Eco-Justice Ministries  

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

Hope for 2015
distributed 12/30/14 - ©2014

This week's issue of Eco-Justice Notes is underwritten by Reid Detchon of Bethesda, Maryland. His generous support helps make this publication possible.

On the brink of 2015, I find hope and inspiration for this new year in a marvelous story about the power of religion for the healing of Creation.

The story was told by Martin Palmer, the Secretary General of The Alliance of Religions and Conservation ("Helping 11 faiths make long term plans to protect the planet"). One of the issues addressed by that organization is the dramatic rise in the illegal wildlife trade.

A large part of the market for parts from endangered animals -- think of rhinoceros horn as a well-known example -- has to do with the use of those animal parts in traditional Chinese medicine. Palmer tells of a cooperative effort between ARC, the Daoists in China and WWF to undercut demand. He writes:

The Daoists have done this by showing that use of animal parts, and especially endangered animals, in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) is against the actual tradition of TCM. Furthermore that to try and rebalance your yin and yang (the basic purpose of TCM) by putting at risk the balance of Nature means the medicine will not work. You cannot balance yourself at the expense of the planet. In fact the Daoists are now saying it is likely to make you sicker rather than offer any cure.

Religious leadership has been very effective in cutting demand for animal parts in China. Palmer contrasts this with the approach of many environmental groups who have focused their efforts on the supply side -- "building game reserves, hunting down poachers, burning captured loot." He continues, "about $60 million was spent last year on this issue by the environmental groups worldwide. Only 0.5% was spent on trying to curb demand, the rest on frankly pointless prevention programmes. It is demand that drives this and that alone."

Indeed, the Guardian reports that, in Vietnam, demand for rhino horn dropped by more than 33% in one year because of an information campaign. Reducing demand put a dramatic dent in the illegal wildlife trade. An organizer there said, "The results offer a vital ray of hope for the survival of rhinos."

What I find so interesting and hopeful about Martin Palmer's account is that the Daoists are leading a religious campaign, speaking to their own people about the character of their own faith tradition. Because using the animal parts is bad for Nature, it is also bad medicine and bad religion.

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I find the story of the Daoists so interesting because it is a dramatic contrast to what I often hear from religions in the US.

Why should faith communities conserve energy in their buildings? To save money! That does not strike me as the most profound of religious teachings, but it is the front-line motivation in almost every religious campaign that I've seen.

On issue after issue -- toxic chemicals, water conservation, fracking, climate change, decline of ocean fisheries, air pollution -- the message and strategies in faith communities closely resemble those of secular environmental groups. Religious campaigns may give a bit more attention to a principle of "justice" as a motivation, but the talking points and the policy options of the Sierra Club and a denominational advocacy office are going to sound very similar. Working in close coalition is a good thing -- unless we lose our distinctive voice in the process.

The hopeful challenge from the Chinese Daoists is for religious groups to go deeply into their traditions. What is a word of wisdom or truth that we have to offer to our followers? What is a dramatic religious option that we can provide to our own communities?

Within my Christian tradition, that answer may be most evident in the broad realm of consumerism. I've seen materials saying that our consumer culture is problematic because it is using up natural resources, creating enormous amounts of waste, and generating pollution. Those are all true, but the most important thing from a faith perspective is that consumerism is toxic to our spirituality. As Christians, we should be living from an "attitude of gratitude", but the culture of advertising and marketing is designed to keep us dissatisfied with our lives. Shopping to try and find happiness is simply bad religion.

There are abundant environmental and health reasons to regulate, limit or stop fracking. But from a Christian perspective, it is simply wrong to use up non-renewable resources that are not ours to squander. Fossil fuels are a gift that belongs to future generations, and we are stealing from them when we exploit the oil and gas reserves at such absurd rates.

Gary Gardner, in his book "Inspiring Progress: Religion's Contribution to Sustainable Development", speaks of the need for faith communities to develop their own distinctive message. "Only to the extent that religious people take seriously their teachings -- about the inherent dignity of all people, the need to treat others as we would be treated, and, increasingly, the need to care for the natural environment -- will the power of those teachings be unleashed."

Those deep religious teachings are not what we need to take to legislators, or the entire society. They are the message that we need to preach and affirm within our own communities. Gardner quotes Benedictine sister Joan Chittister: "Do we need the culture to be religious? No, my friends, we need religions to be religious."

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I am hopeful as I look to 2015 and beyond, because I do believe that religions have a powerful and healing option for the troubled and degraded world, if we have the wisdom and courage to proclaim it. The world's faith traditions -- including Christianity -- provide a comprehensive alternative to ideologies of exploitation, materialism and perpetual growth. We have good news about different visions of "the good life" that are just and sustainable.

As I look at the coming year for Eco-Justice Ministries and our work with Christian churches, I am excited at the possibilities for nurturing and proclaiming deeply faithful messages about living joyously and justly as members of Earth community. I am hopeful that the ancient and vibrant vision of God's shalom can guide us toward the healing of creation.

Thank you for being partners with us in this religious cause.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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