The Hands of Justice
A titan of the Court has died, and with her departure comes both remembrance and impending chaos.
In the wake of Ruth Bader Ginsburg's passing, an already tumultuous election season takes a new turn. The President and many of his allies would like to see a new judge nominated and confirmed in short order--even before the election--while those on the other side see this as an illegitimate and hypocritical power grab. Encoded within the debate about Supreme Court judges are the questions of who gets to decide some of the issues most important to Americans: taxes, healthcare, civil rights, and abortion. In this way, an already overwhelmed citizenry has even more with which to contend.
The question of who is appointed to the Supreme Court is, make no mistake, a significant development. Especially so when there is the potential that a more left-leaning judge might be replaced by a more right-leaning one. This would, clearly, represent a change with the potential for far-reaching effect. A reshaped court would not only portend a potentially new set of decisions at the national level, but changes for everyday Americans as well. The direction of a "new" Court could represent the long-held dreams of some, even while embodying the nightmares of others.
The discussion over Justice Ginsburg's replacement has no small amount of emotion tied to it. And let me be clear: it matters. As a matter of national import, it is worthy of our attention, involvement, and serious consideration. But lurking behind this debate is something that worries me, and it is not only here that we can see it. My concern is that we, as a society, have gotten to a place where high-level politics is the only thing that really matters.
While acknowledging that who occupies the White House or Congress or Supreme Court has significant effects of the lives of our diverse American citizenry, I take exception to the notion that this is all that matters. But if my social media is to be believed, it certainly seems like we have arrived in that place. Indeed, the energy with which partisan devotees invest in such matters can reach an almost religious (perhaps even supra-religious) pitch. See, for instance, the energies of the the pro-life crowd or their pro-choice counterparts. The language they use to describe their opponents' agenda and its effects is nothing short of apocalyptic.
To hear devotees both conservative and liberal, one would think that the only hope for our American society is what happens via national politics. If this person is elected, it is "game over," they might say. America is "finished" is this person is appointed. A new Communist or Fascist or dictatorial or whatever era is about dawn, and unless this person gets voted in or out there is no hope.
I exaggerate, but only slightly. We have come to speak about and invest our politics with near-ultimate import. While such things do matter for both our nation as a whole and the lives of individuals and groups within our society, they are not the end of the story.
Here's the thing: someone is going to win this election, and someone is going to end up being confirmed as a Supreme Court justice. This is going to happen. A certain portion of the nation will feel that they have won, while another that they have lost. Policies and interpretations may change, with impacts experienced as dire to some. This is true. But is also is not the end of the story.
Our seeming obsession with investing ultimate authority into the high-level politics that dominate our media is understandable, but it ignores the fact that the overwhelming majority of us do not operate on that level. We live in our communities, we work at our jobs. We are members of local unions, churches, community organizing groups, and clubs. We are a part of online networks that can help work for change. We have neighbors and people with whom we interact everyday. These are the ones that are most immediate to us. These are the lives that we affect. These are the places where our efforts for change--and resistance--can take deepest root. When some of us fail to achieve our goals over the next few months, what will we do there? Will we just give up? Or will we continue to work for the change we want to see in the ways that are available before us?
When a portion of the American electorate loses in November and when one side fails to see their choice for the Supreme Court get confirmed, these groups have not lost forever or all time. We know that seasons change, elections happen, and new openings on the Court do emerge. Moreover, there is a lot that political "losers" can do even in the wake of failure. As we live our lives, contend for those things we believe to be important, lead others to consider our viewpoints, and work to achieve the goals we have before us, there is no need to make high-level politics our god. Politics matters, yes. Political decisions are important things, yes. But they are not the only thing. Especially not for Christian believers, whom I suspect constitute a significant portion of the readership of this blog.
The weeks and months ahead will bring jubilation for some, carry a deep sting for others, and may leave others still with a deep sense of ambivalence or unease. At this level, this is just the way it works. But not for a second does this mean the story is over.
I will close with this. Just the other day, after the news broke, a Washington Post article appeared that noted the following: "A phrase from the Book of Deuteronomy hangs framed on the wall of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s Supreme Court chamber: 'Justice, justice you shall pursue.'" This quotation from Deuteronomy 16:20 speaks, I think, to something lodged deeply in Justice Ginsburg's outlook and actions. I hope and pray it is for us as well--both as we make our voices known via politics and the electoral process, but also if and when we lose. Because there is more to justice than just one seat on the Supreme Court.