The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries
A Revolutionary Pledge
Reading the Declaration of Independence at least once each year is a worthwhile discipline for US citizens. My annual, early July perusal of that document reminds me of the revolutionary courage of the Founding Fathers in the face of genuine oppression.
I counted, this week, and saw that the Declaration has 27 specific complaints which form the basis of their claim against the British crown. A long list of documented abuses underlie the assertion that "it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government."
The authors of the Declaration list "self-evident" truths about equality and human rights which were not at all self-evident to King George. But the Declaration was just that -- an assertive declaration of principles, complaints and actions. It was not a list of debating points, or a polite petition asking for the King's consideration.
The statement from Philadelphia said, "That's it. We're done. We're not going to take it any more!" With their votes and their signatures, the representatives to the Continental Congress rejected the King's claim to ownership and control of the colonies. They rejected his authority, and appropriated the land for themselves. It was not an action that the British government would take lightly.
This year, I found my attention drawn to the last sentence of the Declaration of Independence. "And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor." In light of England's expected reaction to the declaration, that pledge by the signers was not one to be made lightly.
By signing the Declaration, those men made themselves the primary targets of royal retribution. "Our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor" is a remarkable pledge from the men of wealth who were the leaders of the newly declared independent states.
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The seriousness of the Declaration -- with its long list of philosophical and specific complaints -- can be seen by the light-hearted contrast to a group of protesters in the Monty Python movie, Life of Brian, set in Jerusalem at the time of Jesus.
Reg, the leader of the insurgents, summarizes their complaints against the occupying Roman forces. "They've taken everything we had, and not just from us, from our fathers, and from our fathers' fathers. ... And what have they ever given us in return?!"
His compatriots gradually develop quite a list of Roman benefits. Finally, Reg says, "All right, but apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, a fresh water system, and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?" To this, Xerxes replies, "Brought peace" -- and the scene ends.
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In the United States of 2009, we bear resemblance to both the Founding Fathers and the bumbling rebels of Monty Python. Al Gore wrote this week that "Today, our nation lives under the oppressive thumb of foreign oil, dirty energy and a climate crisis that could change life as we know it", and he calls on us to "declare your energy independence now." But at the same time, most of us are incredibly privileged and comfortable in the presence of those dangers.
The readers of these Notes, I presume, have an appreciation for the "self-evident truths" that we live in a world of interdependent ecological relationships, that the regenerative powers of Earth are overtaxed to the point of collapse, and that ecological crisis falls most heavily on those who have not created the problem -- the poor of the world, those of future generations, and other-than-human species. We could, and we have, made long lists of specific complaints against the political, economic and social systems which propagate these abuses. In our efforts to establish a more just and sustainable society, we have tried, or at least considered, asserting our independence from the systems which oppress, exploit and degrade the world.
But we're enmeshed in the very systems that we protest against. We're the beneficiaries of the abuses that we decry. We have to do something far more complex than severing ties with a far-away King. We have to change our own society and our own values. I assume, because you're a subscriber to this commentary, that you are swayed more toward the side of personal and global transformation than you are to immediate self-interest.
The question in my mind, on this Fourth of July weekend, is how strongly we will pledge our commitment to that process of change. How much will we pledge to the cause of ecological healing? "Our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor"? Or "one bike-to-work day, five compact florescent light bulbs, and a couple of emails to my political representatives"? How much will you do to make real the changes that we know are needed?
One of the courageous and committed figures that I deeply respect in this cause is Bill McKibben. He is a man who has pledged deeply, committing his vocation, reputation and resources to ecological healing and the struggle against global heating. In a recent Greenpeace interview, he spoke of the need for us all to become much more deeply committed. "I was at the White House a month ago. Their clear message was, 'Make us do it. Build the movement that gives us the room to do the things we want to do.'" Genuine action on climate change will not happen without massive and vocal grassroots support.
Building a broad and passionate popular movement for transformation does not subject us to the sort of risk faced by the Founding Fathers of the US. But it does call on us to make substantial commitments of our time, energy, finances, comfort and reputation. It calls on us to have the courage to declare the truths that are self-evident to us, and to then act on that declaration. Building a movement calls on us to get involved -- in our communities and workplaces, in our churches and schools, politically and economically.
Change does not come, will not come, without real commitment. In 1776, a cluster of men in Philadelphia pledged their lives, fortunes and sacred honor, and they meant it. In 2009, we are again in need of transformational change. What will you pledge in support of that cause?
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