Eco-Justice Ministries  

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

What Comes After This?
distributed 3/27/20 - ©2020

This makes four consecutive weeks where Eco-Justice Notes addresses some aspect of the global pandemic. In almost two decades of this commentary, I think that is a record run for any one topic grounded in the immediate news.

As a friend noted recently, "If this is what the 'novel coronavirus' is like, I'd prefer the 'short story coronavirus.' "

As another friend once quipped in the midst of a brutal series of meetings hashing out denominational conflict, "I'm not sure how much more of this I can enjoy."

But this is the situation we're in, and it isn't going away soon. Illness and hospitalizations are still rising rapidly in several hot spots. Large sectors of society are shut down and in turmoil. Millions of people are at high risk of food insecurity and lost housing. Countless small businesses teeter on the edge of bankruptcy.

Decisions made in the near future will have long-term effects on the society that emerges from this chaos. The coronavirus relief bill that was passed today by Congress puts in place economic structures that are already defining winners and losers for years to come.

Even as we in faith communities work hard at the immediate needs -- proper physical distancing, essential relief to our neighbors in need, and maintaining relationships and continuity in our churches -- this also is a time that needs clarity of vision for the world we want to see. If we can define and strengthen those foundations now, it will be far easier to do the right thing in the months and years to come.

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There's a short passage of scripture that gives us good guidance. A few verses from Zechariah, chapter 8, give a vivid image of God's shalom embodied in a community.

The book of Zechariah was written in a time of despair. The leaders of Jerusalem came home from decades in exile and found the city in ruins. The future seemed bleak, so the prophet spelled out what was to come.

A Notes from many years ago spells out the whole message, with this as the very short summary:

In Zechariah's marvelous description of God's shalom, we find a community where all needs are met, and where justice prevails. It is a hopeful and joyous vision, inclusive of age and gender, with sufficient food and shelter for all, and with social systems that meet the common good.

As I've done studies on this passage with church groups, we find that Zechariah does a wonderful job of describing the good life in community. It isn't about consumerism and individualism. The good society is found in health, sufficiency and justice, and in harmonious relationships with creation's critters and systems.

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After an earthquake, hurricane or flood, the early-on steps in rebuilding define what the future will look like. Where are the roads and utilities? Where are waterways and wetlands restored? What does zoning say about building patterns? Who is buying up the land for future development?

In the midst of the current disruption, what vision and goals will shape and guide us into coming years? From my eco-justice perspective, and within Christian ethics, let me offer a partial list of some main points (focused on the United States).

Health care -- The US has been wrestling with this for decades, but the pandemic reveals profound flaws in our system. Millions are uninsured or underinsured. People don't know what tests and care is covered, or how to get it. Hospitals are under-supplied. Some sort of comprehensive and coordinated health care for all is essential for a compassionate and just society.

Inequality, poverty and debt -- The layoffs and furloughs that have been imposed to "flatten the curve" of viral spread are devastating to multitudes. Families with sparse savings struggle to meet expenses in a time of crisis. (But the "40% can't cover $400" claim apparently overstates it.) Too many families are spending too much for housing, others are swimming in a sea of debt. Meanwhile, a few ultra-rich have unimaginable wealth. The just-passed relief package provides much needed help to those at the bottom of the economic pyramid, and also to many corporations. Our vision for a just society should have decent jobs and fair wages, so that there will be dramatically fewer on the financial edge who need such help.

Small businesses vs. globalized corporations -- Businesses of all kinds are shut down or curtailed these days, but small businesses are taking the biggest hit. Restaurants and shops -- beloved by their communities and providing distinctive services -- generally have smaller reserves. Big corporations tend to have deeper pockets, a wider reach, and the capacity to expand even in adverse times (c.f.: Amazon). Today's relief package, I believe, provides big bucks to big corporations (such as airlines), and somewhat less for small businesses. My ethical perspectives favor small and local enterprises.

Diversity and resilience -- A big part of the health care crisis comes from a shortage of essential supplies: gloves, masks and ventilators. I've learned that 65% of the world's medical gloves come from Malaysia, which creates a choke point in a time of sudden demand. The shortage of face masks, again produced by a globalized industry, is tied to "just in time" supply chains that a New York Times columnist calls "a very American set of capitalist pathologies." A healthy society, just like a healthy ecosystem, must have diversity and redundancy and resilience.

Respect for science -- Experts have been predicting a severe pandemic for years. The steps necessary to contain a global epidemic have been known, as have the need for stockpiles of supplies. A secure society will take seriously the findings of science and the knowledge of experts.

Community and relationship -- The last few weeks have shown the gift of communities, and of the social good. We've been moved by quarantined Italians singing from their balconies, and by signs saying thanks to grocery store workers. Neighbors have stepped up to help neighbors. We've found strength in friends and family. The vast majority have willingly accepted constraints on our lives, and even job losses, because we know it is what will save our community. The future we want to see must include strong and vibrant communities, and minimize individualism and isolation.

That's my very partial list, pointing to some long-term choices that have to be named and empowered right now. Are there places where you disagree? I'm sure there are characteristics that you'd add.

I urge you to take some time in the coming days to reflect on what you hold as essential values and visions for the future. Talk it over in your family. Bat ideas around with your friends, or with your faith community (in a virtual setting, of course!). Decide what is important, and make some choices about how those values can be worked into public policy and community life.

The plans and dreams that we create today will define what is possible in the years to come. In the midst of this global pandemic, let's be clear about the kind of just, sustainable and joyous world we want for the future.

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At the start of this week, I wrote to the Eco-Justice Notes list with an offer to those who are cooped up, or confused, or frustrated by the pandemic. Let's try something new, I said, "Ask Eco-Justice." Send me your questions, maybe theological or ethical ones triggered by the current crisis, but any question is fair game.

I've received a wonderful mix of questions and comments so far. Today's Notes is an oblique response to some of them. There are clusters of questions about "where is God in this?" and about the connections between coronavirus and climate change. Some are straightforward, some will make me do serious research, and some are unanswerable.

I'm still happy to receive your questions -- email them to the new address, I plan to post a first round of answers early next week. Let me know what's on your heart and mind.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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