Stretching the notion of neighbor

  • The Rev. Peter Sawtell at the Washington Park United Church of Christ in Denver, where his Eco-Justice Ministries is housed

    CARMEL ZUCKER
  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.


Name Rev. Peter Sawtell

Birthplace Omaha, Neb.

Vocation Executive director of the Denver-based nonprofit Eco-Justice Ministries and ordained minister in the United Church of Christ

He drives A 1994 Geo Prism that can get up to 42 mpg on the highway

Pet A Labrador named Bridget, who was adopted from the pound and is "getting through her emotional problems"

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."

The stickers on his office wall say "Mindful choices for the environment are spiritual acts" and "The environment is the #1 moral issue!"

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?

REV. PETER 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 household.

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?

SAWTELL: The 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 right direction.

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 intern.
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