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

Considering Impeachment with Clear Values
distributed 9/27/19 - ©2019

"Unprecedented" seems to be the word most often used to describe the remarkable political and legal turmoil of the past week. (I'm thinking of the US, but it is true that the same language might apply as well to the UK.)

Just a week ago -- when many of us were giving our full attention to the huge and exciting events of the Global Climate Strike -- there were vague rumors of an inappropriate telephone call made by President Trump to the leader of some other country. In just seven days, those rumors took more concrete shape, a political tipping point was reached, an impeachment investigation was launched, a transcript of the phone call was released, the text of the whistleblower complaint was released, and hearings with a high-ranking official have already been held in both the House and the Senate. Political bombshells are dropping by the hour, and nobody, it seems, has a clear idea of how all this might play out.

As a passionate advocate for eco-justice and climate justice, and as one who has been outspoken on a lot of political and ethical issues through the last several years, I have some preference about possible outcomes. I am aware, though, that it is neither necessary nor helpful to spell out those preferences at this point in an emerging process.

With some trepidation, I will wrestle publicly with a much harder matter. How might people of faith be most true to our values and our God in the coming weeks? I offer two pieces of advice that may be helpful in the coming days.

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The first affirmation comes from the core of our national identity, and from foundational principles of ethics. Laws must be applied equally to all people, and no one is above the law.

If laws are unjust, objections can be raised, challenges can be made in courts, and legislatures can change the laws. In acts of civil disobedience, laws may be broken intentionally as a form of protest, and with the expectation that there are consequences for those violations. Nowhere in our legal and moral system is there a principle that laws may be ignored if they're inconvenient.

As the experts will be telling us frequently, impeachment is not a legal process in the ordinary sense. What qualifies as "high crimes and misdemeanors" ultimately is a political decision. But, especially as the investigation narrows to the one issue of an apparent abuse of power, and of cover-up activities, that investigation will -- or should -- be concerned with the presence and the scope of practices that clearly violate legal and ethical norms.

The US has been in strange territory for the last couple of years. Mr. Trump's style is unconventional, to say the least. He has spoken and acted in ways that we haven't seen in previous presidents. Many of Mr. Trump's supporters have been delighted at his outspoken and unpredictable style. Mr. Trump's opponents have not been pleased with his behavior and his language. This point of tension is a matter of personality and style, not a clear-cut ethical or legal concern. Being rude and crude is not an impeachable offense.

What will be very important as the investigation continues is the dividing line between Mr. Trump's personality, and his alleged violations of established legal and ethical norms. No one is above the law, and it is the law (or presidential ethics) which must be applied clearly and fairly.

Yesterday, a US senator spoke against the impeachment investigation. He said, "It's just the president being President Trump." If this were simply a matter of the chief executive insulting a foreign leader, then it would be "just" a matter of personality. But the investigation appears to be focused on things that are far more serious -- an abuse of power for personal political gain, and a coordinated effort to cover up those practices. That's not a quirk of his personality. That's a violation of US law.

I hope that all of us -- the members of the US House and Senate, and us ordinary citizens -- can find some level of agreement that no one, not even the President, is above the law, and that any move toward impeachment must be grounded in clear violations of laws and established ethics. If we can keep to those standards, then these proceedings will not be a "witch hunt."

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My other affirmation for the day is that there is nothing righteous about inflaming partisan division at any time, and certainly not now. It behooves all of us to "speak the truth with love." And we should follow the modern corollary, to "post to social media with care and prudence."

The United States has been deeply and bitterly divided for decades, and those polarities have been even more pronounced in the last three years. US society these days often has been described as tribal. The divides between various camps are passionate, trust levels between opposing sides are virtually non-existent, and communication between groups is profoundly difficult. The two major political parties have found it increasingly difficult to cooperate and compromise.

With the launch of this impeachment investigation, we are headed into extraordinarily challenging times. Those partisan divisions will be triggered often. People from various sides will see the same events through different lenses. Misunderstandings and contradicting perceptions will be common.

For all of us, it will be essential to hold to some level of moderation with both our anger and our loyalty. It will not be helpful if we think and act primarily from our tribal identity.

Some people have long-standing animosity toward Mr. Trump, for a wide variety of reasons. That enmity need to be toned down, to focus on the specific matters being considered by the investigation. This is not an opportunity to settle the score on a long list of grievances. It is the time to investigate narrowly defined charges.

Other people feel a deep loyalty to Mr. Trump, and have been vigorous in defending him against any detractors. That loyalty needs to be toned down, and put into some balance with loyalty to the nation. The consideration of articles of impeachment is not a time to promise unswerving allegiance, right or wrong. It is a time to give honest consideration to evidence.

It will be hard for most of us to keep to those kinds of standards. It is difficult to be charitable when there are passionate disagreements. It is hard to step back from our own deeply held opinions and expectations. It is hard to be fair -- but all of us will need to work diligently at honesty and compassion if we're going to survive the stresses of the coming weeks.

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It has been an amazing and disorienting week. The launching of an impeachment investigation is a momentous step. We've been drenched in complicated and disturbing information. We've been immersed in commentary and analysis. Nobody knows quite where we're going.

These will be very difficult days for our nation, and for many of us personally. We'll be better able to handle the challenges ahead if we orient ourselves by two principles of faith and ethics. (1) No one is above the law, and everyone should be treated fairly by the law. (2) Speak the truth in love, and temper our tribal instincts with charity.

May we be strong, well-grounded, honest and compassionate in the coming weeks.

Shalom!

Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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