Eco-Justice Ministries  

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

Come to the Table
distributed 7/10/09 - ©2009

This week's issue of Eco-Justice Notes is underwritten by Jana Schofield & Michael Isensee of San Luis Obisbo, California. Their generous support helps make this publication possible.

In Christian worship, "come to the table" is an invitation to participate in the celebration of communion. The eucharistic welcome is extended to all who want to share in the sacrament. (In some traditions, regrettably, the invitation is extended only to those with membership in the specific church community.) "Come" is spoken to us all -- rich and poor, young and old, wise and befuddled, female and male -- with the recognition that all of us are dependent on God's grace.

The church is one of the few places where we experience that sort of inclusive invitation. Two contrasting news stories this week remind me that the tables of political deal-making are very different from the communion table.

  1. Yesterday, the Denver Post summarized a speech to speech the Colorado Oil and Gas Association given by Colorado's former US Senator, Tim Wirth. Excerpts from that story give a revealing insight into how the recent climate legislation was shaped in the US House.

    "When federal energy legislation was being crafted last spring, the natural-gas industry 'was not at the bargaining table' and as a result was left out." "While natural gas 'was not in the room,' ... other industries fought for a piece of the American Clean Energy and Security Act. 'The coal industry, fighting hard for its future, came away with the most impressive array of permits and give-backs,' said Wirth." "The utility industry largely dictated the terms of the cap-and-trade system of carbon-emission permits. The solar and wind industries, the agricultural industry and the auto industry all got something in the bill. 'Every industry was deeply engaged -- except one,' Wirth said. "The natural-gas industry.'"

  2. The second story that caught my eye reported on a June meeting in Brussels about the ethical dimension of climate change. The meeting involved representatives of European churches and governments. A few key sentences from the start of the news account reveal a different perspective on representation in negotiations.

    "When international talks about climate change open in Copenhagen in December, there should be three empty chairs at the conference table, a Church of Sweden expert on sustainable development has urged. Lutheran pastor the Rev. Henrik Grape wants three chairs left empty at all future talks on climate issues to symbolise non-participants - the poor, future generations, and creation itself."

These reports about who is "at the table" for some of our world's most important negotiations reminded me of a simple chart that I saw many years ago. As part of a week-long training for community organizers, we were introduced to a "power ladder" which describes the levels of influence in decision making by community groups. Working up the rungs of the ladder, the six named steps are powerless, recognized, at the table, ability to make a deal, ability to make a deal stick, and governance.

The lesson we learned that afternoon, while fairly basic, is one which still needs to be made explicit. It takes careful organizing and an accumulation of political power for a community group to work their way up the power ladder. Generally speaking, your group doesn't get to sit at the table and make deals simply by being nice or having good ideas. It is rare for a group to jump directly from obscurity to negotiating and enforcing deals. Community groups gain political influence through long involvement, and a proven record of using their influence to win votes for their issues.

I was struck by the realism in Senator Wirth's advice to the Oil and Gas Association. Even a large, economically powerful industry needs to be well-organized and assertive, with very specific goals and agendas. Legislation like the Waxman-Markey climate bill is shaped by highly self-interested groups, fighting for their own benefit. Those who do not force their way to the table will not be heard.

The two news articles lead me to some strategic reflections.

  1. If we want to make a difference in shaping legislation, it will usually be important to work in connection with an established lobbying group that is already "recognized" and influential in negotiations. When contacting our Senators about this fall's climate bill, it will be most helpful to provide support for an existing set of proposals, for example, those backed by the diverse 1Sky alliance.

  2. One important role of faith communities is to speak for those "three empty chairs." Our voice can help to ensure that the interests of the poor, future generations, and all creation are recognized. When industries are fighting hard for an "impressive array of permits and give-backs," religious leaders and faith communities must be a constituency that demands consideration of those who are unable to present specific proposals. "Self-interest" can be moderated by "love your neighbor" if there is somebody at the table who represents the neighbor.

  3. Political power takes many forms. Last week, I quoted community organizer Bill McKibben: "I was at the White House a month ago. Their clear message was, 'Make us do it. Build the movement that gives us the room to do the things we want to do.'" When political leaders want to do the right thing, they need to have a constituency to play against those with vested interests. A vocal and determined grassroots movement provides that balance of power. To build that movement, Eco-Justice Ministries encourages our friends to join with for their global day of action on October 24, 2009. In Colorado, we're launching 350Denver to stimulate congregations and community groups toward broad and visible involvement.

If we think that the political negotiating table has the same rules as the communion table, we'll never be effective in working for systemic change. The brokers of power don't generally walk out into communities with an invitation for one and all to come to the table and share equally in what is offered. Getting to the political table is hard work.

As we seek to bring healing to God's wounded creation -- as we speak for the poor, future generations, and the whole Earth community -- we need to be intentional and strategic about working our way up the power ladder. That is the only way that our moral concerns can be included among the demands voiced at the table.

A resource note: I read about "three empty chairs" proposal through a news summary distributed by the Forum on Religion & Ecology, which in turn draws on the United Nations Environment Programme. It is a worthwhile and manageable digest that has pointers to information that I rarely see in other media. You can sign up at the Religion and Ecology website.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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