Eco-Justice Ministries  

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

Political Pain and Grief
distributed 12/16/16 - ©2016

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I confess what may be completely obvious to you from my recent writings: I am horrified by the emerging Donald Trump administration. But I need to put that confession into a larger framework.

The six weeks since the election have brought a dramatic shift in political priorities and style -- and those shifts are spilling over into states and community relationships, too. But despite some of the impassioned liberal rhetoric I've seen, we haven't experienced a switch between two polar extremes, from heaven to hell. We've moved much farther into crisis, but our starting point wasn't all that good.

A "prophetic" theological perspective gives insights and guidance for how we (those of us who hold to progressive or eco-justice principles) must center ourselves as we head into the coming months and years.

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In emergency rooms and doctor's offices, it is now common practice to ask patients to rate their discomfort on a pain scale of 0 to 10. Posters match the numbers with cartoon faces to help visualize the options. A smiling green face represents no pain. A frowning red face with streaming tears indicates "worst pain possible." In between are shadings of color and emotion.

For most of us who have never had to deal with genuinely excruciating, crippling pain, it is hard to imagine what a rating of 10 would feel like. So we may tend to push "really uncomfortable" up into the 8 or 9 level. It is only when profound pain comes that we might readjust the scale.

So it is with political pain. That comes on a subjective continuum, too. Through many of the Obama years -- while pushing on climate change and a variety of other issues -- I might have put many days at 7 or 8, "very severe." It would take years of hard organizing, lobbying and protests to achieve small gains. One pipeline was stopped, but others approved. Civil disobedience against oil and gas leases didn't stop the sales, it just drove the auctions on-line where we couldn't picket. The Paris Agreement has entered into force, but global greenhouse emissions continue to rise.

Through the last 8 years, comparing US policies with what is needed to address the climate crisis and other causes, the pain of ongoing destabilization and violence seemed severe and exhausting. But perhaps I hadn't realized the possible scope of real pain. Current events shift my sense of "worst pain possible."

Incoming President Trump continues to deny or discount the reality of climate change. (He will, apparently, be the only head of state to express such counter-factual opinions.) His cabinet appointments for the EPA and Energy Department are also climate deniers, and the nominee for Secretary of State is the president of a multinational oil company which for decades lied about its own climate studies. On other fronts, the appointments for Attorney General, Education and Labor appear to oppose the guiding principles of the agencies they are to head.

The Trump Transition strikes me as analogous to the launch of the 2003 Iraq war, with the strategy known as "shock and awe." Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said that the strike against hundreds of targets had taken place "on a scale that indicates to Iraqis" that Saddam and his leadership were finished.

Mr. Trump seems to be staging an equally broad and total assault on federal agencies and policies. In every cabinet department, rapid and ruthless decisions will reverse existing policies. It is designed to happen on so many fronts, so quickly and so forcefully that "resistance is futile." From my perspective -- as a person living out a vocational call to work for transformational social change, based on principles that are generally considered far left -- this is a painful, agonizing situation.

It is time to readjust the political pain scale. What I thought was a 7 or 8 now looks like a 5. I would put today's situation at a 10, but I'm starting to imagine that it may get even worse. I'll hold today's rating at 9.

(For a different perspective, see yesterday's column by Charles Krauthammer, who sees EPA nominee Scott Pruitt's opinions about climate change to be irrelevant. To him, the Trump appointments are all about the appropriate scope of federal rulemaking.)

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What are we to do in this situation? As people of faith and conscience, as people who are committed to eco-justice principles of ecological health, economic and racial justice, inclusion and civility, how do we prepare for shock and awe?

I find myself stepping back from immediate action strategies. (But not too far! Those are taking shape, too!) I remember the theological and psychological insights of Walter Brueggemann. In two books dealing with prophetic imagination, he addresses the importance of grief. Real social criticism, he wrote, "begins in the capacity to grieve because that is the most visceral announcement that things are not right. ... as long as the empire can keep the pretense alive that things are all right, there will be real grieving and no serious criticism." And so I have noted several recent articles that warn of the danger in "normalizing" Trump's language and positions. Those stances are not normal in our society, and they are not all right.

Brueggemann also writes (a bit less vividly), "The prophets invite Israel to grieve. The prophetic anticipatory figuring of loss is an attempt to break the denial and to bring the community to active grieving that is commensurate with its coming circumstance." As we look ahead, active grieving that acknowledges the depth of loss and change is an essential part of building resistance and action.

If we are to have the strength and vision to stand for eco-justice, we need to have the courage to feel intense pain and grief. Denial and numbness will not energize us or allow us to focus our efforts. Rational analysis that hides the emotional turmoil of fear and anger takes away our passion.

So I ask you -- and I ask myself -- to do something very hard in the coming days. Take a break from the news reports and the political commentaries and the endless Facebook posts. Reflect, prayerfully and honestly, about the profound losses that you feel coming. What treasured and precious part of your life is in great danger? Where have you deeply invested yourself in a cause that may soon be reversed or destroyed? Get out of your head. Go into your heart and soul. Grieve and weep. Rage. Do not allow buried and festering emotions to numb you or paralyze you. Let your anger and your tears show you what is most valuable and most important. Let your grief renew your hope -- your profound commitment to what is good and right and true.

Then, and only then, decide how you will act in the coming days. Where will you focus your energies? What communities and agencies will you join to act effectively? What are the distinctive skills, gifts and resources that you can offer for this cause? Moving through your grief and anger, make commitments for ongoing action.

If you must, start the grieving process on your own. But it is far better if you can enter into this painful work in some sort of community. Share your tears and your words with a trusted friend, your spouse, your pastor. If your church provides a safe space (either as a community of faith, or as a sheltering space) open your grief in that spiritual and loving context.

For our friends in the Denver area, Eco-Justice Ministries is offering a time of worship and ritual to help us into and through this emotional process. In cooperation with Washington Park United Church of Christ, we are planning "A Service of Lament, Anger and Hope." We invite you to join us next Monday evening, from 7:00 to 8:00, for a candlelit ritual space of lament, song, prayer, silence, and speech. (The church is at 400 S Williams St in Denver.)

How bad is the political pain for you? Be honest for today, and looking into the near future.

If these are excruciating times for you, do not hide from it. Enter into your grief, anger and pain, so that you can move through those emotions, and emerge into action.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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