“Earth’s Immune System” by David Hilfiker




Exodus 6:1-6; Romans 5:1-8


Over the past several years in my teaching and writing, I’ve been talking a lot about death: the deaths of millions of children around the world, the deaths within our environment, the deaths from militarism, the million small deaths from consumerism, the death of our economic system … and so on.  And while I’ve tried to hold on to hope (sometimes even successfully), much of me has leaned toward despair.  I really haven’t seen any way out of this morass that was even remotely possible.  I hadn’t even found much hope in our way of doing business … even a radical way of doing business, even our committed Church-of-the-Saviour way of doing business.  I’ve come to the end of my faith that our rational solutions will solve our problems.


Anyone who’s optimistic these days about the future of our environment doesn’t have the right data.  The dysfunction of the political system and the rapacious reach of the international corporations lead many to despair.  The intensity of American consumerism can lead only to cynicism.  There is little reason for optimism.


But optimism is different from hope, and hope is the cornerstone of our faith.


Our two basic stories are the exodus from Egypt and the death and resurrection of Jesus.  In Egypt the people are deeply oppressed, slaves to the Power of Pharaoh.  There’s absolutely no hope, no possibility of freedom.  The dream of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob has been crushed.  The Promised Land has, for practical purposes, disappeared.  And the one chosen by God to rescue the people is, by his own admission, “slow of speech and slow of tongue,”[1] a renegade hiding from Pharaoh.  Yet through Moses not only does God offer the people freedom; through their faith, Israel also receives hope, and the dream is restored.  It’s not only an astonishing story of God’s faithfulness, but God’s action was also completely unexpected, indeed, unimaginable.


Jesus’ death and resurrection is our greatest story of hope.  The absolute despair of Saturday is replaced by the glorious hope of Sunday.  Paul reminds us that it’s through the cross that we find endurance, character, and unfailing hope.


Our two great stories, then, assure us of the hope that God offers through our suffering, endurance, and character.  Out of death comes new life.  God does something brand new, something not only utterly impossible but also utterly unimaginable.

What I’d like to ask this morning is: Might God be offering us a way out, offering us concrete hope?  Where might we find hope against the darkness that so many of us see coming?


When I first came here in 1983 to practice medicine in the inner city, an unspoken goal was political: to encourage health care providers and American voters to see not only the necessity but also the possibility of providing care to the indigent.  Perhaps, I thought, middle- and upper-class physicians were shying away from such work because they didn’t really know how to organize it or relate to such different cultures.  Perhaps voters and government didn’t know the true circumstances of the poor but might be taught.  I hoped that our clinics would not be only “pilot projects” to encourage others but also a revelation of the need and a demonstration of the possibility.


From today’s perspective those were, pretty obviously, naïve hopes.  Most doctors weren’t that interested in indigent care not because they didn’t know how but because they had other—especially financial—dreams: poverty simply wasn’t very high on their priority list.  This was also during the Reagan-era’s “War on the Poor” when increasing numbers of Americans blamed the poor themselves for their poverty.  Government services were decreasing.  I became discouraged about the possibility of widespread change.


There were two significant exceptions in my experience, but I must confess that, at the time, I underestimated their importance.  When I joined Janelle Goetcheus at Columbia Road Health Services in 1983, there were relatively few such clinics in the entire country.  And that’s changed.  Back then, when I spoke to medical students, only a few were interested.  Now, quite a few plan to provide care for the poor in their later practices, although their numbers are small compared to the need, there are now not only quite a few doctors but even national organizations dedicated to the care of the poor.  Lectures on poverty and the rights to medical care are now standard parts of medical school curricula.  Interestingly, there was no national leadership, no ideology driving all of this.  People just saw the needs around them and responded. All of it happened so gradually, so organically, and so dispersed around our country, that I never really noticed.


The other exception brought something I thought I’d never see: city-funded, comprehensive, indigent care for the entire District of Columbia, thanks in large part, actually, to Janelle’s work with city officials.  Janelle’s never had a formal role with the DC government.  She had no large organization behind her or even a movement that lobbied for indigent health insurance.  But Janelle’s dogged persistence in pushing city health officials ultimately led to a physician group called Unity Health Care that now has about 200 physicians offering care to the impoverished.  The next step was the city-funded DC Healthcare Alliance that actually does provide what it says it does: good medical insurance for everyone in the city who can’t otherwise afford it.


After my initial naïveté 25 years ago, I was, for many years, skeptical that such small, individual, usually private programs would make much large-scale difference.  A few of you may even remember that I published an essays and spoke frequently about the conflict between charity and justice.  Charity—for instance, Joseph’s House good work providing health care—is different from justice—the right to health care.  Charity’s necessary, I believed, but large scale change would require government action.


But I’m changing my mind.  No, I still believe in the difference between charity and justice; I still believe in the importance of political advocacy; I still believe that government has an important role in providing, say, universal access to health care.  But I’ve begun to see the national spread of clinics for the indigent and the existence of the DC Health Care Alliance as examples of God’s breathing new life into his Creation, part of a huge global movement that offers us new life.


Environmentalist Paul Hawken has written a book entitled Blessed Unrest, in which he writes that the British Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade founded in 1787 was “the first group to create a national and global movement to defend the rights of those they did not know.”[2] On the basis of his significant research, Hawken estimates that the number of non-governmental organizations around the globe engaged in the struggle for justice and environmental sanity around the globe has grown to well over one million.  These range in size from one-person and no budget to large staffs with billion-dollar budgets.  The subtitle of Hawken’s book is: How the Largest Movement in the World Came into Being and Why No One Saw It Coming.


In our 8th Day Faith Community last fall, many of us studied The Bridge at the End of the World by Gus Speth, and we recognized that an adequate response to the multiple crises confronting us was not going to come from our current ways of thinking but would require a spiritual awakening.  But, Hawken asks, “Would we recognize a worldwide spiritual awakening if we saw one?”[3] What if it’s already in place and we’re simply not recognizing it?  What if those thousands of poverty clinics around the country and the DC Healthcare Alliance—not to mention Joseph’s House, Academy of Hope, Jubilee Jobs, Jubilee Jumpstart, and all the others—what if they’re part of a much larger spiritual awakening?


Like the early Jesus movement with its multiple churches that not infrequently held quite different beliefs, the environmental/justice “movement” today is not really a movement at all: it has no ideology, no leaders and little coordination among the groups; sometimes, as we know, there’s actually conflict among them.  So, what keeps them from being what they look like: tiny, scattered, and hopelessly outmatched?


Well, for one thing, of course, there are many hundreds of thousands of them.  Hawken likens this loose network to the human immune system.  Now, the immune system has usually been characterized in top-down military images, but, in fact … there’s nobody in charge.  There are different parts to the immune system that actually work independently, and within each of those parts there are millions of individual elements that do their job with considerable independence.  The immune system is more like the Internet: minimally coordinated and comprising diverse, disordered and imprecise entities … without which we’d die in a matter of days.


Like the immune system, the organizations in this global network have little power individually to cure the earth’s sickness, and it’d be tempting to think that their uncoordinated efforts would also have only minor effects given the vast and powerful array of forces operating against them.  But what if this network is organized by something much deeper than a leader or ideology?  What if they’re organized by a common spirituality: loving others, having compassion for one’s neighbor, prioritizing the poor, including everyone, and following one’s call.


Now, this isn’t the greatest image, but these hundreds of thousands of organizations may be something like an ant colony.  No single ant grasps the big picture or needs to direct the group’s effort, but following a few simple instincts, the shortest route to the food source is located, the anthill is built.


Its organization-by-common-values, its grass-roots origins and its dearth of ideology are big advantages, actually, giving this movement a resilience that no top-down organization could ever have; you can’t kill it by getting rid of or co-opting the leadership … because there isn’t any.  The movement constantly grows and renews itself; one organization may disappear because of whatever, but others take its place.  Those that are small with few resources by necessity use those resources efficiently and work with profound dedication.  They work primarily on the basis of their concern for their neighbors and whatever works rather than ideology, so they’re much more flexible, able to switch their activity quickly in response to the actual conditions on the ground.  Any organization with fixed ideas, on the contrary, fades out when the ideas no longer match the reality.  Most movement organizations can make mistakes, even disappear, without affecting the whole.


An example of this flexibility happened at Joseph’s House.  Before the availability of effective HIV medications, we were primarily a community for homeless men with AIDS.  The men were guaranteed a home as long as they lived and we made decisions together by consensus.  Men came in when they were just beginning to need medical support and stayed with us for about a year before dying.  Hospice care was almost incidental.

But, five or six years later, when the new drugs began appearing, some people began getting better and living longer, some indefinitely.  If we’d continued bringing in new people just when they were beginning to get sick or concentrated on community and consensus decision making, we’d ultimately have collected a houseful of well people … not exactly our mission.  So we changed, gradually, to become a hospice, admitting only people who appeared near death.  The conditions around us changed; being small, shunning an ideology, and operating on the basis of love and compassion, we changed, too.


Because these many organizations across the globe are also trying to respond to the needs they see around them, they’re not working from a fixed, overall blueprint for how the world should be.  Rather, their overall vision—if they even think of it as an “overall vision”—comprises those simple values: love, compassion, inclusivity, justice, and reverence for the Earth.  And such vision gives them ongoing hope, even in the face of “hopeless” odds.

I know that the people in many of these organizations would not use this language.  They may not see themselves as part of a spiritual movement; some might vigorously deny it.  But look at what they do and ask yourself what their underlying values are.


The groups in this network organizations not only operate on the basis of these values, they teach them to the many individuals who join them.  Every August, for instance, four or five interns—mostly just out of college—join us at Joseph’s House.   A year later their spiritual consciousness has been profoundly changed.  Not only do these interns learn to provide compassionate care, they learn compassion itself … and are transformed.  As this happens in these millions of organizations around the world and more and more people embrace these values—they begin to withdraw their support from the dominant order.  That old order won’t survive without deep transformation.


An example of such transformation?  For at least the last half century, no large country has successfully colonized another through militarily power alone.  Many small, indigenous citizen groups refusing to cooperate withdraw their support from the would-be colonizers and block them.  Israel has come, perhaps, the closest, but it’s clear to most that they won’t succeed.  The Palestinians simply won’t be colonized.  Because of its firepower, Israel will win virtually every major military battle … but it won’t win the war.  War has changed, and suddenly the old kind of power has little real success.


Now, writes Hawken, it’s true that


[t]he state of our world today suggests that, given the number of organizations and people dedicated to fighting injustice, the movement has not been particularly effective.  The counterargument to this claim [he writes] is that globalization’s predations have had a nearly five-hundred-year head start on humanity’s immune system.[4]


And already there’ve been countless small victories … remember Janelle and DC’s comprehensive health care.


And remember, too, that the proliferation of these organizations dedicated to justice and environmental sanity began only 223 years ago, and their numbers are now exploding exponentially.


I’ve believed for so long in a top-down governmental approach to our problems that I’ve actually not paid nearly enough attention to this grass-roots “movement.”  Perhaps, however, this diverse, uncoordinated immune system collectively has the vision for the earth that—improbable though it may seem to my rational intellect—can topple the giants.  Worker-owned, customer-owned, and community-owned businesses, for instance, have already begun to chip away at an economic system currently based on large, powerful, shareholder-owned public corporations and their influence on government.


Those of you who know me well realize that I’m not usually “little Miss Sunshine.”  I tend to see the dark side of every cloud, and I’m still not sure I’m convinced that this worldwide movement can overcome the power of the corporations, the economic and political systems, and the wealth stacked against it.  But I’m coming to see that my distrust may be my problem.  I suspect that my spiritual issue is that I doubt the possibility of God’s newness.  I tend to agree with the writers of Ecclesiastes: “There’s nothing new under the sun.”


But isn’t newness precisely the promise of the exodus, or the Resurrection?


Perhaps some of us haven’t paid enough attention to the reality that, even now, God frequently does something utterly new, something we previously not only believed impossible but also couldn’t even have imagined: the Civil Rights Movement, the end of Apartheid.   Perhaps we’re so mired—and perhaps even committed to—our hopelessness that we don’t see the new possibilities God is offering us.


May we have eyes to see!




[1] Exodus 4:10

[2] Hawken, Paul, Blessed Unrest, p 5. (Italics mine)

[3] Hawken, p. 184

[4] Hawken p 145

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