Eco-Justice Ministries  

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

Be Transformed
distributed 3/13/09 - ©2009

During Lent this year, Eco-Justice Notes is highlighting four theological affirmations that are foundational for our work. So far, this series has discussed shalom as our first guiding principle, and relationship as an inherent quality of God's creation.

3. Churches are called to be transformative of individuals and society.
Churches that are faithful will make a real difference in the lives of their members, their communities, and in the world. Because of their ministries, individuals, institutions and societies will be transformed in their beliefs, values and behaviors.

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Christians delight in Bible stories about the amazing impact that Jesus had on people. To say that he "touched their lives" is to trivialize what happened. The disciples walked away from their businesses to follow him. Tax collectors returned money they had extorted. Prostitutes followed the injunction to "sin no more", and other women broke through social boundaries to serve him. Tormented people were healed in body, mind and spirit. Just as importantly, the powerful and comfortable were confronted and challenged.

We pay attention to Jesus and find meaning in his message because he changed lives -- then and now. His radical proclamation that the realm of God is present among us shifts our priorities and perspectives. The call to repent blasts us out of conventional and selfish concerns, and draws us toward the enticing promise of God's shalom.

The message of change did not end with the crucifixion of Jesus. In Romans, chapter 12, Paul says: "Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God -- what is good and acceptable and perfect."

Be transformed. Be made different. Be shaped by the will of God. That gets right at the heart of the Gospel message. Because of the saving work of God in Christ, we are transformed, and the world is transformed.

If our lives and our world are not made different because of Jesus, then there isn't much meaning in the Christian faith, and we might as well close down our churches. If the teachings, goals and behaviors of our churches are indistinguishable from any other community group, then we have failed to embody Christ in the world.

A powerful example of God's transformation is found in Archbishop Oscar Romero. He was the Roman Catholic archbishop of El Salvador in the 1970s-- a time of great unrest and turmoil in Central America.

When Romero was appointed as archbishop, he was warmly received by those in political power, the wealthy, and the cultural elites, and he fit in with them very nicely. But through the years, as his ministry took him out of those places of privilege and comfort, he came to see the extreme poverty and oppression that were the daily experience of most of the people. The archbishop underwent a conversion. Because of his understanding of God's will, because of his deep compassion for the people, because of his commitment to justice and human rights, he was changed when he came into contact with the suffering and injustice around him. Archbishop Romero confessed his complicity in the systems of oppression. He repented, becoming a tireless advocate for the poor, and a persistent critic of the abusive government and military.

Because of his challenges to the powerful, he, too, was tormented by the military. In 1980, he was assassinated while saying mass. Many today see him as a faithful martyr, and an unofficial saint. Archbishop Romero is a vivid example of the transformative power of the gospel.

  • On a personal level, he was dramatically changed by the intersection of his faith and his compassionate contact with those most in need. He literally became a new person, with a different circle of friends, a new set of values, a new understanding of his ministry, and with a willingness to offer his very life for the sake of the gospel.
  • On a community level, the church under his leadership brought essential social services, healing and dignity to the people of El Salvador.
  • And on a societal level, Archbishop Romero confronted abusive social standards, political policies, and military power. He challenged and changed the way the society functioned.

The good news of the Gospel is that God does bring transformation. That is a message at the absolute core of the Christian faith. God invites us all to be transformed, as was Archbishop Romero, by the convergence of our faith and our setting.

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The role of the church, in every age and in every place, is to proclaim the gospel in a way that is transformational. We open the door to God's transformation when we announce hope instead of despair, and love instead of alienation. We are transformational when we insist that genuine progress moves us toward shalom instead of alienation and destruction. Transformational ministry may invite people into the joy of voluntary simplicity, or it may engage in hardball political advocacy, or it may provide pastoral care and worship which help people move through paralyzing grief into effective action.

Not all ministry is transformational. Churches too often are complicit and complacent in the face of sin and evil. Far too many churches see their calling as offering comfort to those who are already comfortable. As Eugene Peterson wrote in The Contemplative Pastor, too many pastors have stepped into the role of chaplains to the culture instead of subversives to the culture.

Remember the words of Paul. "Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed."

Eco-Justice Ministries certainly hopes that the transformative work of churches will center on ecological relationships and healing for the Earth community. But there have also been times when we have encouraged congregations in their passionate witness on other issues like peacemaking, immigration, or gender issues. God's purposes, our world, and the church are all strengthened when the church claims its transformative identity -- whatever the topic or setting.

Our third theological affirmation simply says that "churches are called to be transformative" without naming ecological transformation. In today's world, we are convinced that the environment is a realm where that transformation is desperately needed. In lifting up that urgent environmental calling, though, we are not proposing anything profoundly different from the church's eternal calling. In all times and places, the faithful church will transform lives and communities. In each time and place, the relevant church will target the good news of transformation so that matters of the greatest importance are addressed.

The need for transformation should be evident to us all in the innumerable facets of the global ecological crisis. Churches that refuse to take on the mantle of transformation will never be able to bring God's healing into these dangerous times. The faithful churches that do find their calling in transformative witness, though, can be among the most powerful and effective agents of healing and change. Work for God's shalom in a relational world is transformative.

Is your church giving fresh and urgent voice to the invitation, "be transformed"?


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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