The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries
Good People, Bad Choices
Betty is a mindful, committed colleague in the faith-based environmental movement. When I bumped into her at an environmental event last week, she outlined a problem.
I didn't have an answer for Betty. I don't think she really expect one, which is a good thing, since there probably isn't any clear-cut and tidy answer to give her.
In a month, there will be a family wedding, to be held in a city halfway across the US. Betty has done her homework, and figured out the relative carbon impacts of flying or driving. She found a fairly clear answer the first question -- driving her Prius would be the most responsible way to travel to that event. Her second question is the difficult one. "Should I make the trip at all?"
Betty nailed me with that query because, five months ago, I had outlined the Eco-Justice Ministries travel policy for meetings and conferences. (Short version: we'll only go if there are enough "people-hours" of involvement at the other end to make the fuel and carbon for the trip worthwhile.) I admitted that our business policy isn't much help in evaluating family events, and shared some of my own struggles about juggling various forms of family and global responsibility.
Betty's dilemma is a new one for most of us. Long distance travel used to be a morally-neutral thing, something that we'd do without much reflection beyond the impacts on our finances and time. But now, we are realizing that jets and cars -- and to a lesser extent, busses and trains -- make significant contributions to the escalating crisis of global heating. "Should I go?" is a new sort of moral question.
This emerging situation, I think, is hitting people like Betty at a very deep level. We have thought of ourselves -- and been considered by most of our friends and co-workers -- as essentially good people. We are kind and generous and ethical most of the time. But suddenly, we're finding ourselves in a situation where we can't make good choices. Taking a trip challenges a core part of our self-identity.
Going to the wedding has an impact on the global climate and on scarce fuel supplies. Staying home is a violation of family responsibilities. When there is no good choice, what is a good person supposed to do?
+ + + + +
My talk with Betty probably made me especially jumpy about a passage that I found this week in a textbook on preaching. Homeletic, by David Buttrick, is an assigned text for a seminary class where I was a guest speaker. In the section that I skimmed, Buttrick sketches out a sermon to illustrate techniques for designing an effective homily. The practical tips were fascinating, but I was hooked by part of the content.
He's talking about biblical sinners, and modern church folk. He first describes the bad folk that we meet in the Good Book.
Make no mistake. When the Bible says 'sinners,' the Bible means sinners! Unvarnished, unrepentant, dyed-in-the-wool sinners. The Bible is not talking about nice people gone astray. ... As they say of pornographic films, they were totally 'without socially redeeming virtues.' Jesus, our Jesus, ate and drank with sinners.
Buttrick then points out the difference between those sinners and most of us.
We may not be the best people on earth, God knows, but by no stretch of the imagination are we the worst. And here we are at Christ's table. Now, we're not going to pretend that we are saints, we're not. But, on the other hand, to be honest, we are not all that bad! Yes, we lose our tempers, and we know we don't love enough, and ... we admit that we haven't given enough away to charity. But, to be truthful, we are not big-time sinners and we're not going to pretend we are just to make a Prayer of Confession sound good.
Most of us church-going folk -- and lots of folk who don't go to church, too -- always have thought of themselves as that sort of "good people." Not saints, but not the worst kind of sinners. And that's been OK.
When we become mindful of our participation in an ecologically destructive society, though, that sense of "being good" starts to crack. Good people, in the conventional sense, might try to pick the most environmentally responsible way to travel. But when the question comes up about, "should I go at all?", we run into bigger ethical questions. We find it harder to reconcile our bad choices with our "good" self-identity.
When we start to honestly evaluate our environmental footprint -- when we realize that the average person in the US is using up resources at six times a sustainable level -- when we realize the very disproportionate impact that our society is having on the global climate -- then it becomes harder to say, with Buttrick, "to be honest, we are not all that bad!" We've always thought of ourselves as good and responsible people, and now -- well, now, we're not quite so sure.
Do we say to ourselves, our fellow church members, and our neighbors, "Bad person! Bad person!" No. That's not the appropriate shift from the "good person" message we're used to. We are not like those biblical sinners, "without socially redeeming virtues." We do want to do the right thing, and we do want to live well with our neighbors. Heavy doses of guilt and shame are neither appropriate nor helpful.
Buttrick's sermon invites us to join Christ at the table as forgiven sinners, and I certainly won't argue with that invitation. That doesn't get us off the hook, though, about the painful and imperfect choices that we must continue to make.
As forgiven sinners, we can confess that we are complicit in a deeply flawed society, and that we don't have a full and life-giving range of choices. As people who seek to be good, we often are forced into imperfect and damaging decisions. While some change is needed within our selves, great change is needed in our society's values and institutions. As forgiven sinners, we can move through the immediate and difficult choices (should I drive to the wedding?), and we can be motivated by those difficult situations to work for long-term change in the broader situation.
We can use these occasions to talk with our friends, relatives and clergy about the conflicting responsibilities to far-flung family and the planet, and thus start to build a new social standard about what travel is responsible and worthwhile. We can advocate for better transportation networks that will provide options with a lighter impact.
Having to make imperfect choices does not make us bad people. Being forgiven sinners does not deliver us from hard choices and the responsibility to work for better solutions.
This time of ecological crisis and social transition is a difficult one. When we realize the now-undeniable impact of our lifestyles and our choices, many of us far less comfortable with a conventional label of "good person". By the forgiving grace of God, we are freed from crippling guilt and damaging self-labels. As forgiven sinners, then, may we continue to work for the healing of the world.
Eco-Justice Ministries * 400 S Williams St, Denver, CO 80209 * Home Page: www.eco-justice.org
Eco-Justice Ministries ended all programming on July 31, 2020. This site is an archive of writings and resources.
To contact a representative of the agency by e-mail, please use the contact form