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Eco-Justice Notes
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A Parable for the Firing of Pruitt
distributed 7/6/18 - ©2018

This week's issue of Eco-Justice Notes is underwritten by Barbara Peter of Lake Forest, Illinois. Her generous support helps make this publication possible.

Scott Pruitt is out as the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency! His ongoing string of ethical scandals finally became an intolerable political liability for the White House, and his resignation was demanded.

In several news reports, I've heard people from across the political spectrum express surprise at Pruitt's ouster -- not as his departure, but the fact that it took so long.

The first flurry of emails from environmental advocacy groups have been celebrating the news of Pruitt's removal (and their role in making it happen). The prognosis for what comes next at the EPA is more guarded.

To provide some perspective, I turn to a problematic passage from the Gospel of Matthew -- and move from there to a genuinely hopeful bit of news about science in government agencies.

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The parables of Jesus are gems of concise story telling -- short, vivid and insightful. The exception seems to be "the parable of the talents" in Matthew 25. It is a longer, convoluted tale with a confusing, even distasteful message.

The setting of the story may not be hard to envision as we live in the Trump era. There's an immensely wealthy man, described as "harsh," and with a reputation for building up his fortune through questionable means. He delegates control of his money to three of his slaves. Eventually, the man demands an accounting from his minions.

Two of the slaves report that they have doubled the master's investment. These two are congratulated by the rich man, and placed in charge of even greater wealth. The third one, though, had moral qualms about continuing the corruption of the master. This slave buried the money in the ground, and returned only as much as he'd been given at the start.

Because he did not build up the master's wealth, this third slave one is raked over the coals by the wealthy one. Slave number three is described variously as wicked, lazy and worthless. He then is thrown into the outer darkness, "where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth."

The story is complicated. The simple lesson is that "God has given each of us talents, and we need to use what God gave us." But the details of the story make it morally muddled. Fortunately, for today's purposes, we don't need to make sense of Jesus' lesson. We only need to look at the characters in the story in light of yesterday's news.

Scott Pruitt is out at the EPA, where he'd been overseeing the rollback and dismantling of environmental protections. What is the biblical parallel for the ouster of one of Trump's trusted minions? How does the rich and powerful master describe him?

In tweets from the President on Thursday, Trump called Pruitt "a terrific guy. ... Within the Agency Scott has done an outstanding job, and I will always be thankful to him for this!"

The Washington Post quotes "a Dallas donor and prominent Trump supporter" speaking about Pruitt's departure: "I'm extremely disappointed. He's the only Cabinet secretary who has done what he was told to do."

Scott Pruitt was told to resign as head of the EPA, but he's not being treated like the lazy and worthless slave who is cast into the outer darkness. (For that analogue, we might look at the way Rex Tillerson was given the boot as Secretary of State less than four months ago, with no thanks or praise.) On his way out the door, Pruitt is praised for serving the interests of his master.

The EPA Administrator was undone by his constantly self-serving ethical lapses, not his policy initiatives. Well, actually that's not true. Pruitt had to leave, not because his ethical blunders were objectionable in themselves, but because those missteps were generating too much political turmoil. Trump didn't seem especially concerned with Pruitt's self-serving behavior, and Scott didn't apologize for anything in his letter of resignation.

Pruitt is gone, but the policies that he put in place are likely to continue. He was doing exactly what the boss wanted, and the political insiders expect his successors, both short and long term, to keep on the same course -- just with less turmoil about extraneous issues.

The EPA's deputy administrator, Andrew Wheeler, will become the interim chief on Monday. Mr. Wheeler was a lobbyist for the coal industry before hiring on at the EPA. Mr. Trump tweeted, "I have no doubt that Andy will continue on with our great and lasting EPA agenda."

It has been easy to challenge Scott Pruitt's outlandish behavior -- his lavish travel, his super-secret phone booth, and his use of his position to get favors for himself and his family. But those ethical failures were not the great dangers of his time at the EPA, where he took apart many of the country's most essential environmental protections.

So I turn to another biblical text, Ephesians 6:12-13. "For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm."

Scott Pruitt was a loyal servant to Donald Trump. On the large scale, our struggle is not with him as an individual, but with the policies and perspectives that are guiding this administration. Our struggle is with the ideology of this present darkness, an ideology which informs appointments to the EPA, other cabinet offices, and the Supreme Court.

We must "take up the whole armor of God" for that long and hard struggle. We must not get distracted, so that we think replacing the loyal servants with other minions will end the agenda. We must stand firm in opposing the spiritual forces of evil that exploit God's creation in so many ways. In our work of resistance and opposition, we must keep the focus on the agenda we oppose, not on the people who carry out that misguided agenda.

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I promised some good news. There are places where we can see positive examples of that third slave, the one who rejected the master's corruption and profiteering.

One of the great travesties of the Trump administration -- and of their fellows in the legislature and in industry -- has been the denial of the climate crisis, the withdrawal from the Paris accords, and the dismantling of governmental programs to study or minimize climate disruptions.

One of the US agencies that does a lot of climate research is NASA, and the man appointed to serve as NASA administrator -- Oklahoma representative Jim Bridenstine -- was seen as a climate "denier" who would carry out the administration's agenda.

So it is good news that Mr. Bridenstine, as he settled into his new job, listened to a lot of the experts, and did a lot of reading. A few weeks ago, he said, "I came to the conclusion myself that carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas that we've put a lot of it into the atmosphere and therefore we have contributed to the global warming that we've seen. And we've done it in really significant ways."

He told a group of reporters, "We spend over $100 million dollars annually ... on carbon monitoring at NASA. We're committed to that. And I'm committed to that."

At NASA, at least, there is resistance to the Trumpian agenda of promoting fossil fuels and devastating the climate. One appointee who was expected to be a faithful minion has listened to the experts, and he has declared some independence from the rulers.

There is cause for celebration when the dangerous agenda of the ruling powers is challenged. May we, too, stand firm in that ongoing work of opposition and resistance.

Shalom!

Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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