Eco-Justice Ministries  

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

Hope and Community
distributed 2/24/12 - ©2012

"Are you hopeful?" In the face of huge environmental challenges, do you have hope?

That was a question posed to me, and other panelists at a Creation Care conference this week at an Evangelical Christian seminary in Denver. As I always do when hit with that question, I said that I am not optimistic, but I am filled with hope.

There is a great difference between optimism and hope. Vaclav Havel -- the writer and transformational Czech president -- wrote about that distinction. Hope "is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out."   "It is an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart. ... It is an ability to work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed."

It is wonderful, of course, when we can see evidence of success. As I wrote six weeks ago, our spirits are lifted by seeing "gradual good news" of positive change through the last decade or so. But hope, in the theological and psychological sense, sustains us through hard times and great challenges when good news is rare. As we work for the healing of God's creation, we need hope deep enough to face this time of crisis.

During Lent this year, Eco-Justice Notes will examine several aspects of hope, and how we can cultivate that quality in our lives, our churches and our communities.

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Hope flourishes in community, and it withers in isolation. That is something that we in the church should know very well. For millennia, the Christian church has gathered people into community so that we can be nurtured and encouraged in faith and in hope.

When we gather together to tell the stories that center us, when we sing hymns that proclaim great truths, when we voice prayers that remind us of what is genuinely good and important, then the words and acts of our community reinforce and strengthen our commitments. When we gather in a community of kindred spirits, then we know that we are not alone. We know that we are not crazy.

In this secular, materialistic world that celebrates consumption and tolerates the exploitation of both people and nature, the perspectives of faith and justice might be seen as crazy. The convictions that more is not always better, that sufficiency and sustainability are good, and that we are called to relationships of justice and compassion with all of our neighbors -- those are heretical claims to the powers-that-be, and they tell us that we are foolish, or uninformed, or naive. They tell us that we are wrong.

It is hard to hold to our counter-cultural convictions if we are alone. It is hard to maintain our eco-justice hope in isolation. So it is essential that we gather in community, that we join in relationship with those who share our commitments, and that we find opportunities to be affirmed and nurtured by friends and trusted leaders. Hope is not a solitary endeavor.

Sociologists Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann put that truth into dense academic-speak in "The Social Construction of Reality":

Generally speaking, in situations where there is competition between different reality-defining agencies, all sorts of secondary-group relationships with the competitors may be tolerated, as long as there are firmly established primary-group relationships within which one reality is ongoingly affirmed against the competitors. ... The most important vehicle of reality-maintenance is conversation.

Berger and Luckmann go on to say that the most powerful conversations are implicit -- not explicit -- in the way that they define reality. Our friends and our communities tell us what is real, they shape our hope, through our shared assumptions. We are nurtured most deeply by being in a community where caring for creation and seeking God's shalom are everyday expectations. It is just what we do. It is "in the DNA" of who we are.

Those sorts of communities create and strengthen our hope. We can be strong in our hope when our primary communities are places that affirm and shape our commitments. What are the primary-group relationships that are most essential? Our families, certainly, and our closest friends. Churches and other religious organizations. Clubs and voluntary associations can reinforce and encourage us -- perhaps with Sierra Club outings, or participation in a Transition Town group, or at a community garden.

For the most part, we must make conscious choices to be involved in those communities of support. When we're hammered by conflicting messages at work, in politics, and through the media, each of us must decide which reality, which view of the world, we will claim as "most real" and most compelling. To sustain a hope that goes against the grain of the world, we have to seek out and bind ourselves to a community of support. It is hard, bordering on impossible, to do it alone.

If your hope feels thin, find a community that shares the same commitment and hope. Be involved. Be a bit vulnerable in that group, so that your hurts and dreams can be named and healed. Look closely at all of your communities, and make conscious choices about the ones that you will trust to cultivate your hope.

On the flip side, it is also important to get some distance from the communities that erode our hope through constant messages that reject and belittle our beliefs. Put up some emotional barriers if your workplace is a hostile environment. Turn off the TV's mantra of consumption and status. Don't wander at the shopping mall for "re-creation".

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It is devastating when our primary communities do not affirm the truths that we need to hear. I'd like to think that churches will always be places where care of creation is "just what we do", where it is a deeply rooted and pervasive norm. But I know that creation care is not an everyday reality in far too many churches. That silence can destroy hope.

Many years ago, I heard powerful words from a young woman. "I've always been involved in the church, and I've always cared deeply for the environment. But I never heard the church talk about the environment, so I thought I was wrong." When the communities that we value and trust the most -- church, family, friends -- are silent about our deepest convictions, we lose hope. Silence is even worse than disagreement, because it says that the issue is so trivial that it isn't even worth talking about.

To pastors, educators, musicians and other church leaders: I urge you to look at how well your congregation serves as a community of eco-justice hope. Is care for creation a part of the everyday reality of your church? Is it assumed in your worship and classes? Are "the basics" of environmental responsibility done faithfully all the time, and are you stretching to go beyond those basic community standards? Is your church community one that will nurture the faith and hope of your members about the truth of God's love for this ecological world? Or, is there a silence in your church that tells people with these hopes that they are wrong?

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Hope flourishes in community. Hope grows when we know that we are not alone.

"Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith." (Hebrews 11:1-2)

We are not alone. As people of faith, we are surrounded by multitudes of witnesses who are models of commitment and hope, people through the ages who have dedicated themselves to God's realm of justice and peace for all creation. As people in this time of ecological awakening, we are surrounded by a great community that lives in the hope of just and sustainable relationships through the entire biosphere.

We can have hope -- even when the news is discouraging -- when we surround ourselves with these witnesses. We can have hope when we immerse ourselves in community.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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