When Values Collide

Peter Sawtell’s Eco-Justice Notes this week concerns the issue of clashing values, or, how to prioritize, contextualize, and clarify our individual and community values when they seem to conflict with each other.

As Sawtell says, “Caring for the environment is not likely to become the only value we hold in our families, churches or society. There always will be conflicts and facing trade-offs among principles that are of great value — inclusivity, freedom, efficiency and the environment.”

He tells the story of a church gathering to talk about deepening its environmental witness:

“Several of the ‘normal’ ideas had come up — hold classes on ecological issues, practice better water conservation, and expand the recycling program. … Then that man in the back row said, ‘We could make a rule that we won’t allow any car in our parking lot that gets less than 20 miles per gallon.’

“In the moment of quiet that followed, I could tell that everybody in the group was quickly processing two questions. (1) Will they let me in the driveway? (2) How many of our Sunday morning regulars in their gas-guzzlers will be turned away?

“Nobody broke the silence by saying, ‘what a wonderful idea!’ Instead, people came up with lots of questions. Why use 20 MPG as the dividing line? What about people with special needs? Would you allow a van that brings lots of people?

“Then came round two of the conversation stoppers. Another voice said, ‘If we adopted that rule, we’d be violating our principles that everyone is welcome here.’ Again, there was a moment of dead silence as class members tried to balance two competing sets of values.

“If a primary and often-expressed message from the church has to do with extravagant welcome and inclusion, then putting a pair of burly bouncers in the driveway to turn away those with the wrong sort of car is a pretty glaring contradiction. But, if members are never challenged about their transportation choices, the implicit slogan of the church becomes, ‘No matter what kind of car you drive on life’s journey, you’re welcome here!’ And that trivializes the church’s explicit commitment to environmental stewardship.”

I agree with Sawtell that it’s useful to examine the place in us and in our communities where values seem to contradict or rule each other out, and to try to name those values honestly, and discern how to act. I agree that it’s sometimes appropriate to question and challenge each other concerning our choices. That’s all hard, faith-deepening work.

I don’t agree that the slogan “‘No matter what kind of car you drive on life’s journey, you’re welcome here!” trivializes a faith community’s commitment to environmental stewardship. This would be akin IMO to saying that the slogan “No matter what unloving actions you’ve taken towards your family and friends this week, you’re welcome here!” trivializes the church’s commitment to Christian love. These seem to me exactly the explicit messages that a church might want to offer.

The truth is, the faith community is the place where all are welcome, regardless of what car we drive, what party we vote (or don’t vote), and even how we behave every moment of every day with the people closest to us. The choices we make may seem to others, and may actually be, unwise, unloving, irresponsible, unmerciful, inconsiderate, immature, unhealthy, and flatly at variance with Jesus’s teachings; yes, and we are the ones who need the faith community and who are welcomed into it by a God who sees all, loves all, forgives all. We don’t have to behave well to be welcomed. We don’t have to deserve a welcome. The hope (and here I’m paraphasing James Alison’s wonderful speech,” Embodying God’s Earth-shaking Mercy”) is that the more we become aware of who God is and how much he loves and forgives us as we murder him over and over, the more we then, as a result of the dawning awareness, find ourselves behaving in different ways.


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