Eco-Justice Ministries  

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

Coalitions and Constituencies
distributed 4/29/05 & 11/13/09 - ©2005, 2009

The 4/29/05 issue of Eco-Justice Notes was underwritten by Clarence (Lindy) and Robin Baer, of Lakewood, Colorado. Their generous support helps make this publication possible.

Seminary students are normally required to do a stint as hospital chaplains in a program called CPE -- clinical pastoral education. As we minister to others, we're supposed to learn a lot about our own personalities, motivations, gifts and limitations in ministry.

When I took CPE, back in the summer of 1976, I learned some of the things that I was supposed to learn, and I also learned a lasting lesson in the politics of social change.

One of our group of student chaplains was assigned to work in the maternity ward for a few weeks. After a couple of days on that floor of the hospital, Dan became aware of an unjust policy. On the evening after giving birth, most mothers were treated to a special, candle-lit, steak and wine dinner with their husbands. Unmarried women, though, got the standard dinner tray alone in their room.

The chaplain -- with all of his feminist leanings -- was furious, and he looked for allies in getting the policy changed. He took a close look at the maternity nurses, and saw a group that was socially and politically conservative, and not at all inclined to agree with his women's rights agenda. So he went to them with a different approach.

Dan said: "These single women could have had an abortion, but instead they chose to have their babies, and the hospital is punishing them for that choice." The nurses rose up, and within two weeks, the policy was changed. Every new mother, with one guest of her choice, got the celebratory dinner.

I look back to Dan's brilliant political strategy as a textbook case of building a coalition, of bringing together people of widely different views to achieve a shared goal. That sort of coalition-building is behind the old saying about "politics makes strange bedfellows." Those sorts of diverse coalitions are essential for political effectiveness -- whether in legislative chambers or in the various settings of church politics.

Dan's political organizing in the maternity ward, though, reveals a dynamic of effective coalitions that is often neglected -- especially in modern progressive movements.

Dan discerned an unjust situation because he had strong commitments about the equal treatment that should be given to all of the new mothers. The nurses responded to Dan's observations because they were passionate about babies. All of the actors had deeply grounded, firmly held motivations, and joined the cause because of their core values.

A coalition made up of folk with lukewarm commitments is unlikely to accomplish much. Somewhere, those passionate commitments need to be planted and nurtured.

The coalition itself is not the place to build core commitments. Within a coalition, it is dangerous to talk too much about the diverse motivations that bring the various groups to the table. Fights can break our and cooperation can collapse if coalition members feel pressured to agree on the "why" of their shared action. A lively and effective coalition needs to draw its strength from the passion of its various constituencies.

A constituency is a group that not only agrees on a goal and a strategy, but that is deeply invested in the reasons for taking on a cause. For example, in 2004, Colorado voters approved a ballot initiative that requires more use of renewable energy. That measure passed because of the energetic support of at least three strong constituencies: members of local communities whose health is threatened by pollution from coal-fired power plants, people concerned about global climate change, and residents of rural communities who see wind farms as an economic development tool. Each group knew that passage of the ballot measure would support values and programs that were of deep importance to their members -- and those reasons were totally different between the three groups.

It is not enough to join coalitions that are working on good causes. We also need to get specific in nurturing dedicated constituencies that are absolutely clear about their own heart-felt reasons for being involved. For the long haul, each constituency needs ongoing education, affirmation and support to motivate their very particular passion.

That's where I see a failure in today's progressive movement, especially in churches. We've done a fine job finding a diverse set of partners, but we haven't done as well in building strong, detailed commitments among our own specific constituencies.

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The need to do detailed, "in house" work in building strong constituencies is why Eco-Justice Ministries is committed to working specifically with Christian churches.

Various interfaith projects in the faith-based environmental movement -- notably on climate change and energy issues -- are doing wonderful things as coalition efforts. But those coalitions, which often rely on "least common denominator" affirmations about generic religious principles, are not likely to stir anyone new to passionate commitment.

If we want church people to be deeply engaged in caring for God's creation -- if we want them to join coalitions for political change, and to make significant changes in their own lifestyle -- then we need to go deep in talking about faith and theology. We need to demonstrate that ecological responsibility is intimately connected with what it means to love God and to love our neighbors. We need to insist that environmental stewardship is an inseparable element of faithful living. The passion needs to start in the distinctive context and commitments of our congregations and denominations.

Coalitions and constituencies is not an "either/or" option, but a "both/and" necessity. Within our congregations, we need to name the specific reasons why eco-justice is central to our most passionate faith commitments. Then we need to find common ground with others who share our goals, but who may have different motivations.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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