Eco-Justice Ministries  

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

The Church and Ecocide
distributed 8/4/17 - ©2017

A distraught journalist traveled from Colorado to Spain for a week-long retreat. He was trying to figure out how to deal -- emotionally, as well as practically -- with ecocide.

As I read and re-read his essay, I am nagged by a realization. If the church were providing vibrant, relevant ministry, he would not have needed to make a trans-Atlantic flight to find healing insights.

I'm not saying that Brian Calvert needs to join a church. If the church was doing its job, if it was being effective in proclaiming a prophetic message of both critique and hope, the realizations that Calvert was seeking would be part of our community dialogue. The questions that troubled him would be talked about in churches, coffee shops and talk radio.

Two years ago, Pope Francis spoke to the world with his encyclical, Laudato Si'. He put forth an appeal for voices of faith to be part of the global conversation. "I urgently appeal, then, for a new dialogue about how we are shaping the future of our planet. We need a conversation which includes everyone, since the environmental challenge we are undergoing, and its human roots, concern and affect us all."

I found it easy to read the encyclical from a defensive position, feeling like faith perspectives had been excluded from the empowered political and economic discussions. But a big part of the failing is ours. We, in the church, simply have not spoken out with an alternative truth. We have not articulated a perspective which makes sense out of the world's crisis, and guides us toward a meaningful future. If we have good news, we've kept it a secret -- even within our congregations.

What the journalist sought in Spain, dealing with "grief in the age of ecocide", should be an ongoing conversation in every community of faith, and in every town.

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Brian Calvert's essay was published in a surprising place. It was the cover story for the July 24 issue of High Country News. HCN is a news magazine, albeit a quirky one. The magazine, "for people who care about the West", "covers the important issues and stories that are unique to the American West." It is a journal that I trust for in-depth reporting. I didn't expect to find a lengthy and very personal narrative mingling poetry, emotions and cultural analysis. I was especially surprised that the essay was written by the magazine's new editor-in-chief.

HCN's publisher, in fact, wrote a column on page 2 explaining this odd article. He reassured us that the essay isn't about a purely personal issue. It is intended to "stimulate some deep thinking about the greatest challenge of our time: How can humankind navigate through this self-inflicted wound of an era -- the Anthropocene?" The publisher says that the essay "explicitly asks the questions that have lurked in the background of High Country News since 1970: What is our relationship to the natural world? And how can we be of service to it, and to each other?"

Those questions sound "religious" to me. They are questions of meaning, identity and ethics that should be at the heart of the church's theological and spiritual work. Indeed, they are precisely the questions that Pope Francis raised in the encyclical, and that many other theologians have addressed.

But if Brian had to go to Spain to find a retreat program that would help him with those questions, then our theological conversation isn't getting out into the world. If the best philosophical source for that retreat is the now-obscure poetry of Robinson Jeffers, then the profound insights of all the world's religions are not being taken seriously.

I won't attempt to trace Calvert's (sometimes rambling) journey through the week. I will highlight a series of points that were important in his journey -- themes that should be familiar in most faith communities, and themes that often show up in these Eco-Justice Notes.

It begins, of course, with the acknowledgement of profound crisis, that "the end of civilization is upon us", and the challenge of "how to live in the age that we're living in without falling into the abyss." That is the hard challenge in our churches and in the broader society. We have to admit that things are not going well -- "mass extinction, climate chaos, flooded coasts, mega-drought, oceans turning to acid, permafrost to muck." Before anything else, we need to cut through the denial, and name the crisis.

At several points, Calvert critiques our consumer culture, "screaming for my attention, trying to sell me something, tell me who to be, what to desire and to need." He names that we are a culture of "takers", engaging in a conquest of the earth, a plunder with no known precedent. "It is a system of consumption and motion that will do anything to keep its wheels turning." None of that should be a big surprise to those who read the Pope, or Bill McKibben, or Sallie McFague, or Larry Rasmussen, or Cynthia Moe-Lobeda -- or in secular thought, Naomi Klein, James Speth, Elizabeth Kolbert, or David Korten.

In the poetry of Robinson Jeffers, the journalist finds creative thinking that attacks the notion of human exceptionalism, that sees us as insignificant in the cosmos, but also sees humans as an integral part of an interconnected, ecological whole. That's an ancient tension named in Psalm 8 (which leans too far into exceptionalism), and an absolutely essential question for our modern age of enormous technological power.

As Calvert comes to the end of his retreat, he comes to realizations that seem pretty self-evident to my eco-justice perspective. "Our grief comes from the takers and their modern machine, which is one of violence and injury. If our sanity is to survive the ecocide, we must address these two pains in tandem: grief for the loss of things to come and the injustices that surround us."

"Perhaps, then, the way through the ecocide is through the pursuit of integrity, a duty toward rebalancing the whole, toward fairness, in both senses of the word" -- both pleasing to the sight and morally good. "The pursuit of beauty can create a form of justice, a healing of injury. ... Conversely, the creation of beauty can come from advocates of justice."

"This is no cause for despair; it is a reminder to be meaningful, to be makers instead of takers, to be of service to something -- beauty, justice, loved ones, strangers, lilacs, worms."

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What a shame that Brian Calvert needed to fly to Spain to be guided through these questions and insights. Even in his western Colorado town, there should have been some sort of discussion group based on Laudato Si' that would have helped him get to similar conclusions. And even if Brian didn't read the encyclical, people of faith should have been taking those hard and important questions into the public square. Brian should have known that there is a big and sincere community that is struggling with deep grief, a longing for beauty and justice, and ways to be in healing service to Earth.

The presence of Brian's essay tells me that people of faith and conscience need to do a much, much better job of getting our conversation out into the world.

An ecological Christianity knows of the intertwined "cry of the earth and cry of the poor." We know that materialism, consumerism and unlimited growth are dangerous lies. We know that justice and service are paths to meaning and healing.

How will you take those questions and proclamations into your community?


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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