NOTE: This is NOT an official statement by my Church. It never was. Somehow, Facebook put ‘Statement’ in the title it is showing people. I’m perturbed by that, since I would never presume to speak for my bishops. However, this response started out as one of the outcomes of the Healing Earth conference in Cranbrook, BC, where I spoke in October, and where we had a discussion about preparing a statement of support for the Indigenous opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock. I submit a suggested response here. It is only a starting point:
An Orthodox Christian Response in Support of the Indigenous and non-Indigenous Water Protectors in Standing Rock, North Dakota, and their Principles
The gathering at Standing Rock, North Dakota, is historic in nature. Hundreds of Indigenous Nations from across North America and the world have assembled with the Standing Rock Sioux tribe to block the Dakota Access Pipeline from being built through their ancestral land and under the Missouri River at Lake Oahe, half a mile upstream of the tribal land boundary.
The pipeline’s original route was near the state’s capitol of Bismarck, but concerns by the US Army Corps of Engineers that a leak would contaminate their drinking water, and an admission by the pipeline contractor, Energy Transfer Partners, that a leak was possible, and that there is no technology which exists to mitigate and properly clean up that leak (nor any oil spill in an aquatic environment), resulted in the pipeline being rerouted to its current and disputed location, which threatens the water source on which the Standing Rock Sioux tribe depends.
While the new route was approved by the US Army Corps of Engineers, the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, which would not only be affected by an oil leak but would also lose sacred sites and burial grounds that lie on the new pipeline route on unceded tribal territory, was not adequately consulted. The tribe had submitted evidence of sites of interest and had asked for an injunction on construction under US federal law, which acknowledges that tribes may have been separated from sacred sites during their relocation to reservations during colonization and requires that they be accommodated if there are concerns over desecration. A coalition of 1,200 archeologists had also signed a letter submitted to the White House, warning that the pipeline’s new route would desecrate these ancient burial grounds. However, the legal request and submission were ignored and the pipeline company bulldozed through the area the next day without waiting for the sites to be investigated. Dismayed tribal members that attempted to halt construction through actions such as chaining themselves to equipment and placing their bodies in the way were met with pipeline security guards with dogs, and some were bitten.
As the situation escalated, US President Barack Obama signed an order ordering that no construction take place within 20 miles either side of Lake Oahe until the Standing Rock Sioux tribe had been meaningfully consulted. However, construction has continued and is nearing the river.
The crisis has led to an extraordinary gathering of US tribes joined by Indigenous and non-Indigenous activists from as far away as Hawaii and Ecuador practicing non-violent direct action based on Indigenous principles. This unprecedented group has initiated a remarkable, ongoing, prayer-based response to the construction of the pipeline and the desecration of historic tribal burial lands. In fact, this passionate yet peaceful attempt to prevent the pipeline from endangering the water supply has a much greater message than just non-violent resistance to the threat to tribal water and pain over the loss of sacred sites. A pipeline rupture or leak at this location would contaminate vast stretches of the Missouri River, affecting over 17 million people downstream.
In response, Orthodox Christians like me would to like express solidarity with the Indigenous peoples, and specifically with these four foundational principals of their response.
Water is Life
The Orthodox Christian Church upholds everywhere and in everything the sacramental role of water. Water, we proclaim, is the source of life, the very stuff from which God formed the earth and its inhabitants. Our Scriptures, our baptismal rites, our festal rituals are replete with both the use of water and reference to its significance.
In the Genesis story, God brings forth creation from water. There are four rivers which flow out into the world from Eden. The world is consumed and renewed by water in the Noah narrative. The infant Moses is saved by water, and leads the people of Israel through the waters of the sea, and in the desert strikes a rock to reveal the life-giving water. Over and again, water is everywhere in our holy Scriptures. For instance:
Let the thirsty wilderness be glad, let the desert rejoice, let it blossom as a rose, let it blossom abundantly, let everything rejoice . . . (Is 35.1–10).
Go to that water, O you who thirst, and as many as have no money, let them eat and drink without price, both wine and fat . . . (Is 55.1–13).
With joy draw the water out of the wells of salvation. And in that day shall you say: Confess ye unto the Lord and call upon his Name; declare his glorious deeds . . . his Name is exalted . . . Hymn the Name of the Lord . . . Rejoice and exult . . . (Is 12.3.6).
Indeed, the final, triumphant verses of the Book of Revelation invite us to partake of the victory and presence of Christ in the drinking of water:
The Spirit and the Bride say, “Come.” And let him who hears say, “Come.” And let him who is thirsty come, let him who desires take the water of life without price. Rev 22:17
Had we a throat of bronze and a thousand tongues, we could not recite so many verses from our Scriptures, proclamations of our saints, or rites in our Church which pertain to water and it’s sanctity.
In the feast of Theophany, for instance, water stands for the beautiful world of God’s original creation and ultimate glorification by Christ in the Kingdom of God. We thus proclaim in our hymns:
The voice of the Lord cries over the waters, saying: Come all ye, receive the Spirit of wisdom, the Spirit of understanding, the Spirit of the fear of God, even Christ who is made manifest.
Today the nature of water is sanctified. Jordan is divided in two, and turns back the stream of its waters, beholding the Master being baptized.
As a man Thou didst come to that river, O Christ our King, and dost hasten O Good One, to receive the baptism of a servant at the hands of the Forerunner [John], because of our sins, O Lover of Man (Hymns of the Great Blessing of Waters).
Water is indeed life, and the Orthodox Church affirms this in its very own sacramental, Apostolic, Christo-centric bones. Orthodox Christians like me affirm what is being proclaimed by the assembled nations at Standing Rock that #WaterIsLife.
Protectors not Protestors
The predominant mindset of our day engages the world in protest. It is reflected in every sphere of public and private engagement. A protest is an action taken in opposition and as such can be violent. The Indigenous activists at Standing Rock have eschewed what they believe is a western, colonial mindset for an entirely different approach, one of protection, not protestation. The Orthodox Church affirms this approach as one which is inherently non-violent in nature and which embodies our relationship to the Mother of God. She is the protector of our people, the Mother of peace, and it is her veil of protection which has sheltered (and like the Earth, nourished) us through the centuries. Indeed, we call upon the Mother of God now to cast her veil of protection over the water protectors of Standing Rock.
Protection is an action taken in love; it is a response to violence on behalf of the powerless. The water which is life has no recourse in our society. The earth and its ecosystems have no voice which can be heard by our nations. As such, they need protection and preservation, not protest and violence. What sustains us must be sustained, and it is our holy duty before God to become a voice to the voiceless, a mother to the mother, and indeed, a mother like the Mother of God herself. We believe that we must bear this Earth, the way we seek to bear Christ. Therefore, Orthodox Christians like me affirm and support the sprit of the assembled nations at Standing Rock as #ProtectorsNotProtestors.
Demonstration of Prayer
The Indigenous peoples at Standing Rock have rooted their protection in prayer. They believe that prayer is the most powerful action they can take in the face of absolute power. They believe that the corporations, banks, political systems, and the military are no match for the power of prayer. They believe that prayer is the voice of love. Indeed, these assembled peoples, from all over North America, have already healed ancient disputes among themselves through prayer. They are praying for the land, each other, the police, the military and the whole world. They are calling out to the police in love, telling them that they are praying for them, that they love them, and that they are concerned for their families as much as their own. They have no weapons, save their prayers.
The Orthodox Church is an assembly of prayer. We believe prayer is the very work of the people. Like the assembled nations, we do not take up arms as a Church; we take up prayer. We have been taught thus by our Lord, by His apostles, and by His saints, the fathers and mothers of our Church. Orthodox Christians like me affirm and support the Indigenous nations in their #DemonstrationOfPrayer.
A Catholic Appeal
The Water Protectors at Standing Rock have expressed their concern for the whole world. They believe that they are protecting the water, the land, and the air not just for themselves, but for the farmers, families, and municipalities down river of the pipeline they are trying to stop being built. They also believe that they are protecting the creation for the whole world, and that, as a people of the land, it is their time in history to do so. They have witnessed and been victim to the devastating result of a world which has disregarded and desecrated the creation in the pursuit of profit and power, and they believe they must act now for everyone everywhere. This is one of the reasons why so many nations have gathered, as they see this action as their destiny.
The Orthodox Church prays for the well-being of the whole world in every service. We believe the teaching and saving act of God through His Christ is universal in reach. Indeed, our own Scriptures proclaim, “For God so loved the world [Gr. Cosmos] that He sent His Only-begotten Son.” Our God is not an exclusive one. He causes the rain to fall on the wicked as well as the innocent. Our God’s love is passionate, present, embodied, and engaged in every part of the universe. His love is the source of Creation. Therefore, Orthodox Christians like me affirm and support the Indigenous assembly at Standing Rock in their efforts to protect the land and water, and especially their stated belief that these efforts have a #CatholicAppeal.
Finally, the Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew, has said in numerous places for many years and quoting many of our saints, that the Orthodox Church affirms and supports every effort to protect our earth, water, and air, so long as it is undertaken with prayer and in love. We proclaim the sanctity of creation, and we understand that we are not separate from the earth which provides our food and the lakes and rivers which supply our water. Thus, Orthodox Christians like me ask that every government, at every level, now undertake affirmative action to protect these resources, not just so we can continue to eat and drink and breathe, but also for the glory of God Who created this world, Whose Son became incarnate within it, and Who elevated creation to the throne through the Resurrection and Ascension of His Christ.
Our hope is that this is a stepping stone beyond just one moment of protection for Standing Rock to a deeper need to pray and repent and to act for our right relationship with the Earth. Our hope is that our parishes and our Liturgical lives may deepen our bonds to creation so that our spiritual lives can unfold in the way God created them to exist. In many ways this is a calling out for our own healing. We live in a world filled with anxiety. May we be guided back to pray for and be near the Earth where we can find peace and the responses of the invisible presence of God.
In as much as the assembly of Indigenous Nations in Standing Rock, North Dakota, in union with those that have gathered to support them, are calling for the protection of our valuable and God-bearing water and earth, and in as much as they do so as Protectors in prayer for the whole world, Orthodox Christians like me will stand in solidarity with their efforts and lend our prayers to their own.