Thursday, May 17, 2007

A Faith-Based Case for Impeachment

OK, this one is a good bit longer than most, but what the heck ... it was fun to write. Plow through! I hope you enjoy it.
Reading this week about the death of the Rev. Jerry Falwell got me to thinking about a claim he made, during the 2004 presidential election campaign, that you could not call yourself a Christian unless you voted for George Bush. I disagreed with his judgment on both political and theological grounds but these day I find myself pondering a similar, if opposite, question: can you call yourself a Christian and not support the impeachment of George Bush?
I was considering the question just the other day over Chinese food with a friend. We talked about our shared distress at the endless war and the dishonesty of the administration that led us into it. We talked about the community organizing that we are involved in with an eclectic, interfaith coalition of congregations in Northern Virginia. We talked about the struggles of women, gays and lesbians in our respective ecclesiastical traditions. Then the cookies came, and my fortune read, “strong and angry words do not win the cause.”
I thought, “well, maybe that’s true in China, but where I come from if you want people to organize you have to find out what makes them angry and then you have to speak truth to power with power.”
Jerry Falwell certainly understood the power of strong and angry words, and no matter that he was consistently on the wrong side of every significant issue from Civil Rights to Iraq, he was consistently influential.
Nowhere was he more wrong than in his unhinged response to September 11, and his bellicose support of the president and his war. While most people did not share his list of 9-11 culprits – gays, the ACLU, People for the American Way and the other usual liberal suspects – his hysteria and war mongering were hardly out of step with the national mood in late 2001.
Fear was the order of the day, and hope was in short supply. Strong and angry words dominated the public discourse. No one was uttering a word about impeachment, much less asking if might be a matter of faith. Such a future was unimaginable at the moment, especially, I imagine, to some like Falwell. But then again, imagination may be way was always most lacking in his own thought.
Today, of course, impeachment is in the air if officially “off the table.” Nevertheless, strong and angry words still seem to be the order of the day. These days they come from different mouths, and the silencing of Falwell’s voice underscores the change I have been considering since attending the World Can’t Wait coalition press conference on Capital Hill a few weeks back. As the coalition presented the case for impeachment of the president and vice president, I was struck by two overwhelming impressions listening to Rocky Anderson, Chris Hedges, Dennis Kucinich, John Nichols, Cindy Sheehan and others:
First, the progressive case for impeachment is undeniably strong; but, second, only those who already believe in it will ever listen to the case because it is made with so much more anger than hope.
The distance from anger to hope cannot be traveled merely by way of critique and analysis; it requires the work of imagination. Ultimately it demands what Walter Brueggemann might call a move “beyond analysis to alternative, and finally [to] the evangelical task of empowering the faithful to alternative forms of citizenship, alternatives that are informed by loyalty and love for country” and shaped, I would argue, by the deepest values of our faith traditions. Such a move is deeply spiritual.
I attended the impeachment press conference representing the Network of Spiritual Progressives, and while the progressive legal and constitutional case for impeachment is clear and compelling there was little said that might be called a spiritual case for impeachment.
Of course, if one conflates “spiritual” and “moral,” then the case is simple. In other words, if all “spiritual” means in this case is living according to conventional middle class morality and abiding by civil law, then clearly there is a strong case to be made for impeachment. It is, in general, morally wrong to break just laws. Even if extraordinary situations might call for breaking just laws in the practice of civil disobedience, it strains credulity to suggest that the present administration – or any administration – could make a claim of civil disobedience. Civil authorities, acting as such, do not have the option of being disobedient to civil law even under the extreme circumstance of wartime. As Justice O’Connor put it, writing for the majority in Hamdi v. Rumsfeld, “We have long since made clear that a state of war is not a blank check for the President when it comes to the rights of the Nation’s citizens.” When disobedience of civil law rises to the level of high crimes and misdemeanors the moral case for impeachment is at hand. A “moral majority” might even understand that reasoning.
But what if “spiritual” includes more than what is conventionally moral? What if spiritual has to do also with the wholeness and health of an individual or a community, with shalom? With that broader and deeper understanding, what might the spiritual case for impeachment look like?
If the bill of particulars in the case for impeaching the vice president and president includes misleading Congress and the American people into the war in Iraq, then is there a particularly spiritual case to be made for the value of honesty and can that case lead beyond analysis to alternative?
If the case for impeachment includes violating international law in leading the nation into a war of aggression, then is there a particularly spiritual case to be made for the value of international community and can that case lead beyond analysis to alternative?
If the case for impeachment includes violating the FISA statute prohibiting warrantless wiretapping, then is there a spiritual case to be made for the value of privacy and for the value of limiting the power of the state, and can that case lead beyond analysis to alternative?
If the case for impeachment includes violating the Geneva Conventions barring torture, then is there a spiritual case to be made regarding the treatment of prisoners, and can that case lead beyond analysis to alternative?
Finally, if every case for impeachment can be made successfully, are there spiritual values that ought to guide the way we pursue the process and treat those who are tried and convicted?
Before rushing to construct such a spiritually progressive case for impeachment, one pressing question remains: is there a spiritual value in pursuing impeachment even if, as appears at this point, the prospect of impeachment proceedings in this Congress is exceedingly dim? Given that Speaker Pelosi has not budged from her declaration that “impeachment is off the table,” and given that Congressman Kucinich’s articles of impeachment of the Vice President remains without cosponsors, clearly the odds against impeachment are long. Thus it is incumbent upon spiritual progressives who favor impeachment to make a spiritual case for going forward with a politically divisive strategy that is not likely to succeed in its stated goal. Can such a case be made?
If accountability, responsibility and truth-telling are spiritual values, then the answer must be yes. These values are certainly part of conventional morality; indeed, they are buzzwords of corporate leadership these days. For the general cause of impeachment, it may be enough to make a case for that conventionally moral value of bringing the truth to the bright light of C-SPAN, for determining ultimate responsibility for the laws that may have been broken, and for holding accountable those who broke them. After all, in a nation governed by the rule of law, what better lesson in conventional morality than holding accountable to the law the highest officials in the land? If we fail to meet that fundamental responsibility we fail to meet the most basic measure of civil society: no one is above the law.
Beyond that commonplace, however, responsibility, accountability, and truth-telling are spiritual values and where they are not honored there can be no shalom. Moreover, they are foundational for moving beyond analysis to alternative, for imagining a future otherwise, for holding forth hope that extends beyond our anger at the present situation.
From the moment of their swearing in, the president and vice president have a sworn responsibility to uphold the constitution and to obey the law. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer observed, “Responsibility means … that the totality of life is pledged and that our action becomes a matter of life and death.” For Bonhoeffer, “God and our neighbor, as they confront us in Jesus Christ, are not only the limit, but … they are also the origin of responsible action. Irresponsible action may be defined precisely by saying that it disregards this limit, God and our neighbor. Responsible action derives its unity, and ultimately also its certainty, from the fact that it is limited in this way by God and by our neighbor. It is precisely because it is not its own master, because it is not unlimited and arrogant but creaturely and humble, that it can be sustained by an ultimate joy and confidence and that it can know that it is secure in its origin, its essence and its goal, in Christ.” Of course, within Christian thought, the definition of neighbor and thus the question of borders is always complicated by Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). Similar concerns for the return of responsibility to its source in the divine spirit and for non-tribal understandings of neighbor can be found in other religious traditions, and those concerns are broadly pertinent with respect to the prosecution of the so-called global war on terror and the various charges against the administration related to that open-ended, ill-defined conflict.
When actions are irresponsible, when they transgress the limits of law or the lives of neighbors, the best of our spiritual traditions demands an accounting. Indeed, the best of our traditions often provides a means or practice of such accounting. The African-American spirituals were one such practice that was reinvigorated during the Civil Rights struggles in the American south during the 1950s and 60s. The struggle often resulted in jail time for activists, and jails were often filled with the sounds of freedom songs and spirituals. Often the guards would try to shout down the singers or mock them as they sang such hopeful lyrics as, “I’m gonna sit at the welcome table one of these days, hallelujah.” But imagine the feeling of the guards at a subsequent verse: “I’m gonna tell God how you treat me one of these days.” This accounting did not change the apparent situation nor the legal relationship of prisoner and guard, but it affected the spiritual context profoundly and bent the arc of the moral universe a bit closer to justice and thus moved the world a step closer to shalom. Such an accounting of the present injustice is equally necessary for the cause of justice and peace.
The truth-telling involved in such an accounting may be the most important spiritual imperative driving the impeachment movement. The structure of law and constitution and the values of conventional morality are impotent in the face of the silence of people of faith and spiritual commitment. As Stanley Hauerwas puts it,
Truth about the way things are … cannot be isolated from the kind of people capable of acknowledging the way things are. For the way things are, the God who creates the way the world is, is revealed by a people trained to be truthful. Holiness and truth are inseparable, which means that no metaphysics is or can be sufficient if a community has lost the skill to recognize lies. Such a skill, moreover, requires constant attention since truth at one time or in one context can so quickly become the lie.
In other words, conventional morality means little outside of a vision of the future otherwise. Only when a community holds a vision of shalom, a vision of the intention of creation itself for peace and wholeness, does the shattering of that shalom compel action. For the strategy of the big lie works perfectly well within a conventionally moral society, but it fails when confronted by a larger truth.
Some will argue that holding high officials accountable to the rule of law has ethical value in and of itself, regardless of considerations that we might consider spiritual. Nevertheless, without some alternative future, ethics in the meanwhile is vanity. In particularly Christian terms, one might say that “ethics without eschatology is desperate and futile.” In other words, without the broader meaning articulated through spiritual narratives we are left to engage in ethical struggles whose bleak prospects seen within the limited perspective of our moment in history can leave us mired in cynicism and despair.
The Biblical reminder that “with God all things are possible,” is more than mere platitude; it is the ground of hope for naming responsibility, holding accountable, and speaking truth to power when none of those actions seem likely to make much difference within the body politic as presently constituted. The spiritual narratives that tell us who we are and how we are related one to another give us the secure identity necessary to pursue the impossible. In other words, we seek to hold officials accountable not because we expect the Constitutional process to work its way out, but because we are so constituted ourselves as those who are called and commanded to enable truth to stand straight in the public square once again. Or, as they say in organizing circles, we are the ones who we’ve been waiting for. Moreover, as ones who trust that the moral arc of the universe, however long, does bend toward justice, we understand that our work of the impossible is but a single part of the larger work of the divine spirit moving toward justice. Our small part in bending the arc, in this case through holding public officials accountable for their responsibility before the law, is enough for the day.
Before the law, then, stand officials who could be charged with various high crimes and misdemeanors. Impeachment activists have named more than a dozen specific charges that could be raised against the president and vice president; four of those resonate particularly from a spiritual progressive perspective.
The president and vice president have been widely accused of misleading Congress and the public in making their case for invading Iraq. The broad movement that arose after disclosure of the “Downing Street memo” has produced numerous accounts of efforts of the administration to create a case for war even when the intelligence did not fit the facts. While the complex details and evidence for those charges should emerge through official investigations and hearings, they raise one simple question: is honesty an important value in public life? The stakes in such a question are clear when framed in terms of cynicism. When public officials twist the evidence to fit the agenda – in any issues, but all the more so in the life and death question of war – they breed and intensify deep public suspicion of government. Moreover, the disconnect between the apocalyptic and often religious language of ultimate concern that is employed by various administration officials concerning the war and the reality of on-going unmet real social needs deepens the cynicism that undermines American democracy.
The value of honesty and the call to accountability for those who have been dishonest about the most significant policy decisions facing the nation are not optional for spiritual progressives who want to offer an alternative politics informed by the deepest values of our spiritual traditions. Indeed, they are central to the alternative. For while critical thought and honest disagreement are good, right and necessary aspects of the spiritual journey and the functioning of a democratic government, cynicism is an unfaithful response to the world and undermines democracy. If for no other reason, the deep cynicism engendered by the words and deeds of the president and vice president warrant their being removed from office. Simply letting the clock run out on their administration is, in itself, a cynical response to the present situation.
The president and vice president have been accused of violating international law in taking the nation to war without the blessing of the United Nations. A decent respect for the opinions of humankind, not to mention the UN charter, suggests that the blessing of the international community is valuable in the decision to go to war. The larger spiritual question though remains: what is the value of international community?
The deepest values of our spiritual traditions encourage kindness, generosity, compassion and community that transcend borders and boundaries of nation, tribe and kin. In his prophetic vision of a future beyond exile, Isaiah proclaimed, “See, you shall call nations that you do not know, and nations that do not know you shall run to you, because of the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, for he has glorified you” (Isaiah 55:5). The spiritual vision of shalom, of peace, of community, always transcends borders and calls all people into relationships based on values of generosity and compassion. That vision is fundamentally anti-imperial. While no national or international system or institution will ever perfectly embody these values (just as no human being ever perfectly embodies them), that fact does not obviate the spiritual calling to pursue such relationships and build institutions to support them. Likewise, the treaties that create such institutions and the charters that guide them have a moral force that must be respected. The reality of near-sightedness should not prevent us from pursuing far-sighted visions, for only the visions of a future otherwise can move us beyond analysis to alternative. An end to this administration that does not repudiate its imperial designs will leave the next administration – whichever party prevails – operating within the same paradigm with no alternative vision. Impeachment should not simply end this administration, it should declare an end to its worldview and inaugurate an alternative that reflects our deepest spiritual values.
The president has been accused of violating the FISA statute. While this accusation alone, if borne out by the facts, meets the constitutional standard of high crimes and misdemeanors, the particular allegation raises an additional question: what is the spiritual value of privacy and of limiting the power of government with respect to privacy? The value of privacy when it comes to religious or spiritual practice seems clear on the face of it. The constitutional principle of separating church from state protects individual religious practice from government intrusion or coercion. The founding impulse of the nation recognized this value, and includes the express protection of the free expression of religion from state interference. By extension, one could posit a spiritual value in a more generalized right to privacy absent a judicially reviewed warrant for the government. In a statement opposing the use of torture, the Stated Clerk of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), acting at the behest of the 2006 General Assembly, requested that Congress protect “the right of privacy for U.S. citizens against intrusion by government or private entities.”
Beyond the specific violations of the FISA statute, the larger privacy concerns reflected in the Bill of Rights, include the imposition on the people by the government of a single religious world view. An administration that will tap phone lines of its perceived enemies should be stopped. An administration that too often employs religious symbols and language as it defines its enemies should be feared. As Chris Hedges has warned, “A group of religious utopians, with the sympathy and support of tens of millions of Americans, are slowly dismantling democratic institutions to establish a religious tyranny, the springboard to an American fascism.” Impeachment strikes at the head of that movement, and thus opens a public space for the much-needed conversation about building a politics of meaning and compassion.
The president and vice president have been accused of violating the Geneva Conventions barring torture. Compassion lies at the heart of each of the world’s great religious traditions, as does a core commitment to the sacred value of life. Spiritual progressives share a belief that each individual reflects the divine presence, and thus each human being is endowed with certain inalienable rights that include freedom from torture. While administration officials have repeatedly denied condoning torture, they have gone to torturous lengths to find linguistic escape routes from photographic evidence and mounting testimony to the contrary. Using terms such as “extraordinary rendition” and practices such as secret prisons, kidnappings and extradition to countries known to use torture, the administration has systematically denied that fundamental human right to be free from torture. Simply running out the clock on this administration is insufficient repudiation of this ongoing practice that violates our deepest spiritual values. If for no other reason than the strongest possible insistence that this shall not stand, the president and vice president should be impeached.
Finally, having set forth a spiritual progressive case for impeachment, what spiritual values ought to guide the way we pursue the process and treat those who are subject to it? One need not endlessly study the ancient texts of our various traditions on this point. Indeed, Neil Young may have put it best back in the 1970s, when he sang, “Even Richard Nixon has got soul.” Just as the victims of torture have intrinsic value as human beings, George W. Bush and Richard Cheney have intrinsic value as human beings. While anger at their actions may continue to motivate the drive to remove them from office, only a true compassion for them and for their supporters can begin to temper that anger and move the nation toward a path of hope. Thus, even as we hold their actions up to the bright light of truth, we hold George Bush and Dick Cheney also in the light of love, trusting that such love drives out the deep-seated fearfulness that has driven this nation and its leaders so far from its founding vision. As Martin Luther King, Jr. often observed, hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.
Moreover, if we trust that the truth liberates us all, then uncovering the truth of the past six years is necessary for moving into the future not bound by the fear that has so dominated all national discourse through this dark season. Simply waiting out the next 18 months until a new administration takes over is not enough, for until we confront the truth and experience its liberating effect we will continue to be bound by fear no matter who holds the highest offices in the land. Impeachment is not revenge; it is revelation. Revealing the truth can free us from the bondage of fear.
Only on the far side of that fear, manipulated and distorted as it has been since September 11, can we begin to reconstruct national policies that reflect and grow out of the core values of our deepest spiritual commitments. Only policies founded on generosity, hope, compassion, and awe and wonder at the grandeur of creation, can lead us forth from the long national nightmare of fear and suspicion that has marked the past six years.
I’m not sure I’m at the point of making any Falwellian pronouncements about one’s faith being at stack in the position one takes on impeachment. Lord knows the last thing the world needs is a progressive version of the Rev. Falwell. But surely the question of impeachment touches on the deepest values of our spiritual lives, for they are at stake when we live in a world of fear and hostility.
Freed from that fear to embrace these values and pursue policy alternatives founded on them, we can move from analysis to alternative, from anger to hope, from the present darkness to a future otherwise. Impeachment is not about what they have done, it is about who we can become.


yo sistah said...

tell it, brothah! but maybe in fewer words, unless you get it published in something I can hold in my hand or put a bookmark in. Whew!

Karen said...

from American Heritage
Word History: Nothing hobbles a President so much as impeachment, and there is an etymological as well as a procedural reason for this. The word impeach can be traced back through Anglo-Norman empecher to Late Latin impedic─üre, "to catch, entangle," from Latin pedica, "fetter for the ankle, snare." Thus we find that Middle English empechen, the ancestor of our word, means such things as "to cause to get stuck fast," "hinder or impede," "interfere with," and "criticize unfavorably." A legal sense of empechen is first recorded in 1384. This sense, which had previously developed in Old French, was "to accuse, bring charges against."

Usage Note: When an irate citizen demands that a disfavored public official be impeached, the citizen clearly intends for the official to be removed from office. This popular use of impeach as a synonym of "throw out" (even if by due process) does not accord with the legal meaning of the word. As recent history has shown, when a public official is impeached, that is, formally accused of wrongdoing, this is only the start of what can be a lengthy process that may or may not lead to the official's removal from office. In strict usage, an official is impeached (accused), tried, and then convicted or acquitted. The vaguer use of impeach reflects disgruntled citizens' indifference to whether the official is forced from office by legal means or chooses to resign to avoid further disgrace.

.......hmmm, given this etymological information...I am having a difficult time understanding this leap from anger to love. Is there a peaceful and loving approach to change?