Tikkun Magazine, September/October 2010
Yankee Doodle Faced Big Oilby Arthur Waskow
We have just heard from Lester Brown the very best of how the scientific enterprise has enriched us, not by chopping the world into little pieces, but by seeing the way in which those little pieces interweave. And yet, we know that scientific knowledge is not enough. If it were enough, we would be much further along than we are in protecting the Greenland ice sheet and healing the planet.
The Network of Spiritual Progressives has taken the initiative to pull together an amazing amalgam of religious, secular, and spiritual organizations. Why? Because what Lester Brown has taught us tonight -- just to use the categories of Jewish Mysticism, of Kabbalah -- is one of the four profound worlds of reality. The spirit, the heart, and action, as well as mind, are crucial. That's why I'm going to invite you into a moment of painful and transformative spirit, emotion, and action.
Eicha, eicha -- Alas, Alas --
How lifeless sits the seacoast.
Once filled with fish, with pelicans.
Once filled with the living fisher folk,
With livelihood, and way of life.
Now soaked in oil,
Each breath a gasp,
Bereft of life.
What have I just done? I have tried to unite something very old and something, obviously, very new. The chant I used, the melody, the lament, is one of the oldest pieces of Jewish tradition. It's the lamenting melody with which Jews once a year chant the Book of Lamentations, the book about the destruction of the ancient Temples in Jerusalem. In our generation, the earth is a sacred temple -- for all the peoples, all the cultures, all the species, all the life forms on our planet.
I said the words were new, but in some ways even they are not so new. The ancient interpretation of that sacred space was that the Temple was a microcosm of the world: the offerings of salt that were given there celebrated the mineral world; offerings of grain, barley, wheat, pancakes, and fruit celebrated the world of vegetation; the animals celebrated animal life; and the songs of the Levites celebrated the human ability to sing, to breathe, to turn breath into song. That's what the Temple was there for. And when it was destroyed, the sense of suffering and the sense of bereavement were about the sense of disconnection from the earth.
Everything that was brought to that ancient sacred place was food. We have driven that out of our minds when we learn in textbooks that it was "the sacrificial system." What is that? It included, for example, pancakes: you read the biblical description, and it says take a handful of fine flour, mix it with oil, sprinkle spices, and turn it to smoke upon the altar -- that's a pancake!
Earthy food was the connection to God. But food isn't the only connection anymore between human beings and the Earth: coal, oil, plastics, uranium are the things that we "eat" nowadays. There was a reason for the emergence of the code of kosher eating -- to eat food from sheep and cows and orchards and rain, you have to have a sacred way of doing it, and that includes a sacred means of self-restraint.
The human race -- not for the first time in our history -- has lost the sacred sense of self-restraint. We smash the sacred mountains of West Virginia in order to get each last lump of coal. We rape the deepest recesses of Mother Earth -- under a mile of ocean in the Gulf -- to get the last gallon of oil. We gobble the planet though we know -- both from the sacred teachings and from our history -- that gobbling leads not to abundance but to misery and poverty.
What is happening on the Gulf Coast today is the Garden of Eden all over again, where God says to the human beings, the human race: "Here's abundance! Eat joyfully and restrain yourself! A little self-restraint, please?" But we don't restrain ourselves. And what's the result? The earth will give forth thorns and thistles, not abundance, and you will have to work with the sweat pouring down your faces to get just barely enough to eat.
There's another whole chunk of biblical teaching that has underpinned not only Judaism, but also Christianity and Islam. (The story of the Exodus -- most of us don't know this -- is something like a fifth or more of the Qur'an.) In that story, there are these things that most of us thought of as magic tricks when we learned about them in kindergarten or the first grade-these things called the Ten Plagues that were done by some Super Pharaoh in the sky. But they weren't magic tricks: they were the response of the earth to the oppression of human beings and of the earth. They were brought on by Pharaoh -- by irresponsible, unaccountable, top-down power. And that's what we face today.
I meet people who say, "It's our own fault, we're the ones addicted to the cars." True. There are people, millions -- though fewer than there used to be -- who are addicted to tobacco, but you know what, there were drug lords in the tobacco business, drug pushers who took billions of dollars of profit from our addiction. So we should be taking responsibility for our addiction, but that does not prevent us from noticing that there are drug lords.
When Big Oil uses sex, drugs, and money to corrupt a chunk of the U.S. government, the Minerals Management Service, it turns our attention away from the fact that Big Oil is also corrupting and bribing more than half the U.S. Senate. That's even more important than what it did with the Minerals Management Service, because what we are seeing in the Gulf is just a microcosm of what is happening to the earth as a result of the corporate purchase of the Senate.
Turning Despair into Hope
There is a richness in all our religious and spiritual traditions that we need to draw on. They are not just bunches of rituals that we do in private. Somebody gets married; somebody grows up from a child to an adult; somebody gets baptized; the spring comes and there is Passover and Easter; the moon shifts and Ramadan comes -- these are full of the possibility of action.
Consider the chant I chanted, the Lamentations chant. Midsummer -- when it's hottest not only here, but also in the stretches of the Middle East -- is the day in Jewish traditions when the Temple was burned. That microcosm in the great scorching heat of the Khamsin wind is a microcosm of the planet burned. For 2,500 years since the first burning and 2,000 years since the second, Jews have fasted, have mourned, and have done something else, something quite extraordinary: reflected on our tradition's assertion that on that day of despair and destruction, our messiah was born -- not yet revealed, not yet come into the world, not yet ready to transform because we weren't ready to transform the world, but born nevertheless. The beginnings of the possibility of hope.
Can we take this moment today and turn it from despair -- which is the absence of hope -- to hope? There is only one way to do that. Hope is not an emotion; hope is an action, a whole cluster of actions.
This morning I handed out a wonderful four-page leaflet on the first page of which is America's thirteen-star flag of independence. Are we independent from the corporations? Are we independent from Big Coal? Are we independent from Big Oil?
Tikkun and the NSP have developed a whole constitutional amendment -- I believe it's actually longer than the whole Fourteenth Amendment, which is the longest of the constitutional amendments -- to try to define what needs to be done to constrain the corporations, which have grown into an utterly undemocratic element. When the Supreme Court said, "Hey, forget about democracy, these are the real institutions that can govern our society by putting money into election campaigns," that was only the most recent step toward Corporatocracy. Can we declare our independence from the corporations?
I want to remind you, 1776 didn't happen in a vacuum. In fact, years before the colonies agreed on a Declaration of Independence, they were challenging the British Empire, boycotting British wool. Why? Because it was a crucial element of the empire's economy. And instead they said something we may associate with Gandhi two centuries later -- they said let's do homespun in America and create our own clothing. Wool is not the central issue today, but Big Oil is.
Can we begin by boycotting BP? Boycotting Big Oil, not just BP, by transforming the way we get around? Can we shake off our own addictions while at the same time directly challenging the drug lords of this business?
So we can begin from here and let it grow, and maybe next July 4 it can really be a challenge. This morning I shared a teaching I was taught by my father when I was a kid -- he was a U.S. history teacher in a Baltimore public school. When I was eleven or twelve, he said, "You know this song, ‘Yankee Doodle'?" I said, "Sure!" And he said, "It sounds like a nonsense song -- ‘Stuck a feather in his cap and called it macaroni' -- that's a joke, right?" I said, "Yeah." He said, "No, it's not."
He said the song began as a British Army song to make fun of the American Army. In the British army, officers got to put what they called macaroni on their epaulets; today we call it scrambled eggs ... that messy, mixed-up yellow stuff. Scrambled eggs, macaroni, gold braid -- that was the way the British Army announced you were an officer.
These Americans, they would elect one of the farmers to be an officer and then he would stick a feather in his hat and they would call him an officer and that was that -- isn't that absurd? Well, to an imperial army, it seems absurd. To an army made up of farmers and Boston mechanics, it wasn't absurd at all. They took the song back from the British and sang it with delight. And -- they won! They won!
So here's a new verse for the twenty-first century, in the same mood:
Yankee Doodle faced Big Oil,
Riding on a cycle:
"Your power don't scare us today,
Your oil ain't worth a nickel."
Yankee Doodle keep it up,
Yankee Doodle dandy.
Mind the music and the step,
And for the earth be handy!
Every spiritual movement needs its songs. For sure this ain't the only one we'll need. But for those of us who dig it, for those of us who understand what it would mean to become independent of oil, this might be one of them.
Rabbi Arthur Waskow is the director of the Shalom Center (theshalomcenter.org), co-author of The Tent of Abraham, and author of Godwrestling--Round 2, Down-to-Earth Judaism, and a dozen other books on Jewish thought and practice, as well as books on U.S. public policy.
Source Citation: Waskow, Arthur. 2010. Yankee Doodle Faced Big Oil. Tikkun 25(5): 61