Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Wendell Berry's Reflections for Christians on Earth Day

Reflections for Christians on Earth Day, by Wendell Berry, taken from Dr. Ellen F. Davis' wonderful and challenging book, Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible.

From the beginning of the chapter entitled, "Leaving Egypt Behind: Embracing the Wilderness Economy":
The industrial era at climax... has imposed on us all its ideals of ceaseless pandemonium. The industrial economy, by definition, must never rest.... There is no such thing as enough. Our bellies and our wallets must become oceanic, and still they will not be full. Six workdays in a week are not enough. We need a seventh. We need an eighth.... Everybody is weary, and there is no rest.... Or there is none unless we adopt the paradoxical and radical expedient of just stopping.
From the Forward (excerpts):
The Bible, as Professor Davis reads it, is a book about religion; it is a holy book, properly so-called. But she reads it also as a book dealing exactingly with the story of a gift. According to this story, the descendants of Israel were given, not a land, but the use of a land, along with precise instructions for its good care. They could keep the land only upon the condition of their obedience. By their disobedience they were estranged from the land and the covenant by which they received it, and were removed into exile. What we have, then, is a story and a discourse about the connection of a people to a place. This connection is at once urgently religious and urgently practical. It is urgently religious because the land is understood, never as a human "property," but as a part of an infinitely complex creation, both natural and divine, belonging to God. It is urgently practical because of the strict conditions of gratitude and care enjoined upon its users.  
The Bible is not an easy book to read. It is often hard - if not, when it apparently contradicts itself, impossible - to understand. It customarily requires almost too much of us. Its estimate of human nature is hardly a comfort. And it leads us repeatedly into the temptation to use it selectively to excuse our ignorance, to justify our wishes, or to condemn people unlike ourselves.
. . .  
The more an American reader thinks about the Israelite religion as a local practice honoring both God and the land, the more that reader will be aware of the ironies of our own religion and history, and of their present clamor for resolution. We Americans readily saw the parallel between the Israelites' entrance into the land of Canaan and our own westward expansion. We adopted the simple nationalism of the old story along with its "promised land" idea of ownership prior to settlement - we called it "manifest destiny." But we conveniently ignored the elaborate agrarianism and ecological stewardship implicit in that story's insistence upon the land's sanctity. The result, still continuing, has been desecration and destruction of the land, as well as the destruction, dispossession, and exile of the American Indians who, like the Israelites and unlike most white Americans, believed the land was holy.
. . .   

From an ecological and agrarian point of view, the most urgent problem of agriculture, as of the human economy as a whole, is that of local adaptation - that is to say, of making a beneficent and conserving fit between work and place. As Professor Davis shows, this problem is paramount also from the point of view of the Bible. From an agrarian point of view, the Exodus was a movement from the flat, easily tillable land of Egypt to "the narrow and precariously balanced ecological niche that is the hill country of ancient Judah and Samaria." The people of Israel had to re-make their economic life to conform to a landscape that allowed "only the slightest margin for negligence, ignorance, or error."  
Local adaptation, then, is authentically a scriptural issue and so an issue of religion. It is also the issue most catastrophically ignored in the economic colonization of American landscapes and in the industrialization of agriculture. Now in the presence of much destruction, we must ask the questions that this book makes obvious: Was not the original and originating catastrophe the reduction of religion to spirituality, and to various schemes designed exclusively to save the (disembodied) soul? Could we have destroyed so much of the material creation without first learning to see it as an economic "resource" devoid of religious significance? Could we have developed a reductionist science subserving economic violence without first developing a reductionist religion? What would America be now if we white people had managed to bring with us, not just a Holy Land spirituality, but also the elaborate land ethic, land reverence, and agrarian practice meant to safeguard the holiness of the land? 

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