Eco-Justice Ministries  

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

Pushing the Boundaries of Activism
distributed 4/8/16 - ©2016

I am facing tough decisions about how to act morally and effectively in today's political and environmental context. Personally, and with Eco-Justice Ministries, I'm re-examining the boundaries of faithful witness.

In recent weeks, I've been looking for good examples to guide my decisions. The strong models I'm looking for embody qualities and perspectives that mesh with the situation I'm facing with the crisis of climate chaos. Some of the characteristics that are important:

  • A person of deep and strong conscience -- someone who's life and identity is shaped by issues of morals and ethics and justice.
  • A person who sees a world that is on the wrong track, where the prevailing trends of culture and economics and governance are flawed, and business-as-usual is making things worse.
  • A person looks to the not-too-distant future, and sees things falling apart -- not just figuratively, but with very real calamities.
  • A person who has moved from concern to action, who is known to speak up and speak out, who does political activism, or street protests, or powerful preaching.
  • And my model for action probably is frustrated and angry and grieving, because that activism isn't bringing about sufficient change, and the crisis is looming larger and sooner.

In my work with Eco-Justice Ministries, and in my own community involvement, there are many people that I know and love who fit the description above. You probably know of people who embody those qualities, either personally or by reputation.

But the person that I'm finding most helpful is historical, not contemporary. I turned to the Bible to find this person of conscience, who sees a world headed for disaster, who is persistently and politically outspoken, and who struggles to find ways of being heard and understood in the face of frustration, anger and grief.

2,600 years ago, in Jerusalem, the prophet Jeremiah fleshed out the sort of qualities and experiences that I've outlined. The notorious prophet of doom and gloom has been in my heart and mind as I grapple with the ethics of current-day activism. The Old Testament figure is an essential corrective to an incomplete Christian ethics.

The starting place for Christian theological reflection is usually the New Testament. We look to Jesus and Paul, and other letter-writers, as interpreters of Christian life and witness. That's important, of course, but I'm afraid that we limit ourselves by grounding our social ethics on a short, 50-year period when the church was first taking shape.

The ministry of Jesus and the spread of the church were in the context of the Roman empire. The Jewish people were subjugated, and the new Christian community was even more marginalized. In first century Jerusalem, or Rome, or Corinth -- or on Patmos with the vivid revelation to John -- we don't find much of a model for activism. That setting leads toward strategies of resistance, or endurance, or the development of alternative communities.

Today, we're living in the context of empire, too. Call it US hegemony and dominance in all things military and economic and cultural. Or call it globalized capitalism. That empire has astounding power and influence. But I won't say that we're as oppressed and marginalized and powerless as the earliest Christians under the Romans. We have a larger toolkit for action, and we have civic and political obligations that don't show up in the biblical epistles.

That's why I look to Jeremiah and the other prophets as an important ethical model. As social and theological critics, they were on the fringes of their culture, but they were very much engaged with it. Understanding themselves as called by God, they were citizens and activists, taking on the power structures and institutions of their day.

Jeremiah talked directly to the king and the court officials. He delivered diatribes in the middle of the temple. He acted out skits in the most public settings of the city to dramatize his message. He engaged in ongoing disputes with other prophets who promised good times and safety, and those arguments were personal and nasty. He announced the coming destruction of Jerusalem with vivid, horrifying images that were intended to shock and frighten.

Jeremiah is a revered figure of our faith tradition, who used every available strategy and opportunity to push his call for repentance and transformation. He was assertive and offensive and in the face of those he thought needed to hear. He pushed to -- and through -- the boundaries for what was acceptable public discourse.

Jeremiah and the other prophets are important models as we consider how to act in faith as citizens of our modern society. They are models for edgy activism that is very far removed from patience and politeness. Jeremiah the prophet is an essential figure in defining a morally responsible social ethics that is robust and effective.

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I have been re-reading Jeremiah, and pondering the boundaries for responsible activism, because -- as I said -- I am facing tough decisions about how to act morally and effectively in today's political and environmental context. Eco-Justice Ministries is involved in the tactical planning for several days of climate action in mid-May that will push the boundaries.

A global initiative, "Break Free from Fossil Fuels", is planning stepped-up protests in a dozen countries, including actions at seven locations in the United States. Denver, Colorado, is one of those locations. In the US, "Break Free is made up of strategically chosen actions from coast to coast -- targeting key fossil fuel infrastructure, putting direct pressure on decision-makers to keep fossil fuels in the ground, and pointing the way toward clean, renewable solutions." The events will, in some cases, be very confrontational, and will include civil disobedience.

As I take part in planning these events, and as I reflect on how to engage the constituency of Eco-Justice Ministries, my moral imagination brings me back to Jeremiah, who felt called by God to confront and critique the powerful institutions of his time. Jeremiah recognized that his situation had gone beyond the place for civil conversation and incremental change. He chose to be creative, and offensive, and rude, and confrontational, because nothing else stood a chance of averting disaster.

The "Break Free" planning is the incentive for me to wrestle with how to act faithfully and prophetically. I know of others who wrestle with similar decisions about racial justice, or out-of-control political rhetoric, or other urgent issues.

I'd like to hear from you. Do you see Jeremiah as a helpful model for prophetic witness today? What boundaries do you recognize for faithful activism? Your input will be valuable as I continue these reflections.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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