Eco-Justice Ministries  

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

All About Relationships
distributed 2/25/05 & 11/14/08 - ©2005, 2008

When you look at the world, what do you see?

The world in which we live -- all the way from our immediate families to the largest global issues -- is complex and confusing. We all use mental filters to make sense of our experiences. In terms of one of those filters, when you look at the world, do you generally see a web of relationships, or do you see a scattering of individual entities?

Much of western thought -- in fields as diverse as psychology, criminology, biology and theology -- has tended toward an individualist perspective. That "atomistic" approach has contributed to the social and ecological problems we face, by hiding important dynamics of how the world really works. A dynamic, relational perspective provides a more accurate picture of the world, and guides us toward more helpful ways of living.

For example, in any family, there's a certain degree of conflict. In addressing serious conflicts, marriage counseling is different from individual therapy because it works on the relationship, instead of on one individual alone. A whole school of counseling, called family systems theory, is grounded in the recognition that no one lives or acts in isolation, and that we are all affected by each others' behaviors.

A mobile is often used in describing family systems theory. That style of sculpture has a delicately balanced arrangement of objects hanging from a loosely-connected frame. Whenever any one of those objects is touched, the whole sculpture springs into a complex motion. The beauty of a mobile can't be expressed by looking at its parts in isolation; the pieces all move together. Families are like that. A small change in the life of one family member can set off complex waves of changes through the entire family unit.

Similar questions arise at the community level. Do we see welfare programs a way of helping individuals who won't get a job, or are they a way of addressing the failures of our social system? The individual approach targets problems in the people who need help, such as a need for job training. A systems perspective recognizes a broader set of intertwining factors that are involved. Job training doesn't help when the jobs are moved overseas. How can a single mother hold down a job when child care isn't available?

The criminal justice system in the US has focused on the punishment of criminals -- increasingly by sending "bad individuals" to prison. The emerging restorative justice movement calls us to a more relational perspective by seeking the reconciliation of victims, offenders and the larger community.

It's a theological question, too. Christianity has a sharp divide between those who focus on God's desire to reconcile all of creation into a realm of justice and peace, and those who see the core proclamation of the faith in terms of individual salvation.

In families and in community life, a focus on the web of relationships is more revealing and more fruitful than an emphasis on individuals in isolation from each other. That same broadening of perspective is at the heart of understanding ecological issues.

I started my college-level studies of environmental biology in 1970, just a few months after the first Earth Day. In one of the first class sessions, the professor warned us that our topic was a very controversial new subject in the biology department. Several influential members of the faculty didn't like the idea of studying the relationships among different parts of an ecosystem. They had dedicated their careers to the detailed study of individual species, and they were convinced that "real" science should always try to remove any consideration of those confusing "extraneous" relationships.

30-some years later, it seems obvious that we can't understand any species in isolation from its surroundings, and without considering all of the relationships and factors that shape it. But too often, we still get bad policy when an atomistic approach dominates in decisions about the management of natural resources. Too often, a forest is seen only as a collection of trees to be harvested, not as a vibrant system with many kinds of vegetation and a variety of wildlife. So, too, our protection of endangered species is hindered when the needs of the species are not seen in relation to its broader habitat.

The relational and the atomistic are two competing worldviews. They each provide answers about who we are, and how to live. But the relational, systemic perspective provides a richer, more illuminating view.

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Churches can play a vital role in social change by shifting the frame of reference from the pervasive individualistic view toward a richer systemic perspective. Churches can help frame the discussion of needs and issues -- within the congregation, and within the broader community -- in a way that emphasizes a web of relationships.

Our prayers for those with cancer can name the reality that cancer is rampant in our polluted world. Our ministry to the poor can address the realities of economic globalization. We can seek restorative, rather than punitive justice, and we can emphasize a systems approach in our ministry with families. We can acknowledge the countless ways in which the well-being of humanity is dependent on the health of natural systems.

When a relational, systems perspective infuses the ministry of a congregation, church members will start to shift the way they understand their lives. And they will be empowered to spread that worldview into the politics of their broader community.

In your churches -- in worship, classes, fellowship and mission projects -- and your community life, give voice to a relational perspective. Helping others to see the world in that way is an act of transformation toward justice and peace for all of God's creation.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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