“All Our Relations”
Rev. Bob Janis-Dillon
Sermon delivered at the First Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Hunterdon County
We are all connected. Every plant, every animal, every particle of matter; every human being of every land; past, present and future; we are all connected. No being exits in isolation, nor can it exist in isolation. We are all part of the same mixed-up hodgepodge of matter and energy and consciousness. In other words, we’re all in this together.
This obvious fact of nature is so apparent, probably human beings are the only species capable of forgetting it.
And yet forget it we do. How else to explain our throwaway culture, that has extinguished millions of species and irreperably harmed the lives of our grandchildren? How else to explain a society that puts its values in little bits of paper, in scoring brownie points with the God of individual success? We need, in Dr. Martin Luther King’s words, “a radical revolution of values.” And a look at our relational nature is at the heart of that revolution.
The next seven sermons are focussed on relationship. We’ll be looking at all kinds of relationships: friendships, romantic relationships, covenental relationships with the congregation and community, our ecological relationship with the earth. We begin with this simple truth: we are always in relationship, all the time. You might remember the movie Cast Away: marooned alone on an island, with no other people around, the first thing the main character does is start a relationship with his volleyball, which he calls Wilson. He draws a face on Wilson and starts talking to it. The movie is fiction, but I think it gets at a fundamental truth. Even if we were marooned on a desert island, we would want – and need – relationship at the core of our relationship. And we would be in relationship, all the time: with the island’s ecology that allows us to live; with the people who raised us when we were children; with the human race, hundreds of miles away. Others are always a part of who we are, and we could not exist without other. “La vie soi-meme, c’est les autres.”
We are always in relationship. And furthermore: the quality of our relationships will determine, in large part, the quality of our lives.
I don’t know for sure what the meaning of life is. Maybe there isn’t one. Maybe the meaning’s different for everyone. But I know where the meaning in life is to be found. I have had the opportunity, and privilege, in ministry of asking lots of people what the times are in their lives when they’ve felt the most meaningful. Think about it for yourself: where is the meaning in life for you. When have you felt the most meaningful? I believe, meaning is generally found when we are in relationship with someone or something. It could be quality time spent with our family, or friends, that’s meaningful. It could be a relationship to music or the arts, when we are at play. It could be a relationship to the earth, being outside and beholding the glories of nature. But whatever it is, we feel meaningful when we are in some sort of relationship that engages us, makes us fully ourselves. True, fulfilling living happens in the context of some sort of relationship. As a general rule, the better are relationships, the happier we are. So it is worth learning how to do relationships well.
Unitarian Universalism’s seventh principle states that our congregations affirm and promote “respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.”i We are not the first to come up with the idea that we are all connected. You heard, in our chalice lighting, the words of the Haudenosaunee people. Otherwise known as the six nations, they are one of the most ancient continuous governments on our planet. The Haudensaunee have an old, old saying: “We are a part of everything that is beneath us, above us, and around us. Our past is our present, our present is our future, and our future is seven generations past and present.”ii They have grounded their government in fundamental relationship for over eight centuries. The United States has grounded our government in individual pursuit of life, liberty and happiness for a little over two centuries. I don’t know that we’ll last another six.
A different nation on this continent, the Lakota people of the Great Plains, speak of “all our relations”. The Lakota view the animals and plants are our family. They knew this long before Darwin uncovered the principles of the theory of evolution. They looked at the buffalo who roamed around them, who they lived with and lived from, and they knew the buffalo were their relatives. Birgil Kills Straight, a Lakota Elder, puts it this way:
“The four leggeds came before the two leggeds. They are our older brothers, we came from them. Before them, we were the root people. We came from them. We are the same thing. That is why we are spiritually related to them. We call them in our language “Tatanka,” which means “He Who Owns Us.” We cannot say that we own the buffalo because he owns us.”iii
The buffalo are almost wiped out. The great plains are now filled with cattle, which are unsuited to that land and are rapidly turning it into a desert. As the activist Winona LaDuke chronicles in her book, also called All Our Relations, wherever the native populations of people have been decimated, the populations of animals have too. Remove and kill the native Americans, and species diversity tends to also be decimated. The near genocide of many peoples on this continent has gone hand in hand with the destruction of a way of life, not just a human way of life but a sustainable balance between humans, plants, animals and the terrain. We are living out of balance.iv
We see this in the growing inequalities of wealth that are happening in our country in our world. Two centuries ago Thomas Paine pointed out that in natural society, poverty is non-existent. Either the whole tribe starves or no one does; everyone is in it together. Poverty is a modern condition. It is an outcrop of our focus on seperateness. If we are all seperate, it is ok if my neighbor has less than I do, because that poverty must somehow be a result of their individual life, their bad choices. Thomas Paine argued we all have a fundamental right to resources, since we’re all in this world together. He actually proposed a system of social security, reasoning that everyone had a right to the earth, so those who were denied their natural space for planting crops needed to be compensated in some way.v More recently, in the 1990s Walt Bresette of the Chippewa people proposed a seventh generation amendment to the US constittution. The amendment states: “The right of citizens of the U.S. to enjoy and use air, water, sunlight, and other renwable resources determined by the Congress to be common property shall not be impaired, nor shall such use impair their availability for future generations.” It’s all connected, the way we are related to each other, in our society; and the ways we are related to the earth. The quality of our relationships will determine what we value, and how we live our lives.vi
So to turn our attention to our relationships is critically important. It’s important for our own happiness, because if our relationships are happy it’s a good bet we’ll be happy. And it’s important for our world. Because we can talk about carbon footprints and ozone layers until the cows go home, but the essential question is this one: are you in right relationship with the world around you?
“Right relationship” is a term that comes to us from many places: it is a term used by the Cherokee about our relation to the earth, and all things. It also came to us through the Quaker tradition, through a man named John Woolman, an 18th century Quakervii. It is worth recounting his life story, both because it was a beautiful life, and because right relationship was at the heart of it. John was born about 50 miles from here, near the Rancocas Creek outside Camden.viii He was a very able reader and writer, so he found work as a clerk, working on documents for various business and personal transactions. But he ran into a problem: many of the documents he was working on dealt, directly or indirectly, with slavery. Before the American revolution, slavery was legal in New Jersey and throughout the colonies, and many people owned slaves, including Quakers (and, sadly, Unitarians too). John Woolman thought slavery was a terrible evil. He was not alone in this: others were muttering that it didn’t seem right for human beings to own other human beings. But since our entire economy depended on slavery, most opponents of the practice settled for not owning slaves themselves. They essentially threw up their arms, and said, “well, I don’t like it, but what can you do?”
John Woolman went a step futher, because he felt he could not in good conscience have any truck with slavery. So when a dying neighbor asked him to write up his will, and the will included a clause about which of his children would be in possession of a young Negro girl, John simply wrote up the will without any mention of the clause. In Woolman’s own words, “I then told him in a friendly way that I could not write any instruments by which my fellow creatures were made slaves without bringing trouble on my own mind. I let him know I charged nothing for what I had done, and desired to be excused from doing the other part in the way he had proposed. We then had a serious conference on the subject; he, at length, agreeing to set her free, I finished the will.”
This continued throughout his practice, Woolman telling people, as friendly as he could, that he could not participate in any way in the buying or selling of human beings. Not everyone freed their slaves as his neighbor did; but he at least was heard. In fact, Woolman travelled to North Carolina, and throughout his trip he would talk to slaveowners about what he felt were the evils of slavery. It was reported that he did this so gently that no harm came to him. In the words of his biographer, he tried to “appeal to their consciences, rather than giving blame.” He was in relationship with everyone, even those whose conduct he disapproved of, and he lifted up the fundamental humanity of everyone, not just the people in the conversation.
For Woolman, and for many since Woolman, being in “right relationship” meant honoring our relatedness with all people, in all that we do. It meant relationships that preserved the integrity of both people and the sanctity of the earth. Woolman stopped wearing dyed clothes because so often they came from slaves. He lived simply, passing up a lucrative offer for employment because he wanted to have more time travelling and talking to people. He used his life to try to proclaim the “universal righteousness”, as he put it, the love of God for all people. Once, he was troubled by wars against the Indians so he went out and visited them. He had a religious meeting with them, and he shared a heartfelt prayer. John got so excited he forgot to wait for his interpreters to catch up. But one of the listeners, Chief Papunehang, simply put his hand on his heart and said, “I love to feel where the words come from.” The Chief may not have understood a word, but he knew, from his heart to John’s, that John was trying to be in right relation.
And so maybe that’s what all our relationships come down to, our relationships with one another, our relationships for our earth: can you feel where your words and your actions come from? Are your words and actions grounded in an awareness that we are all connected, that we all share the bounties of being alive and the bondings of love? Even if those around us do not agree, even if those around us do not understand a word we’re saying, they will know where the words come from. So let us speak from the heart, let us act out of love, and let us honor the fact that all our life springs from our relationships with one another. Blessed be, AMEN
iiQuote from All Our Relations, Winona LaDuke, 1998.
viMore on Walt Bresette and the proposed amendment at http://www.protecttheearth.org/Seventh%20Generation.htm
viiIt is unclear that Woolman used the term “right relationship”; but the examples from his life explain the concept perfectly. The term has become regular parlance in Quaker theology, and other theologies as well.