Eco-Justice Ministries  

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

Being the Church
distributed 8/23/19 - ©2019

This week's issue of Eco-Justice Notes is underwritten by Barbara Peter, of Lake Forest, Illinois. Her generous support helps make this publication possible.
The Global Climate Strike is coming soon - Friday, September 20. Plan to attend an event near you (outside the US), and bring a group from your church or community. Bring the strike into your congregation's worship on Sunday, September 22.

Changing the question can be essential. The wrong question will provide an incomplete answer at best, and it may lead us completely astray.

This summer, in a variety of meetings and workshops, I've heard one question raised over and over again -- and I've become convinced that the common question needs to be delayed until we've dealt with a much deeper and harder one.

"What can churches do about the climate crisis?" That query has been spoken by "green team" members looking for practical strategies, by issue activists trying to discern ways to organize in congregations, by frustrated church members who see their parish doing nothing at all, and by ecumenical leaders working to develop new eco-justice programs. I'm convinced, though, that "what can churches do?" will never get us to where we need to be.

I've named the alternate question for many years, and it is now time to be adamant about posing it as the primary one. "What does it mean to 'be the church' in this time of great ecological and social justice crises?" It is only when we consider the entire mission and ministry of the church in the context of profound crisis that we will be able to tap into the great and transformative power of faith and religion.

I can't give a comprehensive answer to the hard question in a single Eco-Justice Notes. For today, I'll point to just two qualities of 'being the church' that seem most essential.

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In this time of great ecological and social justice crises, a relevant and faithful church proclaims Good News that is sufficient to the crisis. Drawing on the ancient texts and traditions of Christianity, messages of hope and meaning will be spoken in the face of the climate crisis.

It is good news to assert truth about the world in which we live. "The world is inherently relational." We live within a web of relationships. The Earth community is profoundly ecological. That truth is hard-wired into the way this planet works. We are in crisis -- at least in part -- because modern society has not recognized or acknowledged that the carefully balanced web of life can't be exploited and polluted without grave consequences. We do know what is essential for vibrant life on this planet. It is good news to proclaim a foundational truth about God's creation that must be honored by economic systems, technological innovations, and personal actions.

It is good news that we a members of community. God's shalom, the realm of God for which we hope, is a communal reality. The promises of faith are not about individual rewards, but about love and justice embedded within interpersonal and social relationships. That vision of the beloved community provides a hopeful alternative to the destructive, violent and dehumanizing world that has led us into crisis.

It is good news that The Good Life does not depend on how much we own and consume. Once we've reached a level of sufficiency -- a standard of "enough" that is accessible to all members of the society -- more stuff does not make life more joyous and meaningful. If mitigating climate impacts and addressing other ecological problems means less energy use and less consumption, it is good news that such reductions can be an opportunity for more centered and more joyous living.

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In this time of great ecological and social justice crises, a relevant and faithful church provides pastoral care that touches the trauma of modern life.

For the first time in human history, we face the very real possibility of global devastation. We saw it first in the mid-20th century with the prospect of nuclear war -- which we have so far avoided. It now looms as the likely outcome of climate chaos and species extinction. Pastoral care must help us to acknowledge the crises that define this age, and it must provide ways to move through chronic fear, grief and hopelessness.

All too often, pastors and counselors offer coping tools to help us get along in a painful situation. That "unconscionable compliance" to the dominant society is no longer acceptable. Those who care for our souls and psyches must give us tools for resistance and incentives for change.

There's an old saying that pastors should "comfort the upset and upset the comfortable." As the climate crisis deepens, any shred of assurance that it will all be OK needs to be taken from us. None of us can be comfortable with business as usual. Taking away that superficial comfort opens a space for us to turn toward transformative new opportunities and a deeper comfort in claiming a different way of life. Pastoral care must guide us through that painful transition, help us claim difficult changes in identity and meaning, and address the hard emotions that are raised.

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"What can churches do?" is an important question. The things to do list probably will include a rapid shift to renewable energy sources, divestment from fossil fuels, and legislative activism. But all of those things may happen on the periphery of church life. Those are not the sort of things that most pastors and church leaders see as central to their calling. Those practical actions may emerge from a well-centered church, but they are not themselves the heart of the church.

The world is in a profound and urgent crisis. We're in a mess because we've built a society that ignores the ecological realities of the planet. Our culture's distorted values and worldviews have created the crisis.

Faith communities have ancient wisdom that can turn us in more viable and valuable directions. At the heart of our religious life, Christian churches can speak transformative theological truth and provide healing pastoral care. Those are two elements of what it means to "be the church" when the world is literally falling apart around us. It is precisely when we are most true to our calling to be the church that we will be agents of healing and change in the world.

Look at the life of your own congregation or denomination. How well is that faith community doing at "being the church" in this time of crisis?


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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Eco-Justice Ministries ended all programming on July 31, 2020. This site is an archive of writings and resources.
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