Eco-Justice Ministries  

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

Beyond Denial and Despair
distributed 10/27/06 - ©2006

There is a familiar story in Matthew, Mark and Luke about a rich young ruler who came to talk with Jesus. He's a perfect example of what many of us are facing today.

This earnest young man asks, "Tell me, Jesus, what do I have to do?" The first answer from Jesus is routine: follow the law and the commandments. "Aha!" says the young man. "I've done that all my life."

Well, then, says Jesus, give all of your wealth to the poor.

The young man despairs when he hears this new and challenging instruction. He walks away, because he can't imagine -- literally cannot imagine -- living without his wealth. This rich young man was not able to conceive of himself as a poor young man. So he despaired, and walked away from the salvation he desired.

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An Inconvenient Truth has been shown in thousands of US congregations in the last month. In that film, Al Gore explains the science of global warming -- the truth of what is happening now, and what is likely to happen soon. He asks us to break out of ignorance and denial, and accept this frightening new reality. But all of that science is background.

The core of the movie is where Mr. Gore talks about climate change as a moral issue. He calls us to consider the choices that we must make about how to live in relation to the global community of life. He's absolutely right about the need to raise these moral questions. That is why it is so appropriate that the topic is being addressed in churches. But raising the right moral questions doesn't mean we'll do the right things.

Mr. Gore also speaks about despair. He laments that so many people, when brought face-to-face with the reality of global climate change, move quickly from denial to despair. They ignore the possibility of acting. They don't attempt personal and societal changes.

The story of the rich young man explains that jump into despair. The Bible story opens fresh understandings about what is needed if we are to address this global catastrophe.

The man in the Bible story was given a moral choice, and had clear instructions about a specific action that he could take to live out his decisions. But he still despaired. Yes, giving people a list of things to do, a set of instructions about how to act on moral choices, is important. Those practical steps, though, may not be enough.

The things that we need to do about global warming are big and difficult. Despite the upbeat list at the end of the film of steps about the steps which can be taken, making significant reductions in our carbon emissions will be a huge shock to our economy and to our culture. We have an extensive and practical list of things that will cut greenhouse gasses. For many people, though -- whether leaders of business and politics, or folk on the street and in the pew -- that depth of change is the cause for our despair.

Like the man in the Bible, many of us cannot imagine -- literally cannot imagine -- living without the comfort and wealth and privilege that we get from consuming vast quantities of fossil fuels. We find it almost inconceivable that another way of living is possible, let alone desirable.

We're not bad people. Like the rich young ruler, we want to be good and responsible. We're more than happy to do the basics -- to change some light bulbs, insulate the attic, nudge the thermostat by a couple of degrees.

But the US needs to cut its carbon emissions by 30%, or 50%, or 80%, and that's very hard. We need to structure our lives and our society in ways that won't look very much like what we know and love. To make real and significant cuts in our carbon emissions means that we have to stop being who we think we are. And because we literally cannot imagine that it is possible to live differently, many people despair of healing the climate.

This is where I think churches are important. Our moral expertise isn't needed to declare the ethical no-brainer that cooking the planet is wrong. What we can and must do is take a message to our members, our neighbors, and our leaders that it is possible for us to live in a different way. We can proclaim the good news that it really is possible to live fulfilling, satisfying, joyous lives without poisoning the earth's climate.

I've written before about the wonderful book, The Prophetic Imagination, by Walter Brueggemann. The message of the book is that the biblical prophets not only point out what is wrong in their society, they also make real the possibility that things can be different. It is not necessary, Brueggemann says, for the prophet to spell out a detailed plan for the alternative society. Rather, the prophet simply has to help people to image that different way of living is even possible.

We need to ask not whether it is realistic or practical or viable but whether it is imaginable. We need to ask if our consciousness and imagination have been so assaulted and co-opted by the royal consciousness that we have been robbed of the courage or power to think an alternative thought.
If we can imagine that another way of living is even possible, then we don't have to jump from denial to despair. If we can imagine another way of living, we can act to make that possibility real.

Brueggemann says, "Numb people do not discern or fear death. Conversely, despairing people do not anticipate or receive newness." Denial and despair. Neither one brings hope and healing. It is imagination about dramatic new possibilities which can bring hope, and the willingness to change.

I'll write more next week about how we can engage that imagination. For the next few days, though, listen to those who have seen An Inconvenient Truth, and listen to your own heart. Hear where a lack of imagination derails a willingness to act, and hear the creative hope which opens the door to change.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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