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Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Independence and Interdependence
distributed 7/5/13 - ©2013

This long weekend, the United States engages in an extended birthday celebration. We look back to July 4, 1776, and the signing of one of the most remarkable and influential political documents of all time, the Declaration of Independence.

Admittedly, like most birthday parties, the emphasis is on the "party" aspect, and deep reflection may not get a lot of time. But this weekend is an occasion to lift up the valuable theme of independence, and to hold it in creative tension with the equally valuable theme of interdependence.

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The Declaration of Independence has three sections -- a bold assertion of political and moral philosophy, a detailed list of particulars against the abuses of King George, and the decisive announcement that "these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States".

"Independence", as asserted in Philadelphia so long ago, was a narrow question of national sovereignty. The 13 colonies broke away from Great Britain, and began the process of becoming a new country. (I've heard interesting linguistic discussions that, for the first 80 years of US life, the way people spoke about the nation emphasized our diversity and somewhat tenuous collective identity -- "the United States are" doing something. After the Civil War, the language changed to affirm a greater unity -- "the United States is" doing something.)

In 1776, the signers of the Declaration said that we are independent from Britain, but their document has pervasive themes of interdependence. Those 56 men "mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor." Their writing shows the common experience, needs and interests among the colonists.

Through the last couple of centuries, the US and its citizens have had many different ways of balancing independence and interdependence. There have been times when we have come together for a unifying cause, and there have been times when we have tended toward a "go it alone" style -- both as a nation, and as people within the country.

In recent years, the "Tea Party" movement has hearkened back to the 1700s with a strong call for independence and individualism, a libertarian approach that -- as I see it -- downplays or even denies our interdependence. Their calls for extremely limited government and for broad personal liberties seem to me to be out of balance.

The growing awareness of our ecological connectedness also shows the need for a re-affirmed sense of interdependence. Pollution spreads around the world without regard for property boundaries and political borders. The effects of climate change, depleted fisheries, spreading deserts, exhausted fresh water supplies, and the spread of toxic and biologically active chemicals influence all of us -- human and other than human, now and into future generations. To claim excessive independence in such an interconnected world, to assert the primacy of personal freedoms or "national interests" above our common needs, is morally shallow.

In a world where independence has become the dominant theme, many people have spoken up to re-claim the balancing principle of interdependence, of connectedness. Those have, on occasion, been expressed in the form of Declarations of Interdependence, drawing on the language and style of the 1776 document. A decade ago, Tom Atlee assembled six of those statements, which offer fascinating similarities and difference. Atlee ended the collection with his own declaration, which is short on decisive action, but it is absolutely clear about the moral principle:

We hold this truth to be self-evident:
We are All.
In This.

Another short "Global Declaration of Interdependence" -- drawing on the Earth Charter, and promulgated by "We, the World" -- invites individuals and organization to add their signatures to a pledge of dedication:

To life-serving environmental stewardship,
The fulfillment of universal human needs worldwide,
Economic and social well-being,
And a culture of peace and nonviolence,
To insure a sustainable and harmonious world
For present and future generations.

Interdependence and independence must exist in balance, a balance that must be constantly evaluated. We must look at the shape of our relationships -- personal, national, economic and ecological -- and make sure that we are not short-changing either side.

For example (even though I have just stressed the need to emphasize our connectedness), The Shalom Center this summer has issued a document "Declaring Independence from Corporate Domination". Because we are interconnected, we must, at times, demand independence from those institutions and authorities which have too much power over us -- which is just what happened in 1776.

As Joe Romm wrote yesterday, "the Declaration of Interdependence sounds a lot like the Declaration of Independence." Far from being a statement of individualism and isolation, "our Founding Fathers were telling us that we are all in this together, that we are interdependent, that we have a moral duty to protect these inalienable rights for all humans."

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Movements for human rights around the world have been built on the moral claims of the US Declaration of Independence -- the often-expanded notion that all are created equal, that there are unalienable rights, and that governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed. These are big and important ideals that continue to be powerfully motivating.

But the longest section of the Declaration is the list of 27 specific complaints against the British crown. The principles are held up against the details of the moment. It was the fact of corrupt power that led the colonies to demand their independence.

Today, let us be attentive to both broad moral principles and to the specific issues of our globalized and environmentally stressed world. In our churches and our communities, as individuals, nations and global citizens, let us look for the appropriate balance of independence and interdependence.

The contemporary declarations -- of both interdependence and of independence -- remind us of the ethical principles that we hold dear, and they speak of the realities of our world. May we study them, learn from them, and be empowered by them for passionate action that seeks to establish appropriate balance.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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