This link is the audio of a sermon I delivered at First Unitarian Church in Oklahoma City on October 27, 2013.
Here is the manuscript:
During the first year of my life, Martin Luther King, Jr. published an essay titled “The World House” in which he called on all of us to work together to eradicate the evils of racism, poverty, and war. In that essay, he wrote these words, “We have inherited a large house, a great ’world house’ in which we have to live together—black and white, Easterner and Westerner, Gentile and Jew, Catholic and Protestant, Moslem and Hindu—a family unduly separated in ideas, culture and interest, who, because we can never again live apart, must learn somehow to live with each other in peace.” – (Martin Luther King, Jr., from his “World House” essay, 1967.)
King recognized that although we may be from many different religions and cultural backgrounds, we share this one planet, this one world house, of which we are all a part. King also recognized that unlike other kinds of houses, if we destroy our world house, we cannot simply move to another house or build a new one. This one world house is the only one we have. When it comes to caring for the household of our planet – there are no “do overs” – we have to get it right the first time because it is the only time we have. We share the awesome responsibility of making sure the world house we have inherited will be enjoyed by generations of life to come, humans and nonhumans alike, and persons from all faiths and persons from no faith. If we do not accept this responsibility, our children and their children might look back on our generation and ask the questions, “What were you thinking? Did you not care enough about us to give us a house that is filled with peace and with justice and with abundance of life? Were you so caught up in yourselves and your consumption that you failed to see what you were doing to our home? Were you so short-sighted and self-absorbed to think that whatever enjoyment you experienced from the excesses of your lifestyles warranted the devastation of our planet?” I hope that our children will not have to ask these questions, but this will only happen if our hopes are expressed in actions that move us in new directions, actions that take care of this one planet that is our only home. As much as I like Star Trek, the chances that we will be travelling the cosmos and living on other planets are quite minimal, so it is a much better strategy for us to take care of the world house of planet earth. The earth is too beautiful of a home for us to give up on it.
It is difficult to grasp how much damage we have already done to our planet in such a short period of time. On a planet that has existed for 4.6 billion years or so, we have only existed as a species for a couple of hundred thousand years. For most of that time we had very little impact on the global environment, but recently that has changed. In less than a blip of geologic time, so minute as to be almost no time at all, we have contributed to a mass extinction of species and we are changing the very climate of the earth itself. You probably have heard of the great entomologist Edward O. Wilson of Harvard, who writes that conservative estimates are that the extinction rate caused by humans is 100 to 1000 times the normal background extinction rate. In other words species are going extinct 100 to 1000 times faster than they would without the presence of human activity in the world. At the current pace of extinction, about half of the species of life that existed at the beginning of the 21st Century will no longer exist at the end of the 21st Century.
If we do not change our behavior in our world house, our legacy will be the sixth great extinction on our planet and the only one brought about by the activities of a single species. It is the greatest moral imperative of our time that we turn away from our ways of living that bring more death to the world than life. This moral imperative calls us to think thousands and millions of years into the future and to think about all species of life rather than just thinking about our own generation of human persons. This moral imperative calls on all persons from all religions and all cultures to work together for the renewal of our planet. As Martin Luther King recognized in his World House essay, we must somehow learn to live with each other in peace, but living in peace with each other as humans is not enough – we must also find ways to live at peace with the planet itself. We may be from many religions or even from no religion, but we are all members of one planet, we are all members of our one world house. 46 years ago, Martin Luther King recognized that we need a global interfaith ecumenical movement to care for our one world house by creating true peace, overcoming racism, and eradicating poverty. Today we must add to this work the work of sustaining our planet for ourselves, for future generations, and for all life. This work to care for our planet and to care for each other requires that we do more than just simply learn how to get along (although that is indeed an important place to start). As the great contemporary interfaith leader Eboo Patel and others have noted, the time has come to move beyond merely coexisting. The time has come for active and systematic cooperation among people of all faiths and people of no faiths to address systemically the global challenges of our time. As one of my fellow United Methodists Bob Edgar once said, it is time for a courageous interfaith commitment to focus on the challenges of peace, poverty, planet earth, people’s rights, and the cultivation of a pluralistic society. This pluralistic interfaith commitment is a key part of fighting the powerful forces of fear and fanatical fundamentalism that are so widespread in our world house today.
If we are to address our global challenges, we will need to cultivate a shift in our understanding of our place in the world house. For centuries, we have viewed ourselves primarily as rulers of the house rather than as participants within it. We have seen ourselves as different, as separate from the rest of life owing to our rational capabilities. There has been little practical difference between our belief that we have dominion over the non-rational non-human world and the practice of outright domination over the rest of life. If the human world and its values are seen as essentially disconnected from the natural world, this provides little motivation for the commitment necessary to deal with contemporary ecological challenges. A dualistic view of humans in relation to nature contributes to a worldview that emphasizes the instrumental character of the natural world to the neglect of its intrinsic value. This dualistic view may have contributed to the particular effectiveness of the human manipulation of the natural environment that characterizes the modern scientific and technological era, but it also contributed to the ecological problems we now face. If nature is to be viewed as separate from humans, bereft of vitality and value, there is little impediment for human thought against manipulating nature in any way deemed necessary for human purposes. Francis Bacon (1561-1626), sometimes credited with a central role in the “founding of modernity,” represents the epitome of this perspective, treating nature as something to be dominated and manipulated for human use (See Frederick Ferré, Being and Value, 1996, pp. 117-120).
Perhaps the view that humans are not a part of nature is based on the erroneous judgment that distinction or difference entails separation. It seems self-evident in human experience that humans are different than the rest of the natural world. With our rational faculties, our ability to use symbols and language, and the complex development of human cultures, we experience ourselves to be quite different than non-human life. These significant differences between human beings and the rest of life lead us to distinguish between human-made culture or civilization and the natural world. We experience ourselves to be so radically different than the rest of the world that we tend to view ourselves as separate from it. In the modern West, this view of separation has even manifested in a difficulty understanding the interaction of our human minds with our human bodies. Since our bodies seem to be more closely linked to the natural processes in the rest of the world, we tend to question whether our bodies are truly a part of our persons.
To value and care for our one world house, we need a more holistic understanding of persons as part of the natural world. This does not make humans less personal, rather it is a recognition that nature is more personal than the modern Western world has understood it. Nature is not a foe to conquer or simply a tool to use and manipulate; nature is our home. Nature is the context in which we are able to realize our full humanity. This view does not entail a call to leave our human pursuits and return to nature, for this presupposes the dualism I am wanting to refute. Rather this view simply entails that we recognize all of our activities as taking place within nature. There is nothing unnatural about the great human accomplishments of art, philosophy, politics, science, and technology. These activities are no less a part of nature than the activities of non-human life forms. They are more complex, they are often the products of rational deliberation and incredible skill, but these activities are not taking place in a completely different order of reality. They are part of the community of nature, and human persons are persons-in-ecological-community and members of one world house which includes all life. We a part of the world house and our flourishing as human persons is dependent on the flourishing of all members of the household.
The task of addressing the global challenges of violence, poverty, injustice, and our ecological crisis is a daunting task. We cannot do it alone. It requires shared commitment and shared focus, and it requires hard and sustained work. There are some who look at the breadth and complexity of the challenges and react with despair at what can be done. There are some days when I share in this feeling of despair, and when I find myself wallowing in the mode of despairing, I often direct my attention to an experience of my childhood.
When I was a young boy growing up in Lawton, Oklahoma, my dad would take me hiking quite a bit in the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge just minutes from our home. It was on our hikes in those mountains that my love for nature developed, and to this day I feel that the Wichita Mountains (along with the Olympic Mountains of Washington state where my grandparents retired and lived for 23 years) are my spiritual home.
On one of our first hikes in the Wichitas as we were looking at a herd of majestic bison, my dad told me the story about how these animals once numbered in the millions, with herds stretching across the plains as far as the eye could see, but they were hunted to the point of near extinction during the westward expansion of European settlers with their bodies left to rot by the thousands on the prairie. This story was one of my first glimpses into the capacity for evil on the part of human persons. I had a similar early glimpse of massive human moral failing when I saw the vast tracks of clear cuts in the forests of the otherwise beautiful Olympic Peninsula in my summer visits with my maternal grandparents in my other spiritual home.
On that hike in the Wichitas, my father went on to tell me that at the point when the bison were closest to extinction, a small number of bison (around 15 at first) were transported to the Wichita mountains by train from the Bronx Zoo in 1907 and that the hundreds of bison that now live in the refuge and the thousands that are now in existence are alive because of the efforts to save them and bring them back to the Great Plains where they belong. My father also told me the story of the Comanche Chief, Quanah Parker, who was present for the return of the bison on that train from New York. Though I did not realize it as much when I was a young boy, this was an important part of the story given that the slaughter of the bison was part of an even greater evil, the genocide of native peoples who were dependent on the bison for their way of life, something I learned over time later as I grew older.
This early memory is significant for me. It was one of the first times that I became aware of the very bad things we humans are capable of doing. It was almost unbelievable to me that humans could do such a thing to such an animal. However, it was not lost on me that at the point when the bison were almost totally lost to extinction, human commitment and action were able to bring the bison back from the brink. There was great moral failing and even evil in the story, but there was also a narrative of hope that humans can bring life and not just death into the world.
The dual aspects of awareness of both evil and the capacity for goodness in this story have forever stayed with me. Since my time as a boy on this hike in the Wichitas, I have seen too many human failings (including my own) to be an optimist about the future, but I have also seen too many wonderful acts of life-giving love and compassion to be a pessimist. I am a meliorist. I believe we can make the world a better place through hard work and shared commitment, but there is no guarantee. It is up to us. It is our responsibility.
The global challenges we now face are exponentially more complex and systemic in nature than the challenge of bringing one species back from the brink. It is a more accurate characterization to say that our generation has the moral task of bringing human community and our ecological community back from the brink. It will require exponentially greater commitment and greater action than saving the American Bison, but I must hope that there is something in the human spirit that will enable us to come to be truly caretakers of our world house, rather than its plunderers. I have often wondered what might have been going through Chief Quanah Parker’s mind as he watched the few Bison being loaded from the train and taking their first steps on the prairie that had once been home to millions of their ancestors. I would like to think that this experience gave him a flicker of hope in his last days of living that even more restoration was possible.
When I see communities like yours in this church, working for social justice, helping to organize our community, searching for truth wherever it can be found, celebrating nature as our home, embracing the diversity and pluralism of our community, standing up for those who are being discriminated against for simply being who they are, and actively doing the work to care for our world house, it gives me more than a flicker of hope that more restoration is possible in our community and in our world, and I pray that whatever flicker of hope each of us might have might come together in a powerful and bright flame for peace, justice, healing, and sustainability as we commit ourselves to the greatest task that any generation of humans has ever known, the task of bringing our one world house back from the brink, back from the brink so that all life and all human community might flourish. There is no more sacred task. Amen.