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

My Friend, The Sumo Wrestler
distributed 7/11/14 - ©2014

I've been spending a lot of time with an old friend this summer. "The Sumo Wrestler" is a great helper to me when I am teaching about the need for personal and cultural transformation.

I brought the Sumo wrestler out of his unofficial retirement when I was in Germany this summer, on a 10-day whirlwind speaking tour. In a string of meetings with pastors, denominational leaders, church members, social activists, politicians, high school and college students, I often called on my iconic friend to illustrate why "transformation" is so essential.

Here's the gist of the message. Picture a Sumo wrestler, the big, fat guy who is a cultural and sports hero in Japan. Now, tell me what you would say to convince him to lose 150 pounds (or 75 kilo). What would be persuasive?

Folk will usually suggest a variety of reasons, ranging from sensible (the health risks of being overweight) to ethical (it isn't fair for one person to eat so much food) to frivolous (theater seats would be more comfortable). And we all end up recognizing that none of them are likely to make any difference in the wrestler's physique. That's because being big and fat is essential to his career, his social status, and his sense of identity.

Speaking confessionally to my German audiences this summer, I then extended the message: "The United States is the Sumo wrestler of the world." My country takes great pride in being the world's military, economic and cultural superpower. Our booming energy production is generally seen as good news, and a boost to our national ego. The normal measures of US national vitality are -- at best -- disconnected from environmental factors. At worst, they are contradictory to long-term environmental health.

There are many good, rational reasons why the US (and other countries) should slash energy use, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, throttle back consumerism, and minimize disparities between rich and poor. Presented in a purely rational way, though, the chances of those being put into effect are like the odds of the Sumo wrestler showing up at WeightWatchers. In both cases, the intellectually compelling reasons contradict self-image and self-interest.

A few minutes with The Sumo Wrestler makes a vivid point about social change strategies, in Germany as well as in my normal US settings.

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I first referred to the Sumo wrestler in the fall of 2001 when Colorado's Interfaith Climate Change Initiative was holding a training event for religious leaders. There was copious data on the strengthening science on global warming, and solid presentations on religious ethics about anticipated climate impacts (which, we can now see, were understated). It was good, reputable and important information.

As I participated in planning meetings for the conference, I could see a core assumption for the campaign. If we get enough facts, and present them clearly, then we can persuade policy makers to take strong action to cut greenhouse emissions.

My short presentation at the conference in 2001 introduced the Sumo wrestler to say that facts and figures are necessary, but not sufficient, when we're working for the scale of change that is necessary for addressing climate change. We also need to deal with very different kinds of information, and address other parts of reality.

The change that we are seeking has to mesh with positive expressions of self-identity. It has to speak to a gut level perception of self-interest. We have to be able to convince a substantial chunk of power-brokers and community leaders that taking dramatic action is good for us -- not only with scientific abstractions and sterile moral arguments, but with emotionally and culturally compelling stories.

Sometimes, we can make the case for climate action and sustainability within the dominant cultural framework. The development of renewable energy creates well-paying domestic jobs, for example. But -- 13 years into my friendship with The Sumo Wrestler -- I still see the need for a transformation of our collective self-identity that will allow us to embrace a dramatically different way of living within Earth community.

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I was invited to Germany by the Evangelischen Landeskirche in Baden, and some ecumenical partners of that denomination. The Evangelical Church is engaged in study and planning on how to take an active part in transformation processes toward real sustainability in the face of climate change. Building on themes from last fall's meeting of the World Council of Churches, they are debating the balance between pragmatic actions in congregations for energy conservation, and more far-reaching efforts toward transformation of personal and cultural self-identity.

Eco-Justice Ministries' long-standing work on transformation -- our assertion that it is a process with different goals and strategies than political activism or responsible stewardship -- led to this summer's invitation. It was exciting, energizing, and a profound learning experience for me have so many opportunities for faithful conversation with people who share Christian values and eco-justice commitments. I came home with new insights and a deepened calling to transformational ministry.

Next week's Notes will continue with this theme of transformation. I will explore ideas that came together for me in a fresh way through this summer's international conversation. I will develop some specific ways that churches can be faithful and effective in developing those different stories of identity and meaning, stories that can make us willing -- perhaps even eager -- to enter into the changes our world so urgently needs.

("The Dieting Sumo Wrestler" was an Eco-Justice Notes topic in 2002 and 2005.)

Shalom!

Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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