by George Clifford
The question of whether to support or oppose building the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) atop Mauna Kea, a dormant volcano on the island of Hawai’i, has recently attracted the national media’s attention and preoccupied a significant portion of The Episcopal Church in Hawai’i (TECH). The controversy came to a head in July when TMT opponents physically prevented construction crews and their equipment from using the only access road to the site. Over three thousand protesters have spent time in the encampment that blocks access. In spite of final court approval and issuance of all relevant permits, construction of TMT atop Mauna Kea now appears unlikely.
As an ethicist, a mediator and a Christian priest, I offer three observations.
First, the discipline of ethics offers little help in resolving ethical dilemmas such as this one that have valid, rational arguments on each side. The two sides rely upon different, incompatible frameworks to justify their conflicting positions.
Proponents advance utilitarian arguments, explicitly or implicitly seeking the greatest good (or most love) for the greatest number of people. Construction and use of TMT will provide jobs and economic benefits to Hawai’i’s people, native Hawaiians and non-native Hawaiians alike. The telescope has a real if unknown and unquantifiable potential to advance science and benefit humanity. A majority of scientists contends that the Mauna Kea site will produce superior results to the alternative location in the Canary Islands. Furthermore, the Canary Island site probably entails higher environmental costs.
Opponents advance deontological claims, refusing to comprise on important principles. Construction is wrong because it would disrespect native Hawaiians and native Hawaiian traditions, thereby denying justice to already marginalized people. Pointing to God’s preferential concern for the vulnerable and least amongst us, opponents argue that respecting human dignity and seeking justice negate any utilitarian calculus of TMT’s potential benefits.
TMT has polarized Hawai’i’s peoples precisely because people on both sides fail to appreciate the values, reasons and ethical frameworks that lead to opposite conclusions. Analogously, narrow ethical perspectives which ignore conflicting views, when twisted and inflamed by demagogues for personal benefit, explain much of the current political polarization in the U.S. and elsewhere.
Second, unlike litigation in an adversarial court system that produces a winner and a loser, mediation strives for win-win outcomes. After years of litigation over possible construction of TMT, the courts finally decided in favor of construction. Proponents won; opponents lost. Ironically, native Hawaiian culture historically relied upon a type of mediation (ho’oponopono) to resolve many disputes.
Mediation proceeds by identifying the real concern(s) behind the issues and multiple options for resolving a conflict. For example, is the real issue for native Hawaiians their quest, their demand, for sovereignty? The U.S. illegally annexed the Hawaiian Islands in 1898 after expat merchants, plantation owners and others overthrew the Hawaiian monarchy. Unlike Native American tribes, the Inuit and Eskimos, the U.S. has never recognized native Hawaiians as a sovereign nation. Can several of the existing telescopes on Mauna Kea, whose technology is outdated and whose useful lifespan may have been exceeded, be demolished to permit TMT to be erected in their place? Are there other, not clearly identified, central concerns? What alternatives to TMT as currently planned are possible?
Third, as a priest I lack the authority, knowledge and wisdom to resolve the conflict over constructing TMT. I’m not an expert environmentalist, trained labor economist, world-renowned astronomer or other credible authority on any of the issues. I’m not a native Hawaiian. I live on another island. At the most, I’m a stakeholder at the third or fourth remove. Nor do I have the wisdom to decide who should and should not sit at the table to identify the pertinent issues and then to resolve the conflict.
Priests and, importantly, all Christians can prophetically call for justice and reconciliation. Several aspects of justice are especially relevant. Justice emerges out of a Christian vision of God’s beloved community, an inclusive community that embraces the earth and all that dwells therein. God desires justice because God loves all. Queen Lili’uokalani was Hawai’i’s much-loved last monarch and a genuine follower of Jesus. TECH has authorized her local remembrance as a saint; congregations often sing a hymn she authored as a prayer during their services. Before and after the overthrow, Liliuokalani insisted that all people – regardless of race or ethnicity – be allowed to enjoy the shaded coolness and beauty of her palace’s grounds. This practice cohered with the Hawaiian culture’s openness to intermarriage and acceptance of all people. The subsequent racism that has plagued Hawai’i came from Caucasians. They, not native Hawaiians, defined a native Hawaiian as someone whose bloodline was 50% or more native Hawaiian. Hawaiians traditionally defined a Hawaiian as someone shaped by aloha for the land, the sea, and the people. It’s an inclusive vision of the beloved community that Jesus would applaud.
Justice depends upon people having some degree of agency. Without agency, persons are devalued and disrespected. Without agency, justice is impossible. Only a small minority of Hawaiians harbor any hope that the U.S. will cede the Hawaiian Islands to native Hawaiians for them to form a completely independent country. Most native Hawaiian demands for sovereignty actually express their desire for respect and to have their voices heard. These demands are integral to God’s preferential option for the marginalized and most vulnerable. The culture of white racism introduced to the Hawaiian Islands when Captain Cook exploited Hawaiians thinking he was a god continued with the expat overthrow of the monarchy and plantation system that devalued non-white labor persists today.
Lastly, justice connotes fairness. In some conflicts, compromise is inherently impossible. TMT will either be built or not; there is no middle option of building only half a telescope. When confronted with such an issue, experienced mediators seek to package several issues together. Packaging issues allows all parties to win on some issues, lose on some issues, and compromise on others. Nobody receives the entirety of what they want, but everybody receives some of what they deem most important. Living as God’s beloved community requires this type of compromise. Fairness requires that all parties, affirming their identify as part of the beloved community and exercising some measure of agency, view the final agreement as fair and just.
When mistrust and alienation characterize relationships, beloved community does not exist. When identity politics, of which racism is one form, distort relationships, power imbalances undercut agency. And when those factors persist over time, fairness and justice are possible only through reconciliation.
Reconciliation requires parties working to incorporate those alienated into the beloved community, embracing everyone as full and equal members, fully and equally respecting the dignity and worth of every member. In addition to more usual emphases on repentance (turning from sin) and reparation (trying to repair the harm done), reconciliation also requires sharing power and agency equitably. No voice is always heard more often, more loudly or more dominantly. These steps necessitate emotional and value shifts by both those with and without power. Forgiveness is the hopeful act of believing, tentatively trusting, that the parties engaged in reconciliation are sincere, supported by evidence of genuine repentance and practical steps taken toward reparations. Too often, people with power are loathe to share. Conversely, people without power may develop a conflicting sense of power and agency, cherishing their role as outsiders, reluctant to let go of grievances and integrate into the beloved community.
Theologically, I believe that reconciliation is always possible. Realistically, I know that is improbable. The process of reconciliation allows the dialogue that permits movement toward fairness. Perhaps too much time has passed since debate over TMT began; perhaps an originally unnecessary urgency now surrounds the decision; perhaps positions have hardened too much because of pre-existing alienation and power imbalances. As a Christian and a priest, I prophetically call for stakeholders in the TMT dispute to heal the divides in God’s beloved community, to share agency and power equitably, and to seek a just, fair solution to the broader issues that fracture and harm our culture, the Hawaiian culture.
We, the Church and its priests, will improve our success rate as reconcilers if we proactively discern where and when God may heal brokenness. Identify the next issue(s) likely to further splinter the beloved community or the wider culture; then prophetically, preemptively, call for reconciliation, forgiveness and justice. Reconciliation resembles healing an infection: it is best done before the bacteria develops a resistance to antibiotics.
The national and local attention focused on the TMT controversy demonstrates the power of a small, still emerging element of God’s people to reclaim their own agency and in doing so to reshape the prevailing narrative, moving the larger society toward a fuller embodiment of justice. For this, everyone – regardless of their views about TMT – can give thanks.
George Clifford served as a Navy chaplain for twenty-four years, has an MBA, taught ethics and the philosophy of religion, and now serves as priest associate at the Parish of St Clement in Honolulu. He mentors clergy, consults with parishes, and blogs at Ethical Musings.