Eco-Justice Ministries  

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

Renew Your Church
distributed 8/13/10, 2/14/15 - ©2015

Facing up to the global eco-justice crisis is good for the church.

For my musings today, I ask that we setting aside any consideration of the practical difference churches can make in addressing important matters of social injustice and ecological disruption. They are many of those, I often write about them, and I hope that they are compelling to church leaders. But action in the world for global healing is not the only reason the church needs to be engaged with ecological health and social justice.

It also is prudent, on occasion, to think internally, and to evaluate the ways in which our witness and action come back to impact our churches, both spiritually and institutionally. There are numerous ways that our engagement with the distressing state of the world can refresh and empower our churches.

The church situation is quite comparable to the statement that is often made about the range of actions to address climate change. Even if the world were not overheating from human impacts, the things that are named as strategies to minimize climate damage would still be good. Cutting way back on the use of fossil fuels would clean the air and water, decrease the destruction of habitats from mining and drilling, strengthen local economies, and reduce the absurd flow of money to petroleum producing countries. Even if you're not convinced about climate change, it is still good to act as if it were happening.

So, too, when churches -- local congregations, denominations and seminaries -- deal with matters such as climate change, environmental justice and water issues, the church will be stronger. Even if you -- or your pastor, or your bishop -- are not committed to caring for creation, your love of the church should lead you to act boldly on these matters.

Here are three ways that attention to eco-justice is good for the church.

  1. It is an occasion to revisit scripture and theology.
    With some frequency, I participate in conferences where other speakers refer to the infamous 1967 magazine article by Lynn White, The Historic Roots of our Ecological Crisis. White wrote that "Christianity, in absolute contrast to ancient paganism and Asia's religions ... not only established a dualism of man and nature but also insisted that it is God's will that man exploit nature for his proper ends."

    I usually comment that White's rather wild assertion was a great wake-up call to theologians and biblical scholars. It called church leaders to take a fresh look at what the church does have to say about our relationship with Creation. Since 1967, many books, articles and denominational statements have revised and clarified matters of theology and ethics, making it clear that we don't agree with White's interpretation -- at least not from here on.

    We are all enriched when we come to scripture with fresh questions. An open-minded reading of the Bible looking for insights about the relationship of humanity with the rest of creation, and about the nature of Earth community, allows us to discover new truth in forgotten texts. One of my favorite "forgotten texts" is Zechariah 8. That short passage celebrates signs of God's shalom in the just treatment of livestock, and in flourishing natural systems. That prophetic description is a delightfully vivid and enticing image of a community in right relationship.

    Coming to the biblical creation stories with awareness of dramatically changed ecological relationships shifts our sensibilities. Instead of the Genesis 1 text about dominion, many people are finding the most relevant truth in the Genesis 2 command to tend the garden, and to serve the Earth. Our faith, theology and ethics are renewed and made relevant when we raise eco-justice questions, and that is good for the church.

  2. It affirms to the world that we have an important moral witness.
    William Sloane Coffin commented, "I think the bright flames of Christianity are now down to smoldering embers, if not ashes, of feeling comfortable. The church is pretty much down to therapy and management. There's really little prophetic fire."

    This time of crisis provides an opportunity -- if not a mandate -- for church leaders to be visible and vocal and passionate in moral witness. It is an occasion that can call us back into pulpits, back onto the streets, and back to the editorial pages with words of outrage, grief, justice and compassion. It is an opportunity for the church to reclaim its much-diminished role of moral leadership.

    It is good for the church -- for our reputation, and for our own self-identity -- when we rediscover our prophetic fire.

  3. It is an opportunity for us to announce good news.
    In this frightening and challenging time, the church can offer much-needed hope and possibility. When the current economic, cultural and political systems don't have much to offer in solutions, we can be like Hermione Granger in the Harry Potter stories. When everybody else is stumped, we can wave our hands and say, "I know! I know!"

    There are rich strands in Christian thought (and in many other faith traditions, too) that provide real options to the eco-justice crisis. We affirm that the good life is found in community and sufficiency, not in individualism and excess. We can offer a way of life filled with gratitude instead of dissatisfaction. We recognize the moral standing of other parts of creatures, and affirm "the integrity of creation", and so have a wider range of reasons to preserve this fragile world. We can provide a deeply-grounded sense of hope that is more empowering and sustaining than simple optimism.

    When so many voices around us are saying that our culture can't change, or that change requires suffering and deprivation, we can lift up an invitation to a different and richly satisfying life of abundance, community and responsibility. That's a good message for the world, and it is good for the church when we can provide real good news. If we can lift up that message, it might even entice new people to come to church!

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Renew Your Church is a wonderful hymn that is often sung at ordinations and church anniversaries. The opening couple of lines say:

Renew your church, its ministries restore: both to serve and adore.
Make us again as salt throughout the land, and as light from a stand.
The following verses pray for specific ways that the church can be refreshed: teach us your word, teach us to pray, teach us to love.

In this time of great crisis, that renewal of faith and action can happen when the church engages the challenges around us. Not only can the church make a real difference in the world through our witness and work, the church itself will be stronger, more faithful and more relevant when we take on the challenges of ecology and justice.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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Eco-Justice Ministries ended all programming on July 31, 2020. This site is an archive of writings and resources.
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