Eco-Justice Ministries  

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

What Can Churches Do?
distributed 8/17/07 - ©2007

This week's issue of Eco-Justice Notes is underwritten by the Lynn-Palevsky Family of Wynnewood, Pennsylvania. Their generous support helps make this publication possible.

What can we do? It is a question that comes up over and over again. What can churches do about the environmental crisis, and especially about global warming?

I'm glad that the question is being asked, because it tells me that church leaders do want to get involved, and they do want to make a difference. But I'm concerned when the question is asked at such a basic level -- in terms of how to even get started. It suggests to me that many people in churches don't see how environmental problems and climate change connect with the core mission of churches.

In many other areas, churches do know what to do. We understand how urgent situations and needs are intimately connected with "doing church."

  • When disaster hits, we know what to do. As Hurricane Katrina plowed into the Gulf Coast two years ago, church people knew what to do. Congregations received special offerings. Church World Service was one of the relief agencies that was on the scene right away with essential supplies and assistance. Church groups were deeply involved in getting refugees settled into new communities. Denominational agencies coordinated multitudes of volunteers -- and those faithful folk are still going to the Gulf to help in rebuilding. Ecumenical groups, including the Eco-Justice Working Group of the National Council of Churches, have named the links between racism and poverty in the hurricane's destruction, and called for justice.

  • When a beloved church member dies, we know what to do. Casseroles are delivered, and funerals held. Pastoral and community support are there for the long-term help of family members. We support hospice programs, grief groups, and social service programs that provide ongoing care for the distinctive needs of survivors who are left alone.

  • In the face of global poverty, we know what to do. We take part in community-based development projects like SERRV and fair trade coffee. Denominational mission boards are engaged on a wide range of levels -- famine relief, clean water projects, family planning information, and advocacy for appropriate provisions in international trade agreements.
What can we do? is a question that comes up in relation to disasters, death and poverty, but it is a question of details and timing. We presume that churches can and should do something, and we're looking for help on the specifics.

When it comes to the global environmental crisis, the question seems far more basic. Churches seem to be starting from scratch, without any sense of where to start. It is not about which tools to use, or which programs to support, but about where to begin.

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As I listen to the discussions about global warming in other sectors of society, I don't hear the what can we do? question being raised in the same way that it is in churches.

  • At colleges and universities, researchers are contributing their expertise to the pool of knowledge in many fields. Professors are engaging students in learning and reflection about a multitude of philosophical, scientific, political and economic issues. Administrators and student groups work together to reduce the climate impact from campus buildings. They know what to do, based in their core missions of research, education and campus life.

  • In legislative bodies, politicians are holding hearings, drafting and debating legislation, proposing incentives, meeting with lobbyists and constituents, and staking out campaign positions. They know what to do with political processes and institutions, even as they fight long and hard about specific policy positions.

  • In the business world, visionary companies are discovering exciting options for new products and services, and threatened industries are fighting to preserve their niche. Advertisers don't need encouragement as they look for ways to put a "green" label on almost everything. Insurance companies know that they must pay close attention to changing forms of risk. They know what to do.
In education, politics and business, the threat of climate change connects with the core purposes of the institutions. Of course there are ways that academics, legislators and business leaders can be involved! In those social sectors, I don't hear leaders asking the start-from-scratch questions about what can be done.

When churches ask the most basic questions about what can we do? I think they're often unsure why or how global warming connects with the essential purposes and goals of churches. That's a legitimate question, and an important concern.

If -- as is often the case -- the crisis of climate change is discussed primarily as a debate about scientific evidence, or about technological solutions, or about complex economic strategies, then those topics are a stretch for most church groups. That's not how we understand our mission, and that's not where we have our expertise.

But if we see global warming as a moral and ethical issue that deals with the relationships among human communities, future generations and with the whole creation, then we're getting into religious territory. If we see climate change as a symptom of a flawed understanding about the meaning of life, then we're addressing an area where the church has great expertise. If Earth's deep distress is -- at its heart -- a human problem and not a technological one, then we in the churches should have a decent sense of how to talk about it.

When we discern how the great environmental issues of this day are intimately connected with what churches are called to do and be, then, I think, the questions about what can we do? will be asked in a different way.

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Earlier this week, I saw an advance screening of a new documentary film, The 11th Hour. With the help of over fifty of the world's most prominent thinkers and activists, the film documents the grave problems facing the planet's life systems. Global warming, deforestation, mass species extinction, and depletion of the oceans' habitats are all addressed. I'm glad to say that the whole presentation is made from an approach that will help churches understand more deeply what they can do.

Leila Connors-Petersen -- one of the film's writers and directors -- told an interviewer: "The film creates an awareness about the real nature of the problem, that it's human thinking and behavior that is at the root of the destruction. And it is human behavior and thinking that will change it."

The movie outlines how modern philosophy, law and economics have all played a role in driving us to deplete our natural resources to the point where our very existence as a species is at risk. In the film, former Soviet Prime Minister Mikhail Gorbachev says that our biggest mistake was saying, "Man is the king of nature." That's a religious description of the problem!

The film opens today in New York City and Los Angeles. It will come to other cities in the US on August 24. If it is showing anywhere near you, I urge you to take a group to see it. Then discuss how this perspective helps churches understand what can be done.

Unfortunately, the film's website is very media intensive, and is not friendly for those who don't have a super-fast connection and the most current software. The page on "Ideas and Experts" is an accessible place to start exploring the site.

  • Last week, I encouraged congregations to take part in the Change a Light, Change the World campaign of Colorado Interfaith Power & Light and the Colorado state government, and I renew that endorsement. I was incorrect, though, in saying that the COIPL project is directly connected to the similar program of the US EPA. The Colorado group is creating their own resources and strategies.
  • Also last week, I pointed Notes readers to a new, in-process resource from Eco-Justice Ministries about strategies for an in-depth, "churchy" approach to a "change a light bulb" project. Our resource has been expanded and clarified through the last week. Thanks for the comments that helped us! Take a look at the revised version.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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