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

9/11 & the Same Old World
distributed 9/9/11 - ©2011

This weekend we'll probably hit the saturation point for 9/11 remembrances.

Just like the East coast of the United States is having severe flooding because heavy rains have fallen on soil that just can't soak up any more water, the 10th anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks will drench us with more emotion, patriotism and commentary than we can absorb. I encourage you to tune out the conventional, crass and maudlin offerings. Try to be a bit selective and reflective in your thoughts and prayers.

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In my ponderings about this occasion, I'm going to be just as unconventional as I was back in September, 2001. I'm still intrigued by what did not change that day.

Ten years ago, I was hesitant about joining the chorus that spoke of how we were entering "a whole new world." 17 days into our collective trauma, I wrote that "the grief and the confusion of this new world seem very familiar to me."

The things that many people found disorienting about terrorism were, from my eco-justice perspective, quite similar to what created growing anxieties in a world headed ever-deeper into ecological destruction and social injustice. The four crashing airliners were shocking and horrifying, but our confusion about how to respond to that event meshed with an existing and pervasive confusion about other global changes from the previous decades. I named three of those changes:

  • A world that had seemed stable and predictable is now perceived as unstable and threatening.
  • There are new and confusing power structures, with different players that we don't fully understand.
  • We are called to confront different sorts of questions about justice and morality.

The destruction orchestrated by Osama bin Laden was exceptionally powerful, in part, because it hooked into the same fears and uncertainties that had been simmering from rapidly expanding economic globalization, and from an increased awareness of escalating ecological destruction.

Two weeks after the acts of terrorism, I lifted up the hope that churches could have a powerful and transformative impact. I voiced a warning about what would happen if we did not claim the moment of national shock to make a substantial shift in direction.

If the world is changing, then it is especially important that we in the church bring our moral and philosophical expertise to raising and wrestling with these questions. As new institutions, power structures and cultural standards take shape, we have an opportunity and an obligation to guide our society toward the most just and sustainable options that we can find.

In the absence of honest, thoughtful and probing reflection, the new world that takes shape from the War on Terrorism will be born out of the largely unexamined values and expectations that are already driving the crises of social justice and the environment.

Unfortunately, September 11, 2001, did not bring forth a moral awakening. It did not shake up our core institutions. The two long and costly wars, the limits on civil liberties, and the heightened climate of fear all sat fairly comfortably on the existing foundations of our society. Both before and after 9/11, we tended to see our society in terms of consumption and growth, unrivaled international power, and a global web of investment and trade.

A large part of my grief about the last decade stems from the failure of the Christian church in the US -- as a whole, with some very notable exceptions -- to provide strong moral leadership that calls us toward a different vision. The church has not done well in taking on the big issues, either in the 1990s, or through this decade's terrorism and war.

By the fall of 2002, I had strong gut feelings about the irrelevant church, and those were confirmed by sociological research. In the months following 9/11, most churches limited their role to providing emotional stability for people through a comfortable and calming presence. Church people in the US saw President Bush -- instead of the clergy and teachers of the church -- as the foremost provider of moral leadership.

Researcher George Barna lamented that none of the agents of influence, political or religious, "seemed bent on seizing the attacks as a teaching moment or as a time to ignite deeper self-examination among Americans. For the most part, our response to the attacks has been to restore continuity and comfort as quickly as possible, without much energy devoted to moral, spiritual or emotional growth."

With that sort of moral continuity, the largely unexamined values and expectations that were creating a destructive and unsustainable society before "the world changed" have been continuing their impact. From an eco-justice perspective, I see broad trends that continue. Three examples are enough.

  1. The glorification of profit and wealth that boomed in the 1990s took us into a round of scandals about reckless investments in 2003. The same factors were at play in the 2008 economic collapse triggered by dishonest mortgage investments. The love of money still shapes the demand for low tax rates on the genuinely wealthy, and the toleration of obscene pay for corporate CEOs.

  2. In the summer of 2001, there were political battles about drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge -- an area that is still at great risk. (Indeed, ANWR was the subject of my Notes on 9/7/01.) Today, our continuing addiction to oil has us fighting the exploitation and transport of Canadian tar sands -- an even more destructive source of energy. With the power of the oil industry, and the mindset that places cheap and abundant energy above all else, the Obama administration appears to be leaning toward approving the new pipeline.

  3. In the fall of 2000, when the levels of atmospheric CO2 were at about 370 ppm, both Al Gore and George W. Bush acknowledged the real threat of global warming. Today, with CO2 measured at over 390 ppm, effective action on climate change is off the political agenda, and most of the Republican contenders for President adamantly deny that there is a problem. The historic commitment to "preserving our way of life" at all costs has probably been strengthened through the last decade.

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A horrendous act of terrorism was not enough to move our society toward self-examination and a change in values. Perhaps, just perhaps, now is the time when some of those questions can be raised.

Ten years after 9/11, bin Laden is dead, and the US is starting to disengage our military from Iraq and Afghanistan. The remarkable "Arab Spring" continues into fall with a grassroots passion for freedom. The current extremism of US politics might stimulate some serious ethical conversation about wealth, power, the role of government, and the nature of a healthy community. Fiscal crises are forcing choices about how to embody our values and dreams through personal and public spending.

A dramatic act of terrorism pushed us too quickly into vengeance and war. The patterns of the US response, grounded in our existing values, were rushed into place before there was time for a thoughtful consideration of options. Maybe now, we can do what should have been done in 2001.

In September, 2001, I posed five core questions that I hoped could help us make sense out of our rapidly changing world. Those questions are still important, and I have come back to those themes repeatedly through the years. I still hope that churches and other religious communities will be assertive in asking those big questions, and naming the challenging answers that come from our faith traditions. I still believe that churches can bring a profound critique of our society's distorted and destructive values, and that churches can entice us with a different vision.

Yes, our world is very different from what we knew in the summer of 2001. This decade has been a painful and costly time. But even so, I am struck by the continuity of my nation's institutions, values and goals through those dramatic events. Many of the same problems and issues still confront us.

Before 9/11, the faith-based movement for eco-justice was organized and active in seeking a genuinely different world. That task of transformation is still before us. Let us continue with our important work of love and justice for all creation.

Shalom!

Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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