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Eco-Justice Notes
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The Chosen Ones
distributed 12/19/08 - ©2008

My reading this December has me vibrating between two very different senses of "the chosen one." There's the biblical variety, epitomized with the Christmas story. Then there's the political version cropping up in the headlines.

The striking contrasts between these two realms provides a lesson about God and faith.

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The election of Barack Obama, and now the nomination of his cabinet and leadership team, is creating a remarkable "domino effect" among elected officials. Many of the people tapped by Obama must resign from their current offices. Those vacancies, in turn, will often be filled from the ranks of lower elected officials, creating even more openings.

The dynamics are most revealing with the several US Senate seats which are soon to be vacated. In a strange legal quirk, Senate seats are not filled by a special election (as with the US House), or a chain of succession (as with Governors who are replaced by Lt. Governors). When a Senate seat opens up, the new folk are appointed by governors. Within the next few months, that will happen in Illinois, New York and Colorado.

This creates a remarkable opportunity -- the chance of getting into the US Senate without having to fight and fund a long campaign for office. The appointment shortcut to incumbancy is creating some very interesting situations, and brings into the open some factors that may not be quite so evident when Senators are elected.

The presence of self-serving, opportunistic abuses of power has been painfully clear in Illinois, where Gov. Blagojevich ran a private little auction for the Senate seat that had been Obama's. As you know, the Gov got into deep trouble when he was caught pushing up the bidding. But we can't place all the blame on the Governor. There were several people who were quite eager to make offers.

The jockeying for Sen. Hillary Clinton's seat hasn't been tinged with corruption, but the New York appointment also reveals strong ambition. It also shows that a well-known and well-connected family name might have more influence than deep political experience.

Here in Colorado, Sen. Ken Salazar (the guy with the ever-present cowboy hat), has been nominated to be Secretary of the Interior. The extensive local reporting on this transition has opened my eyes to the realities of the appointment process.

There are at least six people being considered to replace Sen. Salazar. In yesterday's Denver Post, the opening paragraph of a front page story spells it out pretty bluntly. "It will be about money, connections and identity politics; about who you know at the highest echelons of Democratic power and at the party's base in far-flung counties."

Because Sen. Salazar would have been up for re-election in 2010, whoever is appointed to that seat will have to dive immediately into campaign mode, drumming up support -- and lots of money -- from all around the state. One knowledgeable commentator noted, "If they don't have the fire in their belly, they better not do it because life isn't going to be a lot of fun." Whoever is appointed will have to raise about $15 million for the 2010 race.

With all three of the open Senate seats, the chosen ones will be ambitious, prominent, powerful, and very well-connected to money. No matter how fine their personalities, and how noble their policy stances, these are not people who are going to be giving their full attention to the powerless, the outsiders, those without big bucks, and those who can't vote (kids, immigrants, future generations, or other species, just to suggest a few).

Those dynamics of power and ambition are true whether Senators are elected or appointed. But it shows up more vividly this way, when all of the maneuvering is happening in and around the Governor's office, instead of at campaign breakfasts and policy debates. When it is all done in a few weeks, the superficial is stripped away.

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What about the biblical appointees, the chosen ones of our faith tradition?

God called Moses (a murderer on the run), and Moses tried to get out of it, because he stuttered. There are similar echoes in the call of Jeremiah, who also tried to decline the nomination. "I am only a boy", he said. Amos was a shepherd from the countryside who was called to speak truth to power. David was just a shepherd when he did his trick with a slingshot.

The Christmas story in Luke centers on an unknown teenager named Mary, who is called into a difficult lifetime of service. The good news of Messiah's birth is shared with shepherds out in the fields. (Do you notice a fondness for shepherds in the Bible?)

As I wrote a few weeks ago about the Magnificat, the Christmas story becomes offensive when Mary's words of celebration and praise come across as self-promotion and ambition. The narrative rings true when the chosen one speaks from humility and service.

In the Judeo-Christian heritage, the ones who are chosen often do not come from the ranks of the rich and the powerful. They are not people who nominated themselves for the job, or who campaigned eagerly to get the appointment, or who seem well qualified. These chosen ones do give their full attention to the powerless, the outsiders, and those who have no voice.

The chosen ones in the Bible have a fire in the belly, but it may be a reluctant one. Jeremiah -- who hates being the one to speak God's bad news -- complains. "If I say, 'I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name," then within me there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones; I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot.'" (20:9)

In the Gospel of Matthew, Isaiah's words about Israel as God's chosen people are applied to Jesus. "Here is my servant, whom I have chosen, my beloved, with whom my soul is well pleased. I will put my Spirit upon him, and he will proclaim justice to the Gentiles. He will not wrangle or cry aloud, nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets." (Matthew 12:18-19)

In the passage from Isaiah (chapter 42) that Matthew quoted, "bring forth justice" is a recurring phrase. The servant is called "to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness."

The biblical heritage sees "the chosen one" as a servant, working quietly behind the scenes for the cause of liberation and justice. Ambition and power are not part of it.

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In the next month or so, Governors in two or three states will pick "chosen ones" to go to the Senate. (Illinois may have to do it differently!) The chosen ones will all be prominent, influential, experts at fund-raising, and thrilled to get the job. They will know the rules and expectations of that most-powerful of all legislative bodies, and will move quickly to build friendships and alliances.

The chosen ones of the Bible have a very different look. They are outsiders and critics, reluctant, unskilled and awkward. The come with an unpopular message of justice and peace. They call their communities to service and responsibility.

When we look for God at work among us, when we look for the chosen ones who speak truth and do justice, let's keep our eyes on those who are humble or reluctant, but still persistent. Let us be open to truth from the climate scientists who wish they did not have to proclaim doom, from the advocates who are more comfortable serving at the soup kitchen then schmoozing at the country club, and from pastors who have the courage to be prophetic.

God and governors have different goals when picking their chosen ones. Where will you place your confidence for wise and just decisions?

Shalom!

Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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