Eco-Justice Ministries  

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

Sins of Omission
distributed 12/28/07 - ©2007

In a religious lexicon, there are two kinds of sins. (Actually, there are many kinds of sins, but for my purposes today, I'll highlight one well-known pairing.)

In technical language, they are called sins of commission, and sins of omission. A classic prayer of confession covers both bases when it has us admit that "we have left undone those things which we ought to have done; and we have done those things which we ought not to have done."

The bad deeds that you commit are relatively easy to catalog. ("I robbed a bank last week", or "I drove to work when I could have walked".) The undone oughts are harder to pin down. Indeed, it may take some serious self-examination to realize that it has been a month or two since you said "I love you" to your spouse, or that you never acted on your New Years resolution to give blood on a regular basis in 2007. The things which we ought not to have done can stand out pretty dramatically. The things left undone can be pretty invisible (although the spouse and the blood bank probably noticed).

It is, of course, far less threatening to look at the sins of others than to ponder one's own failings. Especially when examining others, it is much more difficult to see what is missing than to note the glaringly wrong blunders. The omissions rarely stand out on their own. They may just create a setting that doesn't seem quite right.

For example, it had seemed to me that the ever-present political reporting of this year-before-an-election-year didn't deal very well with some of the issues that I care deeply about. I would have been hard pressed, though, to document a pervasive pattern of omissions in the media. It just seemed like other issues got a lot more coverage than the eco-justice themes that are so important to me. Maybe, I thought, it just seemed that way because of my own passionate interests.

Six weeks ago, though, the League of Conservation Voters released a study that confirmed my hunches. In at least one influential segment of TV journalism, there has been a profound and ongoing sin of omission with regard to global warming.

The Columbia Journalism Review described the report:

[The League of Conservation Voters] has analyzed footage and transcripts from over 120 interviews and debates with candidates conducted or moderated by five TV news hosts ... It found that out of the 2,275 questions put to the candidates, only three mentioned "global warming" or "climate change" specifically, and only twenty-four referred to related topics such as fuel efficiency and oil subsidies.

The study covered interviews from the start of 2007 up until early November. That's a time period when four major reports on global warming were released from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and when the IPCC and Al Gore won the Nobel Peace Prize. Among other events in 2007, last June President Bush thwarted a consensus among the G-8 nations for a firm cap on greenhouse gas emissions. It has been a year when climate change has been in the news a lot, but the big-name political reporters asked about the topic only three times in a year's worth of candidate interviews.

In the language of communication theory, this sort of silence is called "disconfirmation." Failing to mention something -- in this case, the very major something of global warming -- is a way of saying that the issue isn't even important enough to voice disagreements. Important topics get included in the debates and interviews: immigration, health care, war, personal faith and biblical interpretation, or UFOs (really!). But the hosts of the big five "Sunday morning" TV news shows only asked about global warming three times -- that's just over one tenth of one percent of their questions. Some of those prominent journalists never raised the subject once all year.

As one commentator on the Daily Kos blog said, "As long as reporters (and we) are not asking the questions, the issue won't rise to the top of the debate." If global warming isn't a significant part of the debate among presidential candidates, then it won't be a factor in who becomes the next president. And that could be, literally, catastrophic.

Sins of omission can be just as important as the sins of commission. Reporters who don't ask about global warming leave a hole in the political scene that has very real and very dangerous consequences.

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As I said, it is far easier to look at the failings of others than it is to examine our own lives. I fear, though, that a careful examination of church communications -- of sermons and prayers, newsletters and websites -- would show a pattern of omissions about global warming on a scale close to that of the TV news anchors.

In the vast majority of congregations, large-scale environmental problems like global warming are being "disconfirmed" on a regular basis. When we don't talk about climate change in church, we're giving the members of our community the very clear message that it isn't very important. That silence is effectively saying that climate change isn't worth the time or the trouble to explain, or to argue about, or to pray about. If we don't talk about global warming in church, then we're telling church members that caring for God's creation isn't a significant matter of ethics or stewardship.

Confession is in order. Forgive us, O God, for we have not done that which we ought to have done.

We're coming up on New Years, a time when many people make resolutions about their intentions to commit or omit differently, to start or stop doing something of significance.

Let me suggest that you might resolve to keep global warming -- or some other "invisible" issue -- more visible in your community. Bring up the subject in your church (whether you're on the church staff or not). Ask your friends and neighbors, "what do you think" or "how do you feel" about this issue. In the political realm, be assertive in having candidates, and the reporters who cover candidates, spell out policy stances on the issue.

If you resolve to do more about making environmental issues visible in your church setting, please let me know. Simply stating your commitment to somebody else goes a long way in moving a general commitment into real action, and I'm happy to be a witness to your resolution. If you want help in how to raise an issue like climate change in your church, let me know that, too, and we'll see how Eco-Justice Ministries can be supportive in your efforts.

It is only when we're willing to talk about it than an issue like global warming can rise to the top of the political debates. If being persistent about that conversation is something that we have left undone, then let's not continue that sin of omission.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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