Eco-Justice Ministries  

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

The Whole Truth
distributed 3/6/09 - ©2009

During Lent this year, Eco-Justice Notes is highlighting four theological affirmations that are foundational for our work. Last week discussed shalom as our first guiding principle.

2. We live in a world of complex and interdependent relationships.
Our interpersonal relationships are important, and so are our ecological and institutional relationships. The quality of all of those relationships has both practical and moral significance.

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We live in a relational universe. That's all there is to it. It is impossible to honestly and accurately describe the world -- or to live functionally and fairly within it -- if we ignore that basic reality.

From the largest to the smallest, relationships define how things work. Planets and galaxies tug at each other with gravitational forces. Sub-atomic particles have electromagnetic reactions to each other that form the basis of all chemical elements and compounds. They all are in relationship with each other, and they would not be what they are without that relationship.

Human infants need relationship -- cuddling and care -- to become fully human. Without that bonding between people, intellectual and emotional development does not occur. One of the most horrible forms of punishment in prisons is solitary confinement, cutting off the relationships that define the essence of personhood. We are not "human" in isolation from each other.

In many other species, relationships are equally critical. Ants and bees cannot survive outside of their colonies. In some ways, an ant alone is not really an ant at all. Wolves, dolphins and elephants are social beings where interaction and relationship provide identity and health.

We exist in countless relationships. We -- humans and others alike -- are shaped by them, and we shape others through them. Relationships are inherent in every social, political, economic and physical behavior. They are inherent in our being. We could not exist without them.

The familiar academic fields of sociology and economics study two large-scale realms of human interaction. Ecology is the corresponding study of relationships within the entire community of life. In recent years, ecological understanding has been expanding to encompass the non-living relationships which are also essential -- for example, the climate and water systems which are in an intimate dance with life. These disciplines explore the necessity and complexity of the relationships which constantly surround us.

The presence of such relationships is not incidental or optional. But that does not mean that they are unalterable. While gravity may be an immutable law of the universe, not all relationships are so permanently defined. Other interactions can be broken or distorted, and doing so comes at great cost to all involved.

Clearing large swaths of Amazonian rain forests breaks a weather pattern that cycles water in loops of rainfall and evaporation. Drought is spreading in the eastern part of that river basin as a result.

Prairie dogs -- a delightful (to some) rodent of the high plains and mountains of the western US -- are a "keystone" species. Their presence in the grasslands makes possible the existence and health of hundreds of other plants and animals. When the prairie dogs are wiped out, by poisoning or hunting or plague, whole communities of life collapse, and the grassland ecosystem is forever transformed.

The health of relationships -- interpersonal and ecological and physical -- is a matter of practical importance. If the air and water are poisoned, then life can't go on. If critical species are driven to extinction, multitudes of relationships will be altered and destroyed. But our concern for relationships is deeper than functional survival.

When we affirm that God's creation is inherently relational, when we acknowledge that relationship is built into the DNA of the universe, then caring for those relationships is also a moral and ethical consideration. In the human realm, we bring those moral categories into play with principles of justice and compassion. Ecologically, the moral guidelines might be health, diversity and resilience. In either case, when we recognize that well-functioning relationships are the foundation of Creation's health, then we will see moral good in the nurturing and preservation of those relationships.

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Courtroom witnesses promise to tell the truth. One version of the oath is "to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth." Good legal judgements need the whole truth which does not leave out essential information.

The world is in ecological crisis because the whole truth of relationships has not been told. All too often, the world around us has been described as a collection of unrelated or interchangeable things. An economic view sees only resources to be used, instead of relationships that can be broken. We make bad decisions when we are ignorant or in denial about the web of relationships that sustain the planet.

Øystein Dahle -- a former Vice President of Exxon for Norway and the North Sea -- said, "Socialism collapsed because it did not allow the market to tell the economic truth. Capitalism may collapse because it does not allow the market to tell the ecological truth."

When the markets don't tell the truth, or when human arrogance leads us to believe that we are somehow separate from the rest of creation, or when our technology so separates us from the world that we never see the interconnections among all things, then we are on the path to disaster. Our ignorance about relationships will allow us to recklessly fell the forests, plow the prairie, dam the rivers, slaughter the wildlife, and dump toxins. If we don't understand relationships, we'll exploit the poor, tolerate ignorance, and seek "peace" through power instead of justice.

It is absurd to think that wise or fruitful decisions can be made if the truth of ecological and social relationships are not considered. "The web of life" is a fact about the structure of the world that we ignore at our own peril.

And yet, much of modern industrial society is grounded in beliefs and practices which do deny those relationships. Our culture is grounded in a lie about how the universe works.

That is why an eco-justice approach to the healing of the world needs this second affirmation about the nature of things. We must assert, constantly and clearly, the whole truth that "we live in a world of complex and interdependent relationships."


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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