The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries
Hope and Commitment
My friend Charles delivered a short but powerful reprimand in the middle of a class that I was leading several years ago. His comment is still vivid for me because The Rev. Dr. Charles Milligan, professor emeritus of philosophy at the Iliff School of Theology, is someone that I held in very high esteem as a profoundly wise man.
In just a few words, he critiqued the theme that was my focus for the class, and presented a much more important truth. I pray that the others who were part of that Sunday morning class learned the lesson that he taught.
I was talking about the things we can do to be environmentally responsible, and I was drawing heavily on a book from the Union of Concerned Scientists, "The Consumer's Guide to Effective Environmental Choices". That book suggests that we "don't sweat the little stuff", the everyday decisions like "paper or plastic" for shopping bags where the environmental impacts of either choice are about the same. The authors urge us to pay more attention to the big ticket decisions: where we live, how we travel, and what we eat.
When I said that it really doesn't make much difference which kind of bag we get at the store, Charles announced, "It may not make a big difference for environment, but it does make a big difference for me." His eighteen words stopped me cold, and reminded me that there are other measures of importance beyond practical effectiveness.
Making a commitment to everyday disciplines does make a big difference to each of us -- whether or not those disciplines have a dramatic impact on the planet. The commitments that we make to environmental behaviors and principles reinforce our hope. They are daily, intentional expressions binding us to what we consider good and right.
Through those recurring commitments, whether the decisions are large or small, we tell ourselves who we are and what we value. We announce -- perhaps to others, but definitely to ourselves -- where we place our hope. By voicing and acting on those commitments, we actively bring ourselves into conformity with our best principles.
Returning to the example that triggered Charles' comment: yes, I know that it is best to use a cloth shopping bag -- and that's a good commitment, too. But if you are caught at the store and facing the dreaded "paper or plastic" question, it is important to choose. Your could choose either way. You might, for example, be more committed to reducing oil use than to saving forests, or you may be motivated by litter and landfill factors -- but whichever choice you make affirms a set of values, and shapes how you intend to live in the world.
Not making a commitment, though -- just saying "I don't care" or passively accepting whatever kind of bag they happen to hand you -- says that your values are not all that important. Not expressing a commitment says that we're helpless, and that we're ultimately subject to the decisions that others make for us. Not making a choice erodes hope.
Our good friends at the Federated Community Church in Flagstaff, Arizona, distilled this principle so it fits on a bumper sticker that I keep on my office wall: "Mindful choices for the environment are spiritual acts." Mindful choices draw us into an awareness of what we value. Mindful choices about our commitments are spiritual because they connect us to those things that we hold as ultimately important. Mindful choices and solid commitments are expressions of hope.
Commitments are expressions of hope, whether in terms of "little stuff" like shopping bags, or about the big things of housing, transportation and food, or even huge matters about vocation. Making a commitment moves from an intellectualized "I know something about that" to the very different place of saying "I will act on that."
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The book "Fostering Sustainable Behavior" is a carefully documented exploration of strategies that actually get people to do environmentally good things. I turn to that little volume often for reminders about effective forms of action.
The opening chapter says that beliefs and information don't accomplish much. "There is often little or no relationship between attitudes and/or knowledge, and behavior. ... In one study, individuals who hold attitudes that are strongly supportive of energy conservation were found to be no more likely to conserve energy."
The book reminds me that teaching people good theology about creation and God's shalom can put wonderful ideas in their heads and hearts, but it may not change the way they live. It is especially significant, then that "Fostering Sustainable Behavior" has a whole chapter on "Commitment: From Good Intentions to Action." They describe how making a commitment – even just announcing that you will do something in the future -- does make a real difference in behavior and in self-identity.
"When individuals agree to a small request, if often alters the way they perceive themselves." They come to view themselves as the type of person who supports that cause. Those who make a commitment become strongly inclined to act in ways that mesh with that newly-voiced sense of self.
When we make a pledge to act -- and more importantly, when we do act -- we make a shift from thinking and believing about something "out there" to expressing something about ourselves. Commitment is not about abstract beliefs and principles, it is about our identity.
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We can fall into hopelessness and despair when our actions don't mesh with our values. We can feel hopeless when the way of the world seems so powerful and so pervasive that it controls our entire lives.
Even when we face great challenges and entrenched powers, we can grow in hope when we live in and through mindful commitments. Making a commitment, and acting each day on the basis of those commitments, says that our values and goals are real and possible. Our commitments affirm that we are able to act with intention and conscience. Our commitments are affirmations of hope about what we will do and about who we will be.
This Lent, take a close look at your commitments -- those that express your eco-justice values, and those that tug you in other directions. Reflect during this season about ways that you can strengthen the commitments that heal you in your relationship with God and the entire Earth community. Look for ways to reduce the power and scope of commitments that define you as one who hurts God's creation.
Charles' short lesson tells us that making commitments and acting on them "does make a difference to me." Our commitments express and strengthen our hope.
Eco-Justice Ministries * 400 S Williams St, Denver, CO 80209 * Home Page: www.eco-justice.org
Eco-Justice Ministries ended all programming on July 31, 2020. This site is an archive of writings and resources.
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