Eco-Justice Ministries  

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

Questioning The System
distributed 8/22/08 - ©2008

This week's issue of Eco-Justice Notes is underwritten by Bob and Nobuko Miyake-Stoner, of Aiea, Hawaii. Their generous support helps make this publication possible.

The way that churches respond to today's environmental crises may have very little to do with their awareness of ecological issues. What may be much more significant is the level of confidence that they place in "The System".

That insight crept up on me through a series of workshops that Eco-Justice Ministries has given over the last two weeks. In five communities from Colorado Springs to Fort Collins, we held sessions on the topic of Greening Your Church: Getting Started & Going Deeper. In that string of evening programs, we joined in conversation with more than 120 church leaders from over 50 congregations.

At each workshop, I proposed a spectrum of churches, from those that are doing nothing about caring for God's creation, and on through three shades of "green" congregations. The green church options include those that are working at "the basics", congregations that are providing strong community leadership, and the ones that are working at deeply transformational ministries. We urged churches to get started with the basics, then go deeper into leadership and transformation.

By the fifth time giving my presentation and engaging in conversations, I was starting to see the connection between what churches do, and how they relate to The System. When I refer to the confidence that people and churches have in The System, I'm pointing toward an overarching sense of our society's economic and political structures, cultural values, and that hard-to-pin-down realm of worldviews. It is occurring to me that the four different types of churches are grounded in four substantially different assumptions about The System.

How well does The System work? Answers to that question really are quite theological. Drawing on our recent workshops for congregational leaders, let me briefly sketch out the four kinds of churches. Feel free to consider how similar types and perspectives might apply to individuals, or other institutions.

  1. Churches that don't get it, and are not doing anything "green".
    In our workshops, I dismissed as "unacceptable" the congregations that don't seem to see any problem, and that are not concerned about issues like global warming or scarce natural resources. Making that statement night after night led me to ponder why those churches might not be engaged, and that's when I began to see in them a profound confidence that The System works very well.

    In many of these churches, the strong faith that God will take care of us is almost identical to an assurance that the economic market will be efficient in allocating resources and leading us toward any necessary changes. Our society and its core values are seen as blessed, on the right track, and to be affirmed. From this perspective, to even acknowledge the presence of significant problems would be to call into question foundational faith commitments that we're living in a good and well-ordered world.

  2. Churches that are doing the basics.
    Energy efficiency projects, recycling, and some educational programs are the hallmarks of a basic level of greening. These congregations recognize that there are some serious problems in our world, but still hold a strong trust in The System. Our basic values and institutions are fine, we just need to do our part in making them work well.

    These churches might stress that we should be "green consumers", buying products which lessen our environmental impacts. As good stewards, financially as well as environmentally, we'll insulate church buildings and install efficient light bulbs. We'll make responsible voluntary choices about recycling. New technologies will let our society prosper, so we encourage members to buy hybrid cars, and choose wind power. The political realm is important, so we vote for good candidates. These are all good and worthwhile steps -- and they raise no serious questions about The System.

  3. Leadership churches.
    In congregations that push a bit deeper into environmental issues, there's often a suspicion that The System is not living up to its promise. In principle, our social values and the core of political and economic systems are affirmed as good, but in practice they are not been lived out well. We need to tweak The System so that it functions as well as it should.

    Leadership churches might advocate for campaign finance reform to restore real democracy. Because the economy doesn't adequately place values on all costs, cap-and-trade systems or a carbon tax are necessary adjustments. Churches might install technologies that don't have a short-term payback -- like expensive solar energy -- because the economic system needs to be nudged in the right direction by people who will make intentional moral choices.

  4. Transformational churches.
    In the churches that I highlighted as "going deepest" and "greenest" in their ministries, The System itself is seen as deeply flawed. Our consumer society is inherently unsustainable and dehumanizing. Globalized capitalism is exploitative. The System is grounded in false notions of the good life and progress, so we have to change the system, not fix it.

    Two weeks ago, in Unconscionable Compliance, I wrote about prophetic ministry as an alternative to the dominant culture. The prophetic or transformational church does not see any hope in reforming or revising The System, because a gentle empire is still an empire. Options that challenge the status quo -- voluntary simplicity, localized economies, genuine sustainability instead of perpetual growth, justice and equity within human communities -- are all seen as paths toward an entirely different system. In this sense, transformational churches are the complete opposite of the churches which are unable to acknowledge the presence of environmental crises.

I'm feeling hopeful and energized by these new insights. I'm seeing more clearly that churches which are slow to respond to ecological crises -- whether institutionally, or through their members -- may not be lacking either information or ethical commitments. Rather, they may be experiencing a disconnect between a recognized need for dramatic change and their confidence in The System.

We may be most effective in mobilizing churches toward transformational eco-justice witness when we help them think theologically about the institutions and values which are carrying our society into ecological crisis. Rather than teaching about greenhouse gasses and toxic chemicals, we can make more of a difference if we raise fruitful theological questions about how well our economic systems and cultural values mesh with our deepest faith commitments.

In raising those questions about The System, we will strengthen the church, and heal the Earth.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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