Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Taking of property

I am not really "back" from Jim's ordination yet: I have never been jet-lag prone, but this trip tripped me up, and I'll need the weekend to re-orient, I think. So I'm not yet ready to enter any reactions to either that event or the CCET conference on marriage.

But I have been asked several times (because I am a lawyer, I guess) by non-lawyers what I think of the Kelo case just down from the Supreme Court. And I have given that a little thought. Now that I have gone as far as I can go, I set out my thoughts and ask for your help in thinking further.

Here's how the Washington Post summarized the issue in the Kelo case:

The redevelopment program at issue in yesterday's case -- the plan of the Connecticut city of New London to turn 90 acres of waterfront land into office buildings, upscale housing, a marina and other facilities near a $300 million research center being built by pharmaceuticals giant Pfizer -- was also expected to generate hundreds of jobs and, city officials say, $680,000 in property tax revenue.

New London, with a population of about 24,000, is reeling from the 1996 closing of the Naval Undersea Warfare Center, which had employed more than 1,500 people.

But owners of 15 homes on 1.54 acres of the proposed site had refused to go. One of them, Susette Kelo, had extensively remodeled her home and wanted to stay for its view of the water. Another, Wilhelmina Dery, was born in her house in 1918 and has lived there her entire life.

"Eminent domain" is a more technical term than "condemn" to describe the fundamental power and right of the government -- at various levels (municipality, county, state, or nation) -- to claim property belonging to a private party and then to convert it to the government's use. The property owners must be compensated, of course, but property owners are often dissatisfied with their remuneration -- for a variety of valid and invalid reasons. Thus, if my house sits in the path of planned highway, I can be forced to sell the property to the state (in Minnesota for the value of "highest and best use" of the property -- not necessarily the fair-market value). And there has been little controversy about the practice of eminent domain in situations involving roads, dams (for controlling floods, e.g.), and other projects that are clearly "public." All property rights are ultimately conditioned by the government's ultimate claim on the property.

What distinguishes the Kelo case is that New London doesn't plan to use the property it wants to condemn for a "public use" -- e.g., a road, a government building, or the like. It wants to take the property in order to give it to developers who will build more expensive properties on it. In this case, as I understand it (without having studied the opinion -- which I will do after I draw my conclusions!), the government fits hand-in-glove with private corporations to convert property from one set of owners to another. Wilhelmina, for example, wouldn't sell to the developer, and there was nothing the developer could do without the government's exercise of its "taking" power.

I'm not a student of eminent domain law, but this seems like a bit thing to me -- and a major change. Of course, the law has always been more than sympathetic with corporations and monied-people; that is a given that cannot be disproven. But there have been limits, and the court has often stepped in to maintain some balance. This case seems to shift the limits, again, in favor of the big powers. Now, it seems, I am no longer able to keep my lakefront property because it's only worth $300,000, and some developer wants to raze it and build a $1 million dwelling: If the government wants to benefit from the property taxes on the more expensive building (duh!), it can take the property and give it (in some way or form) to the developer (who will in turn reap a wonderful profit from the deal).

What seems even odder to me than the ruling in this case is that it was the liberals who handed down this decision, and it was John Paul Stevens, the most liberal of the justices, who wrote the opinion. Corporations are the darling of conservatives -- but Rehnquist, Scalia, and Thomas joined in O'Connor's dissent. They argued, per the Post, that the majority had tilted in favor of those with "disproportionate influence and power in the political process, including large corporations and development firms." I think they are most assuredly correct, and I haven't said that about Scalia in a long time (if ever --actually, I think I agreed with him in a flag-burning case, but I'll have to check).

It seems at odds with fundamental fairness that the "little guy" not only can't fight city hall, but that he can't now fight WalMart, either. It seems that there must be biblical issues involved here.

Among the biblical issues would be the seventh-commandment issue of stealing: The corporations will gain a windfall far in excess (not just in total dollars, but in percentages of investment) of that of the compensated land-losers. It evokes images from Amos, and Hosea, and Jeremiah. And coupled with that is the problem of government and corporation ganging up on the relatively poor and powerless: The same prophets decried such a combination -- even if the corporation as we know it now did not even exist in their era. But the confluence of big money and government underlay much of what they said. There is also the issue of the place of the weak in the face of the strong. In this country (in contradistinction to many places around the globe), we don't need to worry about the power of a soldier's automatic weapon placed in our face. We are, however, mere toys to the corporated bigwigs. The mixture of greed, disdain for anything but the bottom line, and a kind of general nihilism make much of corporate life spiritually killing.

I have not, I think, taken on the Supremes before -- well, not in this blog anyway. But this is a case that resulted in injustice. Now I'm going to read the case to see if was also wrong-headedly argued.

Friday, June 17, 2005

Jim's Ordination

I am delighted to report that my dear friend, James Pike (not to be confused with the dead Episcopalian bishop), has been called to serve as pastor to a congregation in Upland, California, and will be ordained into the Ministry of and to Word and Sacrament within the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America on 25 June. He has honored me with an invitation to serve as assisting minister for his ordination.

It is always a good thing when people of integrity, thoughtfulness, an orthodox spirit and inclination, intelligence and scholarly ability, sensitivity, enthusiasm, and eloquence respond to the Spirit's whisper to serve the Church in this way. And in Jim, the Church gains a servant who displays those qualities in spades. While I am biased (he is, after all, among my closest friends), I would not say this if I were not absolutely convinced that it is all true.

I ask your prayers for Jim as he assumes a new place in the Church and a new ministry in California -- together with his wife, Dana, and their children, Simon and Astrid.

This is good news for the Church.

Thursday, June 02, 2005

A Pattern for Christian Activism

I hope that I am not stretching the limits of "fair use" with this posting. I am re-printing a commentary that was posted to me from Frederica Mathewes-Green, to whose musings I subscribe. In this commentary, which was published in the Dallas Morning News this past Sunday. In it she describes an effort in which she was involved to help bring opposing sides in the abortion "wars" to a less war-like stance. (For what it's worth, Frederica is an Episcopalian-turned-Orthodox, who is married to an Episcopalian-turned-Orthodox priest. She is active in speaking and writing to promote both rather conservative causes -- religious and political -- and to promote Orthodoxy.)

Frederica describes a process that should be adopted by congregations and councils of Churches throughout the land -- and not just for the issue of abortion, but for all the other battlefield-issues that polarize the members of the Body of Christ. "Come, let us sit and reason together" is a summons that Christians should not ignore -- whatever their theological, political, or emotional stripe. I think the first benefit of such projects will be to "undefine" our opponents as enemies. That we must love our enemies is a given for faith, although it is apparently a given that is all-too-easy to overlook. That we might even characterize fellow Christians as "enemies" is something that makes me cringe. (And I wish that Frederica had not used that term.) It seems clear that it's very difficult to remain "enemies" if one is engaged in good-faith conversation.

It would be very difficult for me to participate in such groups without a moderator: I am way too inclined to argue or try to convince or shoot down. The imposition of an "active listening" response is a good one. It's good to practice that in all spheres of life.

Do people have such projects going on? It would be good to hear of them.

By the way, you can get Frederica's mailings (a couple of times per week) by contacting her through Christianity Today's network here.

In any event, Mathewes-Green:

For most of the 90's I was involved in an organization with a highly improbable name: The Common Ground Network for Life and Choice. Yes, in the days when "pro-life" (pardon, I mean hateful anti-choice fanatics) and "pro-choice (that is, hateful baby-killing fanatics) were about as opposite as they could be, in some dozen cities across the country they were sitting down, knee to knee, and trying to understand each other.

It was terrific. Now I have to admit that this was a self-selected group, and anyone who participated was the kind of pro-lifer or pro-choicer who would *want* to talk to someone on the other side. But we saw some surprising positive results. For example, we produced a paper on our agreement that adoption is a good alternative to abortion. A pro-life rescue activist and an abortion clinic administrator jointly wrote a paper on the acceptable limits of demonstrations outside clinics. But most important, we were able to put a face on a faceless "enemy," and find that we could talk. For those expecting insults, fury, and rejection, just being heard out was enough to bring tears to the eyes.

A new group would begin with a dialogue session in which there were an equal number of pro-choice and pro-life participants. These would sit in groups of four, and take turns answering the question, "What experience in your life led you to hold your opinion on abortion?" That question was carefully chosen. Nobody can tell you that you have not had an experience.

If a pro-life person told their story, then one of the pro-choicers would respond. He would summarize and repeat what the pro-lifer had said, showing that it had been accurately understood. If it wasn't accurate, the pro-lifer could correct and fine-tune. When the "listenee" was satisfied that she had been thoroughly heard, it was the turn of someone on the other side to tell his story.

"Common ground" did not mean compromise. It meant "safe ground," a safe space where we could talk about our deepest beliefs and not be ridiculed or insulted. The ground was kept safe by some basic rules:

1. No attempts at persuasion. The goal was just to be accurately understood. Too often, all we knew about each other was what we picked up in the media, and stereotypes, confusion, and misrepresentation abounded. We were trying to get past misunderstanding, and arrive at genuine disagreement.

2. Call a person by the label they prefer, rather than a politically loaded epithet.

3. Only "sincere questions" are allowed. A sincere question was defined as "a question you don't know the answer to." Rhetorical questions, designed to trip up the other guy, were off the table.

After the initial day of dialogue we would continue to meet and talk, and friendships grew between the most unlikely people. In one city, a very young girl showed up at an abortion clinic, too far along to have an abortion. She would have to finish the pregnancy on complete bed rest, and needed volunteers to sit with her. The clinic administrator knew a pro-lifer from the local Common Ground group, and phoned to ask for help. The pro-life community gathered volunteers to sit with her, and the girl finished her pregnancy safely. But if the two communities had been locked in the kind of armed warfare that usually exists, the side that had resources would not have even known that the other side had a need.

In the late 90's the movement started hitting financial roadbumps; the foundations that had been so generous were turning to other interests and issues. The abortion debate seemed to be receding from the headlines. And, frankly, it's never news when people are being nice to each other. The national office lost its funding, and could no longer support the local groups.

But what I learned from those meetings will always stay with me. As a Christian, it became a significant learning experience. My Lord Jesus had told me to go love my enemies, and in order to do that, I had to at least go and look at them from time to time. I looked at them and talked to them and listened to them. In the end, I found they weren't that hard to love.

-- Frederica Mathewes-Green