Eco-Justice Ministries  

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

Responsible Members of Community
distributed 5/15/20 - ©2020

You've probably seen the pictures of heavily armed and very angry protesters at a state capitol, demanding "liberation" and "freedom" from the pandemic protection orders.

You may have seen news reports in the last week, based on a New York Times article, that the Trump administration has reversed over 60 environmental rules.

These are complex and highly politicized topics, and these two might seem unrelated. But as I wallow in the muck of the news, I see a foundational point of theological ethics which provides guidance on both issues.

For people of faith -- and for our kindred spirits -- there is an affirmation of our identity and our calling which guides our actions in times such as these: We are called to be responsible members of Earth community.

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Within Christian environmental ethics, there has been a simmering debate about how to define humanity's "place and purpose" in creation.

Most of the people that I talk with have stepped away from the traditional notion that we have dominion over creation. (That's a powerful, hierarchical theology based on just two short passages from scripture: Genesis 1 and Psalm 8.) The more common expression these days is about being "good stewards of creation" -- which still puts humans in a role of managing stuff.

Process theology has floated a different description, that we're called to be "co-creators" with God. I came to embrace that language more enthusiastically when I heard an analogy of improvisational jazz for our creation role. We get to be inventive and creative, but only within the key and tempo and theme that God has established. We don't get to do our own thing.

But as I've become increasingly centered in an ecological understanding of the world -- "The world is inherently relational" was my theme for 2018 -- I've become less comfortable with any exceptional role for humans. Our place and purpose must be seen within the context of the whole web of relationships. So my short statement of humanity's calling is the phrase I named above about being responsible members of Earth community.

The emphasis is on the community, not on us. Humans are certainly a distinctive and powerful part of that community, but our role with that power is to serve the entire community, now and for future generations. As I wrote in 2017, claiming this role:

Earth community -- and I always use a capital "E" -- is a profound challenge to us, personally, institutionally, theologically, and culturally. The simple step of naming our membership in a global, biocentric, generation-spanning community take us out of the center. It re-orients all of our relationships, and critiques many of our priorities.

Being responsible members of Earth community shapes our identity, our actions, and our stances on public policies.

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I am fairly certain that the protesters demanding an end to pandemic restrictions disagree with my ethical principles. From what I've seen, most of them do not think of themselves as members of any community. They are defiantly individualistic, and their demands for freedom are a rejection of any restraints on their actions.

Marcie Bianco wrote an interesting opinion piece, headlined "Michigan coronavirus protesters shout 'liberty!' -- as right-wing rhetoric weaponizes freedom," that spells out important distinctions between liberty and freedom. Historically and constitutionally, she says, "Liberty is a type of freedom defined and limited by civil society. It is not an unrestrained, unchecked license to do whatever one desires."

The objection to stay-at-home orders, or wearing face masks, is often expressed through a retort like, "if I want to take a risk about getting sick, I have the freedom to do it." That sort of comment, of course, completely misses the point. If you want to take a chance on catching the coronavirus, fine, but you don't have the right to spread the virus to others. The disease can be spread before the carrier realizes that they're sick, and a large percentage of the people who have it are asymptomatic -- they feel just fine as they're spewing virus-laden droplets all over the restaurant, church or shopping mall.

A claim of individual freedom sets us up for a rapid and overwhelming spread of disease. An approach that calls on all of us to be responsible members of our community points us toward public health policies that affirm the common good. There will be lots of debate, of course, about what restrictions are necessary, what distancing and masks and closures are appropriate, but if we keep the focus on our responsibility to the community, we'll have the basis for a civil and productive conversation.

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The reversal of environmental rules by the Trump administration and their congressional allies isn't because of the virus. It has been going on for three years, but as the Times reported, "Several major reversals have been finalized in recent weeks as the country has struggled to contain the spread of the new coronavirus." And Mr. Trump's current calls to "open up the economy" mesh easily with his longer-standing bias toward economic opportunities instead of ecological and human health.

The Times names a motivation behind the roll-back and reversal of 60 environmental rules, saying that the administration called "the rules unnecessary and burdensome to the fossil fuel industry and other businesses." The list of rules includes many dealing with air pollution and climate-warping emissions, fossil fuel production, endangered species, water pollution and toxic substances.

From my point of view, those actions which will increase pollution and accelerate climate change are the antithesis of what is required from a "responsible member of Earth community." The flagrant disregard of heavily impacted neighborhoods, future generations, and other species -- all to benefit economic growth -- is as narrowly irresponsible as a virus carrier coughing in a crowded store. The freedom and benefit to one party has a widespread and dangerous impact on the broader community.

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My ethical principle of responsible membership in the community doesn't lead directly to specific policies about pandemic controls or environmental regulation. But it does frame that conversation in a totally different way than an emphasis on individual freedom or on purely economic goals.

Whether we like it or not, we are members of the multi-species, intergenerational Earth community, and of more local communities. It is not just about me or a very small "us." Ethics demands that we be responsible members of those communities.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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