I Pledge Allegiance to the Earth
A sermon by Rev. Charles Blustein Ortman, delivered at the First Unitarian Church in Providence, RI, November 15, 2015
Remarks & Prayers Following the Paris Attacks
I would like to take this moment in response to the tragic terrorist attacks on Friday in Paris. By now, we all know that six incidents took 129 lives and injured at least another 350 people. By now, I think we know that this was not merely an attack on the people of Paris or of France. Once again, it is an attack on the entire world.
As Unitarian Universalists we hold great faith in humanity and in its capacity for goodness. Today that faith is once again severely shaken.
It is now, once again, that we need to claim our faith, to fan the fires of our faith. Because it is now that humanity, our nation and our world need to experience faith that is a blessing.
We need to keep the faith in order to go on with our lives. The human race needs to feel that faith so that we might move forward from this experience with the greatest of motives, the greatest of intentions and the greatest desire to build a better world. We know that we need a better world.
Our hearts are not only filled with grief for the people of Paris, we grieve as well for the all victims of the greatly troubled Mideast whose lives have been repeatedly shattered by ongoing and senseless warfare that only destructs and does not build. While our hearts are filled with grief, we need not overburden them with even more hatred. There will need to be a response to the terrorist actions of Friday, but the world will not be well served if, once again, that response comes out of hatred.
We might ask what good reason there might be for hope at this moment. My answer is this: Just as it was on Thursday, the universe is still filled with unlimited possibilities for goodness. The possibilities for evil are limited to the imagination of humankind. But goodness knows no such bounds. My hope is that we will align ourselves with those possibilities for goodness, and that such an alignment itself will help us to steer in directions of healing and wholeness.
"Hope is the parent of faith." (C. A. Bristol) Emil Brunner wrote, "Hope...is one of the ways in which what is merely future and potential is made vividly present and actual to us. Hope is the positive, as anxiety is the negative, mode of awaiting the future."
The wicked events of Friday are undeniably deplorable. The events of tomorrow are up to us to determine. My prayer for us is an undying hope, one begetting a faith that will help us to build a brighter future than the one that we know today.
READINGS: ANCIENT & MODERN
Our first and ancient reading is from the Book of Genesis:
So God created humankind in God's own image;
in the image of God, God created them;
male and female God created them.
God blessed them and said to them, "Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground."
Our modern reading is by A. Eustace Haydon, a 20th Century pioneer in the study of world religions and leader of the Humanist movement.
The Humanist rarely loses the feeling of at-homeness in the universe. The Humanist is conscious of being an earth-child. There is a mystic glow in this sense of belonging. Memories of one's long ancestry still linger in muscle and nerve, in brain and germ cell. On moonlit nights, in the renewal of life in the springtime, before the glory of a sunset, in moments of swift insight, people feel the community of their own physical being with the body of mother earth. Rooted in millions of years of planetary history, the earthling has a secure feeling of being at home, and a consciousness of pride and dignity as a bearer of the heritage of the ages.
Ed Ayers, former editor of World Watch magazine, also wrote and published the prophetic book, God's Last Offer: Negotiating for a Sustainable Future. The book begins with the recounting of an incident that took place in Australia, nearly 225 years ago. For millennia the Aborigines there used small canoes for fishing off the eastern coast of the continent. There had been no contact with any white people or with Western culture until April 29, 1792. That's when the British ship Endeavor, under Captain James Cook, sailed into a bay on the eastern coast, encountering a group of natives. This is the first known contact between indigenous Australians and Europeans, ever. A botanist, James Banks, a passenger on the Endeavor, made a detailed entry into his journal describing the encounter.
One might think that this would have been an astonishing event for the natives. An enormous structure, larger than anything they'd ever seen, came sailing right into their midst. Banks wrote, "...the Australians took no notice. They displayed neither fear nor interest and [instead] went on fishing."
Historian Robert Hughes speculates that the ship was something so massive, so complex, and so unfamiliar as to defy the natives' comprehension of it. It's unlikely that there was anything in their experience, Hughes suggests, even to allow them see it as a boat.
When the Europeans saw no hostile response to their arrival, they lowered small landing crafts and began rowing ashore. That's when the natives recognized something they were familiar with - small boats. Most of the Aborigines present bolted up into nearby trees, except for two of them, who, according to the report, stood their ground, shaking their fists and their fishing spears and shouting at the invaders.
The warning to us is that we, too, are facing a threat so enormous, so beyond our previous scope and experience, so alien that we seem unable to muster regard for its consequences. To a great extent, we don't even seem to recognize it as a threat.
I remember the first Earth Day commemoration that was held back on April 22, 1970, 45 years ago. I was 19 years old, and in my hometown, Rock Island, Illinois, there weren't any sit-ins or protests or marches as part of the observance. What I remember is gathering together with just a few dozen people in a classroom at the local high school for a teach-in. It was led by a number of science teachers from some of the area schools.
I don't recall exactly what was said that evening, but I do remember my response to it. Up to that time I had been aware of air, water and land pollution. I understood that the quality of those basic elements was being constantly compromised by industry and by our cavalier, consumerist American lifestyle.
So I went to that first Earth Day teach-in thinking that, if people would come together to promote rigorous standards for recycling, for the responsible use of our resources, and for the appropriate disposal of our waste, we could improve the quality of our lives. I went to that meeting because I recognized that we'd gotten things dirty and they needed cleaning up.
What I had not anticipated learning at the teach-in was that I was about to encounter an enormous ship of titanic proportions that had sailed unnoticed into the bay of 20th Century life. The concept of sustainability was introduced to me that evening. Conversely, so was the notion of un-sustainability and with it the assertion that we - those of our 20th Century civilization - had already embarked on an unsustainable journey, which would reach a very dead-end conclusion unless a new course could be charted and followed. In short, I learned that we were not just there to talk about cleaning up our community and the planet. We were there to talk about saving our community, saving our planet.
That was 45 years ago, a different century, when news of the USS Eco-Disaster, first appeared on the horizon of public attention. Scientists, at least many scientists, had been aware before then. But that first Earth Day was when the information initially began to reach public consciousness. Or at least it was when it should have. Our capacity for denial is massive. With significant and important exceptions, our cultural response was then, and largely has continued to be, to go about our business, as the Australian Aborigines had, with "neither fear nor interest."
For some time now, we have been aware that our natural resources are indeed depletable, and that we are capable of poisoning the land and the air and the water. Not temporarily, but for decades, if not centuries to come, perhaps even eons. We have refused though, and continue still to refuse, to be fully cognizant of the rate of depletion and of the level of poisoning we perpetrate on our Earth and her natural resources, in exponential ways that are already greatly altering life on this planet.
Forty-five years ago, there may have been cause to be blindsided by what we did not see coming. The tenure of that excuse though, has expired. Despite fallacious claims to the contrary created by enormous commercial interests, and even by scientists who represent those interests, we know. We know! Despite our longing for a different reality than the one we face, the one we have helped to shape, we know. We know exactly what is at risk. We cannot stop knowing about the rapidly increasing damage to and deterioration of our global environment. The ship is no longer a stealth rogue. It has been exposed. And we know.
We have seen the small boats of recognizable harbingers rowing into shore. They look like glaciers melting and crumbling into the sea; like raging, flooding rivers and rising sea levels; like vast wildfires and horrific cyclones. They look like hurricanes and tsunamis of biblical proportion. But there is no god inflicting these maladies upon us. We can no longer claim ignorance of the causes or of the inevitable outcomes of our cultural behaviors and indifferences. If the systems in place continue without significant correction, they can destroy life as we know it. Unchanged, WE will destroy life as we know it.
Despite our overconfident attitudes to the contrary, we are not the owners of this planet, even of the properties we hold title to. We are only taking our turn as caretakers of this Earth for the generations to come. We haven't been taking very good care of her though, and we're going to have to come to terms with our errant thinking that got us into this mess in the first place. Then we are going to have to get on the stick, doing what we can to bring things back into balance. I'm not saying that we still do have time to bring things back into balance. I'm saying that I have hope we still can. Hope and effort have much greater value and sway in my experience of what's possible than do arrogance, ignorance and denial.
How did we get into this mess in the first place? There are probably a good number of reasons ranging a wide span of human endeavors. The particular area that I know best though, is religion. Religion and theology have been major factors in creating the culture that has gotten us to this point.
In our first reading this morning, from the creation story in Genesis, we hear of god creating the world and then creating humanity in god's own image, then giving humankind dominion over all of creation. Understanding this story as a metaphor, we recognize the human need to find a cause for our being. With no simple answer at hand, humanity names the author of creation - God. Humanity looks at its own capabilities and then ascribes to God a much greater manifestation of the same characteristics. And so God becomes an all-knowing, omnipresent and all-powerful God. In a way, it really is a loving origin story in which humanity finds value within itself and then ascribes even greater value to the Creator.
But there is great danger in this story, too. If we look further into the metaphor, humankind has indeed sought to name the mystery out of which creation has come. To name and hold a space for that mystery, humanity has created a god in humankind's own image. And because, in the pecking order of things, humanity is capable of imposing its needs and desires over the plants and animals of the planet, we have determined that the authority to do so has come from that god of our own making.
The danger comes in fundamentalist interpretations of the creation story, which seek to determine literal truth from the narrative, rather than its metaphorical wisdom. Rarely do orthodox traditions fail to establish a special relationship between the creator and the faithful. The faithful are their God's chosen people. They are the saved versus the unsaved. They are believers opposing infidels. And within these religious dichotomies, there exists a special relationship that comes out of a fidelity to the god whose image is the same as that of the god's people. And within these fundamentalist understandings are the underpinnings of a world-view that God has endowed humankind with dominion over and above all the rest of creation. For nearly 6,000 years, that's the narrative that has undergirded Western civilization. Over the millennia, we've not done all that well under this model.
There are other religious views though, other religions, often indigenous ones, not led by priests or rabbis or imams or folks like me. They are led by practitioners who cultivate, among their people, a stronger relationship with all of creation rather than individual, private relationships with a personal or private creator. Shamans among our own Native American cultures have sought to promote the bonds which hold humankind within, and not above, all of nature. Such Earth-Centered religious perspectives are hardly foreign to Western thought, though they are often relegated to the fancy of literature and not taken seriously as religious.
Humankind's relationship with the planet might more adequately be provided by poets, rather than by scriptural theologians. John Muir, naturalist and poet of the 20th Century wrote:
The sun shines not on us but in us. The rivers flow not past, but through us. Thrilling, tingling, vibrating every fiber and cell of the substance of our bodies, making them glide and sing. The trees wave and the flowers bloom in our bodies as well as our souls, and every bird song, wind song, and tremendous storm song of the rocks in the heart of the mountains is our song, our very own, and sings our love.
Poet and author D. H. Lawrence wrote:
I am part of the sun as my eye is part of me. That I am part of the earth my feet know perfectly, and my blood is part of the sea. There is not any part of me that is alone and absolute except my mind, and we shall find that the mind has no existence by itself, it is only the glitter of the sun on the surfaces of the water.
There is poetry that can lead us to know a god of salvation, with whom we have great need to be in closer relationship. John Muir or D. H. Lawrence, the shamans or the prophets of old, you choose who you want to listen to. You discover what you must believe. And what matters even more than what you believe is how your beliefs impact upon your own life and, still more, how they impact upon the world around you.
How we view the world is as deeply religious and spiritual as any belief we might have about the condition of our own soul, spirit and body, as important as any belief we might have about the cosmic mystery that holds us in the midst of All-That-Is. Science and religion have taught us one shared truth - that we are one with the Earth. Whatever our theologies or our religious beliefs might be, they need to be capable of leading us in right relationship with All-That-Is, because when we are in sync, intellectually, physically and spiritually with our world, we are not only thinking our religious beliefs, but we are actually believing them by living them out.
Another humanist, 19th Century Unitarian minister William Channing Gannet, once noted, "Ethics thought out is religious thought. Ethics felt out is religious feeling. And ethics lived out is the religious life." This is the kind of religious life that our Earth is depending on us for its salvation!
We would do well to re-member ourselves in our oneness with this Earth. As Eustace Haydon commends us to do...
"There is a mystic glow in this sense of belonging. Memories of one's long ancestry still linger in muscle and nerve, in brain and germ cell. On moonlit nights, in the renewal of life in the springtime, before the glory of a sunset, in moments of swift insight, people feel the community of their own physical being with the body of mother earth. Rooted in millions of years of planetary history, the earthling has a secure feeling of being at home, and a consciousness of pride and dignity as a bearer of the heritage of the ages."
We are the bearers of the Earth's heritage. There is no one to right our relationship with her but us. Thinking about the environment can never be enough. We must act. Religious thought is not enough. To be religious, to truly believe, is also to feel; is also to act.
We need to believe our way into seeing the true condition of our beloved planet, so that we can, so that we will, act in ways that are indeed loving, indeed healing and balancing, indeed sustaining. We are well past the time to think that it's a good idea to clean things up. It's high time to save our planet. The time has come for action; we will have to act in radical religious ways in order to achieve such a radical salvation. We've been thinking about it for far too long. The time for action is beginning to recede. The time for action is now.
We might ask...
How educated have you made yourself on these critical matters?
What alternatives are you capable of choosing between and among?
What do you need to know, and to know now?
What do you already know that you need to act on now?
In what ways do we need to organize ourselves in order to offset the systems and institutions that so imperceptibly and so intricately enforce the status quo of misuse and abuse of our Holy Mother Earth?
Something that I hope you know is this - none of us has to find or even attempt to answer these questions on our own. We have each other. There is excellent leadership emerging here in this congregation, leadership that needs to know of your ambition and commitment to this cause. So another question is - are you committed enough to be a part of that leadership or to accept the leadership that is being offered?
These are all questions we each need to be asking ourselves. Not so that we can know more; not so that we can think more, but so that we can feel and believe and do more. We have to do more, far more, if we are willing to entertain the possibility that this planet will be here and be healthy seven generations from now. Our Earth is in great need of our faithfulness. The time to pledge allegiance to our Earth is now.