Eco-Justice Ministries  

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

Short Stories
distributed 8/20/10 - ©2010

This summer, I've dealt frequently with the theme of stories and story telling. If I'm starting to seem fixated, there is a measure of truth to your perceptions.

In my musings about Story-Tellers five weeks ago, I quoted from David Korten's book The Great Turning: From Empire to Earth Community. What he says is certainly not unique -- many social change strategists and theologians have made similar comments -- but he says it so clearly. In making that shift from exploitative empire to sustainable Earth community, "The key is to change the stories by which we define ourselves."

When I followed Story-Tellers with my suggestions for Summer Reading just a week later, I may have given an incorrect impression about the sorts of new and renewed stories that are necessary. We don't need long novels or full-length films to spin out an elaborate narrative. Our life-shaping stories are, at their core, much simpler than that.

In June, I wrote about the delightful little animation, The Wombat, which presents a rich story about who we are. In 168 words and 60 seconds, we're told that we have to learn to get along with all of our neighbors on this wonderful, interconnected planet.

But even that story is too complex. The stories that we appropriate as the basis for our identities are short stories -- very short stories. Just a few words can capture the main storyline that we then find repeated and developed over and over again.

Here are three of the destructive stories that we've told about ourselves, and some equally short and compelling alternatives. At four words each, those competing pairs of short stories are powerful beyond belief.

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"You are a consumer" vs. "You are a steward".
How does our self-identity relate to the stuff of the world? A message that has come to envelop us in this society says that our very reason for being is to consume things. Good-hearted people ask, "How can I be a green consumer?" because they can't imagine themselves as anything else than a consumer. We have come to believe that we must buy and use up things in order to be true to our identity.

A steward's identity is very different. It is about the careful management and protection of what belongs to another -- an investor, God, or future generations. It is about being responsible in dealing with those assets, not using them up. A steward can find joy in options that are incomprehensible to a consumer: conservation, simplicity and frugality.

"You are an individual" vs. "You are a neighbor".
A pervasive story, especially in the United States, tells us that our personal desires, thoughts and actions are the most important things in the world. Meeting our own "needs" is the compelling goal of life. Other people's needs don't matter. Indeed, others are likely to infringe on our individuality and freedom. The current complaint against taxes -- that "I can make better decisions about how to spend my money than some bureaucrat" -- is the individualistic story.

The story about neighbors speaks of mutual gifts and responsibilities. It affirms that we are most fully human when we are in relationship. The common good is a worthwhile goal to which we can dedicate our time, money and concern. "Love your neighbor" calls us to be attentive and compassionate to neighbors near and far, now and into the future.

"Humans are completely unique" vs. "Humans are creatures, too".
Christianity certainly bears some of the responsibility for the idea that people stand dramatically outside of, and above, the natural world. We've been told that our species is unlike all the others, and that we're the only ones that really matter. If humans have an utterly unique purpose in the world, if we have been granted total dominion over others, if all of those other species are just stuff for our use, then we have a license to despoil the world. That's a dangerous story.

A story that speaks of our kinship with other creatures takes us to a different place -- and it is also a story tied to the Christian faith. We are creatures made of the same stuff as all others. (That faithful assertion is confirmed in scientific evidence that we all have evolved out of a common lineage where our relationship is revealed through shared DNA patterns.) In faith, we affirm that each species has its own integrity, its own vital place in creation, its own moral and legal standing, and that each is loved by God. We humans are part of a family, not strangers disconnected from all the life around us.

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"The key is to change the stories by which we define ourselves", says Korten. I'm harping on that theme this summer, because I believe churches need to tell the life-giving stories.

Churches exist to help us answer questions of identity. "Who am I" in relationship to God, to neighbors, and the world? We are failing in our most important task of ministry if we don't guide our members and our society toward true and fulfilling stories of identity.

The "new" stories all fit very well with the Christian faith tradition. Indeed, I find it hard to describe Christianity without referring to those themes of stewardship, community, and our relationships within the web of life. They are stories of truth that should be flowing from churches in sermons, classes, prayers and counseling sessions.

If our society is to become more just and sustainable, then we must take the true stories deeply to heart. We must reject and refute the false stories of consumerism, individualism and human exceptionalism that have damaged our world and our psyche.

Churches can play a powerful role in the healing of our world, simply by telling stories of stewardship, neighborliness and kinship with all of creation.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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