Sunday, September 29, 2013

Imagining Wholeness

I had hoped to go this weekend to a conference in North Carolina called “Summoned toward Wholeness: A Conference on Food, Farming, and the Life of Faith,” with speakers Ellen F. Davis, Joel Salatin, Scott Cairns, and Norman Wirzba.

But life happens, and that trip didn’t. So I’ve asked a friend who’s attending to post here next week with his own highlights and reflections.

In the meantime, I spend my days trying to imagine wholeness.

Have you ever seen a gardener, standing still at the edge of a garden, eyes slightly closed, head slightly tilted, just looking, listening, not moving at all?

It’s that moment of imaging: seeing what’s there, picturing what’s not. Wondering how to get there.

My back yard is the test plot on this: manageably small (exactly half an acre), wonderfully quiet. At the moment, lush and green. I wander through my stepping stone path, linger on my mossy trail, enjoying what’s there, imaging the next step toward the vision in my mind.

When we moved here 16 years ago, the squirrels ran around the edge of the yard on the old rail fence rather than walk through the toxic grass. The previous owners had been so intent on growing lawn in places it didn’t want to grow, they had doused the ground with chemicals. It took years to get the birds to move back in.

But I’ve imagined a place where birds would want to live, and here they are: house wrens, chipping sparrows, nuthatch, chickadees. This summer a flicker family drilled a hole in a locust. A pair of downies flits back and forth from suet to trees, and back again. An archway path festooned with honeysuckle has brought hummingbirds, regularly, whirring near my head.

Even so the world intrudes. A natural gas pipeline through the center of the yard reminds me: I live in Pennsylvania, tied to a grid that leads in every direction. That line ties to a larger line. In one direction are the fracking wells of shale country, not far away. In the other, refineries, gray fog rising over them most hours of the day. My imagination knows they’re there. But wholeness? I can’t quite see it.

A larger canvas for my imagination: a place called Exton Park. I’ve mentioned it before, 800 acres of degraded suburban land, some still farmed, some damaged by deer browse. Some brimming full of invasive shrubs, trees, vines. And yet, despite the damage, it holds a small pond where egrets and heron take refuge, acres of wetland where just yesterday we heard a sora calling. Open skies where osprey, kestrel and harrier soar. Amazing wildflowers: asters, goldenrod, New York ironweed.

Last Saturday I took part in Make a Difference Day: a morning of work grubbing vines and roots from the side of a berm, then helping organize volunteers to plant native grasses, reeds and forbs. It was my kind of morning: teen boys from nearby Church Farm School, some new acquaintances who bird the pond like I do, a few plant folks eager to see what plants we had in store, some families with young kids happy to scoop water and pour it wherever I pointed.

By the next morning I had poison ivy on both arms, and my face was starting to puff. Apparently, I’m part of the 30 to 35% of the population that’s “highly sensitive” to our industrious native vine. So I spent the morning in a nearby Minute Clinic, and I’ve spent the week itching, fighting the side-effects of prednisone, and reminding myself how much I love envisioning Exton Park as a place made whole, a beautiful, reclaimed landscape. Even when it costs me.

But the call to imagine goes far beyond my yard or local park.

For the last year and a half I’ve been involved in promoting and taking part in a national study on food and farming. I opened my mouth at a League of Women Voter’s planning meeting, and found myself leading a committee, then a caucus at a national convention, now serving on a national committee that sends me reeling down rabbit holes to ferret out information about corn subsidies, neonicotinoids , pesticide overload, industry-driven public policy.

This past week I had two deadlines: a third draft on genetic engineering, a first draft on factory farming. Do you want to know what’s in animal feed? The financial pressures forcing small farms off the planet? The abuse of workers, farmers, animals, water, land that are part of our quest for ever cheaper, more convenient food?

Ah. Maybe not.

I don’t want to know either.

Yet, knowing is the first step toward grieving.

And grieving, according to Walter Brueggemann, Old Testament scholar and student of the prophets, is the first step toward imagining the new.

As my son wrote in a guet post last week, this world around us is a reflection of who we are, the choices we’ve made. The values we’ve held dear.

What I see gives me pause, and leads me toward repentence.

So I dig deeper into the studies, the reports. The testimony of small farmers to the Department of Justice, about coercive contracts, disappearing markets, tightening consolidation. The carefully worded scientific conclusions about what happens to bees, soil, rats, hogs, people, when we play with things we don’t quite understand.

And I grieve.

Yesterday I walked into a local food store – a place I go often – and found myself staring at the shelves and shelves of food. Mostly bad food. Full of corn syrup, carrageenan, other things I no longer want to eat. Over-processed, over-packaged, dusty boxes. To me, they looked like death.

So I grieve. Repent of my own collusion in fast, cheap, easy imitation food.

And imagine wholeness.

Here’s what it looks like, to me, today:

A farm not far from here. SpringWood Farm. In Kinzer, PA. It belongs to Roman Stoltzfoos and his family. I heard him speak at a conference last winter about his cows and the experiment his sons and he are running: trying to find out which grains to sprout in his high hoop tunnels as a source of winter fodder for his organic pastured cows.

SpringWood solar chicken house
He showed some slides of the hoop tunnels, the sprouting grains, the cows.

The beautiful, green, inviting pasture.

He showed slides of his chickens and their chicken tractors: little hoop houses on wheels he moves from field to field.

It wasn’t that long ago – forty years? maybe fify? – that almost all our food came from lovely places like SpringWood Farm.

Real food – brightly colored peppers, iron-rich dark greens, eggs with yolks so yellow they looked like melted gold.

I came home from that conference last winter with my head spinning. I’d heard a discussion about “complex, chronic environmental exposures,” and the invisible nanomaterials already in our food supply.

I’d sat through sessions about new food safety regulations – and how they cater to the industry model, burden the small scale farmer, and leave our food no safer.

And I wondered: how far away is SpringWood Farm?

One of my daughters had been challenging me to join a local CSA – a Community Supported Agriculture program. The one she had in mind: Wimer’s Organics. A Lancaster farm that delivers in our county.

I checked, and found they also deliver eggs: farm fresh eggs. From SpringWood Farm.

So, yes, we joined Wilmer’s Organics CSA.

And ordered a weekly dozen eggs.

Every week I show up to a porch in the next town over, leave last week’s empty box, pick up this week’s box of lovely color. And my carton of beautiful eggs from SpringWood Farm.

Yes. It does.

More than a big Mac. Or a box of mac and cheese.

More than a Coke. Or an order of fries.

But every penny goes to the farmer, supporting his vision of a healthy, wholesome food supply.

Unlike the dollars I spend at the store down the street, where only pennies on the dollar go to a farmer, pennies go to underpaid farm workers, and the larger share goes to advertising, packaging, transportation, and the corporate powers that propel us toward an ever-more abusive global food system.

I’m still learning what I can about how to advocate for wholeness. How to stand up for local farmers, how to speak back to the ideathat industrial farming is inevitable, the only way to feed a hungry world.

In the meantime, I’m pulling weeds, planting reeds, sauteing and grilling vegetables I still can’t name.

And imaging a world where beauty, health, wisdom, wholeness are more than ideas we see with our eyes closed, but part of the daily fabric of our lives.

This post is part of an ongoing series on God's Green Equity.

·                     God's Green Equity: August 4, 2013
·                     Seed Parables: August 11, 2013 
·                     Miracle Seeds of Sorrow's Kingdom: August 25, 2013   
·                     How Much  Does Justice Cost? September 1, 2013
·                     Taxonomy of Ignorance and the Unknown Unknowns: September 8,2013
·                     For God so Loved the Earth, September 15, 2013
·                     Reflections and Refractions on the Anacotia River, Sept. 22, 2013

 Earlier posts on the same topic:

·                     Green Grace: May 15, 2011 
·                     Earth Day Shalom: April 22, 2012
·                     Hungering Far Past Rightness: March 3, 2013

As always, your thoughts, comments, questions are welcome.  

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Reflections and Refractions on the Anacostia River

As part of my current series on God's Green Equity, I've invited those in my life more engaged in this than I am to share their thoughts in the form of a guest blog post. Today's post is by my son, Matt, who recently relocated to a neighborhood in Anacostia, DC, just a stone's throw from the Anacostia River. 

River Reflections

Remnant of wetlands on the Anacostia River, Matt Kuniholm, 2013
Like most things, rivers are reflections of the people and places surrounding them. The color of water reflects the mineral content of the bedrock and soils throughout the watershed. The taste of water reflects trace elements and the quality of water coming from upstream sources. The temperature of water reflects the watershed’s climate and the structure of riparian habitat. The oxygen content of river-water, an all-important requirement for aquatic life, reflects the slope and texture of the river-bed, temperature, biological activity and nutrient load of the river. Quite literally, the sight of water can reflect the panoramic and often picturesque beauty of the surrounding topography. And what would all these reflections be if they weren’t also perceived by people and all the other species which share the capacity of sight and the need for water?

If rivers are reflections of the people and places surrounding them, they can bring ongoing, seemingly endless joy as we see a tranquil, beautiful or awe-inspiring reflection renewed by the ever-steady flow of water. We may want to jump in and swim, floating and spinning around, enjoying the current’s clean pull. We may stand back, contemplate and create paintings or poems on the source and structure of the river. We may throw in a line or net to harvest and enjoy the river’s bounty. And all of these responses reflect our own character which values and enjoys the character reflected by the river.

But if rivers are reflections of the people and places surrounding them, it can become very uncomfortable to gaze out over a river and find an unwelcome reflection staring back. There’s no way to hide, except by looking the other way.  When thousands of tons of trash flow down and empty at the mouth of the river, there’s only one direction it could have come from. When fish are dying and their rotting bellies are floating in stagnant water, there’s only one direction that the contamination could have come from. When phrases like ‘the other side of the river’ connote dangerous and foreign worlds to people who use a river to divide and protect them from their fears, there’s only one reason that could be. And when rivers are dammed, diked, channeled and over-allocated, leaving a trickle of water where powerful rivers once roared, there’s only one direction to look to find the reason. In all these examples, it’s clear that the cause of any correlation flows in one direction: people, in one way or another, have the capacity to manage water, water resources and watersheds. Their decisions are reflected in the extent to which rivers maintain their character and contribute to the life and joy and peace of the people and places around them.

River Reflections in Washington

This dynamic reflection of a place on its people, and the people on their place, is true in many ways of the city in which I live, Washington D.C., and the closest river to my house, the Anacostia.  When it comes to rivers, there are dozens and dozens of agencies, associations, organizations, committees, conferences and workshops in this city which aim to project a positive influence on the nation’s waterways and water resources. From the clean water act in 1972 to the Safe Drinking Water Act in 1974, to the EPA’s ongoing Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) program applicable to the majority of the nation’s waterways, the United States has established a water management framework that has been replicated in many other countries throughout the world. But even with this myriad of environmental agencies, laws and organizations, the river closest to home – to the heart of our government and the city of Washington – has been recognized as one of the most contaminated rivers in the country and has historically been seen as a racial and socio-economic boundary segregating the city.

Aerial photo of the Anacostia river, National Journal, 1991, 
Having grown up in the DC area and lived, worked, played and worshiped within the city for the last several years, I’ve found it hard to avoid looking head on at the reflection cast by the Anacostia River. What does that reflection say about the character and characteristics of the city? Can our laws and regulations, advocacy groups and NGOs suffice not only to protect our nation’s waterways but also instill a deep enjoyment  and a desire to be good stewards? As I’ve looked into these questions, I’ve been encouraged by what I’ve found, but left longing for what’s still missing.

Let me explain:

I’ve been encouraged by the number of individuals and organizations working to restore the Anacostia River to the incredible resource it should be for the people and ecosystems of DC. For example, the Anacostia Watershed Society (AWS), a non-profit organization leading environmental education, stewardship and recreation activities throughout the watershed, has a straightforward mission: “to make the Anacostia River and its tributaries swimmable and fishable, in keeping with the Clean Water Act, for the health and enjoyment of everyone in the community.” It’s been a joy to meet people who are unified by this vision and who enjoy the river, even if it takes some imagining to anticipate what it would be like free from contamination and abuse.

The AWS, together with other local organizations such as Groundwork Anacostia River, the Anacostia RiverKeeper and Sierra Club DCare also working together on practical environmental conservation projects and holding regulating agencies and those responsible for current sources of contamination accountable. These organizations, working with the Smithsonian's Anacostia Community Museum, recently assembled a great exhibit on urban waterways and civic engagement which highlights different community groups involved in reclaiming the Anacostia River.
The Anacostia Community Museum

I’ve also been encouraged that people of faith, particularly Christians from multiple churches throughout DC, are supporting what has too often been a secular environmental movement. For over a year and a half, a network of Christians in conservation and environmental science professions in the DC metro area has been meeting on a monthly basis to participate in environmental conservation activities in partnership with organizations working throughout the watershed, to pray, study the Bible and encourage each other in our professions in the environmental sciences.  The group, which is organized as a local chapter of an international organization of Christians in Conservation (A Rocha USA), is now working towards establishing an urban field center within the District of Columbia which would serve as the foundation for community based conservation projects, environmental education, collaborative community development and environmental research, all grounded in our Christian faith. The current plan is to establish the urban field center on a parcel of land overlooking the Anacostia River, adjacent to the grounds of a landfill that was covered over in the 1980’s and next to the Aquatic Gardens National Park.

Refractions of the River

Despite these encouraging signs, many people look at the Anacostia River and see it for what it currently is: a contaminated river full of trash and sewage that’s been dredged, degraded and largely forgotten. Those who still fish in the river do so despite the fact that approximately two-thirds of the popular brown bullhead catfish have tumors. Those who live on ‘the other side of the river’ do so knowing that the rates of poverty, crime and environmental contamination are all higher than in other portions of DC. And those who hope that the river may one day be restored to a river of life, do so knowing that the development trends and environmental indicators don’t provide much support for optimism.

Speaking as someone who works professionally in the environmental sciences, and who spends much of my time outside of work involved in community-based conservation and recreation, I can say that nothing could sustain my hopefulness for any type of environmental restoration except the promise of the river of life flowing from the Christian gospel. Throughout the Bible, this river of life refers to the Spirit of God which leads people to forgiveness and restoration through faith in Jesus. Were it not for this source of the river of life, my own ability to sustain this life, joy, and hope for restoration would soon run dry, leaving me a lifeless remnant of what life could be. And if rivers reflect the people and places surrounding them, I would expect the river to follow course as well.

So it’s with great anticipation that I look not to myself, or the laws, regulations, organizations and agencies doing good work to conserve and restore our rivers, but rather to the source of life and our hope for restoration. I join with the singer who sings:

             O Lord, how manifold are your works!
In wisdom have you made them all;
The earth is full of your creatures (Psalm 104:24)

God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way,
though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea,
though its waters roar and foam,
though the mountains tremble at its swelling.
                There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,            
                                the holy habitation of the Most High.
                God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved;
                                God will help her when morning dawns (Psalm 46:1-5).

River of Life, Tiffany Studios, 1921
No city, no river on earth could fulfill that expectation; but they can direct our attention to the God who can. In this way, the Anacostia River is not just a reflection of the people and places surrounding it, it’s also a refraction of the true river of life. To borrow a theme from Makoto Fujimura’s book “Refractions:  a journey of faith, art and culture”, the Anacostia River and our stewardship of it is a refraction of the way God stewards his free flowing Spirit referred to throughout the Bible as a river of life. Stewardship of a broken creation can therefore become a creative art which gives glory to the Creator God.

In the introduction to his book, Fujimura, a Christian painter, writes:

“Via my art, I hope to create a mediated reality of beauty, hope, and reconciled relationships and cultures…. I have found that mediation of any kind is never black-and-white but prismatic and complex too. In order to find hope, even in the midst of the broken and torn fragments of relationships, in order to begin to journey into the heart of the divide, we must first wrestle with the deeper issues of faith. We must be willing to be broken ourselves into prismatic shards by the Master Artist, God, so that Christ’s light can be refracted to us.”

As I look out over the Anacostia River, I am forced to wrestle with my disappointment over its current contaminated state and its troubling reflection of our society’s character. Even so, as I attempt to be a steward of God’s creation, I see the refracted light of the Master Creator, God, and imagine the day when the entire world – the people and all its places – will be fully restored through the coming redemption and restoration in Jesus. It’s this hope that calls us to be good stewards of the river and the people surrounding it, to treat them not as the broken things they are now, but as the life-filled creations they were meant to be.

This post is also part of an ongoing series on God's Green Equity.

 Earlier posts on the same topic:

As always, your thoughts, comments, questions are welcome.  

Sunday, September 15, 2013

For God So Loved the Earth

Hodder Bridge, Ribble River
Lancashire, England
Flickr Creative Commons,
John Burke, 1983
Earth, sweet Earth, sweet landscape, with leavés throng      
And louchéd low grass, heaven that dost appeal      
To, with no tongue to plead, no heart to feel;           
That canst but only be, but dost that long— 

Thou canst but be, but that thou well dost; strong             
Thy plea with him who dealt, nay does now deal,    
Thy lovely dale down thus and thus bids reel           
Thy river, and o’er gives all to rack or wrong.           

And what is Earth’s eye, tongue, or heart else, where          
Else, but in dear and dogged man?—Ah, the heir             
To his own selfbent so bound, so tied to his turn,     
To thriftless reave both our rich round world bare    
And none reck of world after, this bids wear
Earth brows of such care, care and dear concern.     
                                                     (Gerard Manley Hopkins, Ribblesdale, 1883)

For God so loved the world . . . Familiar words, especially for those, like me, who grew up surrounded by scripture.

Even so, I was struck not long ago by a question: which world is that, the world God loves?

In every discussion of John 3:16 I’ve ever heard, the “world” God loves is people.

But as I’ve been exploring the way translation, interpretation, tradition shape our understanding, I’ve found myself eyeing that word “world,” and wondering.

From what I can glean from lexicons, there were plenty of words John could have chosen in John 3:16.

The word “paß”, or “pas,” sometimes translated “world,” means “each, all, everyone.” So if that’s what John was saying (God loves us humans- all of us), that would have been the word to use.

“Aijwvnioß,” or “aionios,” also translated world, points to all that is unending, everlasting.  “Oijkoumevnh,” or “oikoumene,” another word for world, referred to the inhabited world. OR the inhabitants of earth.

The word John chose in John 3:16 was “kovsmoß”, (kosmos"), which in normal Greek usage meant the whole constituted order of earth and its inhabitants, not just humans, not just human endeavors, but all that this universe holds: stars, planets, mountains, seas, creatures, plants, pebbles, sand. And not just the stuff of the universe, but the relationships, the systems, the orderly interplay of days, tides, seasons. Or, as Hopkins described it, “Earth, sweet earth, sweet landscape,” and all that surrounds and indwells it.  

For God so loved the world . . . that He gave his only begotten son . . .

If God’s love extends through Christ to us, then through us, as his people, to the cosmos around us, what does it mean that we are agents of reconciliation?

What did Paul mean when he said “For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed”?

What are we supposed to be revealing?

Why would creation be eagerly expectant?

Gerard Manley Hopkins, Jesuit priest, scholar, teacher, and poet, lamented the damage to the Ribble Valley where he taught, the river fouled by factory discharge, “thy lovely dale down thus,” and the river given “all to rack or wrong.”

Man, “dear and dogged man,” called to be “Earth’s eye, tongue, . . . heart,” is “so tied to his turn,” his own short time on earth, that he fails to carry out his task of “care and dear concern,” and so both man and earth are harmed, held hostage to our human “selfbent” ways.
 Francis and the Wolf, John August Swanson, 1985 

I’m struck by the love that permeates Hopkins' poem: the love of “Earth, sweet Earth, sweet landscape,” the loving grief at “thy lovely dale down thus,” the warmth toward “dear and dogged man,” the compassionate longing for “care and dear concern.”

I hear in Hopkins' poem John’s refrain: for God so loves the world. Loves the earth itself, and the creatures, landscapes, waterways that carrying the weight of our folly. Loves us, “dear and dogged” humans, even as we relentless pursue our selfbent ambitions, ears closed to the desperate cry of the groaning creation around us.

A century later poet and farmer Wendell Berry explored a similar theme in a sermon published as “Christianity and The Survival of Creation”:  
If we read the Bible, keeping in mind the desirability of those two survivals--of Christianity and the Creation--we are apt to discover several things that modern Christian organizations have kept remarkably quiet about, or have paid little attention to.
We will discover that we humans do not own the world or any part of it: "The earth is the Lord's, and the fulness thereof: the world and they that dwell therein" (Ps. 24:1). . .
We will discover that God made not only the parts of Creation that we humans understand and approve, but all of it: "all things were made by him; and without him was not anything made that was made" John 1:3). . .

We will discover that God found the world, as he made it, to be good; that he made it for his pleasure; and that he continues to love it and to find it worthy, despite its reduction and corruption by us. People who quote John 3:16 as an easy formula for getting to heaven neglect to see the great difficulty implied in the statement that the advent of Christ was made possible by God's love for the world--not God's love for Heaven or for the world as it might be, but for the world as it was and is. Belief in Christ is thus made dependent upon prior belief in the inherent goodness--the lovability--of the world.
We will discover that the Creation is not in any sense independent of the Creator, the result of a primal creative act long over and done with, but is the continuous, constant participation of all creatures in the being of God . . .
We will discover that, for these reasons, our destruction of nature is not just bad stewardship, or stupid economics, or a betrayal of family responsibility; it is the most horrid blasphemy. It is flinging God's gifts into his face, as of no worth beyond that assigned to them by our destruction of them. To Dante, "despising Nature and her gifts" was a violence against God. We have no entitlement from the Bible to exterminate or permanently destroy or hold in contempt anything on the earth or in the heavens above it or in the waters beneath it. We have the right to use the gifts of Nature, but not to ruin or waste them. . .

We are holy creatures living among other holy creatures in a world that is holy. . . .
Do we see the world as holy? Or is "holy" a word reserved for church, certain people, or just God himself?

I've discovered lately, as I’ve spent more time outside, following bird song, examining wildflowers, that my understanding of God’s love has been growing.

When I’ve been part of groups that fracture love (God loves these people, not these; God loves these creatures, not these; God loves us when we do this – not that), when I’ve breathed in that narrow understanding of God’s love, my own expression and experience of love becomes fractured, conditional, impatient, “selfbent.”

When I move deeper into a knowledge of love that reaches past me to this whole dear, much-loved cosmos, I find myself more certain of God’s care, more daily aware of his deep affection that holds us all in being, that sings the world awake each morning, that pours out provision in ways we’ll never understand.

As my own love stretches past my selfbent circle, extending to people unlike me, to creatures, places, distant neighbors, I feel myself held in love, feel it pour through and beyond me, like clear water from a glistening waterfall.

God loves the earth, the cosmos. Loves me, those near and dear to me, those unlike me, against me, unknown to me. He loves the chorus of crows that wakes me each morning. The spider spinning its web beyond my kitchen window. The bees, lost to their hives. The baby sparrow, still downy from its nest, calling for food while its mother searches frantically. The shrimp, slipping into darkness in the dead zones of our bays. The lovely lilies, slowly disappearing with our disappearing margins.

As long as we understand God’s love as a fractured thing, divided, conditional, indifferent to the larger whole, we will never fully share it.

And never fully know it.

And the waiting creation will go on waiting.

This post is part of the September Synchroblog, Loving Nature: Is God "Green"? 

Other posts:

Jen Bradbury – Is God Green?
Oliver – Dieu il Recyclable 
Tim Nichols – Never a Last Leaf

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

September 11 Revisited: Love Your Neighbor?

I’m happy to welcome the first guest blog post to this site.

One of my goals in starting this blog was to further conversation. I’ve been thinking lately about how hard it is to see what we don’t already see, or to know what we don’t know we don't know, and reflecting on the need to really hear each other, to hear those “words half heard” that we’d rather ignore.

And I’ve been thinking about the call to live as witnesses of the Living Word, to make real, in our own actions and choices, the words we scarcely understand: mercy, grace, compassion, justice, love.

Shanksville, PA Flickr Creative Commons,
Tony, 2004 

A week ago I invited someone to consider writing a post for my current series, “God’s Green Equity.” And then, just days later, I received a Facebook message from someone else: “Would you have time to look at this? Is it something I can/should share?”

Yes. It’s something to share, and I’m happy to share it here. It reminds me that loving our neighbor is never as neat and tidy as we’d like. And it reminds me that obedience – in making odd phones calls, or sharing incomplete stories, or letting our stony hearts be softened – is one way God knits us together, and makes his own Word visible. 

Geita, the author of the post below, worked at Camp Sandy Cove with me in the 70s, and we’ve become reaquainted through several recent weekend reunions. She’s the mother of four almost grown kids, director of a summer camp in Maryland, and is ordained as a minister in the Church of the Brethren.

The sheer curtains danced in the breeze as the sound of the Sunday morning national news report played in the background. I sipped my mug of warm coffee as I browsed hangers to choose Sunday morning clothing for my four children.  The date was September 8, 2002 and news reports were highlighting the upcoming anniversary of the tragedies that occurred on 9/11. 

The mention of Flight 93 caught my attention as the news reporter shared information from the Pittsburgh FBI.  In the year that had passed, no one had called the FBI to claim the remains of the terrorists that hijacked that aircraft on a clear September morning in 2001.  This information caused the wheels of my mind to spin out of control. 

We were living in the area of the Flight 93 crash site. On the day of the attack the first mention of the Flight 93 crash on the Today Show stated that a crash had occurred in Windber, Pennsylvania. We were living in Windber. A few second later the location was corrected to Shanksville, which was just over twenty miles away.

As I began my morning tasks to prepare my children to attend Sunday School, I could not shake the thoughts that were spinning in my mind about the men whose remains were sitting unclaimed.  As I washed small faces, offered them scrambled eggs with toast and buttoned shirts onto wiggling bodies. I thought about mothers who lived on the other side of the world. Did those mothers know that they were washing the faces of young terrorists?  Did they raise their young sons to take the lives of others? Did they know what their sons were planning? My heart broke for those women. 

Shanksville, PA, Flickr Creative Commons, Tony, 2004
There is no way to dispute the evil that occurred on September 11, 2001.  But Jesus did not call us to an easy task.  He did not ask us to follow human nature that calls us to hate those who launch evil against us.  We are called to love our enemies.

As my children took their afternoon naps, I could not break free from the thoughts of the mothers who lived in a place far away.  They were mothers who could not approach the United States to claim the remains of their children.  I am certain that I gasped as I considered that maybe I should claim the remains of those terrorists.

The telltale sound of a dial-up Internet connection was followed by typing the words “Pittsburgh FBI” into the search bar on the Yahoo home page.  In the back of my mind I hoped that getting the contact information would be difficult, but there it was—a phone number. I grabbed a scrap of paper and jotted down the number and tacked it to the refrigerator.

The news reports for Monday morning continued to review the events of 9/11 as we moved yet another day closer to the one year anniversary, and they were a stark reminder of the phone number that hung in my kitchen.  Nervously, I dialed the number.  Greeted by an answering machine, I hung up.  I rocked back and forth first on one foot and then the other trying to decide how to say, “I want to claim the remains of terrorists” on the FBI’s answering machine. I made a quick decision, redialed and said, “Please return my call.”

I was almost certain that the FBI was not going to call me back.  Then I would have done my part, and I could drop this insanity. Honestly, what exactly was I going to do once I got those remains? I was buttering toast and thinking of the possibilities when my thoughts were interrupted by the ringing of the phone.

In case you ever wondered, the FBI will return your call.  The professional sounding gentleman on the other end of the conversation listened to my request and responded, “Ma’am, you can’t just claim those remains.”  Confused, I mentioned the story on the news and wondered why they were announcing that no one came forward for the remains.  As the conversation continued, I realized that they would not hand those remains over to a housewife in rural Pennsylvania who had no relation to those men.

The morning of 9/11, 2002 was cool and slightly foggy.  An older gentleman with a flashlight directed us into a field that was now a parking lot.  My children and I got out of our van and headed toward the bus stop.  A security check point was set up.  No bags were allowed, but we each carried a small blanket.  The bus ride to the crash site was silent.

We stood near the back of a large crowd watching the ceremonies of the day. My girls held steaming cups of hot chocolate that came from a Red Cross truck. Family members of those who were killed at the site were seated near the staging area.  Throngs of patriotic music filled the air, and huge news cameras danced over the heads of those in the crowd. The moment was maybe the most solemn thing I have ever witnessed. 

Flight 93 Wall, Flickr Creative Commons, A Meloney, 2007
I stood with my blanket held close to me as I thought about the families that were now visiting the crash site for the second or third time. They had made friends in the Shanksville community, and in some way complete strangers were now neighbors.

Following the ceremony we were able to walk by the large fence that had been constructed for people to leave their thoughts at the site.  Girl Scout troops had hung cards; others left stuffed animals, religious statues, and Bibles; a multitude of artifacts covered the fence on both sides.  I remember looking at the fence and having a glimpse at the way people in our country had become neighbors with each other during the weeks that followed 9/11/2001.

I tried to block the mothers of the terrorists from my mind, but they kept coming back to me.  I knew for certain that God loved them, and try as I might to hate them, I could not find anything in my heart but deep sadness.  I felt sadness that they would never feel the love of the people of Shanksville.  They would never know them as neighbors.

Cross for Flight 93, Flickr Creative
Commons, A. Meloney, 2007
In the days that followed I shared my story with friends, and I began to realize that my desire to help the mothers of a group of men who completed acts of pure evil against our country was very controversial. The first time someone used the words “terrorist sympathizer” I gave a quizzical glance and then felt my face transform into a reflective gaze.  Am I a terrorist sympathizer because I try to love my neighbor as myself? 

As we approach the 12th anniversary of 9/11, I once again think about the mothers of those young boys who became the men that piloted planes to their destruction on that fall morning. I no longer hear the sound of dial-up as I connect to the Internet and type in the words “claim the remains of the 9/11 terrorists.” According to the latest reports, those remains still have not been claimed. 

As I sip my morning coffee and I see sheer curtains dancing in the breeze, news reporters speculate about the possibility of war, and my mind wonders what Jesus meant when He said, “Love your neighbor.”
As always, your thoughts and comments are welcome.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Taxonomy of Ignorance and the Unknown Unknowns

from What is Ignorance? QCubed
As we know,  
There are known knowns.  
There are things we know we know.  
We also know  
There are known unknowns.  
That is to say  
We know there are some things  
We do not know.  
But there are also unknown unknowns,  
The ones we don't know  
We don't know.
  ( Donald Rumsfeld, DOD briefing, 2002 )
It’s migration season in the mid-Atlantic region, and the night sky is full of small birds traveling south, prompted by internal warnings calibrated uniquely to each species. This past week, according to the ebird birdcast, my region expected nighthawks, red-eyed vireo, and a variety of warblers. I headed out in my kayak early this morning to see what I could see, and sure enough, in a stand of trees hanging over my favorite part of Marsh Creek Lake, red-eyed vireo, black and white warblers and black-throated greens were foraging for insects, readying themselves for a day of rest and another long night of flight.

I had never seen a red-eyed vireo until this morning. Yet, all my life, fall and spring, they’ve been traveling overhead. No one is quite sure how they know what routes to travel. No one knows for certain what determines their start.

And no one knows completely why song bird populations are declining. Loss of habitat, changing weather patterns, pesticide overload on monoculture fields . . . 

The same mysteries surround declining bat populations, and the alarming colony collapse disorder, threatening not just bees, but food crops and agricultural economies. A large percentage of the world’s food supplies depends on pollination by bees. As bees vanish, yields fall. According to a recent US News report: "More than $30 billion worth of crops in the U.S. could be seriously at risk if the continuing die off of honeybees were to reach critical levels." The article continues:

"Academic researchers from the University of Maryland and federal scientists from the Department of Agriculture decided to collect pollen from seven major types of crops along the East Coast where CCD has been especially destructive - where bees had been in serious decline – and fed them to healthy bees.
"The pollen fed to the healthy bees contained an average of nine different types of pesticides and fungicides. One pollen sample had 21 different chemicals."
"The researchers discovered that the healthy bees that ate the fungicides – which are supposedly harmless to bees – were actually three times more likely to become infected with a parasite that's known to cause Colony Collapse Disorder . . .
"What the study also indicated is that there may not be a single cause of the collapse of bee colonies in North America – it could be a complex web of many chemicals that involves different types and classes of pesticides and fungicides."
I’ve long appreciated Wendell Berry’s 2004 essay “The Way of Ignorance,” discovered in a library book of the same name, eventually purchased so I could read - yet again - Berry’s discussion of helpful and foolish ignorance. He begins with this:
"Our purpose here is to worry about the predominance of the supposition, in a time of great technological power, that humans either know enough already, or can learn enough soon enough, to foresee and forestall any bad consequences of their use of that power. . .

"Ignorance plus arrogance plus greed sponsors “better living with chemistry,” and produces the ozone hole and the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico." (53)
Berry offers a taxonomy of ignorance, his own classification of the kinds of ignorance that shape our understanding (summarized online along with a variety of other attempts to classify the unknown/unknowable):                                                      
Varieties of ignorance:
  • Inherent ignorance — ignorance that stems from the limitations of the human brain
  • Ignorance of history — due to our unawareness of what we have forgotten, and never learned
  • Materialist ignorance — willful refusal to recognize what cannot be empirically proved (narrow-mindedness)
  • Moral ignorance — willful refusal to come to a moral conclusion on the basis it may not be ‘objective’
  • Polymathic ignorance — the false confidence of knowledge of the past and future
  • Self-righteous ignorance — ignorance arising from our failure to know ourselves and our weaknesses
  • Fearful ignorance — stemming from the lack of courage to believe and accept knowledge that is unpopular, unpleasant or tragic
  • Lazy ignorance — stemming from not being willing to make the effort to understand what is complex
  • For-profit and for-power ignorance — deliberate obscuring or withholding of knowledge (e.g. advertising, propaganda)
                     (Dave Pollard: The Way of Ignorance)
Berry’s interest in discussing ignorance is to probe the ways that lack of humility lead us into harm, not just on a personal level, but even more, on a societal, even global scale:
"What I have said so far characterizes the personal minds of individual humans. But because of a certain kind of arrogant ignorance, and because of the gigantic scale of work permitted and even required by powerful technologies, we are not safe in dealing merely with personal or human minds. We are obliged to deal also with a kind of mind that I will call corporate, although it is also political and institutional. This is a mind that is compound and abstract, materialistic, reductionist, greedy, and radically utilitarian. . . The corporate mind is remarkably narrow. It claims to utilize only empirical knowledge – the preferred term is “sound science,” reducible ultimately to the “bottom line” of profit or power – 
"Ignorance, arrogance, narrowness of mind, incomplete knowledge and counterfeit knowledge are of concern to us because they are dangerous; they cause destruction. When united with great power, they cause great destruction. They have caused far too much destruction already, too often of irreplaceable things. Now, reasonably enough, we are asking if it is possible, if it is even thinkable, that the destruction can be stopped. To some people’s surprise, we are again backed up against the fact that knowledge is not in any simple way good. We have often been a destructive species, we are more destructive now than we have ever been, and this, in perfect accordance with ancient warnings, is because of our ignorant and arrogant use of knowledge."(59) 
The topics I’ve been tracking of late all call into focus the forms of ignorance Berry describes. Advocates of fracking, genetic modification, consolidated animal feeding, monocrop agriculture dependent on pesticides and herbicides, all point to “sound science” that denies, or ignores, potential harm.  Caution flags are dismissed as “unproven” scare tactics, while the historic record of corporate/industrial malfeasance (tobacco? Agent Orange? DDT? asbestos?) is politely disregarded.

At the same time, I encounter fearful ignorance (“I don’t want to know!”), moral ignorance (“Whatever is happening is inevitable”) and all too often, lazy ignorance (“Who has the time to understand this, and really, does it matter?”)
Plea for help from fifth-generation farmer Bruce Kennedy, East Smithfield,
 Bradford County, PA. Photo by Iris Marie Bloom

I find myself wondering, in the light of this: what does it mean to love my neighbor?

The woman I met not long ago sick at heart that fracking fluid is being injected into abandoned oil wells in her rural county.

The friends who can no longer eat out – anywhere – for fear a simple meal, cooked in the wrong oil, or with unacknowledged ingredients, will make them sick for days.

What does it mean to love the beekeeper who shared her grief at the devastation in her hives?

Or the daughter of generations of gulf shrimpers lamenting the dead zone that’s destroyed her family’s way of life?

How has my own willful ignorance contributed to the harm experienced by others?

How, through lazy ignorance, am I complicit in past, present, and future calamity?

What should I know, that I've chosen not to know?

And how can I “dissent and withdraw,” in Berry’s words, from the tragic arrogance that ignores the dangerous “unknown unknowns”? 

This is the fifth  in a series on food and farming, Jesus' nature parables, and the intermingling of justice, sabbath, shalom, and the sweet, shared hope of God's green equity:

Your comments and questions are welcome.