The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries
Persistent in Compassion and Justice
PROLOGUE: Las Vegas
But then I read accounts of the multitudes in that night's crowd who acted with courage, love, and self-sacrifice. Ordinary people were heroic in helping strangers. Throngs lined up before dawn to donate blood. And so I turn to the other end of the Bible: "No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends." (John 15:13)
The violence is real, and complex. There is the culpability of the shooter, with whatever mental disorders might have been involved. The all-too-easy access to high-powered guns is a factor that must be addressed. Investigations and conversations in the coming days will look into other personal, cultural and legal factors. Hard decisions must be made about ways to stop this senseless killing.
But as the United States grapples once again with the horror of mass murder, I hope that we will hold onto the evidence of love, community, compassion and grace. The violence rips into our personal and collective lives, but it is the violence that is an aberration. There was one shooter, and thousands of heroes. The violence is real, but so is the wide-spread and spontaneous commitment to service, community and self-sacrifice. May our fear and anger not overwhelm the presence of good among us.
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I do confess to my own cynicism and frustration, this time in the realm of politics. After today's prologue, I need to stress that the next story has to be seen as one side of a both-and situation.
Last summer, I was watching part of a video series produced by my colleague, Rev. Terry Gallagher, who works at climate education and activism with churches in Illinois. His "Sustaining Creation" series is a thoughtful and helpful resource for congregations. At the end of the first video, though, I hit a section that was hard for me to accept.
Terry's call to action (found starting at 24:00 in the video), is to call your congressional representative, "and say that you believe global warming is an issue significant enough to affect how you vote." This isn't something to be done just once, but repeatedly. He recounts the biblical parable of a widow and an unjust judge. (Luke 18:1-8) The widow is persistent in her demands for justice. Finally, the judge says, "because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming." Terry's affirmation is that, with our tenacity, we can wear out the politicians so that they will finally grant our request, so that we leave them alone.
At the time that I watched Terry's video, the US Senate was headed toward one of its many votes on health care. For months, citizens across the country had been swamping congressional phone lines with requests and demands. Here in Colorado, our calls to a key senator routinely went to voice mail, because his staff was overwhelmed with the volume of persistent callers. Politicians refused to hold town hall meetings, because they didn't want to face crowds of passionate constituents, demanding to be heard.
When the mid-summer vote finally came, only three of the 100 senators broke from their party's position. Millions of phone calls and emails failed to shift the vote of dozens of senators who disagreed with the majority stance of the people in their state.
In the middle of last summer, I found it hard to imagine that tenacious calls can wear out our senators and representatives. I saw abundant evidence that the members of congress, buffered by their staff, have an almost unlimited ability to disregard their constituents when they're getting pressure from party leadership, major donors, and institutional leaders -- especially on a bitterly fought issue like health care.
I do want to affirm Terry's instruction to call our political representatives. They do need to hear from us, repeatedly. At state and local levels, especially, politicians are more likely to pay attention to voter sentiments. And making those calls is important for us, the voters. It is an act of faithful witness, a spiritual discipline of sorts, to be persistent in speaking to matters of great moral consequence, even if our calls and emails don't get immediate results.
So, yes, keep making those calls and sending emails -- about climate change, about gun violence, about the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, about help for the communities demolished by this year's string of hurricanes.
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There is a reason that some of our representatives ignore us, even when we are persistent. The system of electing representatives is warped, and in many cases, the "representatives" don't need to be attentive to all of their voters.
This week, the US Supreme Court heard a case about political gerrymandering, about the partisan drawing of legislative districts that essentially disenfranchises voters. When districts are created with a heavy bias toward one party or the other, the minority party never stands a chance.
In the Wisconsin case before the court on Tuesday, the Republican-controlled state legislature used sophisticated computer tools to draw district maps that favored their party. The statistical analysis of voter registration street-by-street changed gerrymandering from an imperfect art form into a highly reliable science. In 2012, Republicans won 60 out of the Wisconsin assembly's 99 seats with just 48.6% of the two-party statewide vote, and Republicans have maintained their majority since. That means that they would get to draw the maps after the next census, too, and hold onto their advantage. The case taken to the Supreme Court claims that this bias is so extreme and so long-standing that it deprives the minority party of equal protection under the law, and deprives them of their representational rights.
As we've seen all too clearly in the US Congress, when representatives -- of either party -- have "safe seats", they are far more attentive to the extreme members of their own party's base than they are to moderates or folk from other parties. The politicians face a greater threat from a primary challenger than from a contest in the general election. And that means that many issues in Congress become more partisan than ever before. We see it on health care, climate policy, and gun violence.
The Supreme Court might decide that Wisconsin went too far in their hyper-partisan gerrymandering. They might define some standards that must be taken into account to provide greater balance and broader representation. Interestingly, and unfortunately, the Supreme Court itself is closely split on ideological lines. The Wisconsin case really will be decided by Justice Anthony Kennedy, the only one of the nine who seems to be in the middle.
If Justice Kennedy knocks down the Wisconsin method of drawing district maps, there's a good chance that the changes to come will open some space for more responsive elections in the years to come. If so, our representatives may be more attentive to persistent citizens who nag them on important issues. That will be a helpful step toward the eco-justice ethical norm of "participation", of all the stakeholders having an authentic voice in important decisions.
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This is a week when the need for community and compassion has been clear on many fronts. The mass murder in Las Vegas, and the outpouring of care in response. The ongoing recovery from hurricanes, especially in Puerto Rico. The Supreme Court dealing with political representation that honestly reflects the community's diversity.
May we all be persistent -- in politics and countless other ways -- in our work toward local and global communities that are just and compassionate.
Eco-Justice Ministries * 400 S Williams St, Denver, CO 80209 * 303.715.3873
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