The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries
Dull, Deaf and Blind
Those of us who do prophetic and transformational work in churches know a lot about frustration. Despite our careful, dedicated and passionate efforts, it often feels like our message is not heard, and that people don't respond.
That's not a new problem. Remember a familiar passage about the call of a prophet. Isaiah responds to God's invitation -- "Who shall I send?" -- with an enthusiastic, "Here I am. Send me!" God immediately tells the new volunteer:
Go and say to this people: "Keep listening, but do not comprehend; keep looking, but do not understand." Make the mind of this people dull, and stop their ears, and shut their eyes, so that they may not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and comprehend with their minds, and turn and be healed. (Isaiah 6:9-10)
Oh, how often it seems that the people in our congregations and communities are dull, deaf and blind. That is not the goal of our work as we try to guide folk toward ecological sustainability and social justice, of course, but it is what we often experience.
At the recent series of "Greening Your Church" workshops that Eco-Justice Ministries led in Colorado, we looked at educational programming for churches, and dealt with the problem of excellent courses that never connect with their audience. We explored some of the reasons why people don't come to classes, and why they don't respond to what we feel is compelling information about caring for God's creation.
At the workshops, we used "a really stupid little skit" to explain how it is that people do not "look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and comprehend with their minds." For this exercise, our Outreach Coordinator, Brian Ray James, played the part of a person transported by a time machine from the days of the Roman empire into our culture. Brian told us about things we take for granted that he found amazing -- glass in the windows, electric lights and "horseless chariots."
Then, since Brian was so excited about new technologies, I tried to tell him about the two robotic rovers that have been exploring the surface of Mars for the last five years. Suddenly, Brian heard, but did not comprehend. How could we send a craft to a god? No, no, I explained. We didn't send a rocket to the god Mars, but to the planet. But Brian could not understand the concept of a planet that circles the sun. Mars, for him, was just a dot of light on the dome of the heavens. According to his mental maps, Mars had no surface to be explored.
What seemed perfectly clear to us in the 21st Century was incomprehensible to Brian-from-Rome. He had no concepts that would allow him to make sense out of the self-evident -- to us -- reality of planets and the solar system.
The overblown little skit gave us a vivid context for a statement by conservationist Aldo Leopold. Writing about 60 years ago, Leopold commented that the problem we face in conservation education "is how to bring about a striving for harmony with land among a people many of who have forgotten there is such a thing as land."
Leopold's "land community" includes soils, waters, plants and animals in an ecology that was self-evident to thousands of generations of humans. In the modern world, though, we have a society where people do not live in close relationship with that life community, and where we see resources instead of neighbors and systems. We "have forgotten there is such a thing as land." If that was true in the 1940s, it will be even more difficult today for us to entice people to care for the land, the creation. Just as our visitor from ancient Rome could not understand the planet Mars, people who have forgotten about the land community can't understand the importance of caring for the creation.
When the people we hope to teach seem dull, deaf and blind, we may be encountering a situation where differences in our worldviews and foundational concepts prevent us from understanding each other. When that is the case, it won't help to be more persistent in spreading a message that doesn't make sense to them. If we want to be effective, there are times when we need to step back and build common ground on some core principles.
From our work with churches on the theme of eco-justice, I can see several places where it may be necessary to build a fresh base before taking on important issues.
Prophets and teachers have always been frustrated by those who can not -- literally can not -- hear the lesson that is offered. When our audience does not have the concepts and mental maps to make sense of our teachings, they are unable to see, hear and understand. It is not that they are bad people, or that they don't care. Sometimes, we're guilty of preaching an urgent message without building the necessary conceptual foundation.
If your people seem resistant, oblivious and dumb, check to see if they have the language and worldviews to even hear what you are trying to say. Time spent planting the conceptual seeds of ecology, limits, shalom and engaged faith will be well spent.
Eco-Justice Ministries * 400 S Williams St, Denver, CO 80209 * 303.715.3873
Home Page: www.eco-justice.org * E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org