After spending part of this past week with faith leaders invited to a camp at Standing Rock, I came away with three important lessons in the continued struggle to defeat the Dakota Access Pipeline.
Lesson #1: Celebrate in a Way That Adds to the Fire, Not Dampens It
When the Department of Justice, the Department of the Army, and the Department of the Interior issued a joint statement on Friday to call for a voluntary pause in pipeline construction near Lake Oahu, I heard a variety of responses in the camp ranging from caution and uncertainty to joy and celebration.
Kelly Hayes’s commentary about the pipeline,“Obama Pipeline Plot Twist Is Not a Victory—And Could Erase the Struggle,” warns about celebrating victory prematurely. She asserts, “By celebrating too soon, you’re helping to build a pipeline.”
While there is no doubt that the struggle is not over and final victory is far from won, a slightly more nuanced view of celebration is possible. Think of how far the movement has come. It has changed the game. The political pressure and national attention it has generated are remarkable achievements, but they are indeed achievements that are part of an ongoing process. In this situation, celebration is not necessarily a bad thing, so long as it adds fuel to the fire rather than dampening it.
Lesson #2: Appreciate That the Fire Is Sacred
A continual and central message that stresses the sacredness of water.
Leadership that repeatedly and publicly calls for prayer.
Daily spiritual ceremonies and practices that form the lifeblood of the camps driving the movement.
There is no doubt that the foundation of this struggle is one that can be aptly described as spiritual or religious. After spending so much of the last eight years trying to serve as a bridge between secular environmental organizations and faith communities, this movement is beyond refreshing. It demonstrates what many of us have known on a much smaller scale: collective efforts for change flourish when they can root themselves in the sustaining and renewing power of the sacred.
Lesson #3: Let Each Spark Come Forth
Let’s be honest. A fair amount of activism in our country suffers from a malady that can be variously described as egotism, factionalism, leftwing pretentiousness, more-radical-than-thou-ism, etc.
I would not make a gross, romantic generalization and say that these bogeymen of progress are utterly non-existent in the camps. Nevertheless, I experienced a camp that exudes a culture of inclusivity, communal solidarity, mutual respect, and playful humor. In the Christian faith, we describe such spaces as glimpses of what Martin Luther King Jr. called “the beloved community,” or the kingdom of God.
As I listened to speakers at the evening campfire gathering one night, I got a sense of how this was possible. The camp creates a space in which the spark in each of us can come forth and be given oxygen to grow.
I hope the fire emanating from this movement will continue to inspire and will continue to spread.
The struggle isn’t over. It needs you. It needs each of us.
Let us celebrate its remarkable character and help fan its flames.
The Rev. Dr. Brooks Berndt is the Minister for Environmental Justice for the United Church of Christ.