Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Setting Priorities for a World In Crisis

Written by: on February 13, 2015

I remember being assigned in second grade the task of drawing a picture of what our houses would be like as our planet became overpopulated. This was 1965 and I lived in a crowded suburb of Detroit. From my limited world, overcrowding seemed inevitable. It was a scary and very real scenario that our teacher perpetrated on us vulnerable seven-year-olds. I was sacred…until, a year later when my family drove out to New Jersey. We traveled through miles of the flat and virtually empty farmland of central Ohio and over unpopulated forests in mountainous sections of Pennsylvania. Literally, miles of no one! I was miffed! I had been lied to and made afraid for no reason. There was lots of room. We weren’t facing some huge crisis after all…and I might actually live to graduate from high school.

This caused me to be forever skeptical of cries of wolf…especially in global issues. As warnings concerning the coming horrors of global warming, climate change, or increased weather events (or whatever newest terminology is), I admit that I have a tendency to be slightly skeptical. I am less apt to accept what I am told until I do my research. Which leads to my second issue: my tremendous lack of scientific knowledge. Science is just not my strength, even though I maintain a deep fascination for the subject.

For this later reason, I found Macy and Johnstone’s book Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We’re in Without Going Crazy [1] surprisingly approachable, because it is not a scientific book. However, this book made numerous assumptions about related to science, psychology and social concerns without significant documentation, such as:

  • The earth is in crisis, pain, and trauma (p. 67)
  • We should empathize with the pain of world (p.27)
  • People are traumatized by the earth’s trauma (p. 64)
  • Healing of the earth is possible through cooperation and connectedness (p.5)
  • The healing of the earth should be the “center of things” (p.211)

Based on these givens, the authors set out (not a detailed program but) a call for cooperation for a hopeful future. “In the story of the Great Turning, what’s catching on is commitment to act for the sake of life on Earth as well as the vision, courage, and solidarity to do so.” (p. 27) This process begins with a sharing the pain and trauma of the earth: “A central principle of the Work That Reconnects is that pain for the world, a phrase that covers a range of feelings, including outrage, alarm, grief, guilt, dread, and despair, is normal, healthy response to a world in trauma.” (p. 67) Like despair over sins is the foundation for reconciliation, so personally despairing for world is both normal and foundational for gaining courage to join with others to bring about this “Great Turning.”   This book is then about the “healing of our world” which is “our gift of Active Hope. The purpose of this book is to strengthen our ability to give the best gift we can: our finest response to the multifaceted crisis of sustainability.” (p. 4) We then have a book that both paints a bleak picture of a world in crisis while, at the same time, seeks a hopeful way for the future.

My first concern about Active Hope is its idolization of the planet. Not only are we called to feel the pain of the earth’s crisis, but we should “hear within us the sounds of the Earth crying.” (p. 71) It is further explained that: “When we hear the of the sounds of the Earth crying within us, we’re unblocking not just feedback but also the channels of felt connectedness that joins us with our world.”(p. 76) It is by giving the earth these human characteristics of pain and sorrow that allows us to be tuned in to the earth as we would to a living being. This then provides the key to our interconnection with all of earthly life, and allows the earth to enter into our inner lives: “Just as we experience the Earth crying within us as pain for the world, we can experience the Earth thinking within in us as a guide impulse pulling us in a particular direction.”(pp. 116-17) These human and spirit-like qualities given to earth, leads us to “think of ourselves as deeply embedded in a larger web of life, as Gaia theory, Buddhism, and many other, especially indigenous, spiritual traditions suggests.”(p. 74)

This raises the earth to both a living and spiritual being. which brings me to my second concern. If the “earth” is our central focus, then this will naturally determine our priorities. The authors suggest that if we join in the Great Turning, “(w)e can think of this shift as changing our map to one that puts the healing of our world at the very center of things.” (p. 211) But the question that needs to asked is: Should this be the “center of things”? I can’t help but remember how Jesus often used the word “world,” by which he clearly does NOT mean the planet itself, but rather “people” – that God so love the world (i.e. individuals that make up the world). Jesus focus during his ministry was to hear and feel the pain of people (“he had compassion” in Mt. 9:36, literally, he felt distressed at their suffering), and sought their healing and comfort. I have to wonder if our focus is on the planet (the inanimate globe), will we miss the more immediate crises that faces our world, the suffering of people, which seems to be Jesus’ focus?

In How to Spend $75 Billion to Make the World a Better Place, [2] Bjorn Lomborg asked experts in economics “if you were to spend an additional $75 billion over the next four years to do good for humanity and the environment, where would you spend it first?” (loc. 85) It was a question of prioritizing the world’s biggest problems, that would bring the most good—not for the earth per se, but—for “the ‘good’ for the people and the planet” (loc. 85, emphasis added). Top on the list includes:

  • Reduce undernutrition in preschoolers
  • Expanding the subsidy for malaria treatment
  • Expanding childhood immunization
  • Deworming of school children
  • Expanding tuberculosis treatment
  • Increase yield enhancements to decrease hunger
  • Early warning systems to protect against natural disasters
  • Strengthen surgical capacity (loc. 33)

As I look at this list developed by panel of top economist (including four Nobel Laureates), what stands out is that it focuses entirely on helping living and suffering people (especially children). This, I believe, would be how Jesus would prioritize the projects, as “the world” he loved were the people who were hopelessly helpless and harassed. If we hear the suffering of the world (i.e. people) and act to elevate their suffering, then wouldn’t we naturally seek to better the environment they live in (and will live in for generations) in order to provide have enough food, clean water and medical care to live full and healthy lives? If we raise up the earth as our primary focus, our idol, or “center of things,” I fear we are in danger of forgetting the children who are actually the one’s who are in crisis and in pain, and we will mistakenly direct our resources that can do the most immediate good.

[1]Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone, Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We’re in Without Going Crazy (Novato, CA: New World Library, 2012).

[2]Bjorn Lomborg, ed., How to Spend $75 Billion to Make the World a Better Place (Copenhagen Consensus Center, 2014), Kindle.







About the Author

John Woodward

Associate Director of For God's Children International. Member of George Fox Evangelical Seminary's LGP4.

7 responses to “Setting Priorities for a World In Crisis”

  1. Stefania Tarasut says:

    John, you make so many good points, I can see how this can turn into something that makes the world become an idol, but I wonder if helping the poor and working on creation go hand in hand.
    I think of the places in the world where poverty is at it’s worst and it seems that PART (emphasis on part) of the problem is the fact that the soil is not doing what it was created to do. The land is supposed to bring forth fruit, but because it’s under so much pressure and pollution, it doesn’t!
    I think that it’s because of people that we need to take some time and make some hard choices so that we can help the poor in the long run.
    I think of some of the villages in Romania where the people are incredibly poor. They cut all the trees down in order to use them for firewood. When the storms come there is nothing left to keep the hill from sliding so hundreds of homes were swallowed up by the mudslides. When the earth is being damaged, the first ones to suffer and reap the consequences are the poor.
    It might be a fine line, but I think we must walk it because we’re dependent on the earth… we really can’t live without it.

  2. John,

    Powerful post.

    I wondered about this week’s text as well. I don’t thing the authors did a good enough job of persuasion, although they did have some good points. I thought the conclusion was especially week.

    I like Lomborg’s list. It makes a lot of sense. Humanity is at the heart of that list. Each one of these items is important and needs to be addressed immediately. But Lomborg’s list only scratches the surface of world problems. Frankly, I don’t think either of these books deal with the whole situation.

    Perhaps it is a “both/and” not an “either/or” situation. We do need to address the human problem. But we also need to address the ecological problems. I can’t offer a solution, but I think that we need to find some way to inform people about the crises we face. But for some reason, the word is not out in a way that puts actions to beliefs. Perhaps it will take a crisis to do that — not that I am hoping for a crisis — and I have a feeling that this might well happen as time unfolds. I guess the big question that I need to ask is how am I contributing to the solution? Frankly, up till now, I must admit that I am not doing a lot.

    Thanks for all the food for though, my friend.

    • John Woodward says:

      Bill, I appreciate your honesty. I too feel that I am not doing enough. But, as I look at the entirety of the needs of the world (earth, people, politics, etc.), it does seem to be a daunting task ahead of us. I know I can only touch so many lives and effect so much change…I wonder how many others feel this way? That is why I would like to error on the side of people — I know I am not going to make any major contribution to the issues of rising oceans and global warming, but maybe I can better the future of some children, who (just maybe) will grow up to invent renewable sources of energy that will save the world. This is my idea of Active Hope!

  3. rhbaker275 says:

    Thanks, your two points of concern really clarify the choice that is before us. Do we serve the Creator or the creation? I do like Macy and Johnstone’s emphases on the truth that we can not allow ourselves to become so engaged with the enormity of the task that we fail to do anything. Ultimately, however, they elevate the matter of choice to where choice itself becomes a god; the objective becomes the “Great Turning” and the individual’s (and the corporate) energy (power) elevated to a level where we have a controlling influence. The authors note their purpose: “…that you can experience the transformative power of the Work That Reconnects and draw on it to expand your capacity to respond creatively to the crisis of our time” (5). Is it God who is in control and has the power or is it reconnecting with our own creative work?

  4. John Woodward says:

    Ron, thanks so much for your thoughtful insights! I was worried about how my post might have come across. I am glad to know it made it made sense to you. I agree, that the we should be careful not to be overwhelmed by the problems of the world or the task, but I am not sure that we can without knowing the hope, concern and participation of God Him. And, when God isn’t the center, my fear continues to be that we act in ways that might benefit some but will clearly not reach those who are truly suffering. As a world traveler, I am sure that you have experienced that sense of “where to start” or “Oh, Lord…how can this ever be made right.” Thanks Ron for your thoughts!

  5. Julie Dodge says:

    Hi John,

    While Macy and Johnstone clearly had a focus on ecological concerns, I found it more useful as a tool or process to address the things that break our heart. Things of Christ. Broken people. Hurting people. And for me, this was the point: that in spite of the status of things at a global level – whatever it is that moves us – we can be a part of a turning. Turning people to God. Living wisely and consciously of our call to care for God’s creation and His people. For me, that was the take away.

    I might also note that as the UN is developing the new Millenium Goals to eliminate poverty, they are including ecological goals as these impact food growth, natural disasters, and economic opportunity. Having a sense of the big picture can also be helpful.

    Excellent work as always, John. You raise the right critical questions, and don’t just accept the blanket statements the authors make. Well done.

  6. Telile Fikru Badecha says:

    John, I share your concern that the immediate crises that face our world, the suffering of people should be our concern. I also think that there is a connection between the suffering of the poor and the ecological crisis. In Ethiopia, deforestation is an inevitable reality that significantly contributing to periodic drought and famine. Despite this reality, our people continue to cut down trees to use as fuel and also use the land for farming. As Christians, we need to help change our society’s fundamental habits in order to reduce deforestation and slow climate change. Thank you.

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