Eco-Justice Ministries  

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

distributed 6/22/12 - ©2012

If you have been paying very close attention, you might have found some news reports about "Rio +20", the UN Earth Summit wrapping up in Brazil. The expectations for this conference were low, and the reporting has been sparse.

For next week's Notes, I intend to have some reflections on Rio. (My scrounging though a wide variety of news and commentary from around the world have not yet led me to focused and hopeful insights!) As I prepare for those Notes, I'd appreciate hearing about your thoughts and reactions to the UN summit.

My reading this week does point out the tension at Rio, and globally, between those looking to incremental change with practical steps, and those seeking a far more profound and rapid shift in our way of life. That brought to mind a Notes from five years ago that deals with a similar theme. It is slightly revised, below.

-=#=-     -=#=-     -=#=-

There's a longstanding tension in Christianity between faith and works. Is it enough that people believe in the Gospel, or is there a dimension of "salvation by works"?

Through 2,000 years, this theological debate has developed lots of complexity, so easy answers are impossible. Most of the people that I hang out with, though, would tend to agree with the old words from the biblical letter of James. "Faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. ... I by my works will show you my faith. ... For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead."

Score one for works! But let me emphasize the careful language that James used. He never says that works, alone, are sufficient. His admonition to do good things is always tied to faith. In his mind, the matter is not about faith or works, but about faith and works.

I find a new twist on this theological debate in my environmental work with churches. I wrestle with this old question every time I am asked, "What can I do?"

Very often, I find myself urging individuals and congregations to slow down a bit in their desire to do good works. It is not that doing is unimportant -- far from it! I just want to make sure that our works are very well grounded in our faithful and ecological values, and in a very fully developed sense of the issues.

"Works without faith" can be as much of a problem as faith without works.

When people ask, "how can I be a green consumer?" they get the "green" part but don't critique the equally important aspects of "being a consumer." Working toward energy efficiency is essential, but efficiency alone doesn't challenge our assumptions about the things we use energy for.

If we move too quickly into actions, without also nurturing fresh understandings about who we are and what we value, it is very likely that we'll be ineffective in finding genuine solutions to the problems that confront us. Without addressing deep questions of identity, we'll be unable to find healing ways of acting. Our works need to grow out of, and be expressions of, our faith and understanding.

+     +     +     +     +

In his influential book, The Great Turning: From Empire to Earth Community, economist David Korten centers on the importance of self-understanding. He names two contrasting notions of our collective identity, two different ways of being in the world.

There is the mentality of Empire, which "embraces material excess for the ruling classes, honors the dominator power of death and violence, denies the feminine principle, and suppresses realization of the potentials of human maturity." The mentality of Earth Community, on the other hand, "embraces material sufficiency for everyone, honors the generative power of life and love, seeks a balance of feminine and masculine principles, and nurtures a realization of the mature potential of our human nature."

Korten asserts that, as long as we live within the mentality of Empire, it will be impossible to do the right things. His core recommendation is not about legislation, or new technologies, or behavior changes that we can all adopt. To redirect humanity's course, he says, "change the story." If we change the stories by which we define ourselves, our actions and institutions will change as well.

Especially for those of us who live in the United States, Empire is like the air that we breathe. It is so pervasive that is seems inevitable and invisible. It is just how things are. It is the "faith" out of which we live our collective lives.

Therefore, it takes a concerted effort to critique our normal ways of being, and to adopt a very different mindset of relationships and sufficiency. Unless we are intentional in grounding ourselves in a different story -- in values of sustainability and community -- the actions that we choose will almost always reflect the excesses and injustices of Empire.

We must change who we are, before our instinctive actions will do the good that we want. "By my works, I will show you my faith." If we believe in Empire -- and we may not realize how deeply we hold that belief -- our actions will show it. The ways that we try to green our society, and the approaches that our nations bring to the Earth Summit, will be embedded in the mindset and institutions of Empire.

Faith and works. Being and doing. They must be held together, and inform each other. "Do-be-do-be-do" isn't just a phrase from Frank Sinatra. It is a reminder about interconnecting works and faith, actions and understanding.

What can we do? At some level, the thing we need to "do" is to change our sense of identity. We need to pay attention to matters of faith and values. We need to take the time and the prayerful attention that will allow us to see a very different way of being. That is a hard task, emotionally as well as intellectually.

It is hard to spend time in an awareness of the Earth's deep distress without doing something. It is painful to witness this suffering without acting immediately.

But when we are dealing with such deep-seated problems as the exploitative, unsustainable, unjust way of Empire, we need to steep ourselves in the problems and the suffering as a way of coming to understanding. If we move too quickly into doing, we may never be called into a very different way of being.

This week's Earth Summit comes two decades after the dramatic Rio conference of 1992, and four decades after the first UN environmental conference in 1972. Even with scant media attention, this has been an occasion for people around the planet to lift up our love of the Earth, and to name the problems of our local and global environment. It is a chance to celebrate the accomplishment of some good and important things -- in laws and technology and behaviors -- and to be honest in naming the ever-deepening crisis.

Decades of international conferences have not resolved the deep matters that drive ecological collapse. We have not yet come to see ourselves as part of the Earth community. We still crave "growth" and wealth. We still think look to solutions in technology and control over nature, instead of in changing our own sense of identity. And so the problems continue to swell, despite our many actions.

During the Earth Summit, and far beyond it, may we have the courage to deal with both doing and being. May our actions be an expression of beliefs and values that have been thoroughly examined and affirmed. For it is only when our doing and being are in close connection that we will find genuine new directions.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

Eco-Justice Ministries   *   400 S Williams St, Denver, CO   80209   *   Home Page:
Eco-Justice Ministries ended all programming on July 31, 2020. This site is an archive of writings and resources.
To contact a representative of the agency by e-mail, please use the contact form