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

The Art of the Possible
distributed 12/10/10 - ©2010

"Even though it seems impossible to the remnant of the people in these days, should it also seem impossible to me, says the Lord of hosts?" -- Zechariah 8:6

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I'm hearing a lot of despair about politics these days.

The US Senate is widely recognized as "broken", crippled by its own rules and paralyzed by partisan divisions. There are some who are delighted by that state of affairs -- because they don't want any federal action, and because deadlock is a way of inflicting political damage -- but most of us are frustrated, angry and grieving about the inability of our senatorial "leaders" to do their jobs.

The UN climate negotiations now wrapping up in Cancun, Mexico, are accomplishing little. After last year's highly-anticipated session -- dubbed "Hopenhagen" -- the expectations this go-around are painfully low. The vested interests of the big economic players, and the veto power of other states in a consensus-based system, are proving almost insurmountable. In my circle of friends and colleagues, there is deep pain about the lack of action while the world races into catastrophic warming.

Even at its best, politics is a messy business. Thus the saying that "there are two things that you don't want to see being made: sausage and laws." The end result might be worthwhile, but the process can turn your stomach. It is full of compromise, concessions and trade-offs, all designed to enlist enough reluctant legislators to make a deal.

In the late 1800s, Prussian Prime Minister Otto von Bismarck made the comment that has become conventional wisdom: “Politics is the art of the possible, the attainable -- the art of the next best.” Today, even that seems out of reach.

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I'm deeply concerned about the political despair that I hear within liberal Christianity, because that emotion grows out of a misplaced sense of our calling, individually and as the church. In our witness and our activism, we "progressives" have come to define ourselves politically, and not prophetically.

A year ago, I described a meeting that I attended in the late 1990s, when the staff member for environmental advocacy in a major US denomination was visiting Denver.

After he ran through a number of difficult political challenges -- such as drilling in the Arctic Refuge, and threats to the Endangered Species Act -- someone in the audience asked the speaker, "Where do you find hope?" He answered with details about Senators who were using committee processes to delay or derail damaging legislation, successful political organizing in key congressional districts, and possibilities for a presidential veto of the worst bills. He tried to convince us that there was reason to be optimistic.

His response could have been given to the Sierra Club without changing a word. It was a very pragmatic political analysis, and it struck me as shallow. It took as a given the sharp constraints of "the art of the possible", and tried to find some encouragement in deal-making, arm-twisting and the clever use of rules.

Now I admit that the legislative and diplomatic arenas are important, and that the gradual workings of the US Senate and UN negotiations are tied to countless limitations and constraints. But if we confine our hope and our vision to that definition of "the possible", then we are sure to be frustrated.

I often have referred to Walter Brueggemann's wonderful little book, The Prophetic Imagination. He writes about the function of the great prophets -- Moses, Jeremiah and Jesus -- in getting us to see beyond the conventional ideas of the possible. "The prophet does not ask if the vision can be implemented, for questions of implementation are of no consequence until the vision can be imagined." "We need to ask not whether it is realistic or practical or viable but whether it is imaginable."

In an insightful column last spring, Mike Marqusee wrote:

Whenever a commentator declares that 'politics is the art of the possible,' I'm on my guard. What I'm being told, I suspect, is to accept apparent present conditions as immutable facts of life, and to trim my goals accordingly. I'm being told to let injustices stand. .... Theoretically, the possible is an elastic and speculative category. But the dictum draws no distinctions between the immediately unlikely and the ultimately impossible, takes no notice of the infinite and shifting gradations between them, and of the impact of human agency in shifting an outcome from one category to another.

Human agency, stimulated by a lively dose of prophetic imagination, can shift an idea from impossible to possible -- but only if we are bold in imagining, proclaiming and advocating that new possibility.

The antidote to political despair is not found in lowering our expectations and narrowing our vision. We combat despair and energize ourselves with hope when we announce to ourselves and the world, "I refuse to believe that these are the only options!"

US politics can be changed when we break a fixation on monetary wealth and the GDP, and lift up broader standards of the common good, sustainability and ecological health. We begin that process with story-telling that taps into deep emotions and values, drawing on local examples and compelling experiences. Detailed policy proposals to implement the vision come along only after the stories have taken root.

International climate diplomacy can be changed -- and is being changed -- by the forceful assertion of a different possibility. Advocacy groups and some national delegations are insisting that scientific facts about a biologically viable world must be the ultimate measure for action. The data point for safe levels of atmospheric CO2 has became the political demand of "350". We refuse to accept a "politics of the possible" that does not acknowledge that fact.

Changing the definition of "the possible" is slow work. It is not going to happen in the next few hours at Cancun, or in the remaining weeks of this congressional session. A different possibility has to be cultivated at the grassroots -- in churches, schools, small businesses and city councils -- before it can take hold in Congress and internationally. Our politics must begin with the polis, the people and the community.

In conventional politics, "the possible" is the realm of small expectations. But for those who live prophetically, "the possible" is filled with unbounded hope. In this Advent season of prophetic hope, I pray that we will be bold and tireless as we work to redefine the possible.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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