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Eco-Justice Notes
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US Shutdown and the Innocents
distributed 12/28/18 - ©2018

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I write today, not with a clear voice of theological ethics, or a definitive factual statement, but out of an agonizing concern and deep frustration.

I write today in the hope of stimulating conversation. From that discussion, I hope, some coherent and effective form of action or witness might emerge.

Today, the United States enters into the seventh day of a partial government shutdown. The President is stonewalling in his demands for $5 billion dollars to build a wall on the US-Mexico border. The House and Senate are unable either to negotiate a viable political option, or to rebuke the President. Until this impasse is resolved, hundreds of thousands of federal workers are not being paid, and essential government services are not being provided.

The impact of the shutdown has been muted -- at least in the public eye -- by the timing of this event. One quarter of the US government closed up on a Saturday morning, when offices would be closed anyway. Monday, Christmas Eve, was a federal holiday, as was Tuesday, Christmas Day. So it wasn't until Wednesday that the absence of normal office hours and routine services became evident.

During those four days, too, most of us were dealing with the extended Christmas holiday, and not fixating on the minute-by-minute news -- which had nothing really new to say anyway.

Beyond the news stories of the political stalemate "inside the beltway," some media reports -- perhaps especially in Colorado -- have talked about National Park locations that are either closed down, or are open but without any services. You can go to Rocky Mountain National Park, but snow on the roads is not plowed, bathrooms are not cleaned, and no rangers are there for rescues or law enforcement. This seems to be the most photogenic public face of shutdown impacts, and park closures have been a flashpoint during previous shutdowns.

More substantially, news reports about the impact of this shutdown have looked at the crisis of income insecurity for impacted federal workers. Some are having to work without pay, but with a reasonable expectation that they'll be paid eventually. Others have been furloughed, and told not to come to work at all. They may, or may not, get retroactive pay for the time they were shut out. We've been hearing about the struggles that are emerging for many of these workers who live paycheck-to-paycheck. Food, rent or mortgages, insurance premiums and other family bills have to be paid, but it may be many weeks until these workers get their back pay. They are entering a desperate situation.

Finally, this morning I started to hear about some of the next tier of impacted workers. NPR had a story about government contract workers, such as custodians and security guards, who are either locked out of their jobs, or having to work without pay. Unlike the employees of the federal government, there is little chance that these contract workers will get any compensation for their lost hours. Many of these contract workers are low-paid, and without much recourse for their vanished income.

Government services that are considered "essential" from the impacted federal agencies are continuing -- also with the workers not being paid. Air traffic control and screening at airports are going on. The Agriculture Department is still doing food safety inspections, and it is continuing the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits for January, as well as Child Nutrition Programs including School Lunch, School Breakfast, Child and Adult Care Feeding. The presence or absence of several of these won't become evident until schools start up again after the Christmas break.

We have the strange situation that a large part of the federal government has closed up, and we're not yet seeing dramatic reports of a crisis from the missing government services. I think it would be a very different situation if the first four days of the shutdown were not over the long Christmas weekend, or if some other mix of federal agencies were involved.

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My frustration and confusion are amplified, because I've experienced a remarkable silence from the advocacy groups that I'd expect to be on the front lines of this battle.

My email is not filled with calls to action. Facebook seems strangely silent (but they've been showing me less and less recently for some other reasons).

The justice and advocacy groups that have my email address have been sending out their already scheduled, end-of-the-year fundraising appeals, not messages giving guidance on the political conflicts and the options available to us. (And, yes, I confess that many Notes subscribers did get the final "Short. To the point." appeal from me yesterday.)

The Christmas holiday, the year-end financial pitches, and the apparent lack of any ground for political compromise seem to have shut down political advocacy alongside the federal government.

Meanwhile, the polarization and threats in Washington, DC, increase. This morning, Mr. Trump threatened to completely close down the southern border, and to cut off aid to Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. Democrats -- who can block funding bills in the Senate, and who soon will have a majority in the House -- are unwilling to give in to those demands. The stalemate is expected to continue for several more weeks.

I find it agonizing to watch this crisis unfold, and I have no dramatic ideas about how ordinary citizens can act to break the impasse.

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In the Catholic liturgical calendar, today is the "feast of the Holy Innocents." It is a day set aside in remembrance of the massacre of young children in Bethlehem by King Herod the Great in his attempt to kill the infant Jesus (Matthew 2:1618).

Holy Innocents seems like a painfully fitting date to observe today. FranciscanMedia reminds us that Herod the Great "was insecure and fearful of any threat to his throne. He was a master politician and a tyrant capable of extreme brutality."

From my political perspective -- and here's part of the call for conversation -- it appears that the US budget crisis has been provoked and escalated by Mr. Trump. Until just over a week ago, he seemed open to political compromises on the amount and form of funding for border security. Then a backlash from his base, who are deeply committed to his campaign promises of a "wall," made him change his position, and triggered the crisis.

Unlike Herod the Great, I don't think Mr. Trump is a "master politician." I do, however, see him as quite willing and able to inflict extreme brutality -- with lost wages and curtailed services -- in order to get what he wants.

And just as the innocent children of Bethlehem paid the price for Herod's paranoia, the innocent employees of the US government and the low-paid workers under government contract are the ones who are suffering now.

Today, the US government shutdown continues, with no end in sight. Today is the feast of the Holy Innocents. How do we give voice to our anger, frustration, anxiety, and our desire for justice?

Please, let me know if you have insights, or post a comment on our Facebook page.


P.S. -- for our friends in the Denver/Boulder area, check out our upcoming events. On January 6, I'll be doing a class on the IPCC climate report, and January 13 and 20 I'll be doing a 2-part sermon on hope. I'd love to see you.

Shalom!

Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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