christians." Larry is a member of the church, and teaches economics, including environmental economics, at an area university. I was invited as one who could be expected to bring a decidedly "liberal" perspective.

Through the 90 minute conversation, we found many areas where we shared common ground, and there were many other areas that revealed sharp differences in our sense of environmental responsibility. At the start of the evening, we may have lulled the audience in to a comfort zone, since we were in pretty close agreement on some of the basics:

  • We agreed that "dominion" does not mean "domination." (Ah, how often that needs to be said!)

  • We were in the same ballpark about our general notions of "stewardship," although some clear tendencies toward right and left field could be seen.

  • We had remarkably similar statements about the different roles of science and religion in dealing with environmental ethics. We agreed that science provides factual information on what is, and describes likely options for what might happen, while religion provides the basis for deciding whether those options are good or bad.
The sharp divisions in our positions only became evident as we progressed through our scripted questions -- and the unscripted questions from the audience.
  • What's the nature of the good life that God calls us to? Larry pointed toward a life that celebrates abundance and freedom. I described one where our sense of worth and identity is grounded more in relationships than in possessions, and where servanthood, sustainability and sufficiency moderate freedom.

  • The "what would Jesus drive?" question didn't say much about cars, but it revealed glaring differences in our stances about global climate change, about the trust that we place in the scientific community, about the appropriate response to situations of uncertainty, and about the weighting that should be given to personal choice and government regulation.
The series on "Issues that Divide Christians" was designed to show that, while people of faith and conscience may disagree on important issues, we can still love each other, and engage in civil relationships. Larry and I helped achieve that goal by engaging in a polite and respectful conversation about a controversial topic. At the end of the evening, though, there was no doubt that Larry and I hold to substantially different beliefs and opinions about the most faithful approach to today's environmental issues.

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As I continue to reflect on last Sunday's program, I find an important lesson for those of us who are doing eco-justice work in a religious context. To be successful, we need to address a very wide range of themes and perspectives.

We must, of course, lift up those things that Larry and I could generally agree on. We do need to hammer home the point that caring for God's creation is a matter of spiritual and ethical importance. Far too many churches, and far too many church people, simply don't pay attention to these questions.

But putting the question of environmental stewardship on the table doesn't guarantee that everyone will agree on the shape and content of that stewardship. There are scads of other ethical, philosophical and pragmatic factors that influence the way we understand how to live and act. My differences with Larry were not over the theological concept of stewardship, or basic understandings of environmental relationships. We diverged over perspectives that may never be raised when churches talk about "the environment."

  • How do we address matters of limits? If the world is seen as abundant and resilient, then there is little need for constraints on our behavior. If the world is viewed as over-taxed and fragile, then we are called to place significant limits on our lives.

  • Where does my freedom begin to impact others? Are we to be concerned with only the most direct effects (dumping toxic waste in my neighbor's yard), or do less direct effects have moral content (the slight contribution that I make to global warming)?

  • Who are my neighbors, and what is the most loving way to care for them? To what extent does my ethical concern reach out to other species, and to future generations? How much autonomy should those others have in choosing their own futures, and how much should our "dominion" make those choices? Is it most loving if I try and make my affluent way of life available to all people, or if I call on my affluent neighbors to live more simply?

  • How do we deal with uncertainty? Should we continue with "business as usual" until all questions are answered about any potential damage, or should we take dramatic steps to minimize our impact if there is a chance that we're causing serious harm?
I know of very few churches that believe that we should flagrantly abuse God's creation. Once churches begin to talk about the environment, that's not where the real fight is. Our heated disagreements emerge out of conflicting economic and political theories, differing notions of the good life and progress, diverging views on freedom and responsibility, and other deeply-seated convictions.

As we call on churches and Christians to deal with the critical eco-justice issues of our day, may we have the wisdom and courage to broaden the conversation, and to take on the messy, conflictual questions that define how we really understand environmental stewardship.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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