Living and Dying with Reverence
Rev. LoraKim Joyner, DVM
January 25, 2015
Service at the First Religious Society – Unitarian Universalist
of Newburyport, Massachusetts
In this service I lift up the teachings of Albert Schweitzer’s Reverence for Life Ethic and how it can be applied to the First Principle Project and the challenges of living in a multispecies world.
Let us imagine a family of humans walking along a road. A daughter walks slightly in front and her mother gently and fondly holds her hand. Across the street walks another family, a pair of chimpanzees. There too a mother holds with affection her daughter’s hand.
Now imagine that the human mother reaches behind her and takes the hand of her mother, so now they are 3 – grandmother, mother, and daughter. On the other side of the road the chimpanzees do the same. Then each grandmother takes her free hand and grabs the hand of her mother, who takes the hand of her mother, for generation upon generation. On each side of the road is a very long line of great apes, spanning hundreds of thousands of years.
Then something very special happens. The two lines begin to converge, they get closer and closer together, until there is only a line separating them, and then this line disappears and terminates into the hands of the shared ancestral grandmother of both humans and chimpanzees.
It is a blessing to see these two lines converging into one. It shows that we all belong to the family of life on this earth, that we all have inherent worth and dignity, no matter our species.
To not reach out and join our hands with others is to say that those who come after us do not belong, or those before us. It is to distance others from our compassion and care.
Ultimately, we become isolated, lonely.
But we primates only have two hands. It is a challenge to reach out to the many to welcome them, and to be welcomed. So we often give up in exasperation or confusion, and we drop the hands of others. Instead we use our hands to draw lines of separation, on one side are those who live, and on the other, are those who shall die.
Where to draw that line between those within the realm of moral concern has captivated philosophers and ethicists for millennia, and divides many within the animal well being movement, in which I am deeply embedded. One area in which I work for the benefit of all species is the First Principle Project, a consortium of UU groups and congregations that seek to improve the lives of all of us by engaging and changing the UU Principles. We are asking how our UU principles might guide us in living in a multispecies world where science and the changing cultural paradigm tells us that there is no sharp distinction between human and non. To spark discussion we specifically are starting with the First Principle - changing it from the inherent worth and dignity of every person to "every being." The goal is not to diminish the flourishing of humans, especially those marginalized and oppressed, but to reach out and grasp the hands (flippers, wings, paws, pseudopods) of others and lift them up higher into human awareness and compassion. To symbolize this shared interdependence of well being, the logo of the First Principle Project is a human hand grasped by a chimpanzee hand
Where it gets tricky is what we do after the shared ancestral grandmother. How far back do we grant inherent worth? Does it extend to protoprimates that looked like rats, fish, invertebrates, or unicellular animals of ancient seas?
Unitarian Universalists vary as to where to draw the line of having and not having inherent worth and dignity. Let's try a little experiment here and see if that variation also exists here. Please look around and see the other, and see the possible sharing and deepening that is possible between us.
How many agree that all humans have inherent worth and dignity?
How many would say that all great apes, including early humans and pre humans have inherent worth?
How about other highly intelligent social animals, such, dolphins and whales?
Now let's add other species of vertebrates who are often smart and social - crows, parrots, other species of birds, dogs, wolves?
Okay all vertebrates? Cats, fish, amphibians, reptiles?
How about invertebrates - such as tool using octopi, worms, insects?
How about trees and plants? (Albert Schweitzer transplanted trees instead of killing them when clearing fields)
How about rivers and mountains, rocks? (Yes, here too Albert Schweitzer saw reverence. He wrote of caring for ice crystals and said" Respect the order that is, and do not interfere any more than you have to").
This stuff makes for some pretty lively arguments, for we bring to it our very deep love and care for life - ours, and others. There is a lot on the line, and there is an urgent sense that we get it right. Billions of animals are suffering every day used in production and situations for human benefit, and we are losing our wildlife. We are staring not only at their deaths, but also our own. The task to focus and change who we are can be overwhelming. How do we have compassion for the many when our biology, evolution, and culture keep pulling us to turn away from the beauty and worth of the other?
Rev. Rebecca Parker said,” The task given to us here and now is to do what we can to advance reverence for life and deepen the promise of love. this is what congregations are for: to teach us to give reverent attention to life”. I like that, for in my experience within Unitarian Universalism, by discussions and arguments alone we will not reach the Promised Land. We need something more, our lives for life.
Albert Schweitzer promoted not arguments, but life through reverence when he said, "My life is my argument." How does reverence help make our lives an argument? What if we used our two hands to not draw lines, but to bow down before the beauty and grandeur of life? Might we use reverence as a means of leading a prayerful life as the starting line for an ethical and compassionate life?
Some have criticized Albert Schweitzer by saying that having reverence for everything results in a water downed ethic. We risk slipping into relativism and treat everything the same without using degrees of suffering or our absolute need as a yard stick for our actions. We might also dilute reverence when we superficially acknowledge reverence or worth as permission for our actions. One example I hear often enough is that reverence means saying a prayer before we kill or use animals, such as the often cited example in some Native American traditions.
Reverence is not a rote prayer and cannot be dismissed lightly. Reverence takes study, attention, and risk. It means taking the time to know the science, ecology, biology, and behavior of the animal before we act. What is the animal thinking and feeling? It means slowing down to take in deeply the knowledge that evolution brought them here, and the spirit of life is shining through them. It means holding in one's heart that your direct actions and decisions are taking life or causing suffering.
The order for reverence isn't eat, love, pray. It's pray, love, and then eat, but as Albert Schweitzer would say, only if it is absolutely necessary to our lives.
Reverence also means seeking support so that we can be vulnerable while taking risks, and failing. This is a new territory we are asking each other to journey into. Like our first great ape ancestors when they left the African jungles for the savannah, we need each other, and like those apes before us, this challenge can grow our intelligence and emotional capacity of empathy.
With reverence we do not judge one another for the tragic decisions we all make to benefit at the expense of another. Reverence calls us to be present to the inherent worth, benefit, harm, and death in life. And in this crucible if awareness, we are made more compassionate, more whole. The dance of reverence is the two step, life, then death, then life, and the music is the compassionate decisions that we sing in response to beauty.
This song is not easy to hear, or to sing, but is life- giving regardless. Each responds to this song of life differently, and I do as a wildlife veterinarian in Latin America. My work is a spiritual endeavor. To be able to witness all the tragedy I see in the senseless suffering of parrots and people, I must truly open to beauty as much as I can. At one time during the Guerilla warfare years in Guatemala in the 1990s it because too much. I closed off, and had to leave conservation work for over a decade. I got better, reverence leading the way so now once again I work in several countries. Reverence still calls me mightily to task, such as this past year in Honduras.
I came right up, for the umpteenth time, to that seemingly impenetrable wall of harsh reality. Once again I saw most of the wild parrots there poached illegally from their nests, torn from their families while still so very young. Once in captivity they are treated without much knowledge or intention, suffering and languishing before dying. The people too lead lives of desperation, seeking a better way while in the throes of income inequality, drug violence, corruption, and the highest homicide rate in the world. But the Miskto indigenous people with whom I work are making a stand, reclaiming their lands and fighting against poaching.
But not all of them. One man defied the laws of his country and his village's collective decision, and continued poaching. One day he climbed a tall pine tree to take the two wild scarlet macaw chicks from the nest. He made a mistake while climbing, and fell. He died at the base of the tree, as did one of the two chicks he fell upon. A cross and grave stones mark the place where he died, and I visited it with the villagers one day. They began to cry, kneel, chant, and pray. Though this man had gone against their wishes and was threatening their biodiversity, he was still loved. I was moved, and remembering a Zuni Pueblo prayer I sing every day at home, I too began to sing:
I add my breath
To your breath
That our days may be long on this earth
That the days of all beings
Looking down at one end of the tree was death, but as I craned my neck upward I saw a beautiful giant of a tree and imagined the family of macaws roosting there in the years to come. Then I looked back down at the base of the tree and saw this man’s grandchildren, healthy, playing, and in healthy relationship with the rainbow birds that fly above them.
He and his kind are responsible for much pain in my life and the lives of many, but do not let our fear of pain deter us from love. Out of an awareness of death and loss, comes life and love, and family arises. We cannot choose who is in our family, or in the family of life, but we can choose how we interact with those whom we share our lives and planet. By calling all into the family, we choose the way of reverence.
This path is not easy, for to face harm and suffering in this world, especially when we personally or our species are responsible can paralyze us. Life is too precious to spend it in guilt, shame, or blame. We need joyful and compassionate action, saying yes to truth, life, and love.
How to do so and also solve life’s wicked problems is not clear. None of us know the exact path that will stop the poaching, save a species and a people, reverse climate change, or mend a broken relationship. Albert Schweitzer nonetheless invites us to go forward by becoming a sibling to all who live, suffer, and die. In that relationship of reverence, I am clear that we can be healed, and can bring our principles to life.
Take courage friends.
The way is often hard, the path is
and the stakes are very high.
For deep down, there is another
truth: you are not alone. – Wayne Arnason
And are held in beauty and belonging.
Albert Schweitzer says, "The human spirit is not dead It lives on in secret. It has come to believe that compassion, in which all ethics must take root, can only attain its full breadth and depth if it embraces all living creatures and does not limit itself to humankind."
And so we gather today to bring out of secret our human compassion, and proclaim that spirit is not dead, but lives in the breadth and depth of this gathered community.
Responsive Reading #470
Readings - From Rev. Dr. Rebecca Parker
We must learn again to live with reverence.
It is response to life that falls on its knees before the rising sun and bows down before the mountains.
It puts its palms together in the presence of the night sky and the myriad galaxies and recognizes as Langston Hughes told us, “beautiful are the stars, beautiful too are the faces of my people.”
Reverence greets all humanity as sacred.
It genuflects before the splendor of the grass and the magnificence of the trees.
It respects the complexity, the beauty and the magnitude of creation and does not presume to undo its intricate miracles.
Instead, it gives life reverent attention – seeking to know, understand and cooperate with life’s ways.
Reverence for life has to be learned.
It is not just a feeling – it is a way of life that is manifested in more than an isolated moment of appreciation for nature or awe before its destructive as well as creative power.
Reverence involves full-fledged devotion enacted in deeds of care and responsibility. It involves knowledge, study and attention.
Reverence is a form of love that needs to be learned and affirmed. And this is what congregations are for: to teach us to give reverent attention to life.
The task given to us here and now is to do what we can to advance reverence for life and deepen the promise of love.
Hymns: #203 – All Creatures of the Earth and Sky
#83 - Winds be Still
#6 - Just as Long as I have Breath
We leave here now friends of all, inwardly united with everything, the secret of life's beautiful interconnection brightly illuminated with the light of our shared time together. And so our service has now ended, but our service to the world has just begun. Go in peace and love. (adapted from Albert Schweitzer)