Robert Stivers Reflects on Restoring Creation for Ecology and Justice

The following post is appearing as part of the series “Reflecting on Restoring Creation for Ecology and Justice.”  In 1990 the 202nd General Assembly approved Restoring Creation for Ecology and Justice, which affirms that God calls the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) to care for the earth and work for justice for all of creation, human and non-human.  On the 20th anniversary of the policy several people active in eco-justice ministries are sharing their reflections on the policy.

By Robert L. Stivers

Sometime in the late 1980s I received a phone call from Dieter Hessel, then the coordinator for Presbyterian social witness policy.  He told me that he been talking with Bill Gibson and the two of them thought it was now time to launch a major environmental project.

My first reaction was a chuckle and “c’mon Dieter, you know the situation.  The environmental movement is like a ship lost in the fog, becalmed by Reaganomics and our love affair with materialism and technology.  Everything we write on the subject is dumped over the side as bilge water or lunch leftovers.  There it collects as so much flotsam and jetsam.”

Fortunately Dieter and Bill were right.  The eventual product was the document Restoring Creation for Ecology and Justice.

My engagement with Presbyterian environmental and social ethics had begun with promise.  I was asked to be the consultant and writer for the first energy policy statement in 1980.  Before that in 1975 Westminster had published my book The Sustainable Societywhose title was the first to use the term “sustainable.”  Both passed by largely unnoticed, but at least they contributed to the newly found enthusiasm for the environment in the 1970s that was led in Christian circles by the World Council of Churches (WCC).  Our enthusiasm, however, faded with the shift to right in the wake of the cultural turmoil of the 1960s and 1970s. Attention turned to the next new wave.

I continued to think that there was something of value in that early work.  So when it came to Restoring CreationI lobbied for the use of what I now call the “Ethic of Ecological Justice” with its norms of justice, participation, and sustainable sufficiency.  This ethic, first developed in WCC circles, was used in the 1980 energy report.  It was picked up by the committee doing Restoring Creation and Bill Gibson who became its primary writer.  In several different forms, this ethic has been the main foundation for subsequent Presbyterian environmental policy.

Inspired by this work, I continued to labor with it in my own teaching, writing, and church participation.  Today’s stresses on sustainability and the perils of global climate change would not be nearly as strong if the churches had not gotten underway in the fog during the early 1990s.

For the next twenty years we should keep up our advocacy of the environment.  This will not be easy since our attention span is limited and there will be plenty of advocates for business as usual.  Perhaps a new statement is in order, at least sooner than later.  Might we turn up our creativity a few notches to devise new ways of communicating rather than fashioning still another long report, however well it would be done?  And here let me say that we have built up a body of progressive social witness that we can be proud of despite the length of some of our reports.

Our strength lies in our biblical and theologically based values and in the faith that inspires and leads us.  This is not to say we lack expertise in science, politics, and economics, only that others look to us primarily for ethical guidance with a solid foundation.  This is what we especially need to keep pressing on our members, leaders, and the larger public. 

As followers of the “way,” we are responsible to the leadership of the Spirit and should insist on moving beyond economics and technology in thinking about social policy.   How we think and why we do should be critical.  We have a good start in the fog, but a long way to go.

Robert L. Stivers served as the chair of the Eco-Justice Task Force, which developed the report Restoring Creation for Ecology and Justice.  Stivers is Emeritus Professor of Religion at the Pacific Lutheran University and a PC(USA) ordained minister in the Presbytery of Olympia.

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