What Does Pastor Rob Bell And Spirituality Have To Do With Sustainability?

I’ve been a volunteer Life Skills teacher at a homeless shelter in Denver for the past 10 years. My job was to help the students examine their beliefs to see how those beliefs directly affected their experiences and decision-making. If they could make that connection, they have a shot at changing the experiences from homelessness to hopefulness. I don’t ask them to change their beliefs. I just ask them to examine them. My thought is that if we all do just a little examination of what we believe, we’ll make better decisions on what to do with those beliefs. I keep my questions simple:

1. How’s that belief working for you?

2. Where did it come from?

3. If it’s not working for you, why do you still believe it?

The student has to make choices based on their examination of their belief systems. I want to be clear that this process is not necessarily about their Religions, but what they believe about the world and their personal role in it. That can be a sometimes esoteric conversation for many, so my students often go to their religion as a touchstone. In this class, I discovered that the students who were grounded in the idea of a jealous, violence, and vindictive God usually came to the shelter manifesting jealousy, violence and vindictiveness in their personal lives. These students were also the ones who were less open to the new ideas I introduced in class. They tended to be in the most arguments and conflicts at the shelter. Only two people were ever asked to leave my class because of inappropriate behavior or insubordination. Both of them were Fundamentalists. One student was Muslim, the other was Christian.

I’m probably one of the few teachers in the world that’s been called both a backslider and an infidel at the same time.

Let me take this discussion about beliefs in another direction. I recently discovered the works of Pastor Rob Bell of Mars Hill Bible Church in Michigan who is also being called a backslider and infidel, by long time Bible scholars no less. This next generation Spiritual Leader is suggesting that Indian human rights leader Mahatma Gandhi, a Hindu, could be in Heaven. Bell makes his statement based on the idea that the God of all things is a loving God and a God of peace. Bell’s God would be in step with Gandhi’s personal philosophy. Bell also makes a powerful discussion for what he calls “The Gospel of Evacuation”. He says so much emphasis has been made in the Christian faith about getting out of here (Earth) and getting to heaven, that people do nothing to change the hell all around, and completely miss the heaven in our midst as well, because their focus is on evacuation.

That’s the same conclusion I came to from my teachings at the homeless shelter, around the country and the world.

In some ways, we’re like the bad tenant that the landlord told to get out because of unpaid rent. The bad tenant trashes the place, takes a few things that are not his, and runs out in the middle of the night. It doesn’t seem to me that the Earth deserves to be trashed and left in a mess. Last I checked, God said all that he made was good. Unfortunately, that bad tenant belief or “evacuation” philosophy is behind the unsustainable ideas that we’ve implemented in the Earth over the years. From how we treat the environment, to how we treat each other, to how we manipulate governments and societies just so that we can get ours, to how we’ve embraced the “he who dies with the most toys wins” concept – it’s madness with a social and religious backing.

Sustainable Society Leadership, that is, new leadership that promotes and implements sustainable methods in dealing with the environment, personal empowerment, economic justice and free markets – may hold the key to those who are realizing that bad tenants are causing most of the hell Christians and Muslims are hoping to escape. At the risk of sounding too romantic, let me suggest that Sustainable Society Leadership is a kind of “spirituality” that leans toward interconnectedness instead of individualism, sharing instead of favoritism, personal empowerment instead of subjugation, and heaven instead of hell. I’ve noticed that many people caught up in the bad tenant/evacuation matrix are either seeking to run away from the mistakes of their past, or hoping for the promise of the future. You hardly ever find them present in the here and now. Since they are rarely home, it’s no wonder that their place looks run down and beaten up. They are simply terrible renters.

One of the foundational concepts of Sustainable Society Leadership is taking the long view. When we start to look at the Earth as a place where we’re going to live instead of a temporary place to stay while we’re waiting to trade up, we start looking at our yard, our neighbors and our children with much more commitment and intention. This is the long view. It’s hard to wrap your head around the long view when you’re being told at your religious gathering that the end times are any day now.

I truly do believe that, with a little examination into our belief system, we’ll start to see areas that could use some revisions. I admire the courage in Pastor Rob Bell as he has furthered this dialogue. As I say with my students at the homeless shelter, I am not an advocate of throwing out the baby with the bath water. If there is something that is serving you well and personally empowering you, hold onto that. Just realize in your decision-making that you have over 6 billion neighbors and we would be very grateful if you would just keep up your yard, say hello every once in a while, and come to the occasional neighborhood pot luck.

It’s the good tenant thing to do.

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