Cultural Resources




Sunday, April 20, 2008

Bernice Johnson Reagon, Lectionary Team Cultural Resource Commentator

I. Introduction

A. Lessons from the Iroquois

On the continent of the Americas, ‘seven generations’ sustainability is a contemporary ecological concept that admonishes the current generation of humans to work for the benefit of the seventh generation into the future. This concept is taken from the Iroquois whose traditions and law call them to live in the present in a way that promises a future. There are still voices from indigenous cultures that hold sacred the trust of caring for Mother Earth even as she cares for us. It is the idea that we cannot survive without what we get from this, our home planet, and the planet needs our care if she is to continue being a source of life and nurture beyond us.

The Great Law of the Iroquois says: "In every deliberation we must consider the impact on the seventh generation... even if it requires having skin as thick as the bark of a pine."1

Great Law of the Iroquois Confederacy
Oren Lyons, Chief of the Turtle Clan of the Onandaga, one of the six nations of the Iroquois Confederation, is Faithkeeper, responsible for passing on and interpreting his people’s traditions, legends and prophecies. We were given these instructions as Chiefs says Lyons, “when you in sit in council for the welfare of the people, you counsel for the welfare of that seventh generation to come.” It should be foremost in your mind that you counsel not only for your generation, and yourself, but for those that are unborn. So that when their time comes to be here they may enjoy the same thing that you are enjoying now. Lyons believes how we treat the earth is a matter of morality:

I believe that all of this discussion between human beings is one of morality. I think that everyone has to deal with the emotions that are in each individual. And we understand that we have both good and bad in us and that you must strike a balance at all times. This spiritual center then, is what the Great Tree of Peace is. It's a spiritual center. It's a spiritual law.

The law says if you poison your water, you'll die. The law says that if you poison the air, you'll suffer. The law says if you degrade where you live, you'll suffer. The law says all of this, and if you don't learn that, you can only suffer.2

C. Thanksgiving All Year Long

For the Iroquois, Thanksgiving does not come once a year. The Iroquois Thanksgiving Speech begins and ends all important Iroquois ceremonies. Its theme is gratitude for things received, and this pervades traditional Iroquois thought. Things of the earth are mentioned first, from those closest to the earth upwards to those nearer the sky. In a repetitive cadence, the speaker thanks first the earth itself, then the springs, streams, rivers, and lakes. Next are thanked plants, bushes, and saplings, sometimes very specifically. Food plants, particularly maize, beans, and squash might be singled out. These are followed by the trees, animals, and birds. The second portion of the address is devoted to the sky. The wind and the thunderers are thanked, followed by thanks to the sun, moon, and stars. In the last two hundred years the address has often climaxed with thanks to the four messengers sent to the prophet Handsome Lake by the Creator, thanks to Handsome Lake himself, and finally thanks to the Creator.3

II. African American Traditional Prayer Begins with Humility

As I began to think about Earth Day Sunday and the importance of people of faith assuming our share of responsibility toward the health and the survival of the planet, an old prayer came to mind like an opening flower, offering an image of humility that was at the base of awareness of church folks, of how fleeting everything is and can be, and how conscious and grateful we must be for breath and life and family and community and a relationship with the Eternal.

As part of the traditional prayer form I grew up within Baptist churches in Southwest Georgia, the congregation moves into humming the last cycle of a lined hymn, one member moved to pray or called to pray goes down on his or her knees. The prayer begins with The Lord’s Prayer, sometimes called “The Our Father.” When one gets to the last line… “For thine is the kingdom,” there is a segue that goes “and all that dwells within are thine…” the rest of the oral prayer text is personal, yet the lines are ancient and heard again and again. It is a statement of thankfulness and gratitude.

The Prayer
This morning, dear Jesus,
Here come me your meek and undone servant
Knee bent and body bowed to the Mother dust of the earth.
As I bow before Thee
Don’t let me bow for no form and fashion,
And no outside show to a sin-filled world
Form and fashion won’t do.
Let me bow knowing like all living things
Sooner or later, I got to lay down and die.
I got to stand before a judge that will do right.
As I bow this morning,
I want to thank you for my laying down last night.
When I laid down,
the bed I slept in was not my cooling board,
The cover I covered up in was not my winding sheet
I thank you for your angels standing watch over me all night long
as I slumbered and slept.
I thank you for my early rising this morning.
You touched me with a finger of love
When I rose this morning, I was clothed in my right mind.
I was able to say howdy to my love ones and family…

African American Church Song
I’m gonna live so God can use me
Anytime Lord, anywhere
I’m gonna live so God can use me
Anytime Lord, anywhere

III. Lessons from the Mbuti Peoples of the Ituri Forest

On the African continent, in the Ituri rain forest, the Mbuti people (Pygmy or Bambuti), traditionally hunters and gatherers, struggle today from contemporary commercial pressures on the forests and all life forms that it sustains. They live in territorially defined nomadic bands with no chiefs and no council. An informal consensus among old respected men is the basis of decisions affecting the entire camp. When people from the West first ventured into their world, it was noted that the Mbuti peoples lived so that they could put up their huts from materials gathered from the forest in one day, and two days after they had moved on from that region, the forest had taken back the space in such a way that one could not tell that they had been there. That is what would be called “living with a light footprint on the planet.” There are many different Pygmy peoples with differences in their languages, however they all share the name of the spirit of the forest, Jengi.

The peoples of the great Ituri are forest dwellers, they know and honor the forest, its plants and its animals. They are of the forest and not distinct or above anything that is also of the forest. Most groups have close ties to neighboring farming villagers, and work for them or exchange forest produce for crops and other goods. At its best this is a fair exchange, but it can often involve exploitation, especially where they have lost control of the forest and its resources.

Today, these peoples of the rainforest are witnessing the increased destruction of the source of their survival by logging, and the destruction of their culture as they are driven out by settlers, or have been evicted when their lands are designated as national parks. They are routinely deprived of their rights by governments, which do not see these forest-dwellers as equal citizens. In Cameroon, the life of the Bagyeli is being disrupted by a World Bank-sponsored oil pipeline which is to be built through their land. The Batwa of eastern DRC, Rwanda, Burundi and Uganda have seen nearly all their forest destroyed, and barely survive as laborers and beggars.4

The Iroquois and the Mbuti peoples continue their struggle to live in the midst of an increasing globalized world that seems careless about whether current life forms, human, animal, plant and otherwise, will survive into the next century. In her song Justice, singer/composer, Toshi Reagon urges us to listen to the call of the planet…

And the cool winds cry for justice!

And the cold rain cry for justice!

And the sun does shine for justice!

And we all must fight for justice!

We better learn how to treat her right!

She makes the fire fall from the sky!5

IV. Globalization and Greed

Sometime ago, I began to turn over in my mind questions about the place of humans within all that supports life around and within us. What is within our nature that makes us to develop cultures which focus on accumulating more than we needed to maintain a balance with ourselves and the environment? I had always learned that gluttony was a sin. It was not preached about a lot in the church I grew up in, because so many in the pulpit and the pews evidenced major participation in the sin. At the time I wrote this song, greed surfaced in my mind as one of the major reasons human-generated cultures threaten the survival of the planet including humans. I found myself talking not only about obvious huge examples—corporate, state, military, and institutional greed and destruction— but I also put myself and my personal practices to task. This piece continues to reorganize my life. It began as a prose poem and became a song.

I been thinking about how to talk about greed
I been thinking about how to talk about greed
I been wondering if I could sing about greed
Trying to find a way to talk about greed

Greed is a poison rising in this land
The soul of the people twisted in its command.

It moves like a virus, seeking out everyone
Greed never stops, its work is never ever done.

A creeping killing choking invading everywhere
There is really no escaping greed’s tricky snare.

Nothing seems to stop it once it enters your soul
It has you buying anything, spending out of control.

Not partial to gender, or your sexual desires
All it wants is you to want to want to possess and to buy.

It moves within the culture, touching us all
Greed really isn’t picky, it’ll make anybody fall.

It’s been around a long time, since way before we began
Before this was a nation, greed drove people to this land.

Greed is a strain in the American Dream
Having more than you need is the essential theme.

Everybody wanting more than they need to survive
Is a perfect indication, greed has settled inside.

Not partial to gender, or your sexual desires
All it wants is you to want to want to possess and to buy.

It moves within the culture, touching us all
Greed really isn’t picky, it’ll make anybody fall.

It’s been around a long time, since way before we began
Before this was a nation, greed drove people to this land.

Greed is a strain in the American Dream
Having more than you need is the essential theme.

Everybody wanting more than they need to survive
Is a perfect indication, greed has settled inside.

Maybe you don’t really know exactly what I mean
You don’t really want to know about your and my greed.

You may wonder whether you are infected by greed
If you have to ask, then this song you really need.

Greed is sneaky and hard to detect in myself
It shows itself clearly in everybody else.

Ending cadence:
I can see it in you,
You can see it in me
You can see it in big corporations,
All throughout the government,
See it in the banks,
I can see it in the military
See it in church,
I can see it in my neighbor
It all shows up clearly,
You and you and your greed.

I been trying to find a way …6

  1. Jacobs, Carol, Cayuga Bear Clan Mother. “Presentation to the United Nations July 18, 1995.” Akwesasne Notes New Series. Fall -- October/November/December -- 1995, Volume 1 #3 & 4, pp. 116-117. Online location: accessed 21 March 2007
  2. Lyons, Oren. Interview. Bill Moyers Special/Oren Lyons the Faithkeeper. 3 Jul. 1991. Onlie location: accessed 21 March 2007;
  3. “Iroquois Thanksgiving Address.” Online location: http:// accessed 21 March 2007
  4. Turnbull, Colin M. The Forest People. Simon and Schuster, 1962; see also Turnbull, Colin M. Wayward Servants;The Two Worlds of the African Pygmies. Natural History Press, 1965B. The Africa Online location: accessed 21 March 2007
  5. Reagon, Toshi. Justice. Flying Fish Records, 1990, Online location: accessed 21 March 2007
  6. The song Greed is attached as a recording to these materials. Johnson Reagon, Bernice and Sweet Honey in the Rock. "Greed." Twenty-Five--. Salem, MA: Rykodisc, 1998. It is used courtesy of Rhino Entertainment Company, a Warner Music Group company.


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