Eco-Justice Ministries  

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

A Confessional Perspective
distributed 2/28/03 - ©2003

I learned an important lesson about confession and grace from a wise community leader.

For years, Clara Lou has been a mover and shaker in Denver's civic and religious circles. She is a leader for many peace, justice and environmental causes. Among her many projects, she has been deeply committed to the clean-up of the Rocky Mountain Arsenal.

The Arsenal -- a 27 square mile area that is now surrounded by Denver suburbs -- was used for the manufacture and storage of chemical and incendiary weapons like nerve gas, mustard gas and napalm. The site was used to create munitions from 1942 until 1969.

As the weapons plants were closed down, the chemical facilities were leased to private companies creating a different sort of poison -- the pesticides that were coming into wide-spread use around the world. All chemical production stopped in 1982, but the four decades of poorly regulated operations left a severely polluted mess, with high levels of soil and water contamination.

The Arsenal is now part of the US "superfund" program. Toxic wastes are being removed from the buildings, soil and water. By 2011, the area is expected to be cleaned to the point where it can be opened to the public as a thriving wildlife refuge.

As with any such project, there have been countless frustrations, delays and roadblocks in the difficult job of making such a highly polluted site safe. There have been many conflicts and controversies between community members, military and industrial institutions, and a plethora of government agencies.

At one ecumenical meeting where the painstakingly slow process was being lamented, and where the historic polluters were being vilified, Clara Lou provided an important word of perspective. She said something along these lines:

Let's remember that we church people were celebrating in the 70s and 80s when the weapons factories started making pesticides. We thought that it was wonderful when this place was transformed from being an agent of war, and became a driving force in the Green Revolution. Looking back, we can see how we were wrong. But at the time, we thought it was really a good thing.

Clara Lou's honest and confessional statement brought a new tone to the meeting. It broke down some of the harsh we-they polarities, called us all to deal more openly with our own complicity in the world's problems, and helped us to bring a more deeply grounded commitment to our work toward a less toxic world.

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Clara Lou is a vivid contrast to another person that I encountered several years ago.

This man is a petroleum geologist. For over 50 years, he used his professional expertise to discover and develop oil and gas fields across the western United States. As we talked, it became very clear that this was not just a job for him. His work was motivated by a deep sense of vocational calling. He had dedicated his life to the noble cause of providing abundant energy to fuel our nation's growth, prosperity and progress.

At this stage in his life, he is bitter and angry. He lashes out whenever environmentalists, scientists or politicians speak of the need to develop renewable energy resources. In a very personal way, he feels that his lifetime vocation is being attacked and rejected.

Obviously, the geologist's connection with past energy policies is more intense and more personal than Clara Lou's old celebration of pesticides. Today's new realities hit much closer to home for him. But I mourn his inability to adopt some of Clara Lou's healing and confessional perspective.

What a blessing it would be if he could look back on his career with pride in his accomplishments, and yet also see that today's world needs to claim a different energy course. What a gift it would be if he could claim that his work was good and important for that time, and that the new work toward renewable energy that is being done by others is equally good and important for this time.

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We are trying to move from a society and an economy grounded in exploitation and expansion to one that is committed to justice and sustainability. That change will call for a great shift in our collective and personal values and goals. For many, it will be -- and is -- a wrenching transition with profoundly personal implications.

It will be good for us, personally, when we can acknowledge our own complicity in the problems that plague us. Most of us can recall our own affirmation of things that now seem toxic and damaging -- perhaps nuclear power, sprawling suburban development, unbridled economic globalization, or some other project that "seemed like a good idea at the time."

It will be good for the cause when we remember the very real difficulties that others find in letting go of their values, aspirations, and even their vocations. Our work will be more effective, and more faithful, if we can find gentle ways of recognizing the histories that people carry, and find compassionate ways of helping them accept new visions.

If we are intentional about it, our church communities -- through our worship and liturgy, counseling, and fellowship activities -- can help facilitate those sorts of transitions.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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