Eco-Justice Ministries  

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

Transformation and Activism
distributed 7/21/06 - ©2006

Some of my best friends are activists. I don't hold it against them. Indeed, there are even times when I think of myself as an activist.

In my work with churches, though, I focus my energy more on transformation than on activism. That may seem like a subtle distinction in language, but it suggests an important shift in style and perspective for engaged congregations.

I hope that all churches will see themselves as transformational. Some churches may bring an activist approach to their ministries while other congregations may seek to bring about transformation in other ways.

Before I spell out those shadings in meaning, though, let me name the sort of church that I'd like to see go away completely. I have lots of theological differences with congregations which work from a "therapeutic" approach to ministry, and whose primary goal is to help their members feel good about fitting into the mainstream society.

A year after the terrorist attacks in 2001, sociological researcher (and conservative Christian) George Barna indicted most US churches for their lack of moral leadership. His studies revealed that, in that tumultuous year of anxiety and uncertainty, most churches "provided emotional stability for people by giving them a comfortable and calming local presence." "For the most part," he wrote, US churches' "response to the attacks has been to restore continuity and comfort as quickly as possible, without much energy devoted to moral, spiritual or emotional growth." In 2002, I wrote about these therapeutic congregations as "the irrelevant church" -- and I stand by that labeling.

My regular readers won't be surprised when I call for churches to be relevant -- to be engaged with the issues of the world, to bring clear moral and ethical leadership, and to work diligently for change as we seek to embody God's shalom. That is a recurring theme in my writing, and a core purpose in my ministry.

Activism is one way for churches to be engaged, but there are dangers in an activist approach, especially when it becomes the predominant way of addressing issues.

My primary concern with activism is that it fires us up to bring about change "out there" somewhere. Based in our carefully-reasoned principles -- or, more often than we like to admit, in our knee-jerk political assumptions -- we activists set out to apply our values to the critical issues of the day. We lobby for or against legislation, we protest against war, we advocate for alternative energy, we boycott products made in sweatshops, and we support shareholder resolutions for corporate accountability.

In all of those activist stances, we see ourselves as virtuous and enlightened, and we take action so that the people and institutions around us might be shaped by our values. God knows, there is a pressing need for that sort of action. Hopefully, our causes and positions are shaped by a genuine expression of our faith and ethics.

There's a flaw within an activist approach, though, when the efforts to change others does not also make us look at the need for change "in here" -- in our own values and our own behaviors. We're in trouble if we don't admit to our own self-interest, our own bias, our own complicity in the systems we seek to change. Especially for those of us in the United States -- the world's sole superpower, and the contemporary embodiment of empire -- we must always admit to our privilege and accountability in a global system. Even as we work hard for change in laws and policies and systems, we must also work for change within our own beliefs and behaviors. We, too, must be transformed.

An activist approach tends to be confrontational. It divides people into the opposing sides of our allies and our enemies. Strategically, an activist will have a hard time admitting to any uncertainty, or acknowledging complicity. In the hardball world of politics, any self-criticism is a weakness.

A transformational approach is more confessional and more inclusive. It recognizes that we're all part of the problem, and that we all need to change. A transformational perspective calls me toward more complete expressions of voluntary simplicity in my own life, even as it pushes me to seek legislation about energy efficiency. A transformational perspective reminds me that I must always question my own motives, my own values and assumptions, just as I challenge the values which are at the heart of our society. A transformational perspective can invite us to work together for change.

The transformational church needs to be bold in speaking out, and courageous in self-examination. It needs to call itself to change just as vigorously as it calls on others.

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This spring, I have been honored to be part of an ecumenical, grassroots project in Denver that is seeking to energize the prophetic, transformational church. Growing out of many meetings and a weekend conference, we have drafted a statement, "The Colorado Confession", as an explicitly Christian call to the church. I think our confession does a pretty good job of finding the balance between activism and self-examination.

The Colorado Confession is a harsh critique of the US empire -- its violence, injustice, wealth and exploitation are named as contrary to the reign of God. And yet the document includes this paragraph:

We reiterate and confess our own complicity in the above litany of sins, and our failure to faithfully and imaginatively engage in resistance to them. We feel trapped by our participation in social and economic structures which embody and perpetuate unjust conditions, and we call upon our brothers and sisters in the worldwide Church to help us consider what repentance and new life might mean for us. We do so with fear and trembling, praying for the Spirit to give us insight and courage in this regard.

In that spirit, I pray that our churches may live out their calling to be transformational of individuals, communities, institutions and society. I pray that we may always be aware of the need to transform ourselves, even as we are vigorous in our outward activism.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

NOTE: Similar themes have been part of two other Eco-Justice Notes in the last six months: Redefining Activism and Truth or Falsehood.

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