Eco-Justice Ministries  

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

Unconscionable Compliance
distributed 8/8/08 - ©2008

Many years ago -- way back in the early 1980s -- I met a woman who described herself as "a feminist counselor." What Carol taught me about that distinctive form of therapy opened my eyes to many of the complex issues related to domestic violence. The healing work that Carol did in her counseling practice also gives me a rich image for prophetic ministry in Christian churches.

When Carol first talked about being "a feminist counselor," I was confused. I'd never heard of such a thing, and didn't have any idea what she was talking about. Her explanation was tied to her own philosophies, the sorts of clients that she served, and what she experienced as the mainstream approaches to counseling.

Carol worked with women who were in abusive relationships, who were battered verbally, emotionally, and often physically by their husbands or partners. These women were caught in relationships where they were denied self-respect and the freedom to make basic choices. Their families were shaped by the unequal power claimed by dominating men. Carol's clients were frightened, hurt and victimized.

Many of the people who were in positions to help these women -- social workers, doctors and counselors -- took an approach that Carol found unconscionable. Those care-givers would often "blame the victim" for the violent situation. Their goal was to help these women function more successfully within the abusive relationship. They offered coping tools that might defuse some of the violence, and they encouraged the women to stick it out within the context of the brutal relationship.

Carol's feminist commitments took a different approach. She named the problems that were inherent in the distorted structure of the families, affirmed the worth of the women, and helped the women evaluate for themselves if it was worthwhile, or even possible, to stay in the relationship. She taught assertiveness instead of compliance. She named options that would break the cycles of violence -- escaping to a shelter, court orders against the abuser, or a job that would provide dignity and financial independence -- and she called on the women to act to protect themselves and their children.

Many of Carol's clients were resistant to her counsel, at least at first. They wanted to fit in and make everything all right. They were afraid of change, and unsure of their ability to claim a new and stronger identity. Some never were able to make the necessary changes, and they remained in the abusive family. Others, though, heard a hard message of hope and deep transformation. With lots of support and training, and with the help of caring institutions, they were able to break into a different way of living. (The parallel approaches of a feminist counseling program in the Philippines are described here.)

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From my vantage point within Eco-Justice Ministries, I see far too many Christian churches that act like the compliant counselors that Carol described. As we try to address the intertwined crises that are named by eco-justice ethics -- the pervasive abuse and exploitation of both people and the rest of God's creation -- it seems evident to me that there are profound flaws in the values and structures of our society. The trajectory of our culture is inherently unsustainable. What is generally named as "progress" is actually the source of many of our problems. As in an abusive marriage, the foundational relationships and expectations are wrong.

In the midst of this abusive society, though, I see too many church leaders who are committed to helping us function successfully within the violent and exploitative culture. They provide coping tools that might defuse some of the worst abuses, while affirming how fortunate we are to be part of this society. On many levels, they want us to help us fit in to the dominant culture. They offer neither a serious critique of the dominant culture, nor a compelling and hopeful vision of an alternative community.

We are in need of pastors, theologians, educators and counselors who will echo Carol's liberating message of challenging hope. We need clergy and lay leaders who will name the flaws at the core of our society, give us tools for resistance and change, offer us support and encouragement, and help us claim different ways of living in Earth community. We need to reclaim prophetic ministry as the primary calling of the church.

Last week, I was privileged to lead an extended seminar on "Prophetic Ministry in an Eco-Justice Frame." The starting point for our 5-day conversation was that radical notion of prophetic ministry. We turned often to the insights provided in Walter Brueggemann's book, The Prophetic Imagination. Some of the things that Brueggemann wrote about the biblical prophets sound remarkably similar to the counter-cultural role that Carol described for feminist counselors.

  • "The task of prophetic ministry is to nurture, nourish, and evoke a consciousness and perception alternative to the consciousness and perception of the dominant culture around us."
  • "[Moses] was not engaged in a struggle to transform a regime; rather, his concern was with the consciousness that undergirded and made such a regime possible."
  • "The task of prophetic ministry is to cut through the numbness, to penetrate the self-deception, so that the God of endings is confessed as Lord."

I rejoice that, though the last 25 years, Carol's alternative consciousness toward abusive relationships has become more widely accepted. Most of us now agree that it is unconscionable to blame the victim, and to consign her to emotional and physical violence.

We are in urgent need of a similar shift about our compliance with a global society that is grounded in abuse and exploitation, and that is committed to unsustainable growth. We need prophets who can speak difficult words of truth against the institutionalized consciousness of violence. Just as we reject domestic violence, we must reject the mindset which thinks that it is normal and acceptable to poison underpaid migrant workers with agricultural chemicals, to drain ancient aquifers to water lawns in the desert, to strip the tops off mountains for coal, to fell rainforests for cheap paper, and to distort the life-giving climate of our planet by the over-use of fossil fuels.

We need a prophetic church, one that stands opposed the this culture of abuse and exploitation by lifting up a faithful and dynamic witness to God's shalom. In that prophetic presence, the church can bring genuine hope and healing into the world. May we find the faith and courage to turn away from our unconscionable compliance with this violent world, and to speak the prophetic good news that another way is possible.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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