Eco-Justice Ministries  

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

distributed 3/15/02 - ©2002

Heresy is not a popular idea in our pluralistic society. However strongly we might disagree with the ideas of others, we seldom brand those ideas as heretical.

I'm starting to think, though, that we need to name and address a heresy that is becoming common in our society.

My understanding of heresy was illuminated by my church history professor in a seminary course on the middle ages. She pointed out that most of the "great" heresies are not grounded in problems of a totally false doctrine. Heresy crops up, she said, when partial truths are elevated to the status of absolute truths.

Was Jesus human? Yes. But that statement becomes heretical when it denies the divinity of Jesus. And there's a corresponding heresy that denies the humanity of Jesus.

God is love. Amen! But if an absolute insistence on love leads to a rejection of all notions of judgement, then the otherwise orthodox truth of a loving God becomes heretical by its incompleteness.

So, what is the dangerous heresy of today? Where is there a pressing problem with a partial truth lifted to the status of absolute truth?

The problem is the idea of personal freedom. I am stirred to the label of "heresy" by the rhetoric that has come out of the US Senate this week.

The Senate was considering requirements for increased fuel economy (CAFE standards), including more stringent requirements for vans and SUVs. Those proposals went down in flames, 62-38, with the Senate calling only for a new study.

CAFE standards are a complex and politically divisive issue. There are legitimate points of difference and honest policy disagreements. Spirited debate and strong statements should be expected when a political body deals with such a matter.

The heresy is visible, though, in one of the recurring arguments voiced on the Senate floor. As a NY Times article reported on Thursday, the push for toughening the standards was "overwhelmed by senators from rural states and states with automobile factories -- backed by an expensive advertising campaign by automakers and the autoworkers union -- who argued that Congress had no right to tell Americans what kind of car they should drive."

Freedom is one of the core values for the United States. But we have encountered heresy when that value is lifted up as an absolute truth.

The Pilgrims of the Massachusetts Bay Colony are important forbears of both a distinctive Protestant heritage and of our national values. They had a saying about "covenant and autonomy" that has carried through as a central phrase in some of their ecclesiastical descendants. In a church often characterized as "feisty Congregationalists" -- folk who are adamant about their polity of local control and institutional autonomy -- the principle of covenant has always been held up as a critical balance. The Pilgrims knew that freedom and autonomy are glorious truths, but they are not absolute.

That balancing of covenant and autonomy, freedom and relationship, is part of the Pilgrim legacy in our civil society. Our legal system balances a general assertion of freedom with the legitimate need for limits. We accept those limits in traffic laws, interest charges by banks and restrictions on gun ownership. Zoning codes and slander laws put brackets around our freedoms of property rights and speech. In our mutual covenant, government does have the right, even the responsibility, to place restriction on individual and corporate behaviors that harm the common good.

The proponents of stronger CAFE standards lifted up appropriate reasons why fuel economy is a valid area for regulation. Those include matters of national security, public health, and environmental sustainability. With the fact of global climate change, the case for regulation is stronger now than it was when standards were first imposed in the 1970s.

The assertion that the US government does not have the right to put conditions on specific elements of automobile design is heretical. The claim that consumer choice is sacrosanct elevates a partial truth to the status of an absolute truth.

This is not just a problem for one piece of energy legislation. Demands for unlimited personal freedom, or for total local control of public resources, are becoming more common and more strident. Powerful forces are seeking an end to long-established and legitimate forms of governmental management, regulation and control.

This heresy, like so many others, is attractive and hard to deny because it is grounded in a truth. Freedom is important. But autonomy must always be balanced with covenant, freedom with the needs of the whole.

Unlimited freedom is a heresy -- both theologically and within our civic heritage. Let us name it and fight it.

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A few months ago, political scientist Benjamin R. Barber wrote:

Consumer choice is always and necessarily private and personal choice. Democratic governance is not just about choosing; rather, it is about public choosing, about dealing with the social consequences of private choices and behavior. In the global sector, this is crucial, because only public and democratic decisions can establish social justice and equity.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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