Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

We Can't Do This
distributed 5/20/05 - ©2005

I was a witness to a remarkable -- perhaps unique -- moment in academic politics. Against all odds, I hope and pray that the same sort of enlightenment might prevail in Washington, DC in the coming days.

When I was in seminary, I served as a member of the student government. Once a month, we would meet with our teachers as a joint Student-Faculty Senate. On many matters of shared interest, students and faculty would vote together. Our procedural rules, though, specified some topics where the students had voice, but not vote. It was around one of those topics -- a matter of faculty hiring -- that the memorable event occurred.

We sat together in a large circle, and had a long and heated debate about the qualifications of a faculty candidate. Finally, it was time to decide. The Dean first polled the student representatives to get a measure of our opinion. By some appreciable majority, the students indicated our objection to hiring the individual. Then the Dean called for a vote by the faculty. By an appreciable majority, the faculty voted to hire.

There was a long moment of silence in the room as the sharp division between students and teachers soaked in. Finally, the Dean spoke: "We can't do this."

By all of the rules, the faculty had the right and the power to make that decision, whatever the students felt. But the Dean realized -- and most of the faculty also saw -- that such a divided decision would not be good for the school.

Going against all of the procedural rules, and having no authority to do so, the Dean set aside the faculty's vote. After 30 years, I don't remember how the crisis was resolved -- if we found some compromise, or if the search committee was told to start over again -- but I vividly recall the Dean's honoring of the student's voice.

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The "wise heads" who have written extensively about eco-justice ethics have affirmed four essential ethical norms, four core principles that undergird informed and responsible decisions. In the usual ordering of the list -- solidarity, sustainability, sufficiency and participation -- it is the intersection of the first and the last norms that speaks to that remarkable seminary vote, and to the political crisis in the US.

"Solidarity" calls us into an awareness of our interrelationship with others -- with other people in our own community, with people in other parts of the world, with other species, and with the entire web of life. Solidarity reminds us that the well-being of others is essential for our own well-being. It reminds us that pursuit of short-term self-interest often leads to harm to all of us in the long run.

The norm of "participation" calls for the empowered involvement of all stakeholders in decision-making. At its most basic level, participation demands fair and open democratic processes such as elections. In an extended eco-justice context, it calls for ways to extend voice and power to those who are excluded from decision-making -- future generations, people from other countries, and other species. It also goes beyond majority rule, and affirms the rights of minority voices.

The remarkable moment in the Student-Faculty Senate embodied participation (the students had voice in the meeting, and were formally polled) and solidarity (where the good of the entire community was seen as different from what could be imposed by a majority vote of the faculty). The Dean's ruling that the vote could not stand was accepted because it stood on strong ethical and pragmatic grounds.

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This month, the US Senate is caught up in a deep crisis over procedural rules. The leadership of the majority party has initiated a string of decisions -- culminating in a vote next week -- that may profoundly change the way that senior legislative body functions.

For over 200 years, the Senate rules have empowered minority voices within its assembly. On several kinds of Senate actions, a large and committed minority can "filibuster" -- use the fact or threat of extended debate -- to delay or derail a contested vote. If at least 40% of the Senators back a filibuster, the Senate rules recognize that there are differences which are large enough and deep enough that it makes good sense to reign in the power of the majority.

The filibuster has been used often and honorably in many causes through the years. And there have been times when it has been used to block good causes. But overall, the rule has been a key factor in creating and maintaining a responsible legislative body. The Senate's respect for minority rights has generally led it toward decisions that serve the greater good, and which have wide-spread credibility among the citizenry.

In the coming days, the Senate rules may be changed to eliminate the option of filibusters around judicial confirmations. In a fight over the lifetime appointment of federal judges, the concerns and objections of a large minority would be disregared.

There are many issues involved with the seven judicial nominees who are at the heart of the current dispute. People of good will disagree over their suitability to serve on the federal bench. The matter of the Senate rule change, though, goes far beyond the experience and philosophy of these particular candidates. What is at stake is whether a President who has a narrow majority of supporters in the Senate can have an unlimited power of appointments. On matters of such widespread and long-lasting importance, will the objections of a substantial majority be heard and honored?

The Dean of my seminary came to a decision like that and said, "We can't do this." I don't expect Senate majority leader Bill Frist to make that sort of remarkable statement. But if just six Republican Senators will have the courage to respect the Senate's long tradition of minority rights, if they will honor the ethical norms of solidarity and participation, the Senate as a whole might confront a moment of majority domination, and say, "We can't do this."

The vote on Senate rules vote that will happen in a few days goes far beyond these particular nominations. That vote will determine the character of political processes in the US for years to come.

Our nation will be diminished if "the nuclear option" is passed. Our politics will be less civil and more conflictual. We will see more expressions of raw political power, and less appreciation for the rights and wisdom of "the loyal opposition."

Whatever the qualifications of these particular nominees, the rejection of judicial filibusters is ethically and pragmatically wrong.

I urge you to contact your Senators. Encourage them to recognize that appointments to the federal courts are a place where majority domination is inappropriate. Encourage them to say "we can't do this" and to vote against the proposed rule changes.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

The US Senate website features a "Find your Senators" option that will take you to phone numbers and email forms for both of your Senators.

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