George Floyd, Earth Day, and Becoming a Good Relative
Updated: Oct 11
Yesterday, a jury in Minneapolis found former police officer Derek Chauvin guilty of the murder of George Floyd. I suppose that may seem a strange way to start a column for Earth Day, given the grief, pain, anger, and injustice surrounding Floyd’s death. But the violence done to Floyd and other Black, Indigenous, and People of Color is also connected to the violence done to the Earth.
At the heart of both is a question of relationship: Can we see the other, whether it be another person or the water, the land or animals, as our sister or our brother? That question is particularly pressing for those of us who are in positions of privilege in our society. I believe it also sits at the heart of spirituality, at the center of how we see ourselves within the Divine.
Point Beach State Forest, WI (photo by Dan Robinson)
Randy Woodley recently wrote a piece for Sojourners magazine titled, “White Supremacy and the Fate of the Earth.” He ends his article with a question that I’ve often thought about with the Great Lakes Spirituality Project: “Our future depends on treating the whole community of creation as our relatives. The question remains: How can we become good relatives?”
Hard to be a good relative when you’re looking down
Woodley makes the case that the western European/American worldview of white supremacy has created a hierarchical system where white people – particularly white men – are on top, and women; Blacks, Indigenous and People of Color; animals; water; and the rest of creation are further down the ladder.
This top-down worldview has inflicted severe damage on the Earth, but it has also resulted in violence and exploitation against anyone not at the head of the hierarchy. Woodley writes, “The way the Western world has historically treated the earth, and how it treats Black, Indigenous, and other people of color (BIPOC), especially women, show remarkable parallels.”
Woodley contrasts this top-down perspective with an Indigenous worldview that recognizes the goodness in the diversity of creation. “In Native America, this reality is often acknowledged by recognizing everything as our relative. Moral teachings that occur through story and ceremony teach us how to acknowledge and respect the community of creation by learning how we might become a better relative. One does not dare exploit a relative because the law of reciprocity shows that, over time, we may need help, and we would not want to be exploited.”
Can we all be family?
Two weeks ago, I said hello to my first grandchild, Henry. I have to admit, as much as I’ve heard how great grandparenthood is, I wasn’t prepared for how much he made me smile, right from the get-go. My wife and I were able to be around when he was born, so from his first days, I could feel how special he was to me, and there was nothing he did to earn that. My love for him was automatic.
There is something about a familial connection that just is. Whether our families are a source of joy or pain, there’s no getting around the impact they have on us, and the deep bonds that help create who we are in this world.
To go back to the beginning of this article, the question is: Can I feel that same familial, loving connection, with people who at first glance might seem different from me? With the air, land, water, animals all around me?
For myself, learning how to be a good relative is an on-going challenge. I wish I could just open my eyes, look at the ecosystem I live in and feel the connection and love that I immediately felt with little Henry. I may not always be a good relative, a good grandfather, to Henry, but I know I’ll always try, because I can’t imagine doing anything else.
Is that same level of inherent love and commitment possible with the Great Lakes? With all the people who live in the Basin? With the Lakes' animals, land, and water?
Moving beyond just stewardship
I grew up in the Christian tradition, which often takes a stewardship approach to caring for creation. In this scenario, we are the ones tasked with being caretakers of the world that God created. There’s a lot of positives about that perspective, but if I peel back the layers a little bit, I find that a stewardship approach still rests on a hierarchical worldview that has humans at the top and the rest of creation below.
With much of Christianity and western European/American society sharing a philosophical framework, is it possible to take a different approach, one that sees humans as equal to, not above, the rest of creation? Is it possible to experience sisterly and brotherly (or grandparently!) love for the world around us?
Changing our hearts
Yes, I believe it is, but it will take a change of heart from those of us in the dominant society. First, we need a good dose of humility, as Woodley writes. “White normalized systems of oppression and white people will need a large dose of humility to enable them to deconstruct their own power and sense of superiority from the existing structured systems of oppression.”
Second, as Woodley writes, we need to listen and learn from a diversity of perspectives. “Embracing differences builds both character and community. Everything in the universe is diverse because we are made not only to live in the comfort and security of superficial sameness but also to explore and learn from differences.”
Third, I would add that those of us who are in a faith tradition need to take a critical look at that tradition. Can we find within it the capacity to approach the world from something other than a top-down view? For example, in the Christian tradition, St. Francis of Assisi serves as a witness for a more mutual relationship with creation. His “Canticle of Brother Sun and Sister Moon” sings also of Sister Water, Brother Fire, and Mother Earth.
Earth Day as a family holiday
My heart goes out to the family and friends of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Daunte Wright and so many other Black, Indigenous and People of Color who have suffered violence from white supremacy. But those same family and friends also call me – and all of us in white dominant society – to actually care about and act on their deaths like they were in my own family, because they are.
The same goes for Brother Fire, Sister Water, and Mother Earth. While little Henry has a unique place in my heart, there’s always room for more family. And this Earth Day, I’m choosing to celebrate it as a family holiday.