Stand together like we mean it
UnitingJustice national director Elenie Poulos delivered the speech below at the National Environment Meeting 2016, at the University of Sydney on 22 October. The theme for the conference was ‘Hope in the Dark’. Elenie was part of a panel talking about the need for environment groups to build alliances with Indigenous groups, faith-based groups, unions, and legal organisations.
The conference met on the land of Gadigal People of the Eora Nation.
We are here together today to talk about change because we know that if the planet is going to survive in a way that will support future generations to live in peace and prosperity, then we need to change the way we live. Tinkering at the edges of systems, policies, structures and programs won’t do it. And neither will a fragmented approach to advocacy that has us boxed into our ‘issues’ and weak on the big picture. But time is up. Gentle words and soft coaxing are not enough. We need to overturn the tables in the temple and call people to a better way of living that will deliver justice for the planet and justice for people, knowing that there’s no justice for one without the other. We need to do it now. And the only way to do it is to work together – really work together.
I’m not talking about standing next to each other for photo opps during rallies or joint lobbying trips to Canberra. I’m not talking about occasionally promoting each other’s programs and campaigns, sharing a hashtag, or referencing each other’s work in our own reports and submissions.
I’m talking about genuinely, seriously working together in trust; an ‘in it for the long haul’, working together.
Fortunately, we’re not starting from scratch. Many people and organisations in this room have built solid and effective coalitions that have made a significant difference. But what we need to do now is take the good work that’s been done and super-charge it, not just by doing things together but by genuinely being together. Let me explain what I mean. It’s a little discursive, so please bear with me.
Only one way to go?
There are many metaphors in the Christian tradition used to try to capture an understanding of the relationship between God and the planet. One of the richest of these is that of ‘household’ – the world and everything on it and around it is the household of God. One household. One planet. One humankind. One eco-system. One economic system.
The word ‘economy’ actually comes from the Greek for ‘house’, oikos, and nomos meaning ‘to manage’. So the economy is literally about how the household is managed.
It used to be that human societies reflected incredible diversity – many households, many systems of management. But now we have a globalised household and the principles, values, systems and structures of the one economic system we use to manage the global household leave nothing and no-one untouched. Never before has one economic system, driven by a singular ideology and maintained by so few — at the expense of the majority of people and the environment — determined the running of the entire household of Earth.
Neoliberalism’s values—individualism, materialism, commodification, competition, greed, consumerism—have entrenched themselves so deep within those of us in the wealthy minority privileged by it, that most of us don’t even recognise them; it’s just the way the world works. And this is neoliberalism’s great myth – that there is no other way.
The question for us today is whether or not we can develop the trust necessary to build on what we’ve started, and grow genuine, long-term working relationships across sectoral boundaries, so that we can, with integrity, call people to another way of living.
Christians have got it wrong
We’re not always good at working with each other: faith communities and others. Every now and again we come together with a shared aim, but we aren’t always comfortable with each other.
Some days, those claiming to represent the Christian faith behave so badly, and the institution of the church fails so dismally, I wonder what on earth I’m doing here. So I can’t really blame anyone for wanting to be as far away from us as possible. Over the course of its history, the Christian church and those who profess Christianity have perpetrated the most horrific violence, both by their actions and inaction, and spawned prejudice, misogyny and oppression. The church, almost from its beginning, has been complicit in the perpetration and perpetuation of injustice, colonialism, violence and war. And on top of all that, the theology of the supposed God-given right to man (and I use than noun deliberately) to subdue the earth and take whatever he needs from it, has served to foster the human destruction of the planet.
But there is a different story at the heart of the Christian faith; a story grounded in the belief that the world and all its creatures belong to God (the household of God); that life is sacred, that the natural world is good in and of itself, precious for its own sake, and that God’s will for the world is reconciliation – reconciliation between all people and people and the planet. This is the Christian story that upholds values which stand against the cold inhuman values of neoliberalism – the counter-cultural values of love, compassion, grace, generosity, justice, community, inclusion, and cooperation. But these are not uniquely Christian values, they are profoundly human values. And it’s these shared human values that must come to define the ways of the household we all share. They are the values that will lead to genuine prosperity, justice and equity for all, and a sustainable future for the diversity of life on earth.
Genuine community is required
If we want to bring about deep, lasting change, then these are the values we need to live out in ways that can be seen by those around us. It’s time to stop standing awkwardly together in front of politicians and the cameras.
Powerful alliances don’t happen just because we share a common goal. They are formed out of respect, genuine friendship and dare I say it, love. We have to know each other well enough that we are genuinely proud when one of our friends gets it right, and we have to be committed to each other enough to stand together even in our differences and when times are hard. We have to truly believe that our diversity is a gift we need to harness, that we can’t do it alone and that what hurts one diminishes us all.
We need to model the alternative story of genuine community—inclusion, generosity, care and cooperation—in order to bring it to life for people. And if it’s to be a story founded in the commitment to justice (which it must be), then the story needs to begin and end with the voices of those who are usually ignored and excluded from the systems and structures of power and privilege. It is the same system that devastates people and the earth, and so it is in listening to the voices of the least powerful in our societies and to the groanings of the planet that we will discover where we need to be and what we need to do together to save the only household we have. It’s time to stand together, to be together, like we mean it.