Eco-Justice Ministries  

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

Dull, Deaf and Blind
distributed 11/21/08 - ©2008

Those of us who do prophetic and transformational work in churches know a lot about frustration. Despite our careful, dedicated and passionate efforts, it often feels like our message is not heard, and that people don't respond.

That's not a new problem. Remember a familiar passage about the call of a prophet. Isaiah responds to God's invitation -- "Who shall I send?" -- with an enthusiastic, "Here I am. Send me!" God immediately tells the new volunteer:

Go and say to this people: "Keep listening, but do not comprehend; keep looking, but do not understand." Make the mind of this people dull, and stop their ears, and shut their eyes, so that they may not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and comprehend with their minds, and turn and be healed. (Isaiah 6:9-10)

Oh, how often it seems that the people in our congregations and communities are dull, deaf and blind. That is not the goal of our work as we try to guide folk toward ecological sustainability and social justice, of course, but it is what we often experience.

At the recent series of "Greening Your Church" workshops that Eco-Justice Ministries led in Colorado, we looked at educational programming for churches, and dealt with the problem of excellent courses that never connect with their audience. We explored some of the reasons why people don't come to classes, and why they don't respond to what we feel is compelling information about caring for God's creation.

At the workshops, we used "a really stupid little skit" to explain how it is that people do not "look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and comprehend with their minds." For this exercise, our Outreach Coordinator, Brian Ray James, played the part of a person transported by a time machine from the days of the Roman empire into our culture. Brian told us about things we take for granted that he found amazing -- glass in the windows, electric lights and "horseless chariots."

Then, since Brian was so excited about new technologies, I tried to tell him about the two robotic rovers that have been exploring the surface of Mars for the last five years. Suddenly, Brian heard, but did not comprehend. How could we send a craft to a god? No, no, I explained. We didn't send a rocket to the god Mars, but to the planet. But Brian could not understand the concept of a planet that circles the sun. Mars, for him, was just a dot of light on the dome of the heavens. According to his mental maps, Mars had no surface to be explored.

What seemed perfectly clear to us in the 21st Century was incomprehensible to Brian-from-Rome. He had no concepts that would allow him to make sense out of the self-evident -- to us -- reality of planets and the solar system.

The overblown little skit gave us a vivid context for a statement by conservationist Aldo Leopold. Writing about 60 years ago, Leopold commented that the problem we face in conservation education "is how to bring about a striving for harmony with land among a people many of who have forgotten there is such a thing as land."

Leopold's "land community" includes soils, waters, plants and animals in an ecology that was self-evident to thousands of generations of humans. In the modern world, though, we have a society where people do not live in close relationship with that life community, and where we see resources instead of neighbors and systems. We "have forgotten there is such a thing as land." If that was true in the 1940s, it will be even more difficult today for us to entice people to care for the land, the creation. Just as our visitor from ancient Rome could not understand the planet Mars, people who have forgotten about the land community can't understand the importance of caring for the creation.

When the people we hope to teach seem dull, deaf and blind, we may be encountering a situation where differences in our worldviews and foundational concepts prevent us from understanding each other. When that is the case, it won't help to be more persistent in spreading a message that doesn't make sense to them. If we want to be effective, there are times when we need to step back and build common ground on some core principles.

From our work with churches on the theme of eco-justice, I can see several places where it may be necessary to build a fresh base before taking on important issues.

  1. As Leopold made clear, caring for the land won't come easily unless we have a sense of the land community. People with no awareness of ecological relationships, people who think only of resources and products, will be baffled by our warnings about climate change and species extinction. If they have no ingrained notion of the web of life, then the fraying and distorting of that web will seem insignificant. There is a need to develop some basic ecological literacy. Take field trips to a local nature center. A book study group can discuss writings that deal with nature. Have an ecologist give a guest sermon.

  2. As hard as it is for me to comprehend, there are lots of people around us who don't perceive the evident truth that our world is limited. "Drill, baby, drill!" presumes that there will always be more oil and gas if we just look hard enough -- and if those pesky environmentalists get out of the way. The economic and cultural ideology of perpetual growth is founded on the belief that there will be more energy and resources to sustain that growth. Until the members of our community grasp the reality of limits, they won't have any motivation to look for sustainability as a new social and economic principle. In our congregations, we might be able to explore this topic most fruitfully if we start on a pastoral level, and talk about living within the limits of time and family budgets.

  3. The conceptual disconnect that we encounter with an eco-justice message isn't only about science and economics. Our audiences are befuddled when we hold divergent perspectives about the role of churches. If people believe that "church" is all about saving souls, or finding spiritual peace, or providing compassionate service to the people who are our closest neighbors, then they won't understand why this eco-justice stuff has anything to do with their faith. If we want to engage church members on environmental issues, we may need to start with ecclesiology -- theologically exploring the mission and ministry of Christ's church in the world. We need to reclaim the compelling vision of God's shalom for all of creation as a guiding principle for the work of the church.

Prophets and teachers have always been frustrated by those who can not -- literally can not -- hear the lesson that is offered. When our audience does not have the concepts and mental maps to make sense of our teachings, they are unable to see, hear and understand. It is not that they are bad people, or that they don't care. Sometimes, we're guilty of preaching an urgent message without building the necessary conceptual foundation.

If your people seem resistant, oblivious and dumb, check to see if they have the language and worldviews to even hear what you are trying to say. Time spent planting the conceptual seeds of ecology, limits, shalom and engaged faith will be well spent.

A word of confession: Shortly after this Notes was sent out, I received an email from a friend asking, "I wonder why diminish a particular sector of creation (dull, deaf and blind) to embrace another... "

I replied to Heather, "Thank you for calling me to accountability. I turned to the Isaiah passage because it speaks so vividly of a prophetic message which will not be heeded. I am astounded at how easily and thoughtlessly I adopted the dismissive and excluding perspective that is in that ancient passage. Thank you for opening my eyes and my heart to the ways in which I carry the prejudices of our culture."

The reality of people who can not perceive a prophetic message is all to real. I regret the inappropriate way that I mixed the very different problems of perception and physical ability.

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As is our tradition, the entire staff of Eco-Justice Ministries will be taking a long weekend over the Thanksgiving holiday. The next Notes will be sent out on December 5.

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Looking for "alternative" Christmas gift ideas? Consider a contribution to Eco-Justice Ministries as a meaningful affirmation of your love for Earth, and for your relatives and friends. We'll send a gift card announcing your contribution. See our website, or drop us a note, for more details.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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