Eco-Justice Ministries  

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

Who Do We Think We Are?
distributed 9/27/02 - ©2002

Paul Gorman, the founder of the National Religious Partnership on the Environment, put it succinctly and bluntly:

We don't believe we are going to reverse the environmental crisis by simply passing laws. We have to change the human understanding of its place and purpose in creation. Unless you have that fundamental change in values, many of us believe environmental degradation will be irreversible.
Those theologically grounded "place and purpose" questions are at the heart and soul of the work that Eco-Justice Ministries does with churches and church leaders. Such questions are not directly matters of issue activism or public policy -- although the answer to those questions will probably lead in the direction of public engagement.
  • Does humanity stand outside of (or above) nature, or are we part of the natural world?

  • Are we given license to dominate and exploit the rest of creation, do we have a role as stewards and managers on God's behalf, or are we no different from any other form of life on this planet?

  • Do we have the wisdom to know the effects of all of our actions, and to achieve our goals without ill effects, or do we need to recognize limits to our knowledge and power?
Those questions have been answered in many different ways. Various cultures and faith traditions tend toward different perspectives, and there can be wide variations among the individual beliefs within those large groups. The way a culture deals with those "place and purpose" questions will shape its policies and normative behaviors.

In modern North America, a mindset of separation from nature, with a strong tendency toward exploitation and control, has flourished. This mindset seems to have grown out of a mix of Christian beliefs, scientific investigation, technological innovation, capitalistic economics, and the abundant resources of this "new world."

When Gorman calls for changing the human understanding of its place and purpose in creation, that modern, North American understanding is one of the perspectives that clearly is in need of change. The values associated with that worldview are driving significant parts of the abuse, destruction and destabilization of the global environment.

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I have spent the last several years paying close attention to the ways in which different perspectives on humanity's place and purpose in creation shape personal, cultural and national behaviors. I have trained myself to be aware of the question, "Who do we think we are?" that underlies the more public questions about "What should we do?"

My awareness of those "who are we?" questions informs my distress about the US government's insistence on initiating war against Iraq.

My government's pompous assertions about the justification for war mirror the mindset that has driven so much environmental destruction. The Bush administration's sense of "who we are" in the realm of international relationships parallels what it has asserted about our relationships with nature.

  • The US claims that it stands outside of (or above) the rules that govern other nations, that we can take preemptive actions while others cannot, and that we are free to act without broad consensus from the community of nations.

  • The US claims that we have license to dominate other nations and cultures, and that we can use whatever means are necessary to impose our will and to seek our own security.

  • The US government claims that it has the wisdom to know the effects of all of its actions, and to achieve its goals without ill effects.
Grounded in that bullying, exploitative, and self-centered worldview, the combined momentum of government policy, political self-interest and public opinion are moving us rapidly toward a declaration of war.

It is certainly not possible to turn the US from war without addressing questions about our "place and purpose" in the community of nations -- the very questions which are not being asked within the US political system. US politicians seek evidence that Iraq is a threat (which certainly is an important question), but do not ask whether the US has the moral right to unilaterally invade Iraq on the basis of purely potential threats.

My life and my profession in ministry are dedicated to addressing the question of "our place and purpose in creation" from the perspective of the Christian faith. I firmly believe that our faith tradition calls us into a self-understanding that affirms relationships of mutuality, justice, humility, compassion, reconciliation and sustainability. Those values apply equally to interpersonal, international and ecological relationships.

I pray that the Christian community in the US will raise the "place and purpose" questions which must inform US foreign policy, and that we will speak loudly and clearly about the way our faith commitments lead us to answer those questions.

Shalom! Peace!

Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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