Eco-Justice Ministries  

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

Acting in Faith: Building Community
distributed 3/28/14 - ©2014

This Lent, Eco-Justice Notes is exploring a variety of ways that we can act in our community and the world -- individually, as congregations, or in other settings.

There are countless books and articles along the lines of "101 things you can do to save the earth." Their suggestions for individual actions are, for the most part, sensible and helpful. But individual actions are not what Notes is highlighting this Lent.

Action -- the kind that is spiritually transformative and socially effective -- doesn't work well when you do it alone. The forms of action that have been described in this series (political activism, public witness, financial action and education) all depend on working with constituencies and groups.

Unless you are astonishingly wealthy, a personal act of financial divestment won't create much of a ripple. A "march on Washington" with just 5 of your friends will be invisible among the tour busses. Acting for a just and sustainable world is a process that connects us with groups of people, and engages us in institutional change.

In that context, building community is an essential element of many other forms of action. Gathering a constituency is a strategy for legislative change or extensive educational programs. But building community also is an essential and hopeful form of action in itself. Building community changes the world -- right now.

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In much of the reading that I do about eco-justice, sustainability, and social transformation, community is a primary quality of the world we're looking toward. There's a recognition that we are part of an ecological community that nurtures life -- a damaged community that needs healing. And there's an insistence that human communities must be renewed if we are to have a livable future.

Our modern communities do need renewal. 14 years ago, the book "Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community" documented that "we sign fewer petitions, belong to fewer organizations that meet, know our neighbors less, meet with friends less frequently, and even socialize with our families less often. We're even bowling alone. More Americans are bowling than ever before, but they are not bowling in leagues."

A society that trends ever more toward individualism and isolation is contrary to the world of compassion, justice and joy that we seek.

The biblical vision of God's shalom -- a theme that grounds so much of Eco-Justice Ministries' work -- is always about communal life, about the well-being of humans and the rest of creation, together. The long-standing movement for voluntary simplicity affirms that the good life is rooted in relationships and community, not in the accumulation of things. The Transition Network looks to resilient communities as the foundation for a post-carbon world.

Cecile Andrews, writing in "Simpler Living, Compassionate Life", names community building as an essential part of far-reaching social change.

Ultimately, we won't change things in our world until we change the system of domination, until we re-create democracy. And we won't make a dent on the system of domination until people learn, really learn, how to be equals. ... It is the experience of community that leads to the re-creation of democracy.

Andrews looks at multiple ways to build community: neighborhood stores and town centers instead of vast shopping malls, community celebrations filled with laughter and creativity, and acts of community service where people join together to contribute to the well-being of the larger society. We can act to build community by working to design and develop these settings, and by participating in the opportunities that are already available.

"Better Together: Restoring the American Community" -- a follow-up to Bowling Alone -- documents groups and organizations "that are re-weaving the social fabric of our country, and brings the hopeful news that our civic institutions are taking new forms to adapt to new times and new needs." The book's website lists several examples of neighborhoods and agencies taking long-term, intentional action to build community. There is also a list of "150 things you can do to build social capital" -- but like the "101 things you can do to save the earth" lists, these individual actions are nowhere near as far-reaching and transformative as the group actions.

"The process of building community is self-reinforcing since not only does it contribute to the healing of our world, but it also enhances the quality of our lives." So said Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone in "Active Hope." They continue, "Each time people come together in acts of mutual aid, whether it be digging gardens or raising barns, they contribute to a new vision of what our world can look like. The Great Turning involves changing our culture, and that means changing our neighborhoods as well."

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Building community -- real communities of relationship, equality and mutual support -- is an act of creative resistance. Building community breaks down consumer culture, overcomes individualism, enhances democracy and builds resilience. Building community creates a different world, without a vote from a legislature or a change in corporate policies. Action to build community is an immediate step toward God's shalom.

In this time of eco-justice crisis, as people of faith and conscience, as responsible citizens, we must act to create a just and sustainable world. Intentional efforts to build community is a form of action that is healing and energizing for both the activist and the society.

NOTE: Peter Sawtell is interviewed in the April Podcast from Simple Living Works! You are invited to listen to this conversation about Eco-Justice Ministries and our new "Not Ordinary Times" initiative.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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