Water. You would be hard pressed to find a topic that unites us more. We all need it. Its vital necessity requires that the safety and cost of water be central to our pursuit of public justice. Thus, we arrive at the tragedy in Flint, Michigan. We are rightly outraged and horrified at the multiple failures throughout this story. Egregious mistakes. Inexcusable breaches of the common good. Callous government. When the magnitude of the damage is so large, how do we begin to respond? I’ve offered four ways to help us understand the problems and to act as signposts for ways forward.
People are hurt. A generation of children in this city will be affected for their entire lives. This is worthy of our tears and our lament. The Christian tradition has so many resources to guide us into communal lamentation. It is time to use them. We would be wise to lift our voices together to weep for Flint.
Pastoral care also listens patiently. And if you listen to the people of Flint they are indignant and mystified as to why their voices were not heard sooner. Their concerns were summarily ignored or rebuffed for over a year. Have we not learned? Do we not know how to give ear to all voices in our communities? This is a systemic problem. And in Michigan there is a history of it. The passion in Flint is not just about the health of their children. That is the tragic outcome. But the cause is the systematic negligence of communities like Flint. When they are not neglected, they are taken over by emergency managers (like this case). This has become a common response in Michigan to failing schools and debt-strapped cities: send in an emergency manager, sometimes an outsider, to clean up the mess and set things straight. I will not take the time to argue the merits of and objections to these policies. What we must understand, however, is that this situation strengthens the case of those who say the emergency manager system is dangerous and destructive. Flint’s water is exactly why. Can we imagine this happening if the people in power were thinking of Flint as “our” community instead of “their” community? Unlikely. Can we imagine this happening somewhere with power, money, and white children?
We are quick to label “us” and “them”. The people of Flint have been saying for decades that they are treated only as “them.” The water crisis confirms their suspicions. Are we ready to listen? Are we ready to consider that the accusations of “environmental racism,” among other things, deserve to be heard? My hope is that Christians can offer pastoral sensitivity to cries that have been raised for much longer than just the last few months.
Because of all this, the government must respond with radical transparency. Trust was broken. It should not be given back easily. The Governor’s office may have an inkling of this. They announced recently that 50 jobs for water testing will be given to Flint residents. The training and hiring will be administered by two local groups. This is certainly too little, too late. But it at least demonstrates that the state is capable of making decisions that are driven by the local community and utilize the best of civil society. Maybe more learning can happen from here.
Various government agencies also need to come to the table. Pastoral sensitivity needs to be found even in the bureaucracy. That means fast and brutally transparent apologies. This mess was caused, in part, by the refusal to listen and to disregard concerns. Public justice demands a 180 degree turn in the coming years. The dialogue needs to include more than vague apologies. There needs to be a reckoning for the years of hurt that this stems from and the years of hurt it has caused. It will be the bureaucracy’s habit to pin this on simple clerical communication errors or even to blame the victims. Therefore, it is essential that people step into this process and demand true conversation with every topic as fair game – race, poverty, city versus state control, environmental degradation, reparations for damage. No topic is off limits when public justice has failed so catastrophically.
The water crisis reveals systemic policy problems in their full ugliness. Legislators should be analyzing the story for ways to improve their processes. They should ask real questions. Why was there such motivation to push this water change through? Why was saving that money given priority over safety concerns? Why was this community not heard? Lead in the water is not just the minor moral failings of a few people. This was as systemic as it gets. Flint deserves a suspicious and thorough investigation into the laws that made it possible for this to happen and the laws that will make it hard for accountability to happen. Michigan legislators should consider the emergency manager protocol, environmental oversight, and FOIA to start.
Perpetrators must be punished and victims must be aided. It is sad that I even feel the need to write this. It is so obvious. But so is responding to concerns about brown water. And it didn’t happen. Accountability is dependent on the sincere implementation of my first three sections. The goal is that accountability be deeper, more sensitive, and more systemic than just making a few heads roll. Firing a few people to appease the situation is the government’s likely course of action. And that does not meet the demands of public justice. Public justice does not just look for the punishment of a few individuals in a case like this. Public justice demands that we listen intently to the cries of the marginalized. It demands that we have the courage to admit mistakes. It demands that accountability enters the halls of power and changes actual laws and practices. It demands that we embrace the fundamental principle in all situations like this – “The people who were wronged know better than anyone else what it will take to make things right.” Tell us, Flint. And forgive us. Maybe this time we’ll listen.
-Dan Carter is a husband, father, neighbor, reader, runner, and Senior Pastor of Calvary on 8th St. located in Holland, MI. www.calvaryreformedholland.org