Sermon: Pledging Allegiance to Interdependence

I John 4:7-8, 11-12, 17-21

I just got back from a two-week “staycation,” and… it was wonderful. Every morning, I woke up and said: “Soul, what do you want to do today?” And then, I mostly did that. So, I gardened and I read and I cooked. One day, my soul even wanted to do my taxes. And, surprisingly to me, my soul also wanted to do some deep family history via my DNA. Years ago, I got my DNA tested through, and it turns out you can download your DNA sequence from Ancestry and then upload it into these different programs (at a place called GEDmatch) that will tell you all sorts of interesting things about your genetics. For instance, one program estimated that about 40% of my DNA comes from ancient European hunter gatherers, about 40% comes from Near Eastern farmers (from what is now Turkey) who migrated into Europe some 9,000 years ago and about 15% of it comes from horse-riding herders from the Russian steppes who migrated to (or colonized?) Central Europe about 4,000 years ago. One program revealed that an archaic snippet of my DNA matches that of a man who lived in western Siberia 45,000 years ago. Other tests revealed that about 6% of my DNA matches that of Sephardic Jews — Jewish people who lived in Portugal and Spain prior to being expelled in 1492. A lesser percentage of my DNA hails from India and about 1% is tied to Nigeria in Africa, the continent from which all of us come.

So though I am ethnically very clearly Swiss German, in truth I am genetically tied to people all over the world. But the further I got into my genetics research, the more I learned that, genetically, ethnicity and race are inconsequential. Humans are 99.9% genetically identical. One geneticist said that all humans are essentially identical twins. And the genetic truth goes deeper than that. We share genes with most of the life on this planet. Our genes are 98% identical to that of chimpanzees, 90% identical to cats, 75% identical to mice, 15% identical to mustard grass and — for some strange reason — 50% identical to bananas. We really are a part of each other.

Genetics is only confirming what all spiritual traditions have long told us. One of my most influential spiritual teachers, Catholic priest and Zen monk Tom Hand, said that “Love is the awareness of our fundamental unity.” That might sound trite, but it isn’t. Not if you really experience that awareness and center your life in it.  That is the spiritual work of a lifetime. I think that awareness of that unity, that centering in love was what Jesus was teaching. He was trying to tell us and show us that the artificial divisions that separate us are just that — artificial, not real, illusory — and that when we are aware of our fundamental unity and center our life in it and build communities and societies centered in it— then we are born of God. Hear the words from I John again, with a slight rephrasing:

Beloved, let us realize our fundamental unity, because this unity is from God; everyone who is aware of this fundamental unity is born of God and knows God. Whoever is not aware of this fundamental unity does not know God, for God is this fundamental unity, this oneness.

“Interbeing” is a word coined by Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hahn to describe this deep interconnection with everything else. It’s the word he uses to describe reality, what is really real. We inter-are with one another and with all of life.  The idea that we are independent — of anything — is myth. Again, our biological sciences are confirming this deep spiritual intuition. Naht Hahn refers to the work of the biologist Lewis Thomas, who talks about how our human bodies are “shared, rented, and occupied” by “countless other tiny organisms — like mitochondria, centrioles, and basal bodies that once led independent lives — without whom we couldn’t “move a muscle, drum a finger, or think a thought. In other words, “Our body is a community, and the trillions of non-human cells in our body are even more numerous than the human cells. Without them, we could not be here in this moment. … There are no solitary beings,” Naht Han says. “The whole planet is one giant, living, breathing cell, with all its working parts linked in symbiosis.”

In Alice Walker’s novel The Color Purple, the main character —  Celie — is a poor black woman with a tragic personal history of abuse and pain. As an adult, Celie befriends and finds intimacy with a blues singer, Shug Avery, who helps Celie heal and come alive. In one scene in the novel, Shug tells Celie how she began to heal from a racist image of God as an old white man through an experience of interbeing. The narrator here is Celie:

“Shug a beautiful something, let me tell you. She frown a little, look out cross the yard, lean back in her chair, look like a big rose. She say, My first step from the old white man was trees. Then air. Then birds. Then other people. But one day when I was sitting quiet and feeling like a motherless child, which I was, it come to me: that feeling of being part of everything, not separate at all. I knew that if I cut a tree, my arm would bleed. And I laughed and I cried and I run all around the house.”

As a late capitalist, extractive, white supremacist society, we are about as far as we can get from the awareness that if we cut a tree, our arm would bleed. We are about as far from love — from an “awareness of fundamental unity” — as we can get. Our U.S. dominant culture is built on separation. Jack Forbes, a Native American scholar, says in his book Colombus and Other Cannibals, that when Indigenous communities came into contact with the first Europeans, they saw them as being infected with a sickness — let’s call it a virus — called “Wetiko.” It was a tribe of the Cree in Canada who used this concept for the first time but other tribes also had similar concepts. ‘Wetiko’ literally means cannibal in Cree and it refers to the “psychospiritual state of an individual who perceives themself as being separate, isolated from the world around them, set apart from community. Therefore, they have to survive by competing with and exploiting other beings” (Martin Winiecki in the podcast “Team Human” on May 13, 2020).   By consuming other people and wild nature for profit.

That virus of “Wetiko” also invented the concept of white supremacy, which (via the Doctrine of Discovery) religiously and legally made it OK to enslave and steal land from non-Christians, the Native people of this country. That same virus led white landowners in the 1600s to weaponize whiteness  in order to protect their power and wealth from the much larger number of poor black and white workers, whom they were afraid would rise up against them. As Resmaa Menakem, author of My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending our Hearts and Bodies writes, these rich landowners “gave white workers small parcels of land to work, thus essentially creating a peasant class in the New World. The land owners taught the white people, ‘You’re just like us: you’re white and you have land to work.’ They also gave some poor white people quasi-leadership positions as plantation overseers, providing them with authority over Black bodies and lives. At the same time, they forbade Blacks from owning land, and told them, ‘You’re Black, and you’re completely unlike us.’ Powerful white people also created formal structures and institutions to reinforce these notions (of separation)… This was not an informal shift that resulted from slowly changing attitudes. It was a deliberate strategy devised to create such changes.”

In learning this history of separation, I take hope. Our separation from each other and the idea that some of us could dominate others legitimately — that had to be taught. That had to be constructed. That had to be strategized, thought through and institutionalized in laws and policies. It took some folks hard work — and still does — to teach us in the ways of separation and dominance.

But I think we may be waking up. Those in our dominant culture are slowly waking up to our interdependence with this planet’s ecological systems. We aren’t separate from nature; we are nature. And some of us are starting to see ourselves as part of the one giant, living, breathing cell that is our planet. We are starting to see the fundamental shifts we must make to live centered from that reality.

COVID is making us see our interdependence. In an essay on interdependence, our own Geoff Martin writes: “The pandemic has mocked the illusion of our fortified borders and highlighted our deep entanglement in global economic trade relations. Economic uncertainty is everywhere reminding us how much our own individual life—the place we live, the money we make, the food we eat—is dependent on others in a myriad of ways.  The virus is making clear that my health not only depends on my neighbors’ health, but my county and state’s health depends on your county and state’s health. Grocery store trips are now a macabre journey into shared public space, teaching us that the very air through which we move and have our being is not separate from the breath of others.” (From the unpublished essay, “Observing Inter-Dependence Day Instead”)

For years, the Black Lives Matter movement has been waking the dominant culture up to our fundamental interdependence, our interbeing. Just the name of this movement — Black Lives Matter — puts the lie to the illusion of separation and domination that we have been taught.  And then the murder of the beloved child of God named George Floyd — coming at a time when white people who do not normally feel vulnerable are feeling that way,  and when we don’t have our ready distractions at hand — this horrific murder opened up a collective space where thousands if not millions of white people are experiencing their fundamental unity with Floyd and Breana Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery and Tony McDade. White people are finally realizing the truth of what James Baldwin wrote years ago: “Whether I like it or not, or whether you like it or not, we are bound together forever. We are part of each other. What is happening to every Negro in the country at any time is also happening to you” (From Nobody Knows My Name). And white people are finally rising up in large numbers with their Black and Brown and Native and transgender identical twins to say “no more” to the lie of separation and domination.  I think I understand, at least a bit, why some Black people experience this rising up as both welcome and painful. Why did it take us white people so long to learn to love? The vitally crucial thing — especially for those of us who are white — is not be lulled into illusion again. To keep waking up and to keep rising up.

We can unlearn separation. We are. We can learn interdependence and interbeing. We are. We can deconstruct systems built on separation and domination and we can build systems built on interdependence. We are. And we have to, or we won’t make it as a human species. We could never really afford to live from the illusion of separateness, but we’ve reached a point in our evolution as a species in which we simply can’t and expect to survive. 

So, today, let us declare again our independence from the myths of independence. Let’s pledge our allegiance to interdependence, to interbeing. Let’s pledge our allegiance to love, to a fundamental awareness of our unity. And then, let’s get back to work — by transforming anything in us that is not centered in that love. By transforming any structure or institution in our society that is not centered in love.

Beloved, let us realize our fundamental unity, because this unity is from God; everyone who is aware of this fundamental unity is born of God and knows God. Whoever is not aware of this fundamental unity does not know God, for God is this fundamental unity, this oneness.