In response to my last blog post on accountability, a friend sent a link to information about the Native American philosophy of “seventh generation.” This is the concept that any decision made by an individual or collective should take into account its affect on more than just those who are presently living. As I dug around for more information, I encountered slight variations in how these generations were counted: seven into the future; yours plus three into the future and three into the past; seven into the future and seven into the past.
Whatever the specifics, the notion is consistent: we are asked to contemplate the results of our actions beyond our own lifespans. It is similar to the Jewish practice of standing in the shoes of generations both past and present, as well as the Buddhist concept of collective karma. “In every deliberation, we must consider the impact on the seventh generation…even if it requires having skin as thick as the bark of a pine.” This is a common saying, often attributed to the “The Constitution of the Iroquois Nations: The Great Binding Law.”
The Constitution of the Iroquois Nations says:
“In all of your deliberations in the Confederate Council, in your efforts at law making, in all your official acts, self-interest shall be cast into oblivion. Cast not over your shoulder behind you the warnings of the nephews and nieces should they chide you for any error or wrong you may do, but return to the way of the Great Law which is just and right.”
As I read this, I wondered about the use of “nephews and nieces” instead of something more general like “children” or “youth.” I think the familial connection is key: it implies a close relation but perhaps without the emotional baggage one might have with his or her actual offspring. Maybe we are meant to consider all young people as our nephews and nieces. It applies to everyone, even those without their own children.
I found the wording significant in part because I have recently returned from a trip to the St. Paul/Minneapolis area, where I stayed with my sister-in-law and her family. My visit occurred a week or so following the death of Philando Castile, a 32-year-old black man, who was pulled over for a minor traffic infraction in a suburb of St. Paul. After being asked for his license and registration, Castile told the officer he was a licensed owner of a gun and that his gun was in the car. Then, as he put his hands in the air, the officer shot him multiple times. The shooting was witnessed by Castile’s girlfriend and her young daughter, both of whom were in the car.
In response to this shooting, and others like it all over the country, my 17-year-old nephew and many of his friends began participating in a peaceful protest, more akin to a vigil, outside the Minnesota governor’s mansion as part of the “Black Lives Matter” movement. When I arrived, he was still spending hours there every day as if it were one of his part time jobs.
My nephew, Simon, is white and clearly recognizes his privilege both racially and socio-economically. He speaks eloquently to this issue and without a hint of defensiveness. He embraces “Black Lives Matter” with such passion and clarity that spending time with him made me examine my own commitment to the cause.
When I first began seeing reference to Black Lives Matter in the news and on social media, I noticed the backlash about the wording. I read complaints by people who felt threatened, as if the statement implied that ONLY black lives matter. (I had to smile because these comments seem to reinforce the conclusion I came to as I made my journey through religion: each of us—no matter the degree of privilege we are born into—is inclined to think we are not good enough, that we’ll never do or be enough. This “original sin” is so deeply ingrained that when someone comes along with a radical statement of belonging, people tend to feel threatened by it. It’s the same thing that happened with the Jewish idea of being “chosen.” Instead of embracing this powerful notion of deserving one’s life—which, as I understand it, is meant for everyone—people feel more comfortable believing it excludes them. This better reinforces the natural sense of unworthiness.)
I understand this existential insecurity—I struggle with it myself—but that wasn’t the problem I was having. I believed the statement was too obvious, too basic. I thought, “well, of course black lives matter.”
When I brought this up to Simon, he made me see that the truth of this simple statement isn’t necessarily apparent. For people who have a history of being enslaved and marginalized (like the Jews), claiming worthiness is a radical act. When I looked at it through Simon’s eyes, I saw the statement for what it is: a beautiful and important declaration of belonging, one that invites healing for all sorts of errors and wrongdoings.