SACRED ACTIVISM: FINDING THE COURAGE TO MOVE THROUGH DESPAIR TO EMPOWERMENT
by Beth Remmes
Sermon at Emerson Unitarian Universalist Congregation, October 20, 2019
In the spiral of the Work That Reconnects, as well as in many indigenous and faith traditions, we begin with gratitude. Thank you for inviting me here today to talk about Sacred Activism and asking me to facilitate a workshop here later this afternoon. I am honored to be here and grateful to have the opportunity to share this message.
I know that in these challenging times, it may feel especially difficult or maybe even insincere to start each day with gratitude, but even simply paying attention to our breath, and being grateful that we are participating in that sacred exchange with the earth is a grounding and stabilizing practice.
From there, gratitude begins to well up from the little things; birdsongs in the morning, a hot cup of coffee, a laughter-filled conversation with a friend.
The more I make a habit of focusing on what I was grateful for, the easier it was for me to choose where to put my energy. I direct my efforts more towards what I love, rather than saying yes to things out of a sense of obligation. This is the central question of Sacred Activism – “How can I put my love into action?”
Sacred Activism is when our desire to create positive change and subsequent actions are fueled by a force greater than ourselves.
Other ways to think about it are: When Spirit Meets Action, Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr called it Soul Force, or it’s asking, “How am I being called to serve?”
In addition to the examples of Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr, some other more recent examples of Sacred Activists include The Water Protectors at Standing Rock. They bravely exemplified sacred activism in their prayerful, nonviolent approach to protesting the pipeline.
In 2017, when I marched alongside the Water Protectors at the Native Nations March in DC, there was no hatred in the hearts of the people I met. Instead, I felt their deep resiliency and commitment to protect the water and future generations, as drumbeats and sage wafted through the air.
Another example of a sacred activist is Wangari Maathai. Since she started the Green Belt Movement in Kenya in 1977, over 51 million trees have been planted, and over 30,000 women have been trained in forestry, food processing, bee-keeping, and other trades that help them earn income while preserving their lands and resources. She was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 for her contribution to “sustainable development, democracy and peace.”
A personal “shero” for me who I have had the pleasure of meeting and corresponding with is Julia Hill. For 738 days (1997-1999) forest activist Julia Butterfly Hill lived 180 feet high in the canopy of an ancient redwood tree to help make the world aware of the plight of ancient forests. Julia, with great help from steelworkers and environmentalists, successfully negotiated to permanently protect the tree and a nearly three-acre buffer zone. Over the last twenty years since her tree sit, she has shared hope-giving messages for a more sacred world, a place where we consciously consider the impact of our choices and act from a center of “power, responsibility, and love – with joy and compassion.”
I think it is so important to come into whatever form of activism you choose from this place of joyful, compassionate, loving service because without those guiding principles, we run the risk of replicating the us v. them, contentious dynamic that we are most likely reacting to in the first place.
For example, if we are working to shut down coal-fired power plants, because ultimately we believe in the Unitarian guiding principal of respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part – then our tactics cannot include spewing anger and hatred at the people in that industry – it doesn’t say “respect for the interdependent web of some existence” it says “all existence of which we are a part.” It is the belief in separateness that allows people to pollute for profit in the first place. So we have to prioritize restoration and reconciliation, rather than shaming and othering. As Audre Lorde famously declared, “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”
Activism is much more sustainable when it is grounded in love. It’s true that it might actually be anger that lights a fire in us, but as Marianne Williamson writes in A Politics of Love, “Anger is like the white sugar of activist energy; it gives adrenaline in the short term, but is debilitating in the long term.”
If it is anger that has inspired you to act, I encourage you to look at it more closely and peel back the layers. If you are upset at injustice, it is because you love justice.
This energy of love opens us up to joyful connections and creative responses, and it also allows us to better handle the uncertainty of the outcome. Think of how many things you do for the sake of love that do not come with guarantees – our partnerships, friendships, parenthood, or having a pet…they all come with the risk of pain, but it’s also where we feel most connected and alive.
If you are listening to this and feeling like you can’t climb out of despair to even feel anger, much less love, I have a powerful message for you from Joanna Macy, the root teacher of the Work That Reconnects. She writes, ”This is a dark time, filled with suffering and uncertainty. Like living cells in a larger body, it is natural that we feel the trauma of our world. So don’t be afraid of the anguish you feel, or the anger or fear, because these responses arise from the depth of your caring and the truth of your interconnectedness with all beings.”
I understand that this month, you have been exploring the theme of courage. It takes tremendous courage to open up to the pain of the world. The word “courage” comes from the Anglo-French word “coer” – meaning “heart.” In order to demonstrate courage, your heart must be open – especially when you’re feeling vulnerable or afraid.
Macy also writes, “We are capable of suffering with our world, and that is the true meaning of compassion. Don’t ever apologize for crying for the trees burning in the Amazon or over the waters polluted from mines in the Rockies. Don’t apologize for the sorrow, grief, and rage you feel. It is a measure of your humanity and your maturity. It is a measure of your open heart, and as your heart breaks open there will be room for the world to heal. That is what is happening as we see people honestly confronting the sorrows of our time. And it is an adaptive response.”
This pain that we feel on behalf of the world is sometimes referred to as “Blessed Unrest.” Just as pain receptors throughout our bodies send electrical messages causing our body to spring into defensive action, our pain for the world also wants us to respond.
Some people come into this world with a talent and passion, and they know from a young age that they are going to be a musician, a teacher, doctor, or an athlete. But for many of us, myself included – it was not my passion which directed my life’s work – it was my COMpassion. The despair I felt when I saw senseless brutal animal slaughters, the scarred earth from clear cut forests, and the crushing burden of environmental injustice – felt overwhelming – but it also pointed me to a community of people who share my heartbreak, and I found ways to be part of the earth’s immune system.
The Work That Reconnects calls this movement to act on behalf of life – “The Great Turning” and it’s a turning from our Industrial Growth Society to a Life Sustaining Society – where we can meet our needs without destroying our life-support system.
The three dimensions of The Great Turning, which are mutually reinforcing are:
- Holding actions which slow the damage of Earth and its beings.
- Analyzing our current structures and creating more sustainable alternatives.
- Shift in consciousness which is a change in perception, thinking, and values.
Many people participate in all three of these dimensions, but may prefer to spend most of their time in a particular area.
When people picture activists, they most likely envision people marching with signs at a protest. This would be the most obvious example of a holding action. Other holding actions occur at the legislative, legal, and political levels, and are basically any actions to slow down the damage to Earth and its beings long enough until the second and third dimensions of The Great Turning are realized.
The second dimension of the Great Turning is where we study the structural causes of the global crisis and then take action to create new systems, without waiting for national or local policies to catch up. This approach is akin to R. Bukminster Fuller’s assertion, “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”
A few examples of this dimension include renewable energy, permaculture, local sustainable food movement, citizens climate lobby, restorative justice, and the creation of benefit corporations which consider people, planet and profit. Also check out Paul Hawken’s Project Drawdown which is the most comprehensive plan ever proposed to reverse global warming.
The third dimension of The Great Turning is the Shift in Perception and Values. Without seeing interdependence and sacredness of all life and recognizing our ecological self, it is difficult to sustain the first two dimensions of the Great Turning. This is where we emerge from our ego-self, to an eco-self.
A powerful example of this change in perception is in the story of when Joanna Macy met forest activist and deep ecologist, John Seed. She writes in Pass It On:
“ There facing bulldozers, what he sensed above all was the forest rising behind him. As he described it to me, he felt himself rooted in the immensely larger being that had brought him forth. That primordial cradle of life now claimed him…”I was no longer John Seed protecting the rainforest. I was the rainforest protecting herself though this little piece of the humanity I cradled into existence.”
A few examples of ways to participate in this dimension include:
Create or join a book group or a movie discussion group which looks at issues like institutional and structural racism, environmental degradation, or how corporations control our economic and political systems. Films for Action selected 100 of the top documentaries we can use to change the world, based on their quality, insight and potential to inspire positive change.
With roots deep in the Amazon rainforest, the Pachamama Alliance is a global community that offers programs which integrate indigenous wisdom with modern knowledge to support personal, and collective transformation -which is the catalyst to bringing forth an environmentally sustainable, spiritually fulfilling, socially just human presence on this planet.
There is also a practice called Subtle Activism, which refers to the use of consciousness-based practices for collective transformation, such as a global meditation intended to support the peaceful resolution of an international conflict.
Realizing that there were different ways to be a part of The Great Turning was life changing for me. In 1995, during my senior year of college, I went to a “Free the Planet” conference with 1700 students from across the United States. We gathered at the University of Pennsylvania to organize, educate and build support for environmental protection and political activism. We created and signed a petition including an Environmental Bill of Rights, and marched down the streets of Philadelphia to Independence Hall rallying for environmental justice and an end to the ravages of corporate abuse. I loved being there with people who cared about what was happening, but during the march I felt so uncomfortable yelling and raising my fists. I ended up being on the peace brigade, which was the buffer between the marchers and the people on the sidewalk. I was worried that because I couldn’t see myself marching in the streets, that maybe I wasn’t really an activist, but when I learned about the other dimensions, I realized that I do have a role to play in The Great Turning. Over the years I have become more comfortable participating in holding actions.
Like the book we read with the children, everyone has their own special gifts. Think about your gifts and how are you being called to participate in The Great Turning.
Before the doubts creep in that you can’t show up because you have your own work to do, in my experience, my personal growth has happened as a result of doing this work.
Joanna Macy writes, “Because the relationship between self and world is reciprocal, it is not a matter of first getting enlightened or saved and then acting. As we work to heal the Earth, the Earth heals us. No need to wait.”
As you venture down this path, it is important to not do it alone. The beauty of having the courage to follow your blessed unrest, is that you will connect with other activists, changemakers, justice seekers, and people who are looking to engage more deeply in the healing of our world. Whatever happens, there is joy and satisfaction knowing that you are acting on behalf of life. This is truly an incredible moment, in the history of the world to be alive!
Paul Hawken estimates that there are over 1 million organizations in the world addressing environmental and social justice issues. Because of technologies like cell phones and the internet, it is creating a network of activity, transparency, and communication that is unparalleled – Making it the fastest growing movement in the world – a movement which could be humanity’s immune response to political corruption, economic disease and ecological destruction of our times.
These diverse movements are systems of critical connections and authentic relationships, and have the potential to give rise to emergent properties, which create new possibilities that are not predictable from the sum of its’ separate parts. For example, no one could predict that the combination of hydrogen and oxygen would create water. Similarly, no one can predict the creative solutions that may emerge when a group of people work together for transformational change.
Extinction Rebellion says that, “As we move into a pivotal and unknown period of uncertainty, we know that by facing our fears – in an emergency moment of our democracy and our global ecosystem – we can find a true and deeper love for life that allow ourselves to lean into the furthest edge of our courage.”
In her book, Hope in the Dark, Rebecca Solnit points out, “Inside the word “emergency” is “emerge”; from an emergency new things come forth.” She goes on to say, that “..hope is not about what we expect. It is an embrace of the essential unknowability of the world, of the breaks with the present, the surprises. Or perhaps studying the record more carefully leads us to expect miracles – not when and where we expect them, but to expect to be astonished, to expect that we don’t know. And this is grounds to act.”
How will you put your love into action?