Eco-Justice Ministries  

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

Four Strategies for Effective Action
distributed 10/27/17 - ©2017

This week's issue of Eco-Justice Notes is underwritten by Jerry Rees and Sallie Veenstra of Leawood, Kansas. Their generous support helps make this publication possible.

"What good is it ... if you say you have faith but do not have works?" So asks the New Testament letter of James (2:14). In more politicized language, Alice Walker said, "Activism is my rent for living on the planet."

It is my assumption and hope that the regular readers of Eco-Justice Notes are on board with the need for action and activism. Our commitment to God's shalom -- to peace with justice encompassing all creation -- calls us beyond deep thoughts and fervent prayer, and into some form of effective engagement with the world.

Our efforts at activism may be hindered, though, if we define the term too narrowly. If we can envision only one way of doing activism, we've limited our strategic toolbox, and discounted the skills and gifts of people who are better suited for other kinds of action.

Today, I want to highlight four very different forms of activism, to help clarify the range of options that are available to us -- especially within the context of faith communities.

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Issue activism
Tightly focused advocacy on specific issues is the classic image of activism. It is the presumed, go-to approach for many people and organizations committed to social change. It often builds on the models developed by Saul Alinsky, and his definition of an issue: a matter where a specific choice can be presented to a single decision-maker for a clear-cut answer.

Issue activism, then, focuses on decision makers -- legislators, people in government offices, corporate executives -- and goes to them with demands. We call members of congress, urging them to pass or block a bill. We stage a protest outside of corporate offices, calling for a decision (stop using palm oil in your products, don't frack here).

Sometimes the "demand" is made politely, with phone calls to politicians. Sometimes it is more explicitly conflictual, with an angry confrontation or acts of civil disobedience.

Issue activism is the hallmark of activism because it is so effective at addressing specific issues. Wins and losses are measurable. Victories build enthusiasm and political capital.

But within faith communities, issue activism can be difficult to do. The issues that are selected may divide the congregation. The sharp lines that can be drawn between "us" and "them" who take opposing sides can feel too divisive. It is a proven and powerful strategy, but it may be hard to implement within a religious setting.

Public witness
There are many occasions when it is necessary to act, but there is no decision-maker to target, and no specific choice to highlight. In what I call "public witness", the activism is addressed to a broader community, lifting up a more general concern.

A great example of public witness comes from Billings, Montana, in 1993. In an act of anti-Semitism, on the first day of Hanukkah, a rock was thrown through the front window of a house displaying a Menorah. Within a matter of days, Christian families put drawings of a Menorah in their windows. The local paper printed a full-page image that could be displayed. 6,000 homes, in a city of 80,000, took part in the act of solidarity. Nothing was done that qualified as issue activism, but the community was changed.

This past summer, after the violence in Charlottesville, rallies and marches were held across the country. The message was fuzzy -- a rejection of the KKK and the "alt-right", a rejection of racism and violence, an affirmation of community and racial justice -- and that outpouring of witness has shaped community values and clarified measures of political strength. So, too, with the Women's Marches held last January.

Public witness -- taking a stand about a matter of ethical importance -- is a wonderfully appropriate strategy for faith communities. Our participation as clergy and as religious institutions adds strength and creditability to the witness. Acts of witness demonstrating broad concern for a cause (climate change, racial justice) can lay a foundation for issue activism, or reinforce the more specific work being done on an issue.

Constituency building
Margaret Mead's famous quotation affirms that a small group of committed people can change the world. Usually, though, that small group builds a much larger constituency of support and action. One necessary form of activism is work to build up the movement.

To make a difference in the world, activists need to bring more people into involvement on the issue. We need to move people from being "aware" of a problem or an issue, to being "concerned" and "committed" -- getting to the point of making a moral judgment and taking a personal stance. The activism of constituency building is directed at our friends and neighbors and colleagues, to get them involved. We may often try to connect those folk with other organizations working on an issue or cause.

Faith communities have a mixed record on this kind of activism. All too often, I've seen churches do education about an important topic, and call it quits after a simple sharing of information. Nobody is moved to do anything. The better examples go beyond simple awareness into ethical engagement -- in sermons, classes, or service in the community -- and in encouragement to act in some way. Faith communities can do important work by getting their members to participate in work for social change.

Building conversations
In recent years, US politics has become highly polarized and communities have become deeply divided. The election of Mr. Trump, and single-party control of Washington have heightened an already existing problem.

In this fractured context, and with the "bubbles" of social media and news where everything reinforces a partisan perspective, rising levels of mistrust and misinformation make communication virtually impossible across the broader community.

A new and necessary form of activism for today involves intentional work to establish communication, respect and trust in divided communities. There is a need to get people together who hold conflicting opinions and beliefs -- not to negotiate a policy stance, but to hear each other's stories and to understand each other's motivations. Without that kind of understanding, we will be caught in a setting where opposing advocates can never compromise or cooperate.

Faith communities are an ideal setting for this kind of conversation. Often, our congregations include people with sharply divided perspectives on many issues, but who also have some sort of personal connection. Within churches, we can provide a setting where passionate people can speak and hear about why we are strongly motivated on critical issues -- not to convince each other, but to better understand each other and open the door to respectful communities.

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This is not an exhaustive list, of course. There are many other ways that individuals and groups can engage in action: financially with investing or divesting or purchasing decisions; through the courts; in the hands-on work of ecological restoration; and more.

These four strategies for action, though, are ones that can be considered by faith communities that want to make a difference in the world. They expand the toolbox so that congregations can find a way of acting that is appropriate for their particular setting, and the problems that need to be addressed.

There are many ways to act, and many issues or problems that need action. How is your congregation applying faith in ways that make a difference and get people involved?

P.S. -- Last week's Notes talked about the "Our Children's Trust" lawsuit, and the way it raises claims of climate justice for coming generations. I neglected to include a link to a sermon I gave on that topic recently which goes into more depth on a theology of stewardship and the details of the legal case.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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