Eco-Justice Ministries  

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

Coalitions and Constituencies
distributed 9/16/16 - ©2016

This week's issue of Eco-Justice Notes is underwritten by Eileen Abbattista of Denver, Colorado. Her generous support helps make this publication possible.

Seminary students often are required to do a stint as hospital chaplains in a program called CPE -- clinical pastoral education. As we minister to others, we're supposed to learn a lot about our own personalities, motivations, gifts and limitations in ministry.

40 years ago (!!), when I took CPE, I learned some of the things that I was supposed to learn, and I also learned a lasting lesson in the politics of social change. It is that strategic lesson about coalitions and constituencies which has stuck with me most vividly.

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One of our student chaplains was assigned to work in the maternity ward for a few weeks. After a few days on that floor of the hospital, Dan became aware of an unjust policy. On the evening after giving birth, most mothers were treated to a special, candle-lit, steak and wine dinner with their husbands. Unmarried women, though, got the standard dinner tray alone in their room.

The chaplain -- who had developed strong feminist leanings -- was furious, and he sought allies in getting the policy changed. He took a close look at the maternity nurses, and saw a group that was socially and politically conservative, and not at all inclined to agree with his women's rights agenda. So he went to them with a different approach.

Dan said: "These single women could have had an abortion, but instead they chose to have their babies, and the hospital is punishing them for that choice." The nurses rose up, and within two weeks, the policy was changed. Every new mother, with one guest of her choice, got the celebratory dinner.

I look back to Dan's brilliant political strategy as a textbook case of building a coalition, of bringing together people of widely different views to achieve a shared goal. That sort of coalition-building is behind the old saying about "politics makes strange bedfellows." Those sorts of diverse coalitions are essential for political effectiveness -- whether in legislative chambers or in the various settings of church politics.

Dan's political organizing in the maternity ward, though, reveals a dynamic of effective coalitions that is often neglected -- especially, I'm afraid, in progressive churches. We are enthusiastic about taking part in wide-ranging coalitions, but we've often done a poor job of nurturing our own constituency.

Dan discerned an unjust situation because he had strong commitments about the equal treatment that should be given to all of the new mothers. The nurses responded to Dan's observations because they were passionate about babies. All of the actors had deeply grounded, firmly held motivations, and joined the cause because of their core values.

A coalition made up of folk with lukewarm commitments is unlikely to accomplish much -- or else the coalition partners who have less defined views will be dominated by those with a strong and clear-cut agenda. Somewhere, those passionate commitments need to be planted and nurtured.

A constituency is a group that not only agrees on a goal and a strategy, but that is deeply invested in the reasons for taking on a cause. A good coalition is made up of representatives from passionate constituencies.

Last Sunday, the Denver Post printed a long and fascinating article on the Thompson Divide Coalition in western Colorado. The coalition is made up of "Ranchers arm in arm with mountain bikers. Cross-country skiers in lockstep with snowmobilers. Elk hunters, fishermen, farmers and tree-hugging hippies joined by ATVers, small business owners, conservationists and cattlemen." Jason Blevins wrote:

For more than a decade, the members of the Thompson Divide Coalition have set aside their often conflicting perspectives and cultures to focus on a singular communal mission: thwart oil and gas drilling on 221,500 acres of federal land spread across five very different rural Western Slope counties.

There have been frequent arguments within the coalition, as various groups lift up conflicting goals for the land and its users based in their passions and self-interests. But, writes Blevins, "That love of place united the Thompson Divide Coalition. Threats to their crown jewel ... required them to rise above their rivalries. And they did."

The coalition itself is not the place to build core commitments. Fights can break out and cooperation can collapse if coalition members feel pressured to agree on the "why" of their shared action. A lively and effective coalition needs to draw its strength from the passion of its various constituencies.

That's where I see a failure in today's progressive movement, especially in churches. We've done a fine job finding a diverse set of partners, but we haven't done as well in building strong, detailed commitments among our own specific constituencies. We need to be absolutely clear about our own heart-felt reasons for being involved.

It is not enough to join coalitions that are working on good causes. For the long haul, each constituency in a coalition needs ongoing education, affirmation and support to motivate their very particular passion.

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The need to do detailed, "in house" work in building strong constituencies is why Eco-Justice Ministries is committed to working specifically with Christian churches.

Various interfaith projects in the faith-based environmental movement -- notably on climate change and energy issues -- are doing wonderful things as coalition efforts. But those coalitions, which often rely on "least common denominator" affirmations about generic religious principles, are not likely to stir anyone new to passionate commitment.

If we want church people to be deeply engaged in caring for God's creation -- if we want them to join coalitions for political change, and to make significant changes in their own lifestyle -- then we need to go deep in talking about faith and theology. We need to go beyond awareness, and develop passion.

To get passionate in churches, we need to demonstrate that ecological responsibility is intimately connected with love of God and love of our neighbors. Religious passion might grow from a calling to do justice, or from a commitment to God's ecologically relational creation, or from a rejection of the spiritual and environmental damage that flows from our consumer culture. The passion can start in the distinctive context and commitments of our congregations and denominations.

In 2015, Pope Francis spelled out passionate views in his encyclical, Laudato Si' -- and he called for those strong perspectives to enter into dialogue with other beliefs as we work together to live justly in the world. The encyclical is not bland or wishy-washy for the sake of generating conversation. It is a detailed and specific basis for engagement in hard and conflictual issues.

The presence of both coalitions and constituencies does not create an "either/or" option, but a "both/and" necessity. Within our congregations, we need to name the specific reasons why eco-justice is central to our most passionate faith commitments. Then we need to find common ground with others who share our goals, but who may have different motivations.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

This week's Notes is a substantial revision of the April 29, 2005 Eco-Justice Notes of the same title.

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