Eco-Justice Ministries  

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

Transformation -- In Debates, At Church
distributed 9/6/19 - ©2019

The Global Climate Strike is just two weeks away - Friday, September 20.

In US presidential politics, there are now 10 Democrats who will take part in the third debate, to be held next Thursday. We'll get them all on one stage, on one night, for what is sure to be a confusing and frustrating jumble of policies and personalities.

A long-standing perspective from Eco-Justice Ministries helps to explain why I've been frustrated with the previous debates, and suggests how we might better allow candidates to present themselves.

The same insights, by the way, also speak to how churches can present themselves, define their ministries, and act in the world.

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For a dozen years, Eco-Justice Ministries has talked about three ways of understanding the world, and how it might need to be changed. We've focused on churches, but the same framework applies to how individuals and other institutions look at society.

The three perspectives are defined by how well "the system" is seen to be serving us. The system is what keeps "business as usual" going -- the interplay between economics, political institutions, laws and the courts, social values, infrastructure, technology, media and the arts. Obviously, that's a complex mix, and an all-encompassing sense of how well it is working is going to make a lot of assumptions.

A year ago, I described the three perspectives in some detail. The short version looks like this.

  • The Conformist View -- The system is basically OK. The free market gives us accurate guidance about what is valuable. The legal system is generally fair. Our core values are good.
  • The Activist View -- The system is OK in principle, but doesn't live up to its best values. The market often doesn't give us good information, especially when it does not put a price on carbon pollution. The legal system doesn't treat everyone equally. Our core values of fairness and opportunity and inclusion often are not met.
  • The Transformational View -- The system is deeply flawed. The values and worldviews that shape the system will always lead us in the wrong direction. The free market can't understand non-monetary value. The legal system can't see the rights of future generations, or of nature. Rampant individualism and consumerism overwhelm the common good. The US as the face of Empire is a role that must be rejected.

Those three perspectives are dramatically different in their understandings, the questions they ask, and the actions that they call for. The conformist looks primarily for individual responsibility. The activist looks for changes in laws and technology to tweak the flaws of the system. A transformational perspective looks for a complete change of identity and direction.

US politics generally has operated in the conformist and activist realms. There are conflicts about how well the system is working, but the general assumption is that the foundation of the system is strong and valuable. Parties and candidates disagree about what sort of changes -- or protections -- should be applied, but historically there has been some level of consensus about the values and institutions that guide us.

This year, though, several of the presidential candidates are coming from a more transformational view. They are making assertions that the system is not OK, either in practice or in principle. Whether with calls for a Green New Deal, or Medicare For All, they're grounding their positions in unconventional notions of what "the good life" looks like, questioning the functions of economic systems, and redefining the role of government. Those transformational perspectives have been labeled -- certainly simplistically, and perhaps inaccurately -- as "socialism," with the conformist/activist assumption that socialism is not who we are.

I've been frustrated by the previous debates -- and especially with the second round, where the questions seemed especially awkward -- because the format was geared to the activist view. What policies do you want to change? How will you pay for it? What will you do?

The debates, with specific questions and tight time limits, have not given an opportunity for candidates to tell us how they see the world -- the flaws of what we have now, and the possibilities for a better way of being. That larger narrative, or course, is spelled out on the campaign trail, but the debates don't allow that storytelling, and the debates are a powerful way that many of us get to know the candidates. The debate format is biased against a transformational candidate.

How could it be different? What if each candidate were given three minutes (still way to short!), uninterrupted, to deal with a big, open-ended question. What are the visions that should be shaping the future of our country? What is the biggest flaw or problem that needs to be addressed? What can we say about what it means to be an American that will unify us as a country?

If the political debate gave some explicit space to transformational questions -- who are we, and where are we going -- the voters would get a new kind of information about each of the candidates. If the debate moderators won't ask those questions, then perhaps other media commentators can go there. Or we, seeking to be informed citizens, can keep those questions in the front of our minds as we're trying to discern who these candidates are, and what the really stand for.

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The framework of conformist / activist / transformational perspectives has taken shape through Eco-Justice Ministries' focus on churches in this time of great crisis. In recent years, I've been explicit that faithful and relevant churches really need to take on a transformational calling.

Just like my hopes for the political debates, churches need to find the time and the space to address the big transformational questions. How do we, deeply rooted in our Christian faith, understand the good life? Who are we, within Earth community, that is more meaningful that individualism or nationalism? What good news do we have that is sufficient for this time of great ecological and social crisis?

The ordinary patterns of church programming, of worship planning (especially if using the Lectionary), and of marketing the congregation will tend to be in the conformist or activist style. We'll look at projects and issues, at things to do or things to change, but without defining the big visions and deepest challenges. As we do our own planning, and as we talk to others about who we are, it is important to step outside of those ordinary patterns, at least on occasion.

If the church has a reason for being, it is because we have something to offer that is radically different from business as usual, and from "worldly things." We need to be able to tell those surprising stories of identity, and point toward exciting new directions.

I'm not sure that the US political system is willing or able to embrace transformational ideas. The church, though, can and must claim our transformational identity.


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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