Eco-Justice Ministries  

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

Investing in Community
distributed 10/21/05 - ©2005

Lutheran ethicist Larry Rasmussen is the author of an excellent book titled Earth Community, Earth Ethics. For me, those four words pretty well sum it up.

Our ethics about the earth -- about relating justly to all of God's creation -- are grounded in the reality of earth community. When we recognize and enhance that community, we all do better. When that extended community breaks down, we all suffer. That practical fact is at the heart of eco-justice ethics.

Why am I concerned about endangered species? Not so much because of any personal benefit that I might gain from saving hippos in Congo, or woodpeckers in Arkansas, but because biodiversity strengthens and stabilizes the entire community of life.

Why am I distraught about global climate change? Because this rapid, human-caused disruption of planetary systems will lead to social chaos and war, to famine and suffering in the face of unpredictable water supplies, to spreading disease, to widespread stress and extinction for other species -- all in all, a profound disturbance of the earth community now, and into future generations.

If I only cared about myself, I probably wouldn't be concerned about these, and countless other eco-justice problems. But because I know that I am a part of the community of life, I do worry. I worry a lot.

In the four widely-accepted ethical norms of eco-justice (solidarity, sustainability, sufficiency and participation), the word that gets top billing calls us into a deeply internalized sense of that interrelationship. Solidarity is a different level of engagement than emotional compassion or intellectual concern, where I may have some distance from the plight of others. Solidarity tells me that we're all in this together, that the suffering of another person or another species is my own suffering. If the community is harmed, if members of the community are treated unjustly, then in some way I, too, will be harmed.

Solidarity -- working for the good of the whole community -- is "enlightened self-interest." Caring for the health of the whole community is not only morally right. It is a good investment in my own well-being, and that of my descendents.

In a family or a neighborhood, a commitment to the health of the community can be worked out on a personal level, in one-on-one relationships and responsibilities. As the community expands, though, solidarity has to be worked out through other structures.

The institutions of public education ensure that all members of the community are literate and informed. Public health services control the spread of disease in ways that are very different from individual actions. Networks of roads are essential to the prosperity of communities. Well-grounded laws and courts provide an essential framework for the life of communities. The maintenance of public lands serves the long-term interests of the whole community of life. Welfare programs for food, housing and health care are not only compassionate responses to the poor; they enhance the decency and stability of the entire society. Environmental protections seek the health and sustainability of the entire community.

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There's a philosophical battle raging in US politics about the nature of our shared community. Often, the conflict is framed in terms of the size and power of government, but I think that's really a secondary consideration. What is up for grabs is a public consensus about the way in which we understand and care for community. It is not about the size of government, but about the appropriate role of government.

To make an admittedly broad generalization, the political right sees government as an institution that serves and protects the rights and opportunities of individuals. The political left is more inclined to see an essential role of government in sustaining and nurturing communities.

When the far right wing -- Ronald Reagan, Newt Gingrich or George W. Bush -- looks at reducing the size of government, the cuts are almost universally in areas that sustain the extended community. Somehow, "small government" still will be there to preserve individual property rights and to facilitate investment, but it won't be there for those without wealth and power. The political right is inclined to see the environment as natural resources to be tapped, and not as part of a dynamic community, so their "small government" proposals remove environmental protections, and encourage exploitation.

A budget bill that is now working through the US Congress cuts programs like Medicaid and food stamps, Head Start and housing programs. The $50 billion in "savings" will be used to subsidize $70 billion in tax cuts for the wealthiest. If that bill passes, vast sums of money will be shifted from programs that directly and intentionally care for members of our national community. It is legislation grounded in right-wing individualism.

In my home state of Colorado, this fight about community good vs. individual opportunity is being waged in a ballot measure known as Referendum C. Colorado readers: take a look at the postscript explaining why I urge you to vote YES on C.

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The political debate about the size and role of government is a profoundly theological.

Do we exist in a world best shaped by individualized perspectives and pure self-interest? Or do we live in a world that is inherently defined by relationships within an extended community? Is an investment in the long-term health of the community a waste and a distraction, or is it the essence of faithful stewardship?

My reading of the Christian faith proclaims relationships and responsibilities to the whole community. My sense of Christian ethics provides no support for a rampant individualism. Rather, our solidarity with all of God's creation calls us to significantly invest our time and our wealth in strengthening the whole community of life.

I pray that we will proclaim the reality of Earth Community consistently in our churches. I pray, too, that we will take that faithful perspective to the voting booth and use it to inform our political lobbying.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

Especially for my Colorado readers:

As you must all be aware by now, the election that concludes on November 1 has a state-wide ballot measure known as "Referendum C" which was placed on the ballot by a 2/3 vote of the state legislature. The referendum makes adjustments in the complicated constitutional provision known as "The Taxpayer's Bill of Rights" -- popularly known as TABOR. TABOR's goal is to control the size of government by strict limits on taxation. Effectively, those limits also determine the role and function of our state government.

Colorado's recent years of recession have forced drastic cuts in state services. The "ratchet effect" of TABOR prohibits the state from using existing revenues to recover to previous spending levels.

A genuinely bipartisan coalition supports Referendum C. Business leaders and our tax-cutting Republican governor have joined with notorious liberals. They all acknowledge that the state's fiscal crisis has reached a point where essential services that sustain our community are being lost -- safe roads, higher education, parks, prisons, and public health programs.

The ideologically-driven opponents of Referendum C have a catchy slogan: "It's your dough. Just vote no." That simplistic tag line ignores any engagement or responsibility to the larger community. They pander to short-term self-interest, instead of responsible investment in the life of our state-wide community.

Along with the Colorado Council of Churches, and the diverse voices of "Colorado Religious Communities for the Common Good," I strongly urge you to vote YES on Referendum C, and its companion, Referendum D. The news media say that the vote is "too close to call." Talk to your friends, neighbors and church community and get out the vote in support of these critical ballot issues!

Peter Sawtell

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