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"The force that upsets entrenched power the most is this compassionate living, this community in plain sight," writes Talen. (Photo: Dark Sevier/flickr/cc)

Standing Rock: A Moment of Clarity for Progressive Activists

Rev. Billy Talen

Earth-force meets money-force at Standing Rock. I’m so relieved I’m here. It scares me to think that I might have missed this.

We get up at dawn. Four hundred people walk slowly in a light snow to the river by the camp. A teacher is talking. His headdress is a crisscrossing of long, narrow feathers. He is of the Havasupai, the people who live by the blue-green waterfalls at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. He calls out across the river. “Water is life! Take me! My heart beats with you!”

It’s cold at 7am. The children don’t seem cold though. They run around in the mud and ice. There are 80 tribes here. Some say many more. As we stand on the shore with a slow drum beating, the people shout “water” in many languages. 

The Earth-force is represented by this river and these eagles and these water protectors. We see the Money-force, standing over there on the bridge, just a couple hundred feet from the edge of long meadow of white tipis along the Cannonball River. The police look like a long row of Darth Vaders. 

In the environmental movement, we have yearned for the success of the Civil Rights and the Gender Rights movements. Few of us, though, face the police like the freedom-fighters of old. Arrests and trials are only one indicator of a movement’s power, but an important one. As environmentalists we fall back on soft confrontation dominated by data. Data is bloodless. Lobbying, position papers, endless graphics and electronic petitions might as well be abandoned in the age of Trump.

Evidence points to the need for a quasi-religious transformation of cultural values.  —Dr. Anne Ehrlich and Dr. Paul Ehrlich

Who has undergone this “quasi religious transformation” the Ehrlichs call for now in the time of the Earth’s crisis? I think of Wangari Maathai and her billion trees, Edward Abbey and Earth First and the dreams of freeing western rivers of their dams, Judi Bonds and Larry Gibson in their danger-filled opposition to mountaintop removal coal mining.

The transformation of Standing Rock needs to be carried to many towns and cities. The Earth’s response to its own fever is everywhere all the time, and our activism must this as our map.  We need to press up against militarized and consumerized citizens at all points, and then convert them to life.  Can we pull them across the border between death and life?

Suddenly there is clarity for Earth activists.  With extinction accelerating and climate changing, we must transform with the intensity that one associates with religion.  If some of us wouldn’t be able to convert an actual faith, at least a new Earth politics must be strong enough to break up the over-scheduling, the debt, the traditional careerism - the things that make it impossible to freely act.  We have the time if we take the time.

Three movements in recent years galvanize us.  In these citizen movements we did take the time, took the risk, and made a difference. Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter and Standing Rock. The lesson in all of them, the thing they have in common is that so many changed their own individual lives in order that they could then change the rest of us.  In all three, the spiritual element is carried by the act of living together, literally living together, without the supervision of the corporations or government.

Zuccotti Park and the stretch of sidewalk in front of the Ferguson police department and the meadow near the sacred stone… these three places are lived in. Here is where activists cared for each other and shared food, clothing and medicine. The force that upsets entrenched power the most is this compassionate living, this community in plain sight.

Standing Rock offers us our moment of clarity.  We can physically commit now. We must face the Devil. It is life and death. And living actively in a time of life and death must be a spiritual act. It should  be you and I in service getting something done, in our daily life.  Public caring and going through  the quasi-religious transformation must go hand in hand.  It was always so, from Pettis Bridge to Stonewall.  

When we are at peace with the Earth, we are able to hold our ground.  The ground is the point.  We hold our ground and the Earth holds us.  In prison and in pain and in loss the Earth holds us.  And then in the time of forgiveness after the struggle - the Earth still holds us.  

We must fearlessly love until there is no hate!  Earthalujah!


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
Rev. Billy Talen

Rev. Billy Talen

Reverend Billy Talen is pastor of The Church of Stop Shopping, New York musicians and singers who create different kinds of ritual trespassings in corporate space while holding six-part harmonies.  Their illegal concerts have recently favored banks that finance fossil fuel industries.  Upcoming shows include the Brooklyn Folk Festival, Mother's Day at Joe's Pub at the Public Theater, and the March Against Monsanto in Miami.  Talen is the author of "The Earth Wants YOU" (2016), from City Lights Books.

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