As I read our text for the week, I thought about the now famous Apollo 13 mission transmission, “Houston, we have a problem.” The actual quote was, “Houston, we’ve had a problem here.” Yes, the Apollo spacecraft had a major problem. And those of us who inhabit this earth also have a problem, and “we’ve had a problem here” for some time. We humans are killing our planet. Everyone knows this is true; it is a no brainer. But unlike the NASA Command Center who immediately went into action, we as a species have been slow to respond to our problem. Many of us have either decided that it is too late or just flat out don’t know what to do.
In their important book, Active Hope, authors Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone make their case that not only do humans need to be aware of ecological and social realities, but we also need to act – before it is too late. Speaking of the condition of the world, the authors write, “We can no longer take it for granted that our civilization will survive or that conditions on our planet will remain hospitable for complex forms of life.” The book, written by a medical doctor and a Buddhist philosopher has some good things to say. I appreciated much of the book, but was not bowled over by it. I could not help but think of how a First Nations person would read this book; it would definitely be through a different set of eyes. Indigenous peoples have a much better way of viewing “Mother Earth,” but since the enlightenment and the industrial revolution, Westerners have usually viewed this way of understanding nature as either foolish superstition or as an impediment to progress. Perhaps we should rethink our assumptions.
As the 21st century unfolds, although we are increasing in our abilities with technology, at the same time it can be argued that we are also decreasing in our abilities to be connected, both with one another and with the earth on which we live. For example, the authors point out that in the mid-1970’s the Ladakh people in northern India were cut off by snow many months each year from the rest of the country. However, they had a deeply satisfying lifestyle due to their “highly developed cooperative culture.” But all that changed with the inception of the modern consumer culture into these people’s lives. Due to a new set of values that are governed by extreme individualism, these people’s lives have changed drastically. Although they now have consumer goods filling their homes, there is an underlying sense of dissatisfaction and despair among the Ladakh people. Is this progress – or regress? Will we settle for this kind of disconnectedness we have with each other and with the earth upon which we live, or is there a better way?
In 1990, Steve Wall and Harvey Arden published their important book Wisdomkeepers: Meetings with Native American Spiritual Elders. The book is a compilation of photographs and narrative interviews with Natives American spiritual elders that began in 1981. It is a unique work that has greatly influenced me and the research I am doing. I could not help but make connections from this book with this week’s reading. Wisdomkeepers is more of a prophetic message than a mere piece of photojournalism. And I think it does a better job than our weekly reading to get us thinking deeply about our responsibility to the earth and to one another. In this book are messages that need to be heard today. It is my hope that I and we would listen carefully to this message and then act accordingly. I am going to share some excerpts from the text in the hopes that this message complement our week’s reading.
Vernon Cooper is an elder who comes from the Lumbee tribe of North Carolina. In his interview he relates this message to Wall and Arden:
I wasn’t cut out for the age we’re living in. Everybody’s hurrying but nobody’s going anywhere. People aren’t living; they’re only existing. They’re growing away from spiritual realities. These days people seek knowledge, not wisdom. Knowledge is of the past; wisdom is of the future. We’re in an age now when people are slumbering. They think they’re awake, yet they are really sleeping. But this is a dangerous age, the most dangerous in human history. People need to wake up. They can’t hear God’s voice if they’re asleep.
Heavy equipment and light-minded people have destroyed just about everything nature has provided. Well, we can’t keep ruining the earth and poisoning it and think we can get away with it. Certain destruction is going to hit one of these days. We’re on the verge of a change such as has never been seen before. God is going to intervene.
Oren Lyons is the Faithkeeper of the Turtle Clan of the Onondaga Nation and spokesperson for the Six Nations Iroquois Confederacy. He says, “There are no secrets. There’s no mystery. There’s only common sense.” In a section called All Life is Equal, Lyons continues:
Another of the Natural laws is that all life is equal. That’s our philosophy. You have to respect life—all life, not just your own. The key word is “respect.” Unless you respect the earth, you destroy it. Unless you respect all life as much as your own life, you become a destroyer, a murderer. Man sometimes thinks that he’s been elevated to be the controller, the ruler. But he’s not. He’s only a part of the whole. Man’s job is not to exploit but to oversee, to be a steward. Man has responsibility, not power.
In our way of life, in our government, with every decision we make, we always keep in mind the Seventh Generation to come. It’s our job to see that the people coming ahead, the generations still unborn, have a world that is no worse than ours—and hopefully better. When we walk upon Mother Earth, we always plant our feet carefully because we know the faces of future generations are looking up at us from beneath the ground. We never forget them.
Then comes the voice of Leon Shenandoah, the “Tadodaho”—presiding moderator of the fifty coequal “peace chiefs” comprising the Grand Council of the Six Nations Iroquois Confederacy in upper New York State. Speaking of power, Shenandoah says, “I myself have no real power. It’s the people behind me who have the power. Real power comes only from the Creator. It’s in His hands. But if you’re asking about strength, not power, then I can tell you that the greatest strength is gentleness.” He continues:
Our religion is all about thanking the Creator. That’s what we do when we pray. We don’t ask Him for things. We thank Him. We thank Him for the world and every animal and plant in it. We thank Him for everything that exists. We don’t take it for granted that a tree is just there. We thank the Creator for that tree. If we don’t thank Him, maybe the Creator’ll take that tree away. That’s what our ceremonies are about, that’s why they are important—even for you, the White Man. We pray for the harmony of the whole world. We believe that if we didn’t do our ceremonies in the Longhouse the world would come to an end. It’s our ceremonies that hold the world together. Some people may not believe that, they may laugh at it, but it’s true. The Creator wants to be thanked. When we go to the Longhouse to thank Him for His Creation he kneels down and listens to us. He puts His ear to the Longhouse window. He hears His own children, so holds off destroying the world for a while longer.
If you white men had never come here, this country would still be like it was. It would be all pure here. You call it wild, but it wasn’t really wild, it was free. Animals aren’t wild, they’re just free. And that’s the way we were. You called us wild, you called us savages. But we were just free! If we were savages, Columbus would never have gotten off the island alive.
We are made from Mother Earth and we go back to Mother Earth. We can’t “own” Mother Earth. We’re just visiting here. We’re the Creator’s guests. He invited for us to stay for a while, and now look what we’ve done to His creation. We’ve poisoned it, we’ve made a wreck of it. He’s bound to be mad—and He is.
We must listen to these voices. They are consistent. They are clear. They are calling us to action. They are calling for change. They are also wise voices that have been silenced for too long. It is time to listen. God help us to listen.
 This quote was said by astronaut John Swigert Jr. and then by James Lovell. See http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/houston-we-have-a-problem.html
 Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone, Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We’re in without Going Crazy (Novato, CA: New World Library, 2012) 1
 Ibid., 87.
 Steve Wall and Harvey Arden, Wisdomkeepers: Meetings with Native American Spiritual Elders (Hillsboro, OR: Beyond Words Publishing, Inc., 1990) 63.
 Ibid., 64.
 Ibid., 67-68.
 Ibid., 104.
 Ibid., 105-106.