Eco-Justice Ministries  

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

Who Am I?
distributed 5/2/14 - ©2014

"Who am I?" On a superficial level, that's the question asked by someone with amnesia, who can't remember their name or where they live.

On a deeper level, it is a question that is important as all people move through their life journey. The identities that we claim for ourselves shape how we live and act. That is true for individuals, and for society.

In the words of David Korten -- as he spells out principles and strategies for "The Great Turning: From Empire to Earth Community" -- the key to social and institutional change "is to change the stories by which we define ourselves."

"Who am I?" is a powerful question. For those of us tied to religious communities, it is a question with strong theological and pastoral meaning. When churches are being faithful, the answers that we provide to that question will be strikingly different from what folk generally hear from the dominant culture. When we provide faithful and relevant answers, we are guiding our communities toward transformation, toward ways of living that are joyous and rewarding.

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Christianity has always provided answers to the "who am I" question, and those answers are at the very core of our faith.

  • I am a beloved child of God, forgiven and redeemed.

  • I am a member of the church -- a community of faith that is universal, and that stretches through time.

  • I am a creature, part of God's creation, an "Earthling" tied in community with all other creatures.

  • I am a steward -- or, in newer language, a co-creator -- with both freedom and responsibility in the choices I make about the exercise of my power.

  • I am a disciple, a follower of Christ, seeking to live in love, compassion, justice and righteousness.

All of those proclamations are ancient, essential elements of Christian belief. Through the ages, the language used to express them shifts a bit, and the relative emphasis given to various points changes, but all of them have been part of how Christians have said, "this is who I am," "this is who we are."

All of the answers from faith communities -- Christian, and most other faiths -- have a strong relational component. Who I am is defined in relationship to the divine, to human communities, and to creation.

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The society in which we live also tells us who we are. Immersed in this culture, there are ways of thinking about our identity that are pervasive that seem utterly normal, but which stand in stark contrast to the answers of faith. Two "I am" statements are especially powerful in today's world.

  • I am a consumer, with insatiable and ever-growing desires. (In English, the use "consumer" as a common and accepted description is fairly recent, within less than 100 years.) A consumer's role, perhaps even purpose in life, is to buy, to consume. I can tell that people have adopted this self-identity when they ask, "How can I be a 'green' consumer?" They want to do the environmentally responsible thing, but can only conceive of doing so as a consumer.

  • I am an individual. I can do what I want, or what I can afford. My primary obligation is to myself or to my immediate community, not to the global community, to Earth community, or to God.

The dominant culture often denies that we are part of a community at all. Other people are seen -- not as neighbors or fellow creatures -- but as resources to be exploited. The rest of creation is seen as "things" for our use. Personal choices are directed toward immediate gratification, and institutional choices are geared toward the financial quarter. There is little sense of obligation toward future generations.

The relational component is weak in our culture's answers about who I am and who we are. We see ourselves as isolated, alienated, dissatisfied, and self-centered. Our cultural stories of self-identity lead us ever deeper into social and ecological crisis, because they don't honor the truth of our connectedness.

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A few days ago, I sent an email to you "looking for people with stories to tell about transformational ministry." I've had several helpful and delightful responses -- thanks to those of you who replied!

My question may have seemed intimidating though. "Working intentionally for transformation" seems so big, so out-of-the-ordinary. Yes, there are churches that are doing dramatic work for social transformation, but I'm also looking for congregations and agencies that doing quieter ministries.

Churches do transformational ministry when they are clear about how the "I am" stories of faith are counter-cultural proclamations. It is transformational when a church is persistent in locating us as members of Earth community. It is transformational when a church celebrates voluntary simplicity as an act of resistance against consumer culture. It is transformational when our foundational stories of compassion and justice make us intensely dissatisfied with systems of exploitation and use. It is transformational when the proclamation of God's shalom guides us toward a vision of the good life that is just and sustainable, rooted in the common good.

I'd love to hear from you with stories about congregations, denominations, and other agencies that have worked intentionally for transformation in their local settings, and in the broader society. We're looking for success stories, and for accounts about projects that ran into trouble. The stories don't need to be dramatic, just intentional. Let me know how you've seen churches with proclamations about "who I am" and "who we are" that can change lives and change the world.

Shalom!

Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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