Seven years ago, Rev. Peter Sawtell took a leap of faith. He founded a nonprofit organization in Denver called Eco-Justice Ministries and became one of a small handful of Westerners working full-time on faith-based environmental issues. Nearly a decade later, the United Church of Christ minister is busy consulting with clergy, preaching to congregations around the region, and conducting training sessions for people of faith on issues ranging from climate change to green buildings to endangered species. For Sawtell, eco-justice is a theological principle that combines social and economic justice with ecological sustainability, and it's an important part of being a Christian.
Rev. Peter Sawtell
Vocation Executive director of
the Denver-based nonprofit Eco-Justice Ministries and ordained
minister in the United Church of Christ
drives A 1994 Geo Prism that can get up to 42 mpg on the
Pet A Labrador named Bridget,
who was adopted from the pound and is "getting through her
He says "I find
very few people who say that caring for the natural world is not an
important concern. That really does seem to be something that
people are pretty well unified on."
on his office wall say "Mindful choices for the
environment are spiritual acts" and "The environment is the #1
He moved to Denver in
1988 to start doctoral studies at the Iliff School of Theology and
Denver University in religion and social change
Right now he's reading The political novel
The One Minute Assassin by Troy Cook
HIGH COUNTRY NEWS: Where is the root for
eco-justice in Christianity?
SAWTELL: ... (W)hat we now call eco-justice is one
expression of the deeply biblical idea of Shalom: God's peace with
justice for all of creation. And that's a pervasive theme
throughout the Judeo-Christian tradition. The root of eco-justice
goes into the Greek word oikos, which means the household, and
that's the same oiko or eco that turns up in economics and
ecological and ecumenical. We're all trying to care for the whole
HCN: There's a perception -
or maybe misperception - of Christianity as an anti-environmental
religion or maybe just a religion that ignores environmental
issues. Is that true?
record for Christianity is certainly mixed. There are deep
traditions within the faith heritage that are profoundly respectful
and caring for the natural world. That pretty much got lost in a
mix of factors that included the Protestant Reformation and the
Enlightenment era and the movement into the more industrial world.
I think we're seeing, in this day when climate change is such an
obvious reality, that many of the people in Christian churches who
have not seen this as important are suddenly coming to a fresh
understanding of why this has to be a central concern.
HCN: Are there particular passages in the Bible
that are helpful in bringing this issue to the front?
SAWTELL: It's not usually considered an
environmental text, but I would say that one of the very basic
passages would be the simple instruction to love God and love your
neighbor. And then we need to stretch the notion of neighbor out
far more broadly than we have usually done so that it includes
people all around the world, it includes other species, and it
includes future generations. If we start to love all of
those neighbors, then we will be living in the
HCN: Are there ever
times when people say, "Yes, that's important,
but these other things are more important?"
SAWTELL: I think we find the same
thing in churches that turn up in many public opinion polls where
the environment is listed as an important concern, and it's usually
about number six or seven on the list. One of the things that I do
with Eco-Justice Ministries ... is to connect some of the
environmental concerns with some of the things that
are at the top of the list. National security
issues connect to the eco-justice concerns when we have an
oil-based economy that's both destructive of the environment and
leads us into wars around the world. We can work for national
security and peace if we have a smaller environmental footprint
with our oil use.
HCN: Are any
biblical texts difficult to fit into the vision of eco-justice?
SAWTELL: There are places in the Bible
where there is a very clear sense that humanity is in charge of
things and ... (passages) that celebrate wealth and increasing
power as a sign of blessing. Those are theological problems on a
lot of levels, not just the environmental ones. There are places in
the New Testament writings that are fairly dismissive of this world
in the sense that a completely different world is coming soon.
Living in the 21st century, I think we see that we are in a world
in which we need to pay attention to those long historical trends -
the future of the planet. So those texts need to be read out of an
awareness of where we stand in the world today.
HCN: Where do you stand in the
evolution-creationism-intelligent design debate?
SAWTELL: My college training was in
environmental biology and zoology, so the evolutionary pattern is
very deeply set in my thinking and in my belief system. I have no
faith problems at all in thinking of a universe that's 12 and a
half billion years old and has evolved through time and in which
humanity is one very, very small part.
HCN: Do you think that science and religion or
science and Christianity are at odds with each other?
SAWTELL: Science describes what is. Religion and
philosophy try and deal with the "shoulds" and the "whys" that lie
in relation to the facts. I think a religious faith that doesn't
pay attention to scientific findings is on pretty shaky ground.
Religion and science have to exist together because science without
a sense of morality is going to be a very dangerous thing for the
world, and morality that's not hooked into scientific truth is also
going to be unstable.
HCN: If you
don't take them literally, how do you view the two stories in
Genesis describing the creation?
SAWTELL: The story about the Garden of Eden,
which is the earlier of the two stories, sets up a context in which
humanity is called to serve the earth, to help the earth be
productive and fertile and provide all that it can in the blessings
that God has offered. That's a story in which God sort of tries
things out and humanity is a part of the creative endeavor...
The story in chapter one of Genesis
with Creation happening in a sequence of days is a slightly later
story out of a priestly tradition, and that sets up a world in
which God makes everything perfectly and it's ordered and it's
structured in relatively unchanging ways. The assignment to
humanity in that one is to preserve the order of the creation.
They're two very different messages, but in either one we
have a strong sense that God has created something that's good and
wonderful and lively and diverse and that all parts of that
creation are meaningful and humanity is to be involved in a
caretaking, stewarding, preserving role ... I think that message
... is absolutely valid for today's world.
HCN: What do you think is the most pressing
issue for Western churches to address?
SAWTELL: On my priority list of issues for
churches, global climate change is the big one that's always at the
top. This is a threat to humanity and the earth such as we have
never seen in our human history, and it needs very strong and
urgent attention. ... In terms of Western issues, water is a very
important factor for us to be considering. The questions about
public lands and energy are things that emerge in churches
frequently. Endangered species questions often come up as both
theologically important and really important
issues in terms of the fights going on in the local community.
HCN: Is there anything else that you
think is important to mention about your work or this movement?
SAWTELL: I think it's important to
realize that there's a distinctive niche for the religious
communities in addressing environmental concerns ... There are ways
in which faith communities can deal with questions on a pastoral
level about hope and hopelessness, fear, grief, guilt - some of
those paralyzing emotions that might keep people from getting
involved. I hope religious communities can help people find the
strength and the focus to take on some very hard issues in our
society and not get burned out or frightened away.
The writer is a High Country News