Eco-Justice Ministries  

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

distributed 7/16/10 - ©2010

This week's issue of Eco-Justice Notes is underwritten by the Franciscan Sisters of Little Falls, Minnesota, and Jeff Odendahl, the Coordinator of their Office for Justice, Peace and the Integrity of Creation. Their generous support helps make this publication possible.

We humans have an inherent need to find meaning about our presence in the world. We expend great time and energy in making sense out of our existence. We dwell on our history, and look toward our future, and feel a compulsion to fit all of that underneath a "sacred canopy" of meaning that holds us and shapes us within our culture.

A very important part of that meaning-making is the human act of story-telling. I don't know if dolphins or gorillas or ravens tell stories to each other, but I certainly know that humans do it all the time, and at the most important times. Funerals center on stories about the deceased. Birthdays and anniversaries -- whether personal or collective -- are occasions to recount narratives about who we are and what we've done. We tell stories about our day's activities at the dinner table, and the news media tells stories about the goings-on of the world. Novels and plays and movies and TV shows tell stories that define who we are.

The various segments and groups that exist within our societies are shaped by the different and distinctive stories that they tell about themselves and their world. Just listen to the different sorts of stories that are told to mobilize the base at political conventions. You'll often hear different stories with different styles and meanings on (for example) NPR and Fox News, and those divergent stories shape our self-understanding and our ways of living.

Religion is one of the central ways that we humans discern meaning about our world, and stories are essential within that spiritual project. All religions have creation stories. In those myths (myths are narratives that speak a truth deeper and more profound than simple facts), we hear who we are, and how the world operates.

In our Judeo-Christian tradition, stories are inherent to our theology. We are "people of the book", and that book is filled with myth, history, poetry, parables, dreams and visions. Those stories all work to shape an understanding of our identity and our relationship (or our lack of a relationship) with God and the creation.

We humans are many things. We are tool-makers and technology-builders. We are intentional about economic relationships and results. We are creative and artistic, exploitative and compassionate. And we are story-tellers to the very core of our being.

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Our world is in crisis. We are in a profound ecological mess, and our human communities all too often reveal deep injustice and conflicts. Today, I'm not going to footnote or detail the crisis. To the regular readers of these Notes, all that should be self-evident.

As we in faith communities seek to respond to this eco-justice crisis, we join with folk of many kinds to work for change. We work with politicians, activists, business leaders, and educators. With them, we look to new technologies, and we engage in political activism, and we participate in works of charity and compassion. It is good that we do so.

I am often concerned, though, that churches are not using their most valuable gift for the healing of the world. We are working on the surface of the crisis, when we could be digging into the depths of the problem.

The greatest gift of churches, of religious communities in all faith traditions, is in truthful and powerful story-telling. Those stories tell us who we are through compelling and deep-seated narratives. We recount stories from scripture and tradition, and we tie those to contemporary stories which speak truth about the health and dis-ease of the Earth community. Those stories are world-shaping, and can be transformational.

The act of faithful story-telling, of religious meaning-making, is at the heart of what it means to be a church. It is something that we know how to do very, very well. The task of making sense out of life for our members and for the larger world should be central to our calling and our mission.

Yes, our churches can engage in political action, and practice conservation of energy and water. Those are good things, but they are not the most important things that we can do. If we really want to make a difference in the world, we can tell stories that are revealing and world-shaping for this particular time and crisis.

Theologian Sallie McFague has written, "At the heart of any revolution bent on changing human behavior lies an anthropology -- an understanding of who we human beings are and where we fit into the scheme of things." Sometimes, an anthropology needs to be formulated in abstract or intellectual terms. If it is going to make a difference, though, that anthropology also needs to be expressed in stories that resonate with all the members of our culture.

In the struggle between competing worldviews or different anthropologies, story-telling is essential. David Korten -- in a passage that expresses the main point of The Great Turning: From Empire to Earth Community -- wrote:

[The] power of the institutions of economic and political domination depends on their ability to perpetuate a falsified and inauthentic cultural trance based on beliefs and values at odds with reality. Break the trance, replace the values of an inauthentic culture with the values of an authentic culture grounded in a love of life rather than a love of money, and people will realign their life energy and bring forth the life-serving institutions of a new era. The key is to change the stories by which we define ourselves. [emphasis added]

McFague makes a parallel point. "When the three major societal institutions of religion, economics, and government all agree on a basic anthropology -- one that focuses on, supports, and celebrates the needs and wants of individuals -- a powerful statement is being made." Her writings affirm the contrasting truth of an ecological anthropology.

If we want to turn our culture toward ecological sustainability and social justice, if we want to use the greatest gifts and power of the church to embody God's shalom, then we need to tell stories of truth and repudiate lies. The world-shaping power of stories and images is a theme that I have often lifted up, and that I've been highlighting in detail for the last several months. I've been persistent in this because the power of stories is so often neglected by activists in faith communities.

We can tell enticing stories of the good life in community, like the wonderful text in Zechariah that I outlined two weeks ago in "The Common Good"] We can repeat "The Wombat's" compelling riff on getting along with our neighbors in this interconnected world. We can find meaning in Native American affirmations of beauty. We can draw on the story of Babel to consider the essential question: are we gods, or are we God's?

Our stories must speak the scientific and social truth about global heating, and must refute lies and distortions from the powers that would lull us with a "falsified and inauthentic cultural trance". We can critique the failure of our worldview that has become evident with this spring's tragedy in the Gulf. We can tell of Eyjafjallajokull's eruption to remember that humans are not really in charge.

The stories that we tell are powerful. The anthropology that we express with our words and deeds shapes how we live and act in the world. Story-tellers are agents of social change.

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The great good news of this week is that the well gushing oil into the Gulf of Mexico has finally been contained. That is cause for genuine celebration. It is important, though, that all of the story-telling about this disaster be honest. Kent Wells, a senior vice president for BP, was quoted as saying yesterday, "I am very excited that there's no oil in the Gulf of Mexico." As Mr. Wells certainly knows, there are hundreds of millions of gallons of oil in the Gulf, and that oil will have long-lasting impacts.

May our stories reach beyond the technology being applied at the well site. May we continue to tell stories about the extended Gulf community -- humans, birds and turtles -- which draw us into compassion and justice.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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