Sunday, October 6, 2013

Summoned Toward Wholeness

This week's guest post is by Michael Whitnah, director of college age ministry the Church of the Good Samaritan in partnership with the Coalition for Christian Outreach, an organization devoted to "transforming college students to transform the world." Michael and others from our church went last week to "Summoned toward Wholeness: A Conference on Food, Farming, and the Life of Faith," hosted by Duke Divinity School. I had hoped to attend, but couldn't. According to Michael, it was a valuable gathering of farmers, students, professors and pastors: "lots of thinkers and lot of do-ers." The fact that it sold out quickly, with much interest in next opportunities, is a hopeful sign of a deepening understanding of the Kingdom of God and it's implications for care of creation.

Michael agreed to share some reflections from the conference as part of this ongoing series. The following is based on his response to sessions by Ellen Davis, professor of Bible and practical theology at Duke and author of Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the BibleJoel Salatin, practitioner and advocate of  alternative farming at Polyface Farms in Virginia, and Norman Wirzba, professor of theology and ecology at Duke Divinity School and author and editor of numerous books on the intersection of faith and environmental stewardship. 

Creation care is fundamentally a moral, ethical, and theological issue, not a technological, economic, or scientific one. The prevailing cultural “wisdom” which suggests that we will be able to fix our current disastrous environmental state through growth, development, and research is anything but wise. Indeed, it’s the very definition of insanity (doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result), not wisdom.

The call to proper stewardship is first a call to repentance, a turning away from sin and toward reconciliation. We sit down for dinner and many of us still say grace, or give thanks, but in reality, confession should be paramount in our pre-meal prayers. Confession that we participate in industrial food systems; confession that we welcome ignorance; confession that it’s easy to write fiery blog posts on a computer made 8,000 miles away in miserable conditions by desperately poor workers. To be summoned toward wholeness is to first acknowledge that we are not whole. Christians call that not-wholeness “sin”. Sin is far more than a list of right and wrong—sin is the state of affairs we find ourselves in, the not-wholeness of ourselves, our relationships, every aspect of the world around us. It’s not supposed to be this way.

Repentance, as I mentioned before, is not simply a turning away from, but a turning towards. Turning towards wholeness, seeking after what the Israelites called shalom. I’ve found that it’s easy to get overwhelmed by the crises of creation, and that leads to hopelessness and paralysis. In the midst of that hopelessness, cultivating an agrarian mindset proves to be the best, perhaps the only, remedy.

Ellen Davis identifies three main tenets of agrarianism, all found in and deriving their authority from the Bible. (Regardless of varying opinions as to the authority of Judeo-Christian scripture, the wisdom found therein speaks to our context, especially if we hold the understanding that these issues are primarily moral and/or theological.) 

First, “The life of the land is inseparable from our own life; its health is inseparable from ours.” The language of Genesis, in which God creates humankind, points to a relationship between humans and humus, between people and fertile soil, adam from adammah in Hebrew. Soil is like kinfolk, or a relative. The Israelites, virtually all of whom were farmers, would have understood the interdependence profoundly, especially as the land they inhabited was an incredibly fragile ecological niche. Thin soil, severe drought interspersed with heavy rain, and steep mountains reinforced their precarious relationship with the land. Their survival depended on nurturing the soil…something we seem to have forgotten.

Second, land is invaluable. Davis notes that there is no record of arable land in Canaan being sold by Israelites in the Bible. Property in the city is sold, land is redeemed by relatives, and farm land is sold as part of debt-slavery, but no Hebrew puts land up for sale. Land ownership doesn’t exist—land itself is an inalienable gift from God to previous generations, and it’s your job to care for it for your children, grandchildren, and so on. Note well, the language of inalienable gift vs. inalienable right, a la the Enlightenment. As soon as you view the land as your right, no one can tell you what to do (or not do) to it, and it’s only purpose is to serve your own happiness. But a gift, a gift is something to be cherished, and often transcends material value.
Working with, not against the materiality
of the earth: Polyface Primer

The third component of agrarianism is what Davis calls “humble materiality.” In short, we need to take seriously the materiality of our existence. We are humans, made from matter (which God pronounces “good”), and just as land and humans are inseparable, so are our spiritual and material lives. At its heart, orthodox Christianity offers a stronger affirmation of the material world than any other worldview. (The incarnation and bodily resurrection of Christ are the two focal points of Christianity. Whether you believe that or not is tangential—Christianity is dependent on those two events, and thus offers a high view of bodies, and thus matter). This has tremendous implications for a Christian understanding of eschatology, but also significant implications for land-use. It’s acknowledging that we are not the masters of the universe, we don’t get to decide how everything works, but that in turn gives us the freedom to enjoy and participate in the materiality of the Earth.

When taken together, these three ideas form a robust understanding of agrarianism. Human flourishing and land flourishing are interdependent, land itself is an invaluable gift, and our identity as humans is essentially material. Turning towards this understanding turns us towards wholeness, and away from the exploitive and destructive mindset of industrialized consumerism. It’s a call to rediscover that our primary identity is inexorably bound up with the land—we are called to be stewards, to tend and care for the earth, to be gardeners. If not literally (for a city can live symbiotically with its surrounding countryside), than with an awareness of the means of life; an agrarian awareness that permeates our decisions and actions.

For more from these speakers:

A bonus: A televised portrait of Wendell Berry was posted online this morning, with discussion of Berry's landmark work "The Unsettling of America," and what it means to advocate for stewardship of land, farming, and sustainable food systems. If our primary identity is inexorably bound up with the land, as Michael so eloquently expressed it above, how do we express that in practical, political, and personal ways? Wendell Berry offers a challenging example of faithfulness in this arena: 
"We don't have a right to ask whether we're going to succeed or not. The only question we have a right to ask is 'what's the right thing to do? What does this earth require of us if we want to continue to live on it?'" 

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

 Earlier posts on the same topic:

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