What are the top five things we should expect of public servants like mayors, governors, and presidents?
The first five that come to this city girl’s mind are:
- Make sure folks are safe.
- Make sure folks have access to the most basic needs: clean water, healthy food, safe housing, effective health care, freedom of movement through transportation infrastructure.
- Make sure folks have the capacity to exercise agency (i.e., leadership, creativity, stewardship) through effective education, inspiring public spaces, and commerce that serves the common good.
- Promote and pass policies that take care to steward our environment.
- Beyond all else, focus on the basic needs of “the least of these” and help them thrive. When the “least” do well, we all do well.
When these five areas thrive, people, families, and communities in our towns, cities, and states flourish. When any of these five areas suffers, the people suffer, too.
And in some cases, a failure on one of these points can affect them all. Case in point: Flint.
The failure to provide clean water to Flint, Mich., residents has sacrificed their safety and hindered their access to one of the most basic human needs — water. It also drastically diminished the capacity of citizens to exercise leadership and stewardship because lead poisoning stunts victims’ brain development. Plus, the town of Flint, itself, is the “least of these” in the state of Michigan. It is the state’s poorest city.
What happens when a governor decides not to allocate funds to fix lead-laden water pipes that reach into poor peoples’ homes and lives and instead decides to conduct another study? What happens when the ones Jesus called “the least of these” stand up, own the image of God within themselves, and demand accountability?
What happens when a governor fails to keep all of his citizens safe?
Gov. Rick Snyder shifted focus and asked America to grade on a curve. In a report by the Detroit Free Press, Snyder was asked about his legacy. According to the article: “He said that when he was elected, the state had about 11% unemployment, and that as of this morning, it was at 4.8%. He said the automotive industry is ‘doing fabulous’ and that ‘we are the comeback state of the United States.’”
When people of faith look at the legacies of leaders, Jesus compels us to look first and foremost to the state of the least of these. Right now in Flint, that translates to this pointed question: “How did Gov. Snyder treat the thirsty ones?”
Just weeks after Rachel Maddow broke the story on the Flint crisis back in December, The Washington Post uncovered emails revealing Snyder had been aware of the crisis as early as January 2015 — nearly a year before the nation knew of the crisis — and he did nothing for 10 months. When he finally did something in October, his solution was to distribute water filters. Maddow reported this January that the toxin levels in Flint water were often far beyond levels the distributed filters were built to handle. While the governor said filters would allow for safe drinking, residents were still in danger.
Snyder also asked President Obama to declare the Flint crisis a natural disaster. Obama had already declared the crisis a national emergency, which released the maximum $5 million allowed for such a designation. If the crisis were declared a natural disaster, the state would be eligible to receive the nearly $100 million it had requested.
I remember watching the news — incredulous that President Obama didn’t just hop to it and do all he could to help the residents of Flint. Why wouldn’t he just give them what they needed? It seemed callous. But consider this: If President Obama had declared the Flint crisis a “natural disaster,” then his designation would shift responsibility from the governor’s seat and into the hands of Mother Nature — or in the language of faith, into the hands of God — in the annals of history and law. But Mama Nature, nor God had anything to do with the Flint crisis.
So, what is to blame? We can chalk it up to poor leadership. But Snyder was touted as a great leader and potential GOP presidential or vice presidential hopeful early on. Is the issue Snyder’s leadership? He does seem to have turned around much of the state’s economic situation. Is it that he’s personally racist, as some protesters have claimed? Maybe, but it’s hard to judge a person’s heart.
What we can see is this: Since the Reagan years, there has been a theory of economic prosperity in the GOP that has led the party to govern toward the top. Make the lives of the rich and business owners easier, and the lives of all will be easier. In other words, “A rising tide lifts all boats.”
John F. Kennedy first spoke these words mere weeks from Election Day during his 1960 presidential bid. In the middle of his speech Kennedy said:
“I think we must develop our natural resources. You cannot bring industry into Ohio unless you have clean rivers. I think the greatest asset that has happened to Ohio during the last few years, except for Governor Di Salle's election, was the building of the St. Lawrence Seaway, and I was proud, though I came from Massachusetts, to vote for it, because it is a national asset and a rising tide lifts all boats.”
Kennedy referenced the need for clean rivers to provide clean water in order to have good commerce, and the saying took root and seeded the idea that government focus on the common good will improve the quality of life for all.
Then, in the same speech Kennedy said: “I think we must formulate special programs which will be of assistance in those areas which are chronically hard hit by unemployment, areas where it is 7, 8, 9, or 10 percent, and it may have gone on for 2 or 3 years.” Government must focus on the needs of the least of these, he explained.
But in subsequent years, the idiom was claimed by the GOP and transformed into its calling card. Under Presidents Reagan and Bush 41 and 43 the “rising tide” served as philosophical justification for trickle-down economic theory. The theory started with a key presumption: Tides rise as the rich get richer and businesses boom. Trickle down is alive and well today and still leading GOP leaders to focus on the plight of the ones with the most, rather than the least of these.
But trickle down is barely the culprit either. It is merely the culprit’s natural offspring. I believe the true culprit is the spiritual lie that some people were simply created to be masters, rulers, leaders — these people are worth investing in. These people are worth focusing on. These people’s work make all other boats rise. And the flip side of the lie is simple: Some people were not. They were created to be servants, followers, takers.
The problem with these beliefs is they are categorically opposed to the scripture, which tells us all humanity — every single human being — is created in God’s image. And in the same breath scripture says, every single human being is given the call and created with the capacity (all things equal) to exercise dominion — agency, leadership, creativity, stewardship. To be human is to be created with the call to exercise dominion.
So, when we govern toward the top, we belie the bias beneath the surface — the belief that only a subset of humanity was created to steward the world.
This base belief is revealed in the very structure of Michigan’s governance: The people of Flint have been under the rule of state-appointed emergency managers since 2011. Snyder’s belief in the lie led him to deny the people of Flint the right to exercise their own dominion. He did not believe they were capable of governing themselves. He thought he could do better.
Flint’s water source was shifted on his watch. Flint’s crisis was revealed on his watch. And unhelpful water filters were issued on his watch, rather than replacement of toxic pipes.
And this is why we call it environmental injustice. Imagine for a moment that instead of Flint, the crisis erupted in the 80 percent white town of Grand Rapids. Would it have taken 10 months to take any action at all? Would filters suffice? Would Snyder still be in office? Would state voters hesitate for a moment to hold him accountable?
What can we learn from the Flint Crisis on Earth Day? Governance calibrated to the lie is an enemy of the image of God within its jurisdiction. But the image of God flourishes under governance calibrated to the truth of God’s image within all.