Sermon: Downstream of Everything
When we click on the word “Thanksgiving” in our minds, it links to a million different things. For some of us it’s the comfort of family. For others it’s the discomfort of family, especially now. For some of us it’s joy, for some, loneliness. For some of us, the Thanksgiving meal is the most delicious, warmest, coziest, most emotionally fragrant meal of the year. For others the meal is a bacchanalia of indifference to the suffering of animals, farmworkers, and the fate of the planet. Some of us take it as a time to get in touch with genuine gratitude. And others of us revel in it as a giant project involving excel spreadsheets and weeks of work.
But it’s hard to think about Thanksgiving these days without thinking about the native people whose generosity was central to the story. The story goes that in 1621 the settlers in Plymouth held a festival to celebrate their first harvest in the “New World” – the world that was new, to them. They would not have survived their first winter if it weren’t for the kindness of the indigenous Wampanoag people who helped them learn how to grow corn and other produce and how to catch eel. That modeling of kindness was real and it’s reason enough for gratitude. And so the Thanksgiving story always includes the 90 Wampanoags who took part in the celebration. But it’s hard to think of that for long without the Norman Rockwell tableau fading to the images of settlers then driving the native people off their homeland, making and breaking treaties with them, and ultimately committing genocide. This is also part of the story, which is why for many Native Americans, Thanksgiving is a bitter day.
And it’s hard to think of all that without thinking of what’s going on right now in North Dakota. In this unfolding drama, once again the settlers are using their political and military power against native people. Once again, they are breaking a treaty and defiling sacred lands in the name of progress. And it’s not as if they don’t know what they’re doing. It’s not as if they don’t know that an oil pipeline would jeopardize the Standing Rock water supply and the ecosystem of the Missouri River. I wish it were ignorance, but it’s not. Oil pipelines leak and break with some regularity. Which is why when this pipeline was originally proposed, it was supposed to cross the river just upstream of Bismarck, North Dakota. Bismarck is a larger town than Standing Rock and the community is mostly white. But those plans were scrapped because the area was called a – no joke – “high consequence area.”
Granted, I’m sure “high consequence area” is supposed to refer to an ecologically sensitive area. But it’s hard to hear that term without thinking that it also refers to a high political consequence area. As opposed to the Standing Rock Reservation, which was assumed to be a low political consequence area. That assumption is being tested right now. We’re witnessing the largest gathering of indigenous people in over 100 years – some say since the Battle of Little Big Horn. They are gathered in faithful protest for their own communities and for the earth. Dave Archambault II, chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, said, “This pipeline was rerouted towards our tribal nations when other citizens of North Dakota rightfully rejected it in the interests of protecting their communities and water. We seek the same consideration as those citizens.”
It’s a good way to say it, that the people of Bismarck “rightfully” rejected it. They did. And the Standing Rock Sioux are rightfully rejecting it. And so should every community rightfully reject it. So where should the pipeline go? Nowhere. There is no community, there is no river, and there are no grounds that should be endangered in the name of money. There is no new oil or gas infrastructure that should be built anywhere because the burning of oil and gas anywhere affects everything everywhere. North Dakota, in a bit of cosmic humor, is actually warming faster right now than any other state in the U.S. – the winters are significantly warmer and they’re seeing more droughts. This is already starting to create pressure on agriculture and competition for water. What the people of Bismarck may not have realized when they rightfully rejected this pipeline in their backyard was that they remain downstream of it.
Environmental devastation does not stay contained in one place – it ripples outward and affects everything like a chain of dominoes. The exploitation of a vulnerable community, the disregard of what is sacred to them, never results in a peaceful “well, okay then, never mind” – it creates rage and resentment and pits neighbors against one another. Injustice is never contained. There is no such thing as a surgical strike on any group of people or any part of the planet. When Jewish children find a swastika sprayed in their playground, as they did in Adam Yauch park in Brooklyn this weekend, all children lose. When women lose, men lose too. When people of color lose, white people lose too. When lesbian, gay, transgender, and queer people lose, straight people lose too. When immigrants lose, those born here lose too. When Muslims lose, Christians lose too. And when our ecosystems lose, everybody loses. Our moral failures do not just disappear silently into the vapor; they are reflected and refracted back to us in a thousand ways. Every area is a high consequence area.
The beauty of what’s going on in the wake of the election last week is that people are finally starting to get this. It’s an elevated consciousness. And it’s sweeping the country right now. The Standing Rock struggle is one epicenter of this new consciousness. The people camping out there on the North Dakota plains in the cold, facing dogs and teargas and arrest are not just the native tribes. They are white people and black people; environmentalists and veterans and clergy; people of all faiths coming together in the name of their own religions, saying, “My faith calls me to be here.” I went with some people from First U to a rally on Tuesday in Manhattan. There were over 2000 people there, a diverse crowd all standing together in recognition of our interconnected web. There was a spiritual overtone, like a glow, to the whole evening. An indigenous man got up and spoke. He had just gotten back from Standing Rock and he concluded by saying, “We are sustained by the prayers of our ancestors seven generations back. And we are standing on the love we have for the next seven generations. Love! Love! Love!” And the people shouted it back to him.
In the last week here at First U, we’ve received a flood of emails and calls from people wanting to participate in our common struggles. It feels like everyone is an activist or wants to become one. We’ve gotten emails from people wanting to work for immigrants’ rights, provide sanctuary for refugees, tackle climate change, and protest the president-elect’s new appointments. People want to go to the Million Women March in DC. You can contact our Union seminary intern Shari Halliday-Quan for information on that. I’m helping organize a People’s Climate March, like the one we did in New York a couple years ago, but this one in DC at the end of the first 100 days. April 29. I’m going to be working with faith communities in New York City. If you want to help, come talk to me. There are a million ways to work together because we are realizing that we are all downstream of everything.
I would ask just two things: first, pace yourselves. You don’t want to go gangbusters for a sprint while you’re all fired up and then run out of gas. As I talked about last week, cultivate very intentional care of your body and of your spiritual life so that you can be the best possible channel for the flow of universal love. It’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon. Second, do what you’re passionate about but look particularly for opportunities to act at the intersection of several struggles. Look for those struggles where the interconnected web is especially interconnected. The climate justice movement is starting to work on what is called “just transition,” where the workers who will have to be displaced from coal mining and oil jobs are cared for and retrained for new work in the green economy. It’s already starting to happen and it’s a brilliant place to focus our energies. The Standing Rock struggle is another one, of course, that sits at the intersection of indigenous rights, water rights, climate change, corporate power, racism, and poverty. These intersection areas have great moral power.
Despite how it may appear, it’s not my intention to ruin our Thanksgivings with all of this. I truly hope that we’ll enjoy the holiday and find some peace and comfort during a difficult time. I hope that we will be able to get in touch with true gratitude – not guilt – but gratitude for the gifts we have been given unearned. The gifts of food grown far away, the gifts of the labor of others, the gifts of the earth and beauty of the falling leaves, the gifts of whatever education and opportunities have allowed us all the blessings of this moment. We are all downstream of everything in good ways too. “Before you’ve finished eating breakfast in the morning,” says Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., “you have depended on half the world.” May we go into this holiday season with reverence and humility and thanks for all the blessings we have been given. Let’s enjoy the day with friends and families if that’s where the day leads us. And let’s also let gratitude fuel our commitment to work for justice for all the people and the whole of the living earth.