The Interdependent Imperative

Author: 
Rev. Fred Small

Delivered on October 26, 2014

at First Parish in Cambridge, Unitarian Universalist

 

As a boy, I was a prince of independence.

White, male, heterosexual, cisgender, able-bodied, tall, raised in middle-class affluence, I was living the American dream. 

I worked hard in school, got good grades, made the football team.

I thought I was pretty cool.

Whenever I helped myself to some ice cream from our freezer, all my mother asked when I was finished was to leave the empty dish in the sink with just a little bit of water in the dish, so the thin sweet film in the bottom wouldn’t harden into an indestructible incrustation. 

If I would just leave some water in the dish, I’d be a good boy!

So I did.

And then the dish would disappear!

Not right away, but pretty soon, when my mother next swept through the kitchen, tidying and cleaning up.

That was her job, right?

My job was to eat ice cream and leave a little water in the dish.

Never gave it a second thought.

Until I was 18. 

When I was 18, I went on Outward Bound in the Boundary Waters of Minnesota and Ontario.

The very first time we paddled away from our base camp and pitched our tents on an island, we cooked our meal, we ate our meal, and then . . . and then there were all these dirty dishes.

And no Mom.

I was flabbergasted.

All those years I thought I was independent—I was a fool.

All those years I thought I was standing on my own two feet, I had no idea I was being lifted up by others.

The seventh principle of Unitarian Universalism affirms our “respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.”

It was not always so.

When the American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church of America combined in 1961, the new Unitarian Universalist Association bylaws said nothing about interdependence. 

They proclaimed “the supreme worth of every human personality” and “the dignity of man”— singling out “the Judeo-Christian heritage” of  “love to God and love to man.”

By the 1980s, led by members of the Unitarian Universalist Women’s Federation, the groundswell for change had become unstoppable. 

Amid growing concern about environmental degradation, the draft presented to the 1984 General Assembly in Columbus, Ohio, included a new seventh principle affirming “respect for Earth and interdependence of its living systems”—a formulation ecologically correct and spiritually arid.

Fortunately, the Rev. Paul L’Herrou rose from the floor to propose instead “respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.” 

With this change, the seventh principle was transformed from an environmental plank into a spiritual truth with roots in ancient wisdom traditions. 

With this change, reflects my colleague the Buddhist Unitarian Universalist minister James Ishmael Ford, “We stopped merely being concerned with a description of what we tend to think, and called ourselves to something sacred.”

Our interdependent web evokes Buddhism’s jeweled net of Indra.

Stephen Mitchell describes Indra’s vast net this way:

at each crossing point there is a jewel; each jewel is perfectly clear and reflects all the other jewels in the net, the way two mirrors placed opposite each other will reflect an image ad infinitum. The jewel in this metaphor stands for an individual being, or an individual consciousness, or a cell or an atom. Every jewel is intimately connected with all other jewels in the universe, and a change in one jewel means a change, however slight, in every other jewel.

This is a vision of radical interdependence.  Radical only because we so often forget it, and even when we remember it, we fail to live by it.

This is the interdependence taught by the Buddha, who explained that “This is like this because that is like that.  This is because that is.”

This is the interdependence divinized by the Jewish sage Martin Buber in I and Thou.  Restarting Genesis, Buber declares: “In the beginning is the relation. . . . Relation is reciprocity.  My You acts on me as I act on it.  Our students teach us, our works form us. . . . Extended, the lines of relationships intersect in the eternal You.  Every single You is a glimpse of that.”

This is the interdependence proclaimed by Dr. King when he wrote from Birmingham Jail of

the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham.  [We might substitute Cambridge for Atlanta and Ferguson—or Roxbury—for Birmingham.]  Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.

This is the interdependence ecologist Barry Commoner articulated in his First Law of Ecology: “Everything Is Connected to Everything Else.”  (I would call this, as well, the First Law of Congregational Life and the First Law of Spiritual Life.)  The more complex the ecosystem, Commoner points out,

the more successfully it can resist a stress. . . . Most ecosystems are so complex that the cycles are not simple circular paths, but are crisscrossed with branches to form a network or a fabric of interconnections.  Like a net, in which each knot is connected to others by several strands, such a fabric can resist collapse better than a simple, unbranched circle of threads—which if cut anywhere breaks down as a whole.

This is the interdependence described by Brazilian liberation theologian Leonardo Boff  as “the infinite web of all-inclusive relations.”  “[E]verything that exists, co-exists,” Boff reminds us. “Nothing exists outside of relationships.  Ecology reaffirms the interdependence of beings . . . and repudiates the so-called right of the strongest.  All creatures manifest and possess their own relative autonomy; nothing is superfluous or marginal.  All being constitutes a link in the vast cosmic chain.”

This is the interdependence that inspires feminist theologian Carter Heyward to name God as “our power in mutual relation. . . . in which all of us, not just a few, are empowered to live more fully just and compassionate lives.  Injustice, or oppression,” she asserts, “is both source and consequence of evil—non-mutual power relations of domination and control.  We are urged in and by God to struggle for justice, peace, compassion, and liberation.”

This is the interdependence the Rev. Dr. James Forbes, Minister Emeritus of Riverside Church in New York City, addressed last month at the Religions for the Earth interfaith service at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine just hours after more than 300,000 demonstrators jammed the streets of Manhattan in the People’s Climate March.  "I see God as relationality itself,” this Christian preacher told us, “connectedness itself."

Interdependence means that there is no Other—no them by which to define us.  There may be opponents but not enemies. 

Interdependence means seeing opponents as teachers and potential allies.  Even Republicans—if you’re a Democrat.  Even Democrats—if you’re a Republican.  Even Republicans and Democrats—if you think party politics is a waste of time.  Because the person who opposes you on one issue may join with you on another—if you don’t write them off or alienate or demonize them first.

Interdependence means that means and ends cannot be separated, because what we do to another we do to ourselves.  When we’re all in the same boat, torpedoes become weapons of suicide.  The drone that kills one terrorist creates three more.

Interdependence means we see ourselves reflected in the eye of the oppressed and the oppressor alike.  Some of us would say we see God reflected there.

Interdependence means that each and every one of us is immortal, because the impressions we make on other people’s souls ripple outward to infinity.

Because everything is connected, we can never anticipate the impact our smallest gesture may have upon our family, our neighbors, and strangers we will never know.

A high school teacher says a kind word to a discouraged student, and instead of dropping out, she stays in school, graduates, and eventually becomes a teacher herself. 

A researcher toiling in a lab discovers that a plant extract has a unique property without any apparent benefit until another researcher on the other side of the planet realizes that that property is the missing piece in a cure for a killer disease. 

A folksinger writes a song so inspiring it saves a life. 

The songwriter was Stan Rogers, the burly Canadian baritone best known for “The Mary Ellen Carter,” a rousing ballad about a fishing boat sunk in a squall only to be raised from the sea bottom and salvaged by her determined crew.

In the winter of 1983, a ship called the Marine Electric was carrying coal from Norfolk, Virginia, to Somerset, Massachusetts, when it ran into the worst storm in forty years.  Pounded relentlessly by massive waves and shrieking winds,  the Marine Electric sank at 4 o’clock in the morning.

59-year-old Bob Cusick, the ship’s chief mate, made it clear of the wreck but found himself all alone in the frigid water, grasping a partially deflated lifeboat as waves crashed over him.  Each time he went under, he wasn’t sure he’d make it back to the surface.  As hypothermia set in, all Bob really wanted was to let go of the lifeboat and slip beneath the surface. 

But he remembered “The Mary Ellen Carter.”

Rise again, rise again—though your heart it be broken

Or life about to end.

No matter what you've lost, be it a home, a love, a friend,

Like the Mary Ellen Carter, rise again.

Barely clinging to life in the churning Atlantic in the pitch-black night, Bob Cusick began to sing.

Rise again, rise again 

Every time a wave broke over him, he’d hold his breath.   When the wave had passed, he’d sing again.

Like the Mary Ellen Carter rise again

Over and over and over.

At seven o'clock in the morning Bob was spotted by a Coast Guard helicopter and rescued—one of only two survivors among the 33 crewmen who went into the sea.

When he’d recovered, Bob wrote a letter to Stan Rogers thanking him for writing the song that saved his life.  At the folksinger’s invitation, Bob joined Stan at his next concert.  It was the next-to-last concert Stan performed.

A few weeks later, after headlining the Kerrville Folk Festival, Stan boarded an Air Canada flight in Dallas bound for Montreal.  When fire broke out on board, the airliner made an emergency landing in Cincinnati.  As dense smoke filled the cabin, passengers were evacuated.  Stan was near the front of the plane, and some people later said he had a chance to get out but stayed behind to help others. 

Within minutes after the doors were opened, the rush of fresh oxygen triggered a flash fire that raced through the cabin, killing all 23 passengers still on board.  Stan was among them.  He was 33 years old.

The accident led to tighter aviation regulations around the world, with new requirements for smoke detectors, emergency lighting, and increased firefighting training and equipment.  Air Canada has not had another fatality since.

A song. 

A life saved when others died. 

A life lost when others survived. 

Lessons learned to save other lives.

Ripples of care.  Ripples of courage.  Ripples of love.

We never know the impact we have.

Because we’re all connected.

We are never alone.  We are part of one another.

Each of us in every one of us.

Unity in diversity.  Diversity in unity.

Todos juntos para siempre.

One people.  One spirit.  One love.

Amen, Aché, and Blessed Be.

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