The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries
Essential Secular Coalitions
I have said, on occasion, that "the church does not exist to be a branch office of the Sierra Club." I have used that quip, not to diminish the good work of "secular" environmental organizations, but to affirm the distinctive ministry provided by churches.
When we're working on environmental, justice and peace issues, we'll often see that the style and focus of churches will be somewhat different from those of secular groups, but it is essential that churches work in coalition with those groups when our interests coincide.
I had thought that working in broad coalitions was a "self-evident truth" (along the lines of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness), but a recent email tells me that this principle needs to be affirmed.
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Nancy wrote to me after some conflict at a meeting of her congregation's Peace and Justice committee, where she is a voice for eco-justice concerns. Nancy had proposed that the church send a small donation to the Sierra Club for a project related to the fires in Yosemite National Park. (With the Sierra Club's history, Yosemite is hallowed ground. The graphic in their oval logo is an iconic scene from the Yosemite Valley.)
So Nancy wrote to ask if "churches should cooperate with secular groups." She got more from me than a simple, "yes."
I told her that, in my experience, it is essential that churches cooperate with secular groups, whether on environmental, social justice, or any other issues. In many cases, those groups share our values and they are equipped to put volunteers and money to work far more effectively than scattered congregations can.
In terms of her specific request, I consider the Sierra Club to be an excellent partner. Eco-Justice Ministries has worked closely with them regionally and nationally on many campaigns. Six weeks ago, I met with two of their staff for an update on their extensive and influential "Beyond Coal" campaign. And I'm very glad to say that the Sierra Club has not looked to churches only as a place to recruit folk for their own initiatives. Through the last decade, the Sierra Club has launched some programs that are very respectful of faith communities and the unique gifts that we bring to the environmental movement. In one expression of that, the club's publishing arm took the initiative on gathering essays and printing a lovely volume on faith and the environment, Holy Ground: A Gathering of Voices on Caring for Creation -- including an article that I wrote.
I went on to highlight for Nancy another example of our very close collaboration. 350.org has been one of the most visible and effective groups in recent years for the movement to address climate change and the Keystone pipeline. They are "a secular group", and they often work carefully and creatively with a wide variety of faith-based groups around the world. I have often pointed to 350.org as a bold and clear prophetic witness, speaking both scientific and moral truth that many churches are afraid to touch. Here, too, I have been delighted that Eco-Justice Ministries has been able to work closely with 350.org on many projects. Their staff has deeply appreciated our involvement as a faith-based group, and has been respectful of our approaches. (If you're not already aware of it, look for ways to connect with the "Draw the Line" day of action on Saturday, September 21.
I could go on and on about these important coalitions. This morning, as I was finalizing today's Notes, I got a call from Environment Colorado, asking if I could speak at a press conference next week. They asked because they believe that the moral perspectives voiced by religious communities are an essential component of the fight against air pollution and climate change. I declined, but only because of scheduling conflicts. I have spoken at several of their events, and worked closely with them on numerous projects.
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I find the notion that churches should not contribute to, or collaborate with, secular groups to be an odd and dangerous stance. In Nancy's setting, it makes me wonder about the real goal of the church's peace and justice committee. Is it to build up the institutional church, or are they there to work toward justice and peace through all possible avenues?
At the end of July, an Eco-Justice Notes, "The Mission of the Church", quoted extensively from a study document from the World Council of Churches. One sentence, in particular, speaks to me about that question: "it is not the church that has a mission but rather the mission that has a church. Mission is not a project of expanding churches but of the church embodying God's salvation in this world."
As we seek to embody God's shalom, there are times when we will work internally within the church, because we need to strengthen our own constituencies, and because there are projects that are only appropriate as clear expressions of faith. But there are many other times when we should consider supporting the work of secular agencies. We should look for ways and opportunities to work in close coalitions with them.
The question, then, is not whether our partners are secular or faith-based, but whether they align with our goals and values, and whether they are working appropriately and effectively. Those are the sort of criteria that we should use in selecting our coalition partners, and the places where we want to send contributions.
When natural disasters strike, my comments in Notes have often said that the first and most immediate response from people of faith should be to donate to relief efforts. I have then pointed to denominational agencies, the Red Cross and Church World Service. Among those, I'd give priority to CWS, not because it is a church group, but because they excel at providing long-term care and development, far beyond the time of disaster. CWS is still at work in Haiti, more than 3 years after the 2010 earthquake. But if the Red Cross is able to respond in an emergency when Church World Service can't, then I have no hesitation about sending donations to that "secular" agency.
I love the church, and I am deeply committed to nurturing the distinctive gifts that can be found only in and through faith communities. But when churches refuse to join with other groups on important causes, then our priorities and our theology are way out of line. As people of faith, we must be involved in diverse coalitions to achieve our goals. The church is not the only place where God is at work in the world.
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