Eco-Justice Ministries  

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

Building on the Foundations
distributed 3/27/09 - ©2009

For a month, I've been spelling out four theological affirmations that are foundational to Eco-Justice Ministries. I hope you have seen how those broad assertions provide a deeply grounded base for addressing ministry and advocacy in today's world.

It is important, at times, to remember those bedrock stances, and to be sure that we connect our activities to them. I think of the parable that Jesus told about two houses, one built on rock, and the other on sand. When difficult times come along, strong foundations make all the difference, and these are difficult times, indeed.

Foundations exist, though, so that a structure can be constructed on top of them. The footings of a house define where the walls will go, but they aren't the whole structure. Programs and goals must be attached to those theological foundations, if churches are going to engage in ministries that are (in the words of our mission statement) faithful, relevant and effective in working toward ecological sustainability and social justice.

As I noted last week, there is only one phrase in the four affirmations that is specifically tied to the global ecological crisis. The general principles of (1) shalom, (2) relationship, (3) transformation and (4) abundance within limits can guide churches in almost any setting. But we are not living in a generic, undifferentiated time. The application of our core principles must address the eco-justice crisis, for that is the defining fact of our age.

As churches build relevant programs and ministries, three things stand out for me as necessary extensions from the theological foundations. These begin to move us into the particularities of our contemporary situation.

Urgency. An interconnected web of life is the operating system for our planet, and that web is being torn apart. The exploitative, domineering, foolish activities of humans is pushing the global ecology into collapse.

It is not just global heating driven by emissions of greenhouse gasses -- although that alone would be enough to call for urgent action. Anyone who is paying attention knows of other signs of this emerging catastrophe: habitat destruction leading to a dangerous loss of biological diversity; the spread of toxic and biologically active chemicals to all parts of the planet; the exhaustion of essential resources, both renewable and non-renewable.

These are not hypothetical or potential problems. They are real, measurable, and accelerating crises. The viable functioning of the entire biosphere (in a form even vaguely resembling what has nurtured us) is at risk if we continue on the current course. Every day we wait, every step in the wrong direction, makes it worse.

It is not enough for us -- individually, as congregations and communities, or as a society -- to be informed or concerned. We must speak and act, and we must do it now.

"The environment" is not a separate issue that competes for priority status over others. It is a theme and a reality that is present within all issues, and the cause of environmental health must be an urgent priority within them all. Ecological health and sustainability must be a primary factor in every issue that we address: energy, transportation, poverty, housing, international relations, jobs and business, education, food and health care.

Systems and power. We are in crisis because complex ecological systems are being dismantled -- and that destruction is coming through powerful and complex human systems. Our urgent action must deal with problems on that systemic level. Calling on individuals to make personal changes, without also addressing the powers and principalities that shape our behaviors, is futile.

The financial shocks of the last year have revealed both the dominance and the fragility of the globalized economic system, built on foundations of perpetual growth and credit. Governments define laws and policies, and elections determine what personalities and priorities will guide the political process. Media conglomerates shape the news and entertainment, with far-reaching consequences for how we understand the world, and our place in it. Advertising manipulates our desires. Change must happen within these structures and institutions.

The passionate self-interest of powerful entities -- corporations and unions, politicians and pundits -- is often linked to preserving the status quo. The interlocking pieces of economic and social systems creates resistance and resilience that hinders the spread of transformation. Our urgent work for change must be sophisticated in its analysis of systems, and it must be willing to venture into open conflict with those who wield power.

Transformation and hope. The crisis is urgent, and the powers are strong. A few technical fixes for energy efficiency and recycling are not sufficient to overturn the trends that are taking us into catastrophe. A deep transformation of values and worldview is needed. We need, in David Korten's phrase, a turning from empire to earth community.

The transformation must deal with what we do -- our behaviors and technologies and laws -- but it must also change our sense of who we are. In this historical and cultural setting, that transformation must be specific. We must shift from a self-definition as "consumers" to one of citizens, neighbors and stewards. We must reject the ideology of growth, and claim sustainability. We must discard a worldview that says that humans are separate from nature, and claim a new story which affirms our interconnection with the rest of the planet, now and into the future. We need to be advocates for conversion, for a transformation of perspective that literally makes us new.

To be sustained in that transformation, we must be grounded in a hope that is far more profound than optimism. We must be clear about what we hope in -- the truths, values and beliefs that guide us and give us meaning. More significantly than hoping for good outcomes, we must be nurtured in hope -- in faith and trust -- that is powerful enough to lead us into revolutionary change.

To be transformative, the church must reclaim hope as a motivating reality. We must give people good news and positive visions that call us into a radically different way of life. We must offer a grounding and a promise that is so vivid that we will stake our lives on it. Then we will be urgent in taking on the powers and principalities, in seeking transformation of systems and beliefs, because we know that shalom brings healing to damaged social and ecological relationships of this world. Then we will be bold in seeking simplicity and sustainability, because we are convinced that the abundance of "enough" is the source of real joy.

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Faithfulness in this time of ecological crisis calls us to great urgency in our action, to confrontation with powerful forces, and to transformation grounded in hope. Those are essential qualities as we build on more general theological foundations.

Lent is the season in the Christian tradition for reflection, examination, and re-commitment. As we move through this season, take a close look at your own life, and at the ministries of your church. What will you do to deepen the qualities of faithfulness in your setting?


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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