Sermon: Ally To The Children

2017 April 23
by Rev Ana Levy-Lyons

I’ve discovered that when you’re a parent, you have to be ready to field existential questions pretty early on, like, “Why is there poison ivy?” The real question of course is an indignant one, “Why should there be something in the world that seems to exist only to make our lives worse?” It’s a question that places humans at the center of the universe and all of the responsibility on the plant for its own malevolent existence. Or maybe on God or whatever it was that created such a hostile being as poison ivy to begin with.


But of course it’s the wrong question because, from my perspective at least, plants don’t only exist in relation to human beings, to either help us or harm us – they have their own reasons for being that have nothing to do with us. A better question might be, “Why are humans allergic to this kind of ivy?” The ivy that we call “poison ivy” isn’t doing anything. It’s just sitting there minding its own business. We’re the ones touching it and having the reaction and getting all upset about it. It turns out that the chemicals in the oil of the leaves actually are not poison at all. If it weren’t for our own histamine freak out, they would be completely harmless. So now this gets very Buddhist and possibly New Agey as well because it raises the question of whether anything “out there” really causes our happiness or unhappiness or whether it’s really always just all about our reaction.


But I didn’t go into all of that when my kids posed this question to me a few years ago. I just explained that every plant and every animal has been given some way to protect itself. Poison ivy has oil on its leaves that makes you itch if you touch it and so we avoid touching it and the plant stays safe. This prompted a flurry of follow up questions over the next few years: What do deer have to protect themselves? What do cockroaches have to protect themselves? What do whales have to protect themselves? What does grass have to protect itself? It’s been fun to talk about fish that taste really bad and turtle shells and cheetahs that run fast and starfish arms that grow back. And then they asked the mother of all questions: What do we have to protect ourselves?


They meant what do humans have, and that was the questions I answered. But as a mother I couldn’t help but also hear, “what do we children have to protect ourselves? The world is so big and scary sometimes. And we don’t have a shell and we can’t run that fast and we can’t fly and our arms and legs won’t grow back. What do we have to protect ourselves?” This is a question that I’ll come back to later.


But I explained to them that we humans have our brains. We are the smartest animal, and so we can figure out how to build shelters to stay dry in the rain and heaters to stay warm in the cold; we can invent weapons to protect ourselves from something attacking us. We can’t run fast but we can invent cars that do; we can’t fly but we can invent airplanes that do. We can’t grow an arm back like a starfish, but we can invent medicines to cure diseases and even create artificial arms that work. And so even though our bodies really aren’t that great compared to most other animals, our brains have allowed us to survive much better than any other creature on earth. We humans and the things that we have created and the animals that we own have taken over the entire planet. We humans have been given our brains to protect ourselves. And it’s really the only thing we have.


But what I didn’t tell my kids at that moment is that the very thing that we’ve deployed to protect ourselves is the very thing that is causing us the greatest risk right now. Our industries, our technological advances, the ways that we have both harnessed nature for our benefit and protected ourselves against nature are now taxing the interdependent web of the earth to the tipping point. And if we go over that tipping point, we could create such an avalanche of ecological collapse that not all our best brains, not all the king’s horses and all the king’s men will be able to do anything about it. I won’t go over with you again the kind of humanitarian disasters that would ensue.


Because the weird thing is, we know all this. There may be some people in this country who are actually in denial about it, but for the most part, we know it with our brains. Many of us participated in the science march yesterday and celebrated our extraordinary human brains and our capacity to understand our world and the complexities of biology and chemistry. We celebrated the wondrous things we’ve been able to achieve through science and the human problems we’ve been able to solve.


But our brains, for all their miraculous power, are limited. Our brains have evolved to protect us from certain kinds of dangers only. Immediate dangers. Felt dangers. The danger of walking too near the edge of a cliff. The danger of a saber tooth tiger approaching. The danger of the cold winter if we don’t have shelter.  And when we experience such danger, we will employ the full brilliance of our brains and bodies to escape it. And when we see a child in such danger, we will go to great lengths of heroism and sacrifice to rescue that child.


The dangers that we face today, however, for the first time ever, are not those kinds of dangers. Global warming, fresh water shortages, loss of biodiversity, bee colony collapses, for many of us in this room, these are abstract dangers. Some of us were affected by hurricane Sandy, I know at least one whose home was destroyed, we’ve had some erratic weather, but for most of us these threats aren’t personal threats and won’t be in our lifetime. We adults here will pretty much be okay. I was talking with a 66-year old hippie artist recently who was telling me that he thinks his age is the perfect age to be right now because, “You got to live through the 60’s and 70’s, which were awesome, and then you get to die before things get really bad. To me,” he said, “global warming is just more spring days.”


And so while our brains may know the danger, we don’t feel the danger for ourselves or even for others. We don’t feel the fear of the saber tooth tiger approaching. We don’t have that fight or flight response. We don’t see the face of the child who will become a refugee as the deadly drought hits her land. We don’t have a chance to be a hero with a cape who can swoop in and save her. Instead we are more like an MTA subway driver. We are being told over a crackly intercom that there may be a child on the tracks about a mile ahead. And we’re being told to slam on the brakes right now. We may very well believe that it’s true. But we’re being told lots of things. Our brains have evolved to help a child that we can see, not a child somewhere down the track. But if we wait… if we wait until we can see the face of the child, we can slam on the emergency brakes but it will be too late.


There are children in our world who know very well that they are on the tracks and they are trying desperately to show us their faces. They are the children who are already seeing their homes flooded in southern Louisiana; they are the urban children who are suffering asthma at epidemic rates now because of air pollution; they are the Alaskan indigenous children who are having to evacuate their ancestral towns because the ice is literally melting out from under their feet; they are the children in Syria who find themselves in the midst of mass migration and war because of drought; they are the children with the wisdom to look into their future and see that they are the ones who will be paying the price for the actions of adults, long after those adults are gone.


One group of these children and youth have banded together with the help of an adult attorney and have filed lawsuits against the federal government for doing too much to contribute to climate change and too little to stop it. To me it’s an amazing story. The group is called Our Children’s Trust and their suit claims that “through the government’s actions in causing climate change, it has violated the youngest generation’s constitutional right to life, liberty, and property, as well as failed to protect essential public trust resources.” The children are the plaintiffs in this case as well as at least one adult who is a plaintiff on behalf of his granddaughter. The federal government and the fossil fuel industry moved to dismiss the case, but just this fall a U.S. District judge denied the motion. So the case, which started back in 2011 is actually moving forward and gaining momentum.


What the adults are doing in this case, the attorney, the grandfather, and others, is acting as “allies” to the children. The concept of being an ally is one that’s used a lot in progressive movements to describe someone who is not directly impacted by a certain form of oppression, but who is working with and for people who are. So, for example, a straight person who will not experience homophobia directly can become an “ally” to LGBTQ people. So in this sense all adults, even those of us who are so privileged that climate change just means more spring days, all adults can be allies to the children. Our future will be their present and the world that we create will be the one in which they inescapably live.


So I want to invite us all on this Earth Day weekend in 2017 in this moment of political upheaval and rapid change of all kinds, to pause for a moment and consider how we can best serve as allies to the children. It’s going to be different for each of us, depending on the unique gifts that we each bring. Some of us are fighters and want to resist and stand in the way of bulldozers building pipelines. Some of us are builders and want to work on technological and community-based solutions – more solar, more rooftop farming, more making running shoes out of plastic in the ocean. Some of us are intellectuals and artists and want to write, paint, use drama and film to light a new vision for the future. Some of us are marchers and want to make the protest visible and loud and public – to shake the world’s soul into awareness of the crisis: to shout, “there is a child on the tracks.” The People’s Climate March in DC this coming Saturday is one step in this direction. But this march or any march is not an end in itself. It’s a tactic. The strategy is movement building and culture change.


And building a movement and changing the culture is something that we all can do. We can all learn to consider in our every decision the impact on not only the children, but on the next seven generations. We can all become allies to the children and allow our hearts to carry us where our brains cannot. So that when my children or any children come to us adults and ask, “What do we have to protect ourselves? We don’t have a shell, and we can’t run that fast, and we can’t fly, and our arms and legs won’t grow back. What do we have to protect ourselves?” we can say with integrity and conviction, “You have us.”




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