Eco-Justice Ministries  

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

Community, Not Dominance
distributed 6/12/20 - ©2020

There's a tragic irony when crowds of people who are in the streets to protest police brutality are met with more police brutality. Yet that's what we saw in the earlier days of the widespread protests against the murder of George Floyd.

It stops being simply ironic, though, when that brutality is ongoing and intentional.

On June 1, one week after the murder of Mr. Floyd, President Trump called for the continued use of force. He said, "We will dominate the streets." That's the same day that the "law and order president" had peaceful protesters forcibly removed from Lafayette Square so that he could have his Bible-wielding photo-op at St. John's Episcopal church.

By June 1, though, it was becoming clear that the tension and the violence of the protests could quickly be deescalated if the police acknowledged the legitimacy of the protester's message, and refrained from confrontation.

There's more going on here than decisions about riot control. The recent news highlights an ancient clash of worldviews.

In the very first chapter of the Bible, God tells humans to "subdue" the Earth, and to have "dominion" over all other living things. Less than one chapter later, in the older story of the Garden of Eden, God instructs the earthling, Adam, to "till and keep" the garden. (The Hebrew is better translated as "serving" the garden.) Dominion language is often cited by those who emphasize economic growth and human advantage over environmental concerns. The faith-based environmental movement generally finds greater meaning in the less controlling and more nurturing description.

The choice between dominating power over others, and cooperative power within a community is an ongoing and central ethical matter -- in family relationships, in social justice, in international relations, and in environmental action.

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I'm going to assume that you're familiar with the general details of these weeks of protest.

In many cities, the first days of protests included acts of property damage, and were accompanied by some looting. And in many cities, those protests were met with a violent response from police. In my home city of Denver, there were numerous instances of police using pepper spray, tear gas and rubber bullets, not only against lawbreakers, but also against non-violent protesters, journalists, and bystanders.

That use of heavy-handed force to silence protests was accentuated by Mr. Trump's June 1 focus on law and order in a call with governors, in a press conference, and in the actions of clearing Lafayette Square. "Dominating the streets" clearly meant the use of police, or even military, force.

A dramatic change of tone came when police joined with the protests, instead of trying to stomp them out. Pictures started to circulate of officers kneeling at rallies while protesters read the names of recent victims of police violence. In Denver and elsewhere, the chief of police walked in protest marches, sometimes arm-in-arm with the protesters. Police took off their riot gear, and kept their distance from peaceful gatherings.

When the confrontations became less intense, it became possible to have conversations about the reality of police brutality.

It would be nice if we could look back over the last three weeks and say that we've learned a lesson about the futility of violence. We could point to days of ongoing and passionate protests that have been mostly peaceful, and see that they have resulted in changed policies in police forces, and rapidly advancing legislation in many states and communities which will curtail police brutality and increase accountability. When police don't dominate the streets to remove all protests, constructive political dialogue can happen.

But just yesterday, Mr. Trump continued to call for domination and power. At a gathering in Dallas, he reaffirmed the message of using force against protesters. In what the Rolling Stone called "an Orwellian twist," the President said, "Were doing it with compassion if you think about it. We're dominating the streets with compassion because we're saving lives."

At a time when protests across the country are (I believe) entirely non-violent, the call for dominance and harsh enforcement is jarring. His celebration of "force with compassion" when there is no emergency of public safety strike me as less of an actual policy statement, and more of an affirmation of a worldview of control to "a campaign-style event."

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The calls to dominate the streets brings to my mind a very different call for dominance from three years ago. At the end of June, 2017, the Trump administration rolled out a two word description of its new energy policy: "energy dominance."

Three years ago, I critiqued that policy, seeing it as "international bullying" and an environmental disaster. "Energy dominance places the production, sale and use of fossil fuels as a national priority, and explicitly turns away from concerns about effects on human health, environmental health, and climate stability."

Just as police dominance of the streets emphasizes authoritarian control to preserve order and the status quo, energy dominance uses the force of government policy to boost one aspect of the economy at great cost to at-risk communities and the natural world.

Dominance preserves the power of the one who is dominating. It diminishes or negates the power of those with different goals and values. Dominance takes away the voice of outsiders. Dominance discards or destroys some members of the community.

An eco-justice ethic rejects dominance. As I've written recently, eco-justice ethical norms affirm solidarity with all members of a community, and especially the disempowered members of that community. Eco-justice calls for participation of all stakeholders in decision-making.

An eco-justice ethic does not look for increased advantage and control for the powerful, but for the health of the entire community. As responsible members of Earth community, our ethic calls for the powerful to act in ways which support and empower those on the margins.

As Christians, we focus on God's work of reconciliation, of bringing healing to a world of broken and distorted relationships. We celebrate God's shalom -- of peace with justice for all creation.

I'm frightened by the President's celebrations of dominance. His instinctive use of power over others is a rejection of Earth community. It tends to reject social and economic justice.

As people of faith, as people who seek "the well-being of humankind as part of a thriving earth", we need to speak out against the mindset of dominance. We need to reject officially sanctioned violence which silences and disempowers members of our larger community. We must work for inclusion and empowerment, not dominance.

Retirement Countdown -- Peter Sawtell retires as the Executive Director of Eco-Justice Ministries on July 31, 2020 -- now 7 weeks away.

The Board of Directors of Eco-Justice Ministries invites you to join in the celebration of his ministry. Please see updated instructions about participating, including how to submit video greetings, or send cards.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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Eco-Justice Ministries ended all programming on July 31, 2020. This site is an archive of writings and resources.
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