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

Holy Disorientation
distributed 5/8/20 - ©2020

In the last month or so, I've heard a number of people express hope that insights gained from the pandemic, and from the efforts to constrain it, also will lead to stronger action on climate change. An article today from the National Catholic Reporter spins out two contrasting scenarios, drawing on a much longer article from YaleEnvironment360.

The optimists note that a growing appreciation of science may be a good force for future climate action. They suggest that the pandemic will teach us about the virtues of mutual aid, and that it will shock policymakers into being more precautionary in the face of future risks. Pessimists anticipate that efforts to kick-start economic growth will encourage political short-termism and nationalism. They warn that economic stimuli will prop up the old energy-intensive and fossil fuel industries, and give a green light to ransacking natural resources such as rainforests.

There are two contrasting options. If the positive changes are going to come, I think we'll need to do something quite surprising in the coming months. We'll need to cultivate a sense of disorientation. I came to that realization through some scholarship on the Psalms.

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The Psalms is the longest book in the Bible, made up of 150 poetic expressions. It is a very diverse mix, and scholars have categorized them in many ways. Usually we hear about hymns, laments, thanksgiving, royal and didactic psalms.

Back in the 1980s, Walter Brueggemann suggested a different clustering. He wrote about psalms of orientation, disorientation and reorientation. As one recent web posting explained the categories:

  • Orientation is when everything in your relationship with God is going well, and it all makes sense. (Walter notes that these basic psalms are "not the most interesting" and that they have a distinct "lack of tension.")
  • Disorientation happens when a circumstance changes the status quo and our sense of orientation. One does not know what is ending or what is beginning. Disorientation is the experience of living in the in-between.
  • Reorientation begins to happen when we are surprised by a new gift from God, a new coherence, made present precisely when we thought that everything was lost.

The authors note that "we must go through the disorientation to get to the new praise. Disorientation unravels our attachment to the status quo, our illusion of control, and our need for comfort." In terms of spiritual formation, "Disorientation helps us to let go of the past and desire only God."

Disorientation and reorientation are probably necessary if our society is going to make a dramatic change to a world of profoundly reduced carbon emissions, and other steps toward sustainability and social justice. The possibility of new ways of being is opened up most dramatically if the realities of a global pandemic and climate chaos become truly disorienting.

For most of us, I don't think we're at anything near that level of turmoil -- at least not most of the time. Rather than disorientation, I think the less traumatic condition of disruption is more common. Two very trivial examples from my travels show the distinction.

  • On the way home from a 10 day series of presentations, I missed an airline connection. United didn't handle things very well, and I was forced to stay overnight in Chicago. I was disrupted and inconvenienced, frustrated and angry. But I knew where I wanted to be (home), I knew how to get there, and I knew it would happen.
  • On my first trip to the national offices of the United Church of Christ, in Cleveland, I flew to Ohio and took a train from the airport to downtown. Leaving the train station, I took a wrong turn, then another wrong turn. I was disoriented and anxious. I had a vague idea of where I wanted to be, but I didn't know how to get there, or even how to get back to where I started.

On a more substantial level of disorientation, I think of those around the world whose lives and communities have been upended by war, brutal gangs, and climate disruptions. They have come to a point where their "normal" life doesn't exist, and there is no way to go back to how things used to be. All the normal markers of who they are and where they are going are gone. That kind of disorientation is what allows families to walk away from everything as refugees. As Somali-British poet Warsan Shire put it in her poem "Home," "you have to understand,/ that no one puts their children in a boat/ unless the water is safer than the land."

In the Psalms, Brueggemann points to Psalm 137 as an expression of disorientation. That's the one which starts, "By the rivers of Babylon -- there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion. ... How could we sing the LORD's song in a foreign land?" (Hear Sweet Honey in the Rock sing those words of lament.)

In our current situation -- certainly with the virus, and for some with climate issues -- I see anxiety and disruption, but not disorientation. Generally speaking, I don't hear heartfelt lament and deep confusion. For the pandemic, there's a widely expressed hope of quickly getting back to normal. If we can imagine returning to how it used to be, then we're not really disoriented, just disrupted. We're not open to dramatic change. We may even be more resistant to it.

But disorientation in this setting -- a "holy disruption" of the kind that opens us to reorientation -- might be the visceral acknowledgment that "business as usual" has not worked, and will not work again. What we thought was the good life now appears to be fatally flawed and offensive. The pandemic has revealed to us what we didn't want to see before: the massive amount of pollution dumped into Earth's air and water to maintain consumer societies; extreme economic inequality, and the multitudes who are thrown to the brink when the economy shuts down; the inequalities and inefficiencies and lack of coordination in the US health care system; and the fragility and abuses of industrial food industries. We've become aware that the workers who are essential to our health and security are usually underpaid and unappreciated. We've seen brief indicators that politics can be set aside to do essential work, but also that the crisis can provide cover to cram through unpopular policies and judicial appointments while we're distracted. Disorientation allows us to ask if we want to go back to that kind of business as usual.

Disorientation opens the possibility of reorientation. Elizabeth Sawin, co-director of the think tank Climate Interactive, lifted up hope that the shifted awareness and the success stories of current crisis will provide a narrative that leads toward change. She said, "if we can tell that story of what we just went through and help people understand that this is an accelerated version of another story we're going through that has the same plot structure but a different timeline, that could be transformative."

Disorientation and reorientation are holy times. Brueggemann stressed that the psalms of disorientation play a vital role in the development of an informed, honest faith; a faith that allows the God of Israel and the church today to still be God in the midst of confusion or disarray. The presence of psalms of disorientation in the hymn book of Israel is a clue that these painful times are opportunities for revelation and insight, too.

If, however, the church tries to provide superficial comfort, and looks to getting us back to normal orientations as quickly as possible, we are not living up to our faith tradition. Brueggemann wrote, "A church that goes on singing 'happy songs' in the face of raw reality is doing something very different from what the Bible does."

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As regular readers of Notes know, I frequently write about transformative change and transformative ministry. That depth of change becomes necessary when we realize that the worldviews and the institutions of our society are profoundly flawed. There are no simple tweaks that can make it OK.

I've written often that the less comprehensive efforts for environmental responsibility -- what I call "doing the basics" and "advocacy" -- ask "what can we do" within the institutions of society. But the core questions asked by transformation ministry are, "Who are we? Where are we going?" Those are precisely the questions stirred up by disorientation. Those are the questions that allow us to envision, and then to work for, transformational change.

The global society has been disrupted by the pandemic. We face a choice. We can try to get back to "normal" -- and those who have benefitted most from the exploitation and inequalities of that way of life will fight hard to do so. Or we can accept the disorientation of this moment. We can discover clarity about the failures of business as usual, and realize that it would be wrong to go back to the rush toward climate chaos, the alienations of consumer culture, and the inequalities that give obscene wealth to a few and precarious existence to so many.

If we read the psalms, if we listen to faithful theologians and ethicists, we will claim this holy moment of disorientation as a gift and an opportunity for transformational change.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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