Eco-Justice Ministries  

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

distributed 1/16/09 - ©2009

Ever since the election last November, a Transition Team has been at work to coordinate the complicated shifts in personnel and policies for the incoming Obama administration. By all reports that I've seen, that transition has been well managed -- despite some very awkward bits with a few Cabinet appointments.

For those of us who are intensely interested in matters of public policy and social change, whether professionally or personally, there's a need to think clearly about our transitions, too. The change of administration will change the issues that are on the front burner of political interest. It will change the way that policy advocates and moral leaders go about their work.

I know that Eco-Justice Ministries is shifting gears, and reconsidering how we might best work with our faith-based constituencies in this new context. For the last eight years, the Bush administration has been a fairly clear expression of the values and principles that we reject. We're now going to be living with an administration where there are some important points of agreement. That calls for some big changes in style and strategy.

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The other day, I paged through the archives of Eco-Justice Notes. These commentaries started being sent out on a weekly basis on February 2, 2001, just a few weeks after George W. Bush was sworn in as President. From my re-reading, I have to admit that my musings about the Bush administration have not tended toward affirmation.

Just two and a half months after the inauguration, I wrote: "The travesties being committed by the Bush administration act out on a larger scale the errors being lived by countless individuals and families. The belief that we can have it all and do it all, that we can transcend all limits, is theologically and ethically and pastorally wrong." My outspoken opposition has been remarkably consistent ever since.

Through these eight years, I have been extremely critical of the administration's policies on energy and climate change (over and over again!), public lands and endangered species. When Mr. Bush announced in the 2006 State of the Union Address that "America is addicted to oil", I said that his approach to that addiction would get him kicked out of any 12-step program. Under the broad umbrella of eco-justice, my critiques have extended to the rush into a war against terrorism (voiced on 9/13/01), the US invasion of Iraq, torture, international trade agreements, and narrow conceptions of homeland security.

I have parted ways with the Bush administration on basic philosophical principles: their notion that energy use is a primary indicator of economic health and progress, their propensity to lie, their inability to see how the economy is part of the larger economy of nature, and their overall assertion of American empire.

Eco-Justice Ministries is not primarily about political activism, so my Notes through the last eight years have dealt with lots of topics and themes. I am hard pressed, though, to come up with an example of any genuinely affirmative words about Mr. Bush or his administration. I have lambasted the foundational principles and goals of that administration. I have described them as standing in very sharp contrast to the biblical principle of shalom that is at the heart of our work with churches.

For eight years, my political writings in Notes have been oppositional. They have raised questions, challenged assumptions, presented alternatives, and (sometimes) called for political advocacy.

When Mr. Obama assumes the Presidency next week, some of my style and content will have to change. During these months of transition, and especially within the last few weeks, we are hearing details about goals and principles of the new administration which are much more in tune with what I have been advocating. Torture has been renounced, and diplomacy affirmed. Science will be taken seriously, and climate change will be addressed. The connections between ecological health, sustainability and social justice seem to be recognized. The common good of the global community, now and into the future, is at least being considered as an important theme.

Just as the late-night comedians and editorial cartoon artists are scrambling to find new themes and material for jokes, I'm going to have to develop a new repertoire and a new language. What is a responsible, faithful and appropriate way to speak to today's important issues, when the nation's political leadership is tending toward values and strategies that I affirm?

I can promise you that Eco-Justice Ministries is not a partisan organization, a veiled expression of the Democratic Party. I'm not likely to become a cheerleader for Barack. During the 2004 presidential campaign, I raised "Concerns About Kerry" along with complaints about Bush. This past summer, even as I applauded some of the themes of the Democratic convention held here in Denver, I also acknowledged "that the Dems are not -- and will not be -- profoundly transformational" when transformation is what our society needs.

In the Obama years, we may have more occasions to say "thank you" to political leaders, but I doubt if those words of affirmation will be unconditional. While there may be less occasions for passionate cries of "NO!", there will be lots of occasions to say "Yes, but ...". Even is we see some turns toward right directions, there will be a need for religious leaders to call for even stronger, more challenging initiatives.

In the coming years, with different leadership in the White House, we will need a different style. As advocates for profound social and ethical change, we will need different strategies in order to work effectively with people with whom we share some core values.

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In the historical books of the Bible, Kings and Chronicles, there are long listings of the kings of Israel and Judah. The reign of many of those monarchs get summed up in just a few words, with a clear-cut, up or down judgement. (The single chapter of I Kings 15 reports that "Asa did what was right in the sight of the Lord" but Nadab and Baasha each "did what was evil in the sight of the Lord".) Overall, the Bible seems to rank most of the long series of kings in the category of those who did what was evil.

It is tempting to draw such clear-cut lines, to see the world in terms of those who are good and those who are evil, those who are with us and those who are against us, my side and the other side. Mr. Bush has often spoken in those terms.

In this time of political and philosophical transition, some will be tempted to operate from that polarized view. People who have opposed the approaches of Mr. Bush now may see Mr. Obama as doing what is right. There are others who will be sure that the new President and his allies are doing what is evil.

Despite the biblical precedent for tidy divisions into good and evil, it will be more fruitful to recognize that no President will ever live up to the transformational standards of God's shalom. (Remember that most of the biblical kings didn't do it, either.) As people of faith, seeking to align ourselves with God's purposes, we need to critique the practical and philosophical shortcomings of public policy, regardless of the party that is in power -- and with some honest humility about our own wisdom and righteousness! We need to lift up a clear and compelling vision of what is good and right for the world, a vision that is far larger than any political agenda.

In the coming months, many of us will be looking for a new voice and a new style as we continue our moral leadership. I invite you to share your thoughts about how we might best speak truth in 2009 and beyond. And I urge you to let me know if I'm sounding too comfortable with the new directions coming from Washington.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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