Eco-Justice Ministries  

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

Compelled to Act
distributed 8/28/09 - ©2009

"The police called. [...] You need to get downtown right away." Your reaction to that statement will depend on the sentence that has been left out.

If the police called with a warrant for your arrest, you will probably contact a lawyer before responding to the summons. You're going only because the law demands it.

If the police called to tell you that your child has been hurt in an auto accident, you're likely to head out the door at a full run. You're going because your heart demands it.

In each case, there is a compelling summons, with demanding authority. The quality of compliance depends on the motivation.

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"Al Gore and James Hansen called. We need to cut our carbon emissions by 90%." What sort of authority, what sort of compulsion, do you attach to that summons?

Most people in our society, I'm afraid, hear it as a demand that goes against their freedom, that will force them into compliance and sacrifice, and that is against their self interest. It is a call that will be resisted and delayed. They'll look for a lawyer to try to get them off the hook.

Some -- disproportionately represented among the readers of these Notes, I'm sure! -- will hear the call to carbon reductions and other creation care actions as morally persuasive. When there is a threat to the beloved Earth community, their desire is not to get out of it, but to respond fully and quickly. When the crisis is made clear, they look for ways to act that will be effective and meaningful.

There's a saying that "people will not protect what they do not love", but I think that over-simplifies human motivations. Imposed legal requirements will compel us to act. Pervasive community standards will get people to recycle, just because "that's what we do." Pure self-interest will inspire people with no direct love for nature to behave in environmentally responsible ways. But the commitment and creativity that people put into caring for creation will certainly be greater when it springs from love and compassion.

There's a short little scene in the movie, An Inconvenient Truth, where Al Gore speaks about the time when his young son was injured in an traffic accident. Al and Tipper dropped everything and raced to the hospital, and stayed there for weeks. In the film, Al speaks about his realization that you can lose the things you love. He doesn't say, but the story proclaims, that when the things you value most are at risk, you drop everything. A public career, social commitments, your own rest and well-being are put on hold when you're caring for your offspring.

The Gore family spent a few weeks at the hospital. Countless other families have experienced the same truth, and with far greater consequences. A spouse or partner has a stroke, or contracts a debilitating disease, and everything changes through years of care-giving. An elderly parent or a struggling child calls us into longstanding obligations that are both burdensome and freely accepted. That wedding vow about "sickness and health" names the reality that genuine love carries great and lasting responsibilities.

When the obligations of love are for our immediate family, the response is unquestioned and persistent. The style of response changes when the love is less immediate, but it is still strong and lasting -- regularly contributing to food banks for the hungry in the community; being conscientious about organic, local and humane food choices; making personal choices for a reduced carbon footprint, and engaging in public witness that will move our global society toward viable levels of greenhouse gasses. Communal and institutional expressions of love and compassion take a different form from deeply personal acts, but they share the same motivation and commitment. Love for our neighbors can be just as compelling and just as persistent as love for our family.

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They said of Jesus that he spoke as one who had authority. But what kind of authority did he -- does he -- have? Is he the enforcer of rules, the one who has the authority to compel our obedience? That is not my experience. His moral authority is evident when he reveals to us what is so obviously true and good that we have no choice but to respond.

What is the authority of our message in this time of environmental crisis? If the moral impetus in caring for creation comes from rules, the people around us will respond, but it is likely to be reluctant and limited. (A friend of mine who works in the field of environmental remediation admits that his job allows corporations pollute to the full extent of the law. That's better than not following the law, but the businesses rarely will do more than is required.)

If, however, we are responding to authority that is rooted in love, then we will be inclined to go beyond the letter of the law. We will modify our personal self-interest with a deep concern for the common good, and we will find joy in fulfillment in doing so.

Love and compassion can be nurtured through experiences of Earth community. We can get to know some of the human communities and other species that are at risk because of global warming. We can grow in our awareness of the fragile ecological connections that form the web of life. We can be drawn into the future as we ponder our grandchildren. We can decide to be open to them as beloved friends and neighbors, instead of seeing them as demanding outsiders. As we grow in love, we will feel a selfless compulsion to act.

"Your neighbors called. They need you right away." May our response to that urgent call be rooted in love and compassion.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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