Here is the sermon I gave in chapel for the Krost Symposium on Environmental Justice.
What is new now is the scramble to secure land abroad for more basic food and feed crops—including wheat, rice, corn, and soybeans—and for biofuels. These land acquisitions of the last several years, or “land grabs” as they are sometimes called, represent a new stage in the emerging geopolitics of food scarcity. They are occurring on a scale and at a pace not seen before.
The previous post discussed an ethical dilemma presented by Peter Singer concerning the choice between saving some fancy shoes or a drowning child in a shallow pond. The conclusion was that charity is the best we can do within the given social structures, but that justice requires counter-cultural living. The way of following Jesus is not charity, but justice. It requires a radical reorientation of our lives away from token charity to a new kind of Jubilee economics.
So, the question is how to incorporate these ideas into our daily lives. This is really the question with which I wrestle. Singer’s shallow pond dilemma is really more like the dilemma of two oceans and our ever more insular lifestyle. How do we make ourselves aware of how we spend our resources and the choices we make about what to buy? How do we recognize in our daily lives the impact of the choices we make? Finally, how do we attempt to live out something more than charity, embodying something “counter to the ethics of the culture” we’re in?
The Definition of Insanity
The oft quoted saying that, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing and expecting different results” has been attributed to Mark Twain, Albert Einstein, Benjamin Franklin and Confucius, but more likely came from Narcotics Anonymous literature. If anyone, the addicts would know the truth of this saying. Likewise continuing to try and live counter-culturally as isolated individuals will not work.
The first thing we need to realize is that we cannot do it alone. To try and do it alone as an individual consumer is to continue within the same framework. Our awareness of the reality of the situation is muted by our own isolation from all the other individual consumers with whom we share the world. So, we must find particular people who are willing to walk this road with us. It is the particulars of our shared lives that shed light on our own inconsistencies and inadequacies. These are vulnerable relationships based on trust and shared values. These are the relationships many of us are lacking in North American culture.
We need to break out of our isolation, but we need more than just a book club. Waco just started a time exchange where people can exchange time and skills with each other rather than currency. Tool sharing is another way to build up community as the solution rather than individual consumption. Anything that you can do with other people that promotes community and shares resources moves us beyond the parameters of consumerism.
The Second Rule of Consumerism is… Do NOT Talk About Consumerism
The second thing we need to do is learn how to talk about our finances openly and honestly with others. We have all sorts of justifications built into our lives for the way we live. We have to make ourselves vulnerable to critiques of the choices we make. The prophetic strain of the biblical narrative calls into question anything, any structure, choice or lifestyle, that is complicit or participates in the oppression, exclusion and marginalization of those who bear the image of God as well as the exploitation and domination of God’s creation. Shedding light on those realities in our lives requires the aforementioned relationships of trust, honesty and vulnerability.
One attempt to shed light on our own participation in these systems of domination that I read recently involved agreeing to a corporate tax based on the grades of the corporations from whom we purchase goods and services (A practical, creative tax for a better world).
This “holy excise tax” is designed to 1) disincentivize our demand for unneeded cheap consumer goods and services (mostly bought from companies that grow profit for investors by hiding real costs); and 2) raise revenue to give to organizations that care for our most vulnerable neighbors.
We are using the Better World Shopping Guide, which gives companies from a large variety of categories a grade from A to F, depending on the social consciousness of their business practices, considering human rights, the environment, animal protection, community involvement and social justice. Companies rated B have a 10-cent tax on each receipt, while companies rated C, D and F get a 25-cent tax. In addition, the guide has a list of the top 20 corporate villains, including Exxon Mobil, Walmart, Verizon, Kraft, Nestle and Bank of America. We pay 50 cents each time we support these socio-economic goliaths.
This is just one example of a creative attempt to help reveal the realities hidden in our credit card statements. There are others as well. No matter how you try to learn to talk about our hidden financial realities this last point is essential to making it successful and healthy.
Misery Loves Company
The last thing that I think the church has uniquely to offer in this area is a theology of grace and love alongside the prophetic. Some Christians that have tried to radically live out biblical economics through a common purse or other methods have found themselves right back in the waters of domination and oppression as they create new forms of legalism and oppression. So, recognizing that none of us is completely able to live somehow outside the system is essential.
The goal is not in fact to live outside the system. In order to live counter-culturally you have to continue struggling from within the dominant culture. I have lived and worked closely with Christians that have a long history of attempting to live outside the system in isolated colonies. The unspoken reality is that they are much more a part of the world than they would ever admit, because they interact daily with people outside the colony and are the primary economic drivers in the region.
The question then is not “How do extricate myself from the systems of domination?” but instead “How do I begin to organize my life with others such that our existence challenges the status quo both within ourselves and the broader culture?” It is only as members of the culture and web of domination that we pose a threat or challenge to the system. (Why are the relatively small numbers of people involved in Occupy protests across the country such a threat to the Powers that they are willing to spend inordinate amounts of money to have the police and authorities attempt to forcibly remove them?)
This means that there is no one righteous, no not one. No one is able to say that they are embodying the reality we hope for. What we need is a confessing movement. Then we can take steps together to live out this new way of living that we have glimpsed in Jesus, not out of self-righteousness or guilt, but in the grace and love of the Prince of Shalom.
You can search this site for “jubilee”, “leviticus 25” and “sabbath” to read more about the connections I make between Sabbath practices, ecology, economics, Jesus and Isaiah. To find something fresh to say about this central passage in the biblical narrative I turn to one of my favorite scholars.
The text of Leviticus 25 asserts both Yahweh’s radical intention and the radical social practice of entitlement that necessarily accompanies Yahweh’s intention. (103)
So, Walter Brueggeman sums up the well-known Jubilee chapter of Leviticus. Many people, particularly conservatives, hear the word entitlement primarily with negative connotations. However, the concept of predistribution which I mentioned before in relationship to Peter Barnes’ book Capitalism 3.0 is a more positive description of what Brueggeman means. Brueggeman also supports what I’ve often claimed for the importance of this chapter for understanding Israel, the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament in his book Finally Comes the Poet,
Israel’s theological conviction about the land is asserted positively in the great social vision of Leviticus 25, the text on the Jubilee year. A number of scholars now argue that this text provides the cornerstone for Israel’s ethical practice. (102)
Brueggeman makes this claim in the context of his exegesis of the command not to covet (Ex 20:17) in which he says,
Marvin Cheney has argued, and I agree, that covet in the Decalogue refers in principle to land tenure systems and land management policies. To covet means to arrange loan credit, tax, and inheritance so that some may have land that others should rightfully possess. That is, it is the systemic economic practice of greed. (99)
It is helpful to put the redistribution scheme of Leviticus 25 in the context of prohibitions against covetousness and greed. In other words, the Jubilee is the positive vision of what the world could or should be in light of the negative reality highlighted by the prohibitions in the Decalogue. Greed, or covetousness, is both based on and results in inequalities of the distribution of wealth and power. For the biblical world this comes primarily in the form of access and ownership of land. Brueggeman goes on to explore this further,
There is an important line of scholarship that argues that early Israel (which gives us the seed of all biblical faith) is essentially a social revolution concerning land tenure systems. This charter for “egalitarianism” culminated in the commandment against coveting that prohibits the rapacious policies of the state that characteristically monopolize law, power, and wealth… The Bible has understood, long before Karl Marx, that the basic human issues concern land, power, and the means of production. (99-100)
I have argued before in these virtual pages that a biblical economy is based on the land, and I’m happy to find confirmation from such a highly respected biblical, particularly Old Testament, scholar. Some will dismiss everything at the mention of that dreaded name, “Marx”, but will have missed the point Brueggeman makes that, far from being “Marxist”, the Bible is fundamentally human. Where Marx gets things right he happens to agree with the biblical emphasis on justice, egalitarianism and land reform. Most Christians read the Ten Commandments (and the whole biblical narrative) primarily in individualistic terms. What they miss is the socio-political context of these commands which were understood in much more radical terms by the original hearers.
So, Jubilee is the antithesis to coveting, but Brueggeman unpacks this further in terms of control and captivity,
The theological issue related to the land is sharing— respecting the entitlement of others. The preacher’s theme for those who gather is greed. Greed touches every aspect of our lives: economic, political, sexual, psychological, and theological. Greed bespeaks a fundamental disorder in our lives, a disorder that reflects distortion in our relation with God.
Central to this issue is the addiction to control that permeates human history. In verse 6 the text poses the question most people probably have when reading about letting the land lie fallow for a year, “What then shall we eat?” I hope to explore this aspect of Jubilee further, but the response of the text is that God provides abundantly, such that the people will still be eating from the produce of the Sabbath year three years later. Loss of control is scary, but God clearly promises that letting go of control is actually better than when we hold tightly to the reins.
This addiction to control is a kind of captivity or slavery. When we hold our possessions and wealth tightly, we are possessed by them. We become slaves to the things we pretend to have control over. Their is a subtle reversal in the relationship to material goods that most people don’t recognize in their daily lives. The logic of greed and coveting and the systems that perpetuate these values traps us in a spiral from which we cannot extricate ourselves. This kind of captivity is picked up by the prophet Isaiah (61:1-2) when he proclaims “good news to the poor”, “liberty to the captives” and the “year of the Lord’s favor”. Many scholars argue that this is a reference to the Jubilee, which is then appropriated by Jesus when he quotes Isaiah in the synagogue in Nazareth and says, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Lk 4:21). This proclamation of liberation from captivity which is good news to the poor is a thread connecting the Torah, Prophets, Gospels and on through Paul and James. This Jubilee thread weaves a tapestry that paints a picture of the “kingdom of heaven” at the core of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection.
But Brueggeman also admonishes that the prohibition against coveting and the positive command of the Jubilee are not based on a revelatory “because God said so”, but instead on real world experience.
This claim about God and the distribution of land is not accepted simply on the basis of revelation, but can be established in terms of social experience. Excessive land grabbing leads to death, whether in the family, in the church, in the faculty, or in Latin America. (101)
Living among people that are desperate for access to land, I can attest to the timelessness of this assertion. North American and western cultures have isolated themselves from the death that the injustice and inequality of economic systems creates, causes and exacerbates, but it is very real. Those at the very bottom understand that their inability to access land is the basis of their poverty and exploitation. For middle class westerners so detached and abstracted from their land base, it seems strange that people are still fighting over access to land. We have been sold the lie that we can solve poverty and basic inequalities in the system without dealing with the most fundamental issue of access to land and exploitation of natural resources. It is so important to recognize that this is not an arbitrary commandment, but one based on the social and economic realities of human existence which continue to apply today.
I’d like to share a story that Brueggeman relates which, I think, helps connect this ancient text and practice to our current context,
A concrete embodiment of the Jubilee command- ment was evidenced in a rural church in Iowa during the “farm crisis.” The banker in the town held mortgages on many farms. The banker and the farmers belonged to the same church. The banker could have foreclosed. He did not because, he said, “These are my neighbors and I want to live here a long time.” He extended the loans and did not collect the interest that was rightly his. The pastor concluded, “He was practicing the law of the Jubilee year, and he did not even know it.” The pastor might also have noted that the reason the banker could take such action is that his bank was a rare exception. It was locally and independently owned, not controlled by a larger Chicago banking system. (104)
Finally, let me end with this challenge from Brueggeman,
What if the central claim of the Tenth Commandment is true: that coveting kills, that taking what belongs to another destroys, and that life-giving social practice requires giving things back to people! (106)
This is a well known poem of Wendell Berry’s. I have wanted to avoid some of his more well known works, but they are still so full of meaning and poignance for me that I cannot ignore them. This one is short. So, I will quote the whole thing.
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
This poem in particular gives me a lot of comfort. As an activist, environmentalist, follower of Jesus, father, husband and someone who cares about the world we live in, it can be easy find myself where the poem begins, in despair. It seems that those who want to make the world a better place often begin by trying to overwhelm us with fear and guilt about the state of the world. I have certainly felt that in order to make change I needed to shock people out of complacency with pictures, statistics, stories and a narrative about how the world is so completely messed up. So, we begin our task of repairing the world by creating as much discomfort, anxiety, guilt and fear possible.
This strategy has the benefit of working, at least for a while. People become fearful and guilty about what the world has become and their role in it. Then they reach despair, the beginning of this poem, but people can only stay there so long before turning suicidal or mentally ill. Many people choose then to opt-out of any resistance and try to get the most they can out of the status quo. They recycle and do little things that reflect their deeper values, but they have despaired of greater change and left behind any radical dreams of a better world. That grieves me. Have we not learned that people motivated by fear or guilt tend not to do the things that make the world better?
Perhaps Berry feels the weight of despair from this disaster narrative that haunts our global society. Regardless of where his despair comes from initially, he places his fears in their proper place, future generations. This is what should motivate us, not guilt and fear, but a rootedness in this place called earth, and our own particular places that causes us to contemplate the future of this place and these people. This is the place to which the rest of the poem brings us.
Berry has often been contrasted with another poet, Mary Oliver; he, the poet of farm and field and she, the poet of wilderness. Yet Berry often lingers on the edges of fields, more than he rides the tractor. He also often contrasts forest and field, wilderness and cultivated land. They are deeply intertwined in his work. This is because, as he demonstrates in this poem, there is an an underlying “grace of the world” his sense of what farming is and what it means. In another poem, “The Contrariness of the Mad Farmer”, Berry says
I have planted by the stars in defiance of the experts and tilled somewhat by incantation and by singing and reaped as I knew by luck and heaven’s favor in spite of the best advice.
Berry’s way of living with the land, rather than off it or from it, is centered in the world of living things “who do not tax their lives with forethought”. The natural world is not planning out how to survive, or how to win the battle against encroaching civilization. There is no conspiracy of beavers and bears plotting how to protect their homes. I believe it was David Quinn who said that the point at which human beings departed from other creatures was our ability to tell the future from the past, to look at a set of tracks and say that someone or something came from this direction and went that way. Perhaps the point at which we began to “tell time” in the modern sense is when we domesticated ourselves, no longer living among wild things without forethought.
The “presence of still water” obviously calls to mind the 23rd Psalm, but it is almost as if the poet wants us to look again at this well known phrase in a new context. In the context of the Psalm it evokes the comfort of God in difficult times, but we don’t think much about the actual still water. It is incredible to me that even our faith tradition can get in the way of our seeing and reading the Bible. In this poem the still water evokes the fact that it has not been disturbed. Think about how long you have to sit and watch a pond or lake reach that glassy equilibrium. In the poem the peace of that water just sits there waiting, just like the stars, obscured by the sun’s light.
Finally, there is a freedom in this kind of wild peace that is exponentially more than the negative freedoms we have come to associate with that word. Plants grow and bear fruit, animals mate and die, rivers flow, the rains come and it all happens beyond all our machinations and our control. We have used science to understand a lot about the world, but it continues to be beyond our control. I still believe that our attempts to control it are the definition of hubris and a lack of true understanding. It is as if we have equated freedom with control, where we are the ones in charge. Yet real freedom lies in the world beyond our control, that continues without us and continues to support us in spite of our best efforts to manipulate, exploit and destroy. It is not freedom for the heron or wood drake to try and become like us and live in air conditioned houses. Their freedom is their ability to be what they were meant to be, to exist as they were created to exist, apart from our care or exploitation, but beside us in the grand dance of ecology.
To return to the despair in the beginning, this kind of freedom and peace puts the activist, the radical, the follower of Jesus, those who want to make the world better in a completely different frame of mind for their work. Using fear and guilt to make change is another way of manipulation, exploitation and control. How would we work toward change if our thoughts and actions grew out of the peace of wild things and the freedom of the world beyond our control?