When people have asked me why I am going to Hawai’i to help protect Mauna Kea and my answer involves words like “sacredness” or “spiritual,” I am surprised whenever I see the grimaces. I often get an explanation like this, “I support indigenous people, of course, but the telescope is for science. Isn’t it a little…superstitious to block an astronomy project for a mountain?” I said I was surprised, but I shouldn’t be. Spirituality, I forgot, is anathema in many leftist circles.
It shouldn’t be.
I understand that many in this culture have been wounded by their experiences with religion. Some religions have, on the whole, been disasters for the living world. But, to write off all spirituality because of the actions of a few religions, is not just intellectually lazy and historically inaccurate, it erases the majority of human cultures that lived as true members acting in mutual relationship with their natural communities.
I am writing this article from occupied Ohlone territory in what is now called San Ramon, CA (in the Bay Area). According to the first European explorers who arrived here, this place was a paradise. A French sea captain, la Perouse, wrote, for example, “There is not any country in the world which more abounds in fish and game of every description.” Flocks of geese, ducks, and other seabirds were so numerous that a gun shot would cause the birds to rise, “in a dense cloud with noise like that of a hurricane.” In 250 years, with the arrival of Europeans and their spiritualities, we have gone from flocks of birds making noises like a hurricane to the concrete jungles many of us call “home.”
What was it about the Ohlone people that caused them to live in such balance with their natural community? Why didn’t the Ohlone people exhaust their land bases, over shoot the carrying capacity of their home, and colonize other lands like the Europeans who came with their crosses held high forcing the Ohlone to work and to die in the Missions? Only a racist could say, “Because they weren’t smart enough.”
Let me suggest that it was the Ohlone spirituality, the Ohlone way of relating to the world, that caused them to live the way they did. Of course, the Ohlone are just one of thousands of indigenous examples. Right now, with the world on the verge of total collapse, wouldn’t we do well to respect the wisdoms developed by indigenous peoples who lived in balance with their land bases for thousands of years?
Those attempting to force the TMT project on Mauna Kea are products of a culture that has committed spiritual suicide. The dominant culture committed spiritual suicide when it adopted the belief that the land – as the physical source of all life – is not sacred Now, it attempts real suicide. I know because I did it, too. Twice.
The path to suicide begins with lies – lies like the notion that a mountain like Mauna Kea does not and cannot speak. As Derrick Jensen points out in A Language Older Than Words, the first thing they do in vivisection labs is cut the vocal cords of the animals they’re going to torture so they don’t have to hear the animals’ screams. Now, the dominant culture is cutting the vocal cords of the entire planet. Women are objectified so they may be raped, indigenous peoples are called savages so they may be massacred, and mountains are described as piles of matter so their tops may be chopped off, their guts ripped out in open pit mines, and massive telescopes built on their peaks.
The Sioux lawyer and author, Vine Deloria Jr., in his work God is Red diagnosed our current environmental disaster as essentially a spiritual failure. For Deloria, the Western notion that spirituality can be transported across space, time, and cultural context is a lie and leads to the spiritual emptiness that European settlers on this continent display. Even worse, though, dominant Western spiritualities like Christianity demand that believers place their faith in a God existing somehow above and beyond the real, physical world. Instead of a belief in the land as the source of all life, an abstract, jealous, invisible, and largely incomprehensible male deity becomes the source of all life. A hierarchy of beings is established with God on top, followed by angels, humans, animals comparable to humans evolutionarily, all the way down to plants, insect, and microbes. Mountains like Mauna Kea, in this view, are simple heaps of dirt. They may be pretty to look at, but nothing more.
My personal path to suicide reflects the cultural path to suicide Jensen and Deloria describe.
My family is devoutly Catholic. Before I turned 18 and left home, I can count the number of times I missed Mass on one hand. One of my grandmother’s favorite Christmas gifts was handmade, specially blessed rosaries. She says the rosary every morning. Scapulars hang from the rearview mirrors of cars family members drive. Of course, every doorway contains artistic renditions of Christ’s crucifixion.
I remember sometime in my early teens standing beneath a particularly brutal crucifix when I recognized the spiritual emptiness surrounding me. I looked at the crown of thorns piercing Christ’s forehead. I watched the blood running into his eyes. I winced at the spikes driven through his hands and feet. I knew that Christ’s femurs were broken by soldiers – mercifully, perhaps – so he could not use his legs to push up, open his lungs, and draw breath. I grew nauseous imagining Doubtful Thomas digging his hands into the lance wound under Christ’s ribcage.
Educated in Catholic grade schools, I knew the various explanations for Christ’s terrible death. He died to fulfill Old Testament prophesies. He died to redeem humanity. He died because he brought a revolutionary message of humility, poverty, and love. He died because he challenged the power of his Roman and Jewish rulers. He died, simply, to save the world.
I began to think about the spiritual practices in the Catholics I knew. I didn’t know anyone who was giving up much more than a percentage of their income to the Church much less putting their lives in danger to save the world. When I asked myself how so many people could insist that Catholicism was the one, true faith while no one was willing to walk the same paths as Christ, the first cracks appeared in the wall of denial I called “faith.” Simply put, I looked around and couldn’t find any Christs.
As I grew up, the wall crumbled. The first time I masturbated I was convinced the Virgin Mary would appear to haunt me. The day after I lost my virginity, I went to Mass expecting to feel God biting me with guilt. All I could feel was joy that I could share such a wonderful feeling with a lover. I finally allowed myself to accept my disbelief and started asking questions. How could people professing love for the world propagate a message rooted in guilt, self-denial, and shame?
I became angry. I felt completely betrayed. I saw a world filled with spiritually dead people. The only people I knew speaking about spirituality were liars. So, I took my anger too far and decided that spirituality itself must be dead. Giving up on spirituality, the world became a dead zone filled simply with material. Yes, I worked to ease human suffering. But, I only did this out of a strange sense of duty, out of the remnants of Catholic guilt that seeped so thoroughly into my soul that I knew no other way to function.
I hung on to this perspective for a few years, denying the voices singing around me, and essentially strangling my own spirituality to death. The dominant culture is cutting vocal cords and I stuffed my ears with despair. Perhaps, it was only logical – committing spiritual suicide as I did – that physical suicide came next.
The TMT project on Mauna Kea and others like it around the world are expressions of a culture determined to commit suicide. And I’m not talking about a metaphoric, cultural suicide. I’m talking real, physical suicide. I’m talking about the destruction of the planet’s life support systems. How else do you explain storing a 5,000 gallon hazardous chemical waste container above the largest freshwater aquifer on Hawai’i Island like the TMT builders want to do?
To stop the TMT project, to stop the genocide of indigenous peoples, and to save the world, I believe we need to empower spiritualities that learned how to live in balance with their land bases. We need to empower indigenous spiritualities around the world.
Our predicament today is even more dire than in 1973 when Deloria wrote in God Is Red, “Ecologists project a world crisis of severe intensity within our lifetime…It is becoming increasingly apparent that we shall not have the benefits of this world for much longer. The imminent and expected destruction of the life cycle of world ecology can be prevented by a radical shift in outlook from our present naive conception of this world as a testing ground of abstract morality to a more mature view of the universe as a comprehensive matrix of life forms. Making this shift in viewpoint is essentially religious, not economic or political.”
I need to be absolutely clear before I write on: Personal spiritual transformation is not going to save us from anything, but our own personal despair. What we need are spiritual transformations on the cultural scale, but we’re not going to achieve these transformations when too many insist that spirituality is worthless.
Just like we will not recycle our way to the revolution, successfully petition Shell to stop murdering the Niger River Delta, or write a persuasive enough essay to convince those in power to stop the TMT project, personal spiritual transformation is too often a distraction from the need for physical action in the physical world.
I’ve written that no emotion – including despair – can kill you. You can kill you. You can put a gun to your temple, snort up a bottle of pills, or run the exhaust into your sealed-off car, and kill yourself. But, in each instance it will not be an emotional or a spiritual state that will kill you. It will be a physical action that kills you. This also means that it will take physical actions to bring you out of despair. This is as true on the cultural level as it is on the personal.
The dominant culture suffers from a profound sense of despair. It says that destruction is human nature. It says that greed is universal. It says that we already live in the best possible world and this world is violent, evil, and hateful. It would be one thing if the dominant culture was content to hold this despair in its heart, content to stay in bed all day with the paralyzing despair that many of us have felt. The problem for life on this planet – the problem at Mauna Kea – is the dominant culture manifests its despair physically. Once the dominant culture isolated itself from the rest of life, it grew resentful. It became angry. And now it seeks a murder suicide. Left unchecked, it will kill everything and then turn the gun on itself.
In order to turn the spiritual tide we must protect places like Mauna Kea. If we lose the sacred, we won’t be far behind.