Eco-Justice Ministries  

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

Deeper than the Headlines
distributed 10/12/01 & 5/15/09 - ©2001, 2009

It was Karl Barth, I believe, who spoke of "preaching with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other." That image provides wise advice about the need to be grounded in our faith and relevant to the world.

Barth's image, though, has shortcomings at best, and could even point our ministries in the wrong direction if taken too literally.

The newspaper and even more so the electronic news broadcast may not be adequate to the faithful calling for our ministries to be relevant. The day's headlines reveal only a small portion of what is going on in the world.

By definition, the "news" looks at what is new what is surprising, different, and changing. It does not tell us about trends that are gradual and pervasive.

  • Stock market values get reported as news every hour on the hour because they are always bouncing up and down. The gradually widening gap between rich and poor seldom qualifies as news.

  • Today's weather forecast is an essential component of every news report. Long-term climate trends are not.

  • The verdict of a jury in a murder case may be the day's lead story. The ever-rising prison population (and the racial imbalances of that population) receives little notice.
Some headline events are genuinely historic and of lasting significance. Many headlines, though, are of only passing interest and have no real importance in understanding the state of the world and the flow of history.

It is the gradual and pervasive trends that generally shape where we are going. Our best understanding of the economy comes from the complex analysis of yearly data, not this hour's bounce in stock prices. The gradual shifts in the global climate are of far more importance than the details of today's local weather. The condition of the criminal justice system impacts more lives and institutions than any one court case.

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In the realm of health care, the distinction is made between chronic and acute problems. In the US health care system, at least, the acute conditions call forth significant resources that are not directed to the chronic problems. But it is the chronic conditions (obesity, smoking, lack of exercise, exposure to toxins) that are the risk factors for the acute crises (heart attack, stroke, cancer). A concerted effort to deal with the pervasive causes would have a profound impact in reducing the number and severity of the acute cases. Trying to deal with the acute problems without also taking on the chronic situations is a prescription for failure.

The same lesson can be drawn in addressing economic and social justice, and environmental problems. Paying attention to the acute crises without taking careful note of the deeper trends will be ineffective.

However, the chronic problems, the pervasive trends, are not "news." They are seen as normal and predictable parts of the world. As a result, these most important factors are largely invisible. When they are not in the headlines, they are out of sight and out of mind.

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It is good if our preaching, prayers and classes are in touch with the current headlines. But to be relevant to the fullness of today's world, to be able to be prophetic instead of trendy, we also must look far deeper than the headlines.

The headlines deal with the changing scenery of our historical journey. They don't always do a good job of describing where we are going, or what is happening around us.

Frequent dips and rises in the road make it hard to tell if the overall journey is headed to a higher or lower altitude. Frequent bends in the road are disorienting, and make it hard to know the long-term direction of travel. A look at the map provides more important information that a look out the window.

The headlines of the news do not serve as a roadmap. That job falls to journals, essays, commentary and books. Those forms of writing are designed to take a longer and deeper view. They are concerned with what is important, not what is new and different.

Barth called for ministry that pays attention to both the Bible and the newspaper. We need to take an expansive approach to that image. Yes, let us keep one hand firmly on the Bible. But may the other hand be used to page through the more reflective writings, the journals and research, as well as the daily paper.


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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