A Celebration of In(ter)dependence

Published by FirstUUAdmin on

by Rev Michelle Scott-Huffman

Earlier this week, I started writing this sermon, as I often do, with thoughts free flowing in a random word document that may or may not get a name and get saved at some point before the end of the week (which means that sometimes those thoughts drift off into cyberspace with the occasional forced shutdown of my computer or absent-minded closing of documents for some reason or another). Anyway, as I was recording my thoughts earlier in the week, my mind kept going to “This Land is Your Land, This Land is My Land” with other thoughts interspersed in between like, but it’s really only mine because it was stolen, and it wasn’t my hands that tilled and cultivated it, and it wasn’t my ancestors who provided the forced labor to build its seat of government, but somehow it’s still true that this land is your land and this land is my land.

Y’all, when the lyrics of Woody Guthrie’s 1940 song were running through my head earlier this week, I had no idea that on Friday, a powerful new version would drop from Liz Vice, African American gospel and R&B singer. In an interview with American Songwriter, Vice said “On August 10, 2018, I sat down and re-wrote lyrics to Woody Guthrie’s ‘This Land Is Your Land’ with my friends Paul Zach and Orlando Palmer, just one day shy of the Unite The Right Rally’s one-year anniversary,” Vice said. “The purpose was to write lyrics that told the origin story of America. There are a lot of reasons to celebrate being American, but one thing that must first be talked about is the history. Healing can’t begin without first acknowledging the gaping wound created by the colonization, the mass genocide of the Indigenous people, and the enslavement of African slaves. There is still much work to be done.”

It is those last two sentences that encompass the reason that we offer at land acknowledgment at the beginning of our Sunday services, because “Healing can’t begin without first acknowledging the gaping wound created by continuous colonization…and there is still much work to be done.” According to the National Museum of the American Indian, “Making a land acknowledgment should be motivated by genuine respect and support for Native Peoples. Speaking and hearing words of recognition is an important step in creating collaborative, accountable, continuous, and respectful relationships with Indigenous nations and communities.”

And so today, in the spirit of interdependence and accountability, I share this territorial acknowledgment from Sean Neil-Barron:
We gather together as a community of seekers, to honour the interdependence of life, to respect the dignity of all, and to honour the land we walk humbly upon.
Friends, let us acknowledge that we walk upon the traditional territories of the Osage, the original nations of this land, who continue to cry out for justice and self determination.

On July 4, 1776, a group of men presented a document that is celebrated in our nation today in their own attempt to cry out for justice and self-determination. Their worldview was dangerously limited, as they used language like “the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.” Even as they ramped up their own genocidal rule of warfare to bring about the undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions,” the extent of which we’re still discovering today. The language of “men” in the document was not a universal term for people, but one that pointed to one gender, class, and race. A decade later, a compromise would be made to count enslaved, primarily black, people as 3/5 of a person for taxation and representation purposes, not that any of them were voting on that representation. And of course, regarding the status of women in the declaration, Angelica Schuyler says it best in Hamilton

“We hold these truths to be self-evident
That all men are created equal”
And when I meet Thomas Jefferson
I’ma compel him to include women in the sequel!”

It’s a sequel that’s still being written, and certainly has yet to be realized in policy or practice for so many people who call this land home. Woody Guthrie knew it in 1940 when he wrote This Land is Your Land, which was a critical response to Irving Belin’s God Bless America. Joe Vitagliano of American Songwriter says that “the song was a reflection of Guthrie’s disgust for the greed and corruption that overshadowed American society and its political structures. Later edited out, two of the six original verses were poignant critiques of American power, with lines referring to the inequity of private property and the injustice of hunger, as Guthrie—a devout anti-capitalist—saw them.” He also notes that Liz Vice’s version “retains perhaps the most complex and impressive quality of the original: it’s simultaneous love and critique of America.”

Just listen to these lyrics:

This land is your land, this land is my land
From California to the Texas border
Through the Juarez mountains with the migrant caravans
This land was made for you and me

This land is your land, this land is my land
From the piers of Charleston to the fields of cotton
From the crowded prisons to the streets of Ferguson
This land was made for you and me

This land is your land, this land is my land
From the Jamestown landing to Dakota badlands
From the trail of tears to the reservations
This land was made for you and me

This version of this song is haunting and beautiful. When you leave here, not now, you should go immediately to wherever you stream your music and play it on repeat for the day. Vitagliano writes that “While there is a lot on the “critique” side—from a history of racism to the nature of class inequality—there is also a tremendous spirit and beauty to the country and its people.”

I think we might call that tremendous spirit and beauty–resilience, which is the theme for our Sunday services and other conversations in the month of July. While most of us, well, probably all of us, have developed and practiced resilience in our lifetimes, the reality is that the many of the most inspiring “pulled themselves up by their bootstraps” stories that Americans are so proud of are about people who were never supposed to make it, people who were thrown out there with no bootstraps to pull on. Women unattached to a man, people of color, indigenous peoples, lgbt persons, people with disabilities. The system is designed to keep these people down, and once in a while, they break out, and we celebrate them as an American achievement, even when their achievement was to rise above the oppressive version of America that was put on them. This is resilience indeed, and it’s incredible, but it’s not the resilience I want to talk about today, because…

There’s a handmade sign hanging in my office that says “God has not called us to admire the resolve of the oppressed while doing nothing to end their oppression.” It is a constant reminder of my work in this world. I copied it from the website of the Disrupt Worship Project that centers marginalized voices telling the truth of their experience and lifts up privileged voices only when they seek to use their privilege to bring justice and equity, in such pieces like a “Confession of Complicity in Injustice” or a “Litany of Relationship to Each Other” which echoes the words of the Hebrew prophet Isaiah that the work of worship is to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke; The litany goes on to say: “Yet we continue to serve our own interest, To oppress our workers, to crush our siblings by the neck because we are afraid. Because they don’t look like us, act like us, talk like us. Yet, they are us. And we are them.”

Hence our interdependence. Several years ago I committed myself to always preaching about interdependence on the Sunday closest to Independence day, because quite frankly, I think we’ve got independence down, it’s figuring out how to live in this world together in a way that demonstrates, as our 7th principle says “Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.” And when I think about resilience in connection with all of this, what I want to offer today is resilience for colonizers, which most of us are still in some way, either directly or indirectly, if nothing else, by being beneficiaries of the systems that still colonize certain groups of people.

Psychologist and Buddhist meditation guide, Tara Brach, talks about human resilience as the key to our evolution, moving us from the middle of the food chain to the top after hanging out in the middle for millions of years, which has given us more leisure time, creativity, material goods, and general well-being, not to mention a great deal of responsibility. She says the “essence of our resilience is our capacity to communicate, this development in our brain that allows us to be more empathetic, more compassionate, the capacity for mindfulness to be able to reflect on life.” And then she talks about our “resilience being hijacked by fear and losing access to what makes us resilient and all of our strengths can get used in a way that is profoundly destructive, all of our intelligence gets used in service of violence, and we become a threat to the entire ecosystem, to each other.”

Brach talks about spiritual resilience in terms of the question “how do we respond to our lives in a way that allows us to keep growing and waking up?” We live in a world that is more connected now than it has ever been. Information shows up in virtual spaces and can be seen and shared by millions of people almost instantaneously, and because of that, we have access to more diverse voices and experiences than we ever have. And for those of us who have mostly existed in homogenous spaces, or at least under the myth of homogeneity, we have this incredible opportunity to fill in the blanks with the voices that have been silenced. You might even say that we don’t just have the opportunity to do so, but that we have the responsibility to do so. And in some ways, it can be overwhelming. Sometimes the silenced voices share the between the lines details of the stories that we have cherished and we have to grieve the loss of the truths we held dear that were only half true, or not true at all. This is hard work. It can leave us asking desperately is there anything untouched by this new awareness, anywhere I can just rest in my knowing, any cherished narrative that holds true just the way I learned it? Well, probably not, because we all learned what we learned in a very specific context guided by very limited worldviews colored by cultural, religious, and even geographic influences. And when faced with that reality, we have a choice, we can close in on ourselves, double down on our limited understanding as the only possible understanding, and get aggressive or defensive; or we can open ourselves to growing and waking up.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama says that “we just need to learn to trust the power of our heart and awareness to wake up through any circumstances, that whatever is going on in our lives, and whatever is going on collectively, we can wake up through it.” Tara Brach expands on this teaching offering a set of meditative questions we might ask when faced with any situation or conversation, which are: Can this serve the awakening of compassion and wisdom in my heart? How can this serve the awakening of compassion and wisdom for me? And finally, as a prayer to God, the universe, or even our higher self, please let this serve the awakening of compassion and wisdom in my life so that I might contribute to greater awakening in the world around me.

It will never be enough to hope for my own life liberty and pursuit of happiness, but if I can awaken to the reality, experience, and struggles of others, then we can all better move toward true justice and self-determination, because as the great Fannie Lou Hamer told the National Women’s Political Caucus in 1971, “the changes we have to have in this country are going to be for liberation of all people–because nobody’s free until everybody’s free.”

So today I hope you’ll celebrate interdependence with me. I celebrate because there are so many more voices in the conversation now, and even though we have much to learn, much to do, and much to repair, I do believe that the human spirit is resilient and beautiful, and that we are up for the challenge to awaken compassion and wisdom among us.

May it be so. Blessed be and Amen.