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

When Values Collide
distributed 1/27/06 - ©2006

A lively discussion about churches and the environment came to a complete standstill when a gentleman in the back row threw out an unexpected suggestion.

I'd invited the members of a class to brainstorm ways that their congregation could deepen its environmental witness. Several of the "normal" ideas had come up -- hold classes on ecological issues, practice better water conservation, and expand the recycling program. The folk were getting creative, and ideas were being tossed out faster then I could write them down.

Then that man in the back row said, "We could make a rule that we won't allow any car in our parking lot that gets less than 20 miles per gallon."

In the moment of quiet that followed, I could tell that everybody in the group was quickly processing two questions. (1) Will they let me in the driveway? (2) How many of our Sunday morning regulars in their gas-guzzlers will be turned away?

Nobody broke the silence by saying, "what a wonderful idea!" Instead, people came up with lots of questions. Why use 20 MPG as the dividing line? What about people with special needs? Would you allow a van that brings lots of people?

Then came round two of the conversation stoppers. Another voice said, "If we adopted that rule, we'd be violating our principles that everyone is welcome here." Again, there was a moment of dead silence as class members tried to balance two competing sets of values.

If a primary and often-expressed message from the church has to do with extravagant welcome and inclusion, then putting a pair of burly bouncers in the driveway to turn away those with the wrong sort of car is a pretty glaring contradiction. But, if members are never challenged about their transportation choices, the implicit slogan of the church becomes, "No matter what kind of car you drive on life's journey, you're welcome here!" And that trivializes the church's explicit commitment to environmental stewardship.

I'm glad to say that the two "conversation stoppers" brought only short silences. That evening's discussion was deepened by those challenging comments, and an additional series of discussions have been scheduled as the church continues to wrestle with how to honor all of their values.

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That brief snippet of a Sunday evening discussion sets up an artificially stark contrast in values. There are ways for a church to affirm fuel efficiency that are less divisive than a "No Hummers" sign in the parking lot. And there are ways for churches to be welcoming without being wishy-washy about their core principles. It doesn't have to be "either-or."

But that short discussion clarifies why it is so hard for us to really live out our ecological convictions. Individually, in our congregations, and in our society, our environmental good intentions often run headlong into conflicting values.

It's not that we don't care. It's not that we don't know what we could or should do. Often, though, we discover that our commitment to ecological stewardship runs into other values and goals that we also hold as valuable. When that happens, many of us are far too inclined to set aside our genuine environmental convictions, and we shift the focus to a different set of values that seem just a bit more urgent or sincere.

Some value conflicts are impossible to reconcile. A quest for social status through conspicuous consumption can't be meshed with ecological responsibility. But many other conflicts aren't explicitly anti-ecological. What are some of those other values?

  • The church I was visiting found a possible conflict in terms of "welcome." In other circles, we get exactly the same effect when there's an intense desire to avoid conflict.

  • Various forms of "freedom" get in the way of strong environmental action. I may not like the decisions some people make to drive giant SUVs on a 60 mile daily commute, but I'm in a bind if I give great weight to their freedom to make their own choices. On a systemic level, if we place our ultimate trust in the workings of "the free market," then the imposition of environmental regulations will be seen as a distortion.

  • If we place a high value on personal convenience, then ecological responsibility will often come across as a conflicting value. ("Convenience," of course, is an emotionally-loaded word that sounds very selfish. Most of us actually make our values choices in terms of "the most efficient use of my time." That's how I often justify driving two miles to work instead of taking a half-hour to walk.)
Not many people say, "I'm going to trash the environment today!" I have an optimistic assumption that most people try hard to live out their values. And most people, I think, really do want to "protect the environment." But when push comes to shove, when values collide, there are other things that they value a little bit more.

Caring for the environment is not likely to become the only value we hold in our families, churches or society. There always will be conflicts and facing trade-offs among principles that are of great value -- inclusivity, freedom, efficiency and the environment.

As we seek to care for the Earth, we can make an important difference if we keep our ecological values clearly on the table. We can -- like the church I described -- talk long and hard about how to be both welcoming and strong in ecological witness. We can push hard at where to draw appropriate boundaries around freedom. We can be honest in naming the hidden costs that make convenience conflict with ecological responsibility.

The trick is to move from an either-or approach toward a both-and. Can we find ways of honoring both sets of values? We probably can't meet them all perfectly. But when values collide, we can insist that the ecological values are always honored in our compromises.

Shalom!

Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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