Eco-Justice Ministries  

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

Framing, part I: War
distributed 3/24/06 - ©2006

This week brought the third anniversary of the start of the war in Iraq, and it is common knowledge that things are going badly. Peace and stability remain elusive in that violence-torn country. Public opinion polls show widespread dissatisfaction in the US. At this three-year benchmark, President Bush spent much of the week on the road, making a series of speeches that he hoped would buttress support for his policies.

Looking at the way Mr. Bush has framed the war offers helpful insights about a different approach to US policies in the Middle East. For the church leaders who are the core audience of Eco-Justice Notes, I'll also begin to point toward some fruitful ideas about the role of the church in this whole matter of framing.

The themes that I develop about "framing issues" this week by examining matters of war and peace will be taken up again next week. Then, I'll build on those ideas to look at how we in the church can address environmental concerns more effectively and faithfully. Pay attention. There will be a test at the end of this unit!

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From my less-than-comprehensive review of this week's news, it looks like the President returned to a familiar theme in his media events, talking repeatedly about the need to defeat the enemy in Iraq. For four and a half years, "the enemy" has figured prominently in the lead-up to wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and in all the changing justifications for continuing US engagement in that region.

"The enemy" is at the heart of a conceptual frame that has been evoked to sell US policies of aggression. When the focus is on the bad guys, it takes us fairly directly toward an offensive military approach. When the talk centers on the enemy, it tends to evoke feelings of fear and hatred, and highlights an obligation to act against the other.

As recent studies about "framing" have shown, it is not necessary -- or even helpful -- for proponents of the US policy to spend a lot of time detailing who the enemy is. Indeed, the enemy has changed often through the years: Osama, Sadam, weapons of mass destruction, terrorists and insurgents. The frame simply demands a strong sense that there is an enemy, and that reality then shapes and drives policy directions.

The enemy, the other, the threat has been a persistent theme, but we've reached a point where that frame is not serving Mr. Bush well. One of his complaints this week was that news reports are focusing on the bad news of bombings and killings, and not on the signs of hope. Well, when the frame that has been used to justify the war centers on the enemy, then the media can hardly be blamed for placing the focus of their reporting there.

At this point, it would be extraordinarily difficult for President Bush to shift his enemy-based frame for the US policy in Iraq. Someone else, though, can and should start talking clearly and consistently from a different frame. Rather than "defeating the enemy," we need to look at our engagement there from the perspective of "establishing the peace."

When we focus on peace, there are many important tasks that don't involve troops. We need to get the fragile coalition government up and functioning. We need to have reliable utilities. Schools need to be open. Local communities need to find ways to cooperate on matters of shared concern. A call to establish the peace evokes feelings of hope, compassion and community. And when the persistent frame of reference speaks of establishing the peace, then the news media will be looking at the core of the story when they report on functioning schools and a stable economy.

As a practical matter, establishing the peace in Iraq is just as difficult as defeating the enemy. Changing the frame of reference doesn't make US policy in the Middle East any easier, but it does change the strategies, the measures of success, and the political appeal.

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The President's desperate attempts to justify the US presence in Iraq shows how the frame of reference plays a dramatic role in the way we approach our engagement with the world. The way we frame an issue has powerful consequences -- whether the issue is war, education, immigration, economics or the environment.

Recently, political and social change strategists have been paying more attention to the vast difference between "framing the issues" and debating the details of public policy. They tell us that the presentation of a clear, consistent frame is essential for developing a movement or sustaining a cause.

So what does this have to do with churches?

Churches, especially at the congregational level, may not be very good places to work on thorny details of issue activism. Within these inherently diverse communities, the intricacies of policy will probably stimulate lots of controversy and conflict.

But churches are an excellent place to define and assert a compelling frame of reference. In churches, we tell stories, we talk values, we honor emotions -- and those are the core components in reinforcing a frame. Churches should be lifting up hopeful visions of God's world, and reminding us of the faithful basis for living in community. Churches are all about framing, and hammering home the central values of peace, justice and love.

One way that churches can be transformative of individuals and society is by strongly asserting an essential frame of reference, and defining the starting point for our conversations about important issues. The church has done that well when it picked up the call for racial justice, forgiveness of international debt, and hunger relief. The power of the church came from its insistence that the cause must be addressed -- somehow.

Staking out the moral boundaries and asserting an ethical framework will change the way that an entire society approaches its most troublesome issues. Churches can, and must, take a leading role in defining those frames.

Next week, we'll build on these ideas to look at ways that churches can "frame" the environment.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

For those who want a homework assignment, The Rockridge Institute has a short and helpful article by George Lakoff on the basics of framing.

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