Eco-Justice Ministries  

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

The Person and the Office
distributed 10/11/19 - ©2019

At the bottom of this email, there's a slight correction from last week's Notes about the history of the term "eco-justice."

I'm going to get into some dangerous political ground in just a moment, and I'll try to ease into it with a bit of a sidetrack. Skip to the break if you want to get right to the juicy part.

It is common for judges to wear black robes when they preside in court. So, too, many clergy wear some sort of formal robe or vestments when leading worship.

There's a practical side to that tradition. You don't have to worry so much about the fashion options as you start each day. Is this suit too dressy? Are shorts too casual? Do these two plaids clash? (Well, yes to that one.)

But there is a more philosophical reason for such garb, too. In settings of ritual importance, it can be helpful and appropriate for those in leadership to present themselves as the holder of an office, not primarily as an individual.

The black robe says "judge." (Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg stretches that depersonalization a bit with her distinctive lace collars.) A minister's robe, clerical collar or stole says "clergy." Both of them say, "I'm here in my official capacity today."

Judges and clergy are some of the professionals who perform functions where their vocational role intermingles with their own personality. Such an official is not an interchangeable, anonymous functionary simply reading from a script or doing a mechanical job. But neither are they simply an individual, doing and saying whatever they want at the moment.

Robes and vestments are a reminder -- to the official and to those gathered -- that there is someone who is speaking and acting in an official role. At such times, we generally expect such folk to be circumspect in their thoughts and actions, and to be attentive to the ethical expectations that come along with the respected role that they fill.

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There has been a lot of controversy about a Trump tweet from the start of this week. It's the one on Monday morning where he announced to the world a dramatic change in US foreign policy. The one where (for the second time in 10 months) he followed the instructions of Turkey's President Erdogan, and announced the sudden withdrawal of US troops from northern Syria -- apparently without any consultation with the US military, the State Department, Congress, or our other international allies.

There are many, in the US and internationally, who are angry about that sudden shift in policy, and what it means for the now embattled Kurds. I don't have the expertise to comment on such military decisions. That's not the dangerous ground for my reflections today.

In my role as a clergyperson, and as a social ethicist, I do feel it necessary to address a related matter of importance in that tweet. On Monday morning, Mr. Trump crossed the line in two ways that must not be ignored.

Mr. Trump tweeted, "As I have stated strongly before, and just to reiterate, if Turkey does anything that I, in my great and unmatched wisdom, consider to be off limits, I will totally destroy and obliterate the Economy of Turkey (I've done before!)"

The phrasing of "I will totally destroy" is profoundly wrong and dangerous. The language of "my great and unmatched wisdom" genuinely frightens me. (Google already has indexed 175,000 references to the phrase!)

I sometimes refer to the United States as the empire of the modern world, but even to the extent to which that is true, we do not have an emperor of unlimited power. The US does not have a king, and the founding fathers of this country were very clear that the role of the President is quite different from that of a monarch.

There are critically important distinctions between the person who happens to be President, the office of the President, and the much larger identity of the entire country. If economic sanctions will be used to constrain Turkey in its acts of war, those sanctions are -- or should be -- expressions of national policy and US governmental power. Neither economic sanctions nor decisions about troop deployments with major geo-political consequences are solitary actions of the presidency, to be taken without consultation. They certainly are not the individual prerogative of the person living in the White House. The first person declaration -- "I will destroy" -- reveals a profound misunderstanding of the difference between the individual, the role and the nation.

For the other part of the troubling sentence in Monday's tweet, I draw upon the words of Paul in his letter to the Romans (12:3): "For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned."

The self-promotion of a public declaration of "my great and unmatched wisdom" -- especially in the context of an official policy statement from the President -- strikes me as the ultimate contradiction of Paul's guidance. Nobody, in any role, at any time, should be speaking of "my great and unmatched wisdom."

I'm not invoking Paul today in terms of theology. I'm not going to draw any connection between Mr. Trump and "the measure of faith that God has assigned." Nor will I, for today, say that Paul's discussion of the church, and how "we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another" (12:5) applies to the character of an entire nation.

Paul simply speaks sensible words about how responsible people live and act. "Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought to think" is just good advice. I'll dare to say that it is Paul's advice which is grounded in real wisdom. I am frightened by the lack of awareness and judgment shown by a man who calls his wisdom "great and unmatched."

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I'm on dangerous political ground today. I feel compelled to name language and behaviors from Mr. Trump that seem to violate central principles of governance in the United States, and that show frightening personality flaws. I don't raise these topics lightly, or with any sense of joy.

But Donald Trump is not just some guy who lives down the street, and who we can dismiss as a quirky fellow. He serves in the office of the President of the United States, and he seems to have no understanding of his appropriate role in that office. How he behaves in that role, for better or worse, is a valid and even essential topic of public conversation.

An editorial from the Washington Post this week, reprinted in the Denver Post, refers to Monday's tweet and some other recent statement from Mr. Trump. They wrote, "Such unhinged rhetoric ought to worry even those Americans who support Trump's decisions."

As citizens of this country -- and especially for the readers of Eco-Justice Notes who are concerned about faith and ethics -- it is irresponsible to allow such rhetoric to be broadcast without commentary and critique.

Last week, in a short history of the word "eco-justice," I said that two American Baptist leaders, Richard Jones and Owen Owens, coined the term. I heard from Rev. Owens this week with more details about how the hyphenated word came into being almost 50 years ago. He wrote:
I must give credit, however, to the initiator of the American Baptist Home Missions Goal adopted in 1972 to Rev. Jitsuo Morikawa. His redemptive vision, grounded in Ephesians and Colossians, saw Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior of the cosmos. Therefore, Planet Earth and all of us who live upon it, are included in God's saving mission. Jitsuo Morikawa led us through 4 years of strategic planning (Board and staff), issuing in that comprehensive goal. Joining together ecological wholeness and social justice opened a path into the future we are still following.

I deeply appreciate this richer information about the years of theological reflection and careful planning leading to the need for the new word of "eco-justice."


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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