When you are standing up for righteousness, God will be at your side

Today I am continuing in my series of blogs about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in honor of  the anniversary of his death, April 4th. I am exploring what his life can teach us about the experience of the Divine Mystery.

There was a time shortly after the beginning of the Montgomery bus boycott, when Dr. King was seriously doubting whether to continue his involvement in the movement. He had been receiving threatening phone calls and letters at his home, and while at first he took them in stride, after a while, he began to grow afraid. After a particularly strenuous day, late at night, already in bed, he got a phone call with yet another angry threat. He got up and began to pace the floor and then went into the kitchen.

He wrote about this moment:

I was ready to give up. I tried to think of a way to move out of the picture without appearing to be a coward. In this state of exhaustion, when my courage had almost gone, I determined to take my problems to God. My head in my hands, I bowed over the kitchen table and prayed aloud. “I am here taking a stand for what I believe is right. But now I am afraid. The people are looking to me for leadership, and if I stand before them without strength and courage, they too will falter. I am at the end of my powers. I have nothing left. I’ve come to the point where I can’t face it alone.”

He goes on to say,

At that moment I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never before experienced him. It seemed as though I could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice, saying, “Stand up for righteousness, stand up for truth, God will be at your side forever.” Almost at once, my fears began to pass from me. My uncertainty disappeared. I was ready to face anything. The outer situation remained the same, but God had given me inner calm.

Three nights later, his home was bombed, but he was able to deal with it calmly. His experience of the presence of God had given him a whole new strength.

As in the story of the Israelites leaving the slavery of Egypt, Dr. King experienced a divine Mystery that is involved in the struggles of human beings to achieve dignity, equality, and justice. As I said before, there is no way to prove that such a God exists. At least, there is no proof outside of the experience of it. But there is a power in the experience that enabled Dr. King to go on to lead his people with courage and truth. And there is a power in the story, just the experience of hearing that story about Dr. King, that inspires me in my own search for strength in the work for transformation.

220px-Martin_Luther_King_Jr_NYWTSTo look closely at the story of Dr. King is to see its deep resonance with the story of Moses. God didn’t speak to Moses to give Moses a comfortable life. When Moses heard the voice of God, in the story of the burning bush, it was a voice calling him to free his people. And just so, Dr. King wasn’t praying about material wealth or success in his career, or even protection for his family. He was praying about standing up for what he believed was right—the struggle of black people to be treated with dignity and equality. He was praying for the courage to bear witness to justice. And the answer he received was linked to that justice work—that inner voice said, “when you are standing up for righteousness, God will be at your side.”

Dr. King went on to lead the movement with courage and strength. There were other threats and many troubles that came his way. His God didn’t protect him from all those troubles, but King felt God at his side. And the story of Moses continued to be a constant source of his inspiration.

Quote from Martin Luther King, Jr. is from The Strength to Love, Chapter 13, reprinted in A Testament of Hope, The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King Jr.

The One Who Lifts Up the Lowly

 He has cast down the mighty from their thrones,
and has lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.
Luke 1:52-53

April 4th will be the 46th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  Earlier this year, I invoked his presence to explore how the values of partnership and nonviolence were important to find an experience of wholeness.  I spoke about the concept of the Beloved Community, a goal to which we might strive in the process of reconnecting to our fellow human beings.  I want to focus for the next several days on further reflections about his life and faith, and how our connections to each other are related to our experience of the Mystery at the heart of life, that some have called God.

Four years ago, I heard Dr. Melissa Harris-Lacewell speak at the MLK Breakfast in my city. She is a professor of Political Science and African American Studies at Princeton University, and also studying at Union Theological Seminary in New York. I was struck by her comments about the amazing faith experience of black people in America—how black people “came to believe in a loving, benevolent and just God when there was so little empirical evidence to support that world view.”

After being stripped of every vestige of human dignity, forced to abandon their languages and religions, and cut off from their families, they were compelled to adopt the religion of the slave-holders. And while the masters used the Bible to justify slavery, within the stories of Moses and the prophets black people began to find a message of hope and liberation. They were inspired and encouraged to believe in their own worth and dignity. She said,

It is humbling to remember that women and men who were born into slavery, and never expected anything but slavery for their children and grandchildren, nonetheless believed that they were equal human beings worthy of the love of a benevolent and intervening God. It is a different kind of knowing, one with at least as much power as reason and evidence.

220px-Runaway_slaveThey were inspired to rebel against the masters, to escape from their bondage, and seek a path to freedom. And really, what were the slave-holders thinking? The central story of the Jewish scriptures, and also adopted into the Christian bible, is the story of Moses leading the slaves out of bondage in Egypt, on a journey toward freedom and the promised land. If you take away that story, you don’t have a story. The God of Moses, the God of the Bible, was willing to intervene to help a suffering people find a new life.

Now, I want to interject a comment here, to say that there is no way to prove that this kind of God exists. How could anyone prove that God intervenes on the side of the poor and the outsider? We can’t. In fact, historians and scholars will argue that there is no historic evidence that the exodus of slaves from Egypt ever happened. We are moving outside of the realm of reason and evidence and into the realm of mythic truths. As Harris-Lacewell says, “It is a different kind of knowing.” But we do know that the slaves in America created their own kind of exodus. They found some kind of power in the stories that strengthened their hearts and lifted up their spirits and set them free.

Quotes from Harris-Lacewell are from “Progressive Bible Study,” and “Our Jeremiah.” 

Allies Share Both Sorrow and Joy

Birch light and dark DSC07802If we seek to rebuild our relationship to this land, I think it is also vital for non-Indians to rebuild their relationship with Indian peoples. To do that non-Indians must become committed allies to Indian people’s struggles. Real relationship involves interaction with the whole of a person and community, sharing both sorrow and joy, struggle and celebration.

Indian people want us to move beyond stereotypes and learn more deeply and accurately about Native issues today. They need allies in their struggle against racism and colonization. We can use our advantage and position as people living in mainstream society, to be a resource for Native peoples’ concerns.

When we can learn to share the pain, and share the struggles of Indian peoples, then we also will find ourselves sharing in the celebrations. In her novel, Solar Storms, Linda Hogan begins with a story of an unusual feast given by the woman named Bush. This feast was a grieving feast: Bush was grieving the loss of the young child, Angel, after she was taken away by the white county authorities from their tiny Native community. She held a feast in which she prepared food for her whole community, and then she gave away all of her possessions to them. Hogan writes, in the voice of one who had been to the feast:

…I watched the others walk away with their arms full. Going back that morning, in the blue northern light, their stomachs were filled, their arms laden with blankets, food… But the most important thing they carried was Bush’s sorrow. It was small now, and child-sized, and it slid its hand inside theirs and walked away with them. We all had it, after that. It became our own. Some of us have since wanted to give it back to her, but once we felt it we knew it was too large for a single person. After that your absence sat at every table, occupied every room, walked through the doors of every house.

By this sharing of sorrow, the sorrow became bearable. Native American people are too often bearing the sorrows of our history alone. If we want to share in feast with them, we too must carry the burden of sorrow. Once we let ourselves feel this grief, we realize it is much too large for one people to carry alone. But the more of us who carry this sorrow, the more of us who carry the struggle, the more bearable it will be.

When we open our hearts to the earth, we are opening our hearts to relationship with all who live here with us. We are recognizing the brokenness and the sacredness of each person and each being, each place and each story in that place.

Avoid Spiritual Theft by Doing Our Own Spiritual Work

Indigenous spiritual traditions are inextricably woven into the network of relationships within an Indigenous community and in the particular land in which that community lives. They are a fundamental element of the Native struggle against the destruction of their cultures and homes. They are not meant to be exported piecemeal for some other purpose, however earnest it may be. If we seek to avoid spiritual theft, the best tool we can use is for us to do our own spiritual work. 

If we are seeking to reconnect to the earth, we must remind ourselves that non-Indian people are no less a part of the earth than Indians, even though we are not indigenous to this place. In reality, we all live here on this land and our lives are equally enmeshed with the fate of countless other beings around us. This land, broken as she is, is our only source of food and water. And this land is full of nourishment for us, both material and spiritual. We can love the earth, and be loved by the earth, even if she keeps some secrets from us. Step by step, we must rebuild our own culture’s relationship to the earth. Even though we might learn from the wisdom and experience of Indigenous peoples, no one else can do the work for us.

Photo by Margy Dowzer

Photo by Margy Dowzer

One summer, I learned that by eating local honey, I could help the hay-fever I suffered from in summertime. By eating that local honey I could begin to make a relationship between my body and the plants which grow in that place. There has been a resurgence of interest in eating foods that are locally grown. Along with the environmental benefits, there are also these spiritual ones, this reweaving of a connection with our bodies to a place. It is our connection to a specific place, the place we live, which forms the doorway for us to hear the earth, to find her sacredness.

A sacred understanding of land is not entirely foreign to European culture. Until the advent of capitalism, land was seen in a more communal fashion. Europeans had their own indigenous traditions to connect them to their land, many of which survived even into Christian times. We see traces of this in our holidays even here in this country—the evergreen trees of the winter festival, the foods we prepare for special times of the year. Many people are seeking to relearn these old European earth traditions.

Othila DSC02547

Othila

There is a rune, part of the early Germanic ritual alphabet, called Othila, whose sacred meaning is “inherited land.” It describes the relationship between people and the land on which they live. In Germanic countries, there is still a legal right called the right of odal. It means that a person living on a particular estate has the right to stay and live on that estate after the owner has died.

In 17th century England, there was a movement of people called the Diggers, who were protesting the fencing off of common lands and believed that the land could not be owned by private individuals. A love for the earth has many roots in our European ancestors’ ways.

Rebuilding Relationship with Indigenous Peoples

Penobscot Flag, Photo by Margy Dowzer

Penobscot Flag, Photo by Margy Dowzer

Speaking to non-Indigenous people, if we want to rebuild a positive relationship between ourselves and Indigenous people, we need first of all to learn how to listen to stories of loss and pain. Listening is not about fixing something, or feeling guilty, or giving advice. Listening is about being present and opening our hearts to the experience of someone who has a story to tell.

When I visited Indian Island with the Giving Winds campaign, we listened to Penobscot elder Donna Loring talk about some of the history between white people and Indians in Maine. There are moments when the pain of such listening feels almost too much to bear, but I remind myself how much more painful it must be for the one telling the story. Then I feel such gratitude that someone is willing to share these stories with us.

If we want to rebuild these relationships, it is also helpful to be aware of some of the traps into which we might fall. One trap is denial. Denial is a tendency to minimize the damage, or scapegoat the victim to avoid the pain of what has happened. One example is the belief that Native Americans have benefited by being absorbed into white culture. Another form of denial is the myth that it all happened in the past and it’s over now. Denial interferes with our ability to be present and to listen. For healing to occur, we must acknowledge the brokenness of the bonds between us.

Another trap in our culture today is the temptation to romanticize Indians and Indian culture. I call this trap “wanting to be Indian.” The romantic stereotype is that all Indians are mystical teachers, close to the earth and bearers of a better way to live. One of the most problematic manifestations of this trap is the widespread marketing of so-called “Native American Spirituality.” What is advertised as Native American spirituality is a distortion, fragments of Indian spiritual practices taken out of context. Most Indigenous people are outraged and frustrated by this abuse of their culture and religions.

Janet McCloud, a Tulalip elder and fishing rights activist, says:

First they came to take our land and water, then our fish and game. …Now they want our religions as well. All of a sudden, we have a lot of unscrupulous idiots running around saying they’re medicine people. And they’ll sell you a sweat lodge ceremony for fifty bucks. It’s not only wrong, it’s obscene. Indians don’t sell their spirituality to anybody, for any price. This is just another in a very long series of thefts from Indian people and, in some ways, this is the worst one yet.

I believe this issue of spiritual theft is especially important for those of us who are seeking to reconnect with the earth. We might naturally seek to learn from the people who have honored their connection to the land. And it is important to acknowledge that there is much to be learned from Native peoples. But in our search for help, we can do damage too, because of the context of the broken bonds between us. If we are not sharing the pain and the struggles of Indian peoples, then what right do we have to share in the celebrations?Solstice MJ IMG_0057

These ideas were previously explored in my essay “Wanting to Be Indian: When Spiritual Searching Turns into Cultural Theft” now available online in pdf format.  The quote from Janet McCloud was originally published in Z Magazine, Dec. 1990.

A Moment of Healing on a Broken Land

In November of 2006, eight people from my congregation gathered in Orono, Maine with about seventy other people for a celebration of the Giving Winds Capital Campaign. The invitation had mentioned hors d’oeuvres, but it was more truly a feast. We had corn chowder and salmon patties, bacon-wrapped scallops and stuffed mushrooms, veggies and corn fritters, and blueberry cake and fry bread. We listened to drumming by two young girls’ drumming groups, and heard the thanks of several of the leaders of the Penobscot, Passamaquoddy, and Maliseet tribes. We left with gifts of sweetgrass and traditionally made herbal insect repellent, and beadwork pins.drumming

We heard the story of how the Giving Winds campaign came about. It began in brokenness. The Maine Council of Churches had decided a few years before to oppose a referendum that would have allowed the tribes to pursue casino gambling as a means to economic development. Representatives of the tribes had come to a council meeting to urge them to reconsider, and to speak about the difficult financial issues faced by their communities. But many members of the council had ethical principles against gambling, and they voted to go ahead with their opposition.

It was another painful moment in Indian relations with the non-Indian community here in Maine. But Tom Ewell, then director of the Council of Churches, did not want it to end there. He did some research and discovered the Four Directions Development Corporation that was just getting started. It was seeking to provide home loans and small business loans to Wabanaki people from the four tribes in Maine. Indian people had difficulty gaining credit, because if their homes were on Indian land, they could not be used as collateral for traditional mortgages or home improvement loans from a bank. Four Directions hoped to fill this gap, and to provide financial education and support for start-up businesses.

And so the Maine Council of Churches partnered with Four Directions to create the Giving Winds Capital Campaign. Congregations and individuals across Maine donated money and made low- or no-interest loans that were matched by the Federal Government. The campaign worked to build trust and connection between Indian and non-Indian people in Maine. When we ate with each other at the celebration in Orono, it was a moment of healing on a broken land.

I wanted to share this story because all too often, people feel it must be impossible to heal from five hundred years on a broken land. But I don’t believe it is impossible. Difficult yes, but there are simple steps we can take that move us in the direction toward wholeness. If we can learn to share the pain and share the struggles of Indian peoples, then we also will find ourselves sharing in the celebrations. Sweetgrass

The Theft of the Land and the Stories that Obscure It

As I wrote in my last post, European peoples are new to the land we call North America. Our history includes the theft of this land from its original people. We have tried to obscure that history through many stories, perhaps most notably our Thanksgiving myths, the stories of the Pilgrims and the Indians.Turkey DSC09718_2

The story tells us when the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth, they were welcomed by the Indian Samoset. He introduced them to Massasoit, chief of the local Indians, the Wampanoag, and to Squanto, who helped the Pilgrims to plant corn, to hunt and fish in their new home, and to survive the first hard year. In the fall, Indians and Pilgrims together celebrated a Thanksgiving for the harvest.

The story of this celebration hides other stories. It hides the plague that wiped out the village of Patuxet, and 90% of the people living on the Northeast Coast. Squanto, whose name was actually Tisquantum, was a survivor because he had been earlier carried off as a slave to England. Did you ever wonder why he could speak English to the Pilgrims? The story hides his capture as a slave, his years in Europe and his attempts to come home, only to find his people gone. But most of all, this story hides the next four hundred years, which were filled with betrayal and enmity and war.

The Pilgrims did not share the Indigenous belief in the sacredness of all beings and places. They saw their own society and ways as superior, as a progress which must be forced on other so-called “inferior” beings. This is the spirit of colonization, from which we haven’t yet recovered. From the Indian side, the colonization of North America has been a long saga of unbearable loss and grief. What irony, then, to watch as non-Indians each year have a holiday celebrating the bond between the Pilgrims and the Indians. Many Native peoples think of Thanksgiving as a Day of Mourning.

Now, the first reaction European Americans sometimes feel when we hear about this loss and grief is defensiveness. After all, we think, it wasn’t me who stole Indian land, or caused disease among the people, or killed anyone. Perhaps the second reaction that comes is a feeling of guilt, because of what our ancestors have done. But neither defensiveness nor guilt is really very helpful. We must go deeper than that. How do we acknowledge and heal the brokenness? How do we restore wholeness to this broken land and all of its people?