Eco-Justice Ministries  

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

Call to Conversion
distributed 9/24/04 - ©2004

A few weeks ago, I observed the tenth anniversary of one of my conversion experiences.

Neither of my two conversions were stereotypical "accepting Jesus" events -- although both of them have reshaped my Christian faith. In 1975, I accepted that I am a racist, enmeshed in systems that offer me privilege and exclude others. Then, in 1994, I became a believer in the catastrophic damage that humanity is inflicting on God's creation. On both occasions, the acceptance of painful truths changed my life in profound ways.

On this anniversary, my reflections are grounded in, but go beyond, my own personal experience. They reach to the state of our world, and to necessary strategies for change.

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For many decades, I have thought of myself as "an environmentalist." In college, in the early 1970s, my major was in environmental biology, and I was a passionate activist for wilderness preservation. Through the years, I kept abreast of new trends in ecology, and was engaged with a range of environmental issues. I knew the facts, and acted on them.

But then, in August, 1994, I used a vacation week to do some intensive reading about the environment. I reread a few of the "classics," and worked through several newer books. I don't recall the full list, but I know that it included Al Gore's Earth in the Balance and Jonathan Weiner's The Next One Hundred Years.

Somewhere toward the end of the week, the things that I had known in my head moved into my guts. Facts about the extinction of species, the poisoning of Earth's air and water, the depletion of limited resources, and -- especially -- global warming became personal realities. I didn't just know about those issues. I believed, and I grieved.

Through that week of reading, as facts and predictions built on each other, as the enormity of the crisis settled into my heart and my soul, I accepted the fact that humanity is warping, mangling and destroying the essential, life-giving systems of our planet. That moment of conversion changed me. It changed my worldview, changed my values, changed my behavior, and it changed my career.

Out of that week's reading, the absolute urgency of the crisis and the need to transform our global culture became real for me. I took to heart the statement, from one of those books, that we had 10 years to bring about major changes in our emissions of greenhouse gasses, before the effects of climate change would become irreversible.

In August of 1994, I started that 10 year countdown. A couple of weeks ago, in August of 2004, the 10 year clock ran out. I am painfully aware that we, especially in the US, have not even begun to change our collective ways. The crisis is getting worse.

The National Geographic Magazine for September, 2004 arrived in our home at the end of August -- just as the clock ran out. The cover story is "Global Warning: bulletins from a warmer world." In 75 pages of dramatic pictures, detailed charts and vivid text, the frightening predictions from a decade before were confirmed. Global climate change is here, it is accelerating, and it is irreversible. Glaciers and ice caps are melting, deserts are spreading, seas are rising, coral reefs are bleaching and dying, vegetation patterns are shifting, migrations are changing, storms are intensifying. The five hottest years in recorded human history have occurred within this last decade. The planet is warming and changing at an unprecedented rate, and human factors are driving those changes.

Climate change was probably irreversible even 10 years ago, but the trajectory of those effects is now undeniable. The choices available to industrial society are between a runaway catastrophe if we continue our current path, and some moderation of the trends.

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We -- the ones doing the most to change the Earth's climate -- need a conversion. If we, individually and collectively, are going to be able to make the necessary changes in our lives, then we need to claim radically different understandings about who we are, and about the meaning of our lives.

Yes, we need to put in efficient light bulbs, turn down the thermostat, drive less, and develop renewable energy. Those are essential steps, but they are not enough.

Conversion is something utterly different from awareness, or concern, or compassion, or commitment. All of those other ways of approaching a problem work from our existing notions of what is good and right, and of how the world works. Compassion and concern will always work within the existing system, and will preserve the prevailing direction of our lives and our society. Conversion turns us around, and changes our lives.

In the face of global climate change, and other expressions of the Earth's trauma, we need conversion -- a change in the entire direction of our culture. That is the only way to achieve the dramatic changes needed if the Earth's fragile systems are to be maintained in any sort of a stable way.

Generating conversion is a challenge. It is impossible to develop a tidy program resource that will lead people into that dramatic transformation. It can't be scripted. But there are elements of that transformational experience that are found when alcoholics decide to become sober, in tent-meeting revivals, and in my own experience.

Conversion emerges from a personally-experienced crisis. It must combine rationality, emotion, and spirituality. It requires confession, a heart-felt admission of personal fault. And it must be conversion to a different and better life.

All too often, the environmental movement, both religious and secular, has been strong on crisis and weak on hope. It has been rational and technical and political, and failed in stirring emotion and spirituality. We have been willing to point to the failings of others, but we have not called people to confession. We have convinced people that there are huge problems, but we have not made a compelling case for personal and communal transformation into a better way.

For seven of the last 10 years, my ministerial vocation has led me to work in and through churches, seeking to bring about faithful and ecological conversion. Religious institutions may not be the only place where such conversion can occur, but they are certainly a prime location for working toward that sort of change.

The readers of Eco-Justice Notes, and the constituency of Eco-Justice Ministries, are generally people with strong church ties, and with deep compassion about the Earth's distress. Most of you share my horror and my grief at the continuing devastation of this blessed planet. Many of you share my conviction that Christian churches in the US have failed to embody a powerful, hopeful and transformational message that speaks truth in the face of the eco-justice crisis -- a message that should be at the heart of our faith.

My friends and my colleagues, I invite you to join me in a passionate, committed effort that will help our churches claim this moment for conversion. I ask for your help in building on the solid base of theology and programs that denominations, scholars and activists have developed through the last 20-30 years. And I seek your guidance and your involvement as we hone our language, liturgy and arts, and as we discover the settings that will make conversion more possible.

We don't have the luxury of ten years, or ten months, before we call individuals and institutions to conversion. Every day, we must claim the urgency and the promise of the moment.

My friends, will you join me in this quest for conversion?


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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