Tag Archives: Commodification

Sex and the Land (Leviticus 18 and 20)

Leviticus 18:24-28 Do not defile yourselves in any of these ways, because this how the nations that I am going to drive out before you became defiled. Even the land was defiled; so I punished it for its sins, and the land vomited out its inhabitants… And if you defile the land, it will vomit you out as it vomited out the nations before you.

These are the chapters of Leviticus (18 and 20) that caught my attention as a teenager, because, of course, they were all about sex. Both chapters contain approximately the same laws with some variances, but chapter 20 prescribes punishments for violations, either being put to death or cut off from the people. The first thing I will point out is that the vast majority of these injunctions were for men. In chapter 20 they are explicitly addressed to men, except for 20:16 which is the same as the previous verse except that it is addressed to women. In chapter 18 the ambiguous “you” is used, but it is clear that these injunctions are meant primarily for the men. My theory and assumption is that these prohibitions are primarily about asymmetrical power relationships in a highly patriarchal social structure.

The reason given for these laws is “You shall not do as they do in the land of Egypt, where you lived, and you shall not do as they do in the land of Canaan, to which I am bringing you. You shall not walk in their statutes” (Lev 18:3) So, the people are between the land of Egypt where they experienced the foundational event of their existence in the Exodus and the Promised Land of Canaan. Coming out of Egypt defined them as a people and during the time in the wilderness they had to overcome their desire to return to where they “sat by the meat pots and ate bread to the full” (Ex 16:3). They were formed through that experience of liberation and wandering in the wilderness as a peculiar, pilgrim people. They were promised a land where they would be able to make a home as a people. “But I have said to you, ‘You shall inherit their land, and I will give it to you to possess, a land flowing with milk and honey.’ I am the LORD your God, who has separated you from the peoples” (Lev 20:24). The people will have to once again define themselves in terms of their relationship to their God and the people whose land they are going to be inhabiting.

Once again prohibitions are not given as hypotheticals lest God spark the sinful imagination of human beings. Rather these things were practiced and therefore needed a prohibition against them. The prohibitions have primarily the other nations in their sights, “for the people of the land, who were before you, did all of these abominations, so that the land became unclean” (Lev 18:27), but it’s certainly feasible that the Israelites had already adopted some of these practices. Some would argue simply that Leviticus was probably written by the priestly class after the Babylonian Exile and has in view the practices that they adopted during that period. Regardless of when Leviticus was written, it seems that the purpose is clear: to distinguish the Israelites from non-Israelites by abstaining from sexual practices and child sacrifice in which the nations around them engaged. While a secondary reading of the prohibitions as unacceptable because of the biological and social problems associated with the sexual practices is certainly accurate, my reading of the text is that what is inappropriate about these relationships is primarily the abuse of power inherent in them particularly as they are almost exclusively addressed to men.

Caring for Creation is Sexy
What is then most fascinating for our purposes here is that an explicit connection is made between these sexual practices and their relationship to the land. These practices not only defiled the people and their relationships, but also the land itself. The land is not a neutral entity forced to accept whatever human beings happen to do to it. The land is depicted as a character with its own autonomy and the ability to vomit out the inhabitants. The Israelites are not immune to this connection to the land and the consequences of the practices that have been forbidden

Wendell Berry has pointed out this connection between sex and the land in numerous places. Somewhere he said that when you’re willing to exploit your fellow human beings’ sexuality you are more likely to be willing to exploit the earth and vice versa. They involve the same mentality that objectifies other people and nature. This way of thinking and acting disconnects from each other and nature by dehumanizing other people and pretending that we are separate from nature. In an article he wrote entitled “Feminism, the body, and the machine” Berry expounds further on this theme.

It is odd that simply because of its “sexual freedom” our time should be considered extraordinarily physical. In fact, our “sexual revolution” is mostly an industrial phenomenon, in which the body is used as an idea of pleasure or a pleasure machine with the aim of “freeing” natural pleasure from natural consequence. Like any other industrial enterprise, industrial sexuality seeks to conquer nature by exploiting it and ignoring the consequences, by denying any connection between nature and spirit or body and soul, and by evading social responsibility. The spiritual, physical, and economic costs of this “freedom” are immense, and are characteristically belittled or ignored. The diseases of sexual irresponsibility are regarded as a technological problem and an affront to liberty. Industrial sex, characteristically, establishes its freeness and goodness by an industrial accounting, dutifully toting up numbers of “sexual partners,” orgasms, and so on, with the inevitable industrial implication that the body is somehow a limit on the idea of sex, which will be a great deal more abundant as soon as it can be done by robots. (accessed at http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m2096/is_1_53/ai_102979436?tag=untagged)

So, according to Berry the basic problem is not the particular behaviors or acts prohibited here, but the way of relating to the earth and other human beings that they embody. As I said before, there is a basic problem of asymmetrical power relationships here in which the ability to dominate other human beings and the earth is taken as permission to do as we please. Privileges embedded in cultural norms and mores are sometimes hard to unmask. They are often subtle and assumed, and therefore go unnoticed for the most part, particularly by the dominant class that benefits from the privileges bestowed on them through the social order. Perhaps by pointing the finger at Egypt, Canaan and the other nations, this was a more subtle way of pointing the finger at Israel itself. By proclaiming loudly that Israel should not be like “those people”, the text clearly judges any resemblance that Israel had to those nations past, present or future.

This way of relating, dehumanizing, dominating and objectifying people and nature violates the basic principles embedded in ecology and I would argue in the biblical narrative and biblical assumptions about our relationship to the land and each other. This is what lies at the root of these chapters, not some sort of puritanical notions about sexuality or arbitrary rules solely intended to make Israel different, but a radical reminder about who we are as creatures and how we are to reflect the image of God embedded in us in our relationships.

P.S. I want to blog more about these connections just so the traffic on my blog will increase by using the word “sex” a lot. If I can somehow combine it with words like “hot” without sounding lewd, then the traffic might increase even more. Though I’m not sure those readers will stick around to read what I write.


The DIY Lifestyle™

Through our family’s journey to live more in tune with the planet and our neighbors we have gained a lot of new skills in the last few years. My wife has learned how to brew kefir, make cheese, knit, make bread and a lot of other food from scratch. I’ve built some things from scratch, like a chicken coop, composting bins and our composting toilet. We have tried to use what was laying around the house or find salvaged or used materials. I’ve made gardens with old tires, recycled milk jugs and old windows. We’ve learned to raise chickens and grow more of our own food. When we lived in the states I checked the local free page on craigslist and freecycle group for stuff that might be useful. In many ways we embody what someone, somewhere called the DIY Lifestyle™.

I add that little trademark for two reasons: 1) just in case it is actually trademarked so I don’t get sued and 2) because what we do based on trying to live out our principles has been commodified, commercialized and turned into a multi-billion dollar industry. This “movement” has its own cable channel, not to mention all the shows on home makeovers and magazines. Multi-billion dollar companies, like Lowe’s and Home Depot, profit off of and fuel the DIY trend. We’ve come a long way since Bob Vila’s This Old House.

Do the people who own the companies associated with the DIY Lifestyle™ participate in the idea from which they profit? Do they get down on their hands and knees to remove tile, paint rooms, caulk tubs, build picnic tables and gazebos by the sweat of their own brow? Somehow I doubt it. Their business is built on the idea that they profit off all the schmucks who do their own home repair and remodeling projects while they have everything done for them.

There’s something disturbing to me about the commodification of doing something yourself. What does it mean that doing something yourself means participating in this industry, buying magazines, watching shows and shopping at big box stores? It means we aren’t doing anything ourselves. Even that is being taken from us. “Do-It-Yourself, but please let us help and make some money along the way.” This doesn’t seem to bother some people. “It’s just the way it is” or maybe “That’s just business” and I should get over it.

But there is something sacred about having spaces and activities that are not commodified and commercialized. There is something very human about doing things that step outside of the world of cost/benefit and brand names. There is something important about holding on to activities that business cannot touch. The truth is that there is nothing that business will not touch. So, it is up to us to fight for our right not to be commodified.

I once heard Utah Phillips say that the most revolutionary thing you can do is sing your own song. As a musician and songwriter that really struck me. It took a while for the meaning of what he said to really sink in. I’ve been writing and performing music for most of my life. People, friends, family and strangers have asked over the years when I was going to make a CD. I have often flipped through the Discmakers catalogue dreaming of having my own CD and making a living from my music. It often felt as if my music could only be legitimate if I allowed it to be commodified. It seems there was never enough time. There were always other things to do like seminary, learning about sustainable agriculture and moving to Bolivia. The truth is I never made producing a CD a priority, but I never stopped writing, playing and singing.

One of our favorite things to do here in Bolivia is sit on our porch and play music together. I’m learning to play the charango and still writing songs. One day not long ago I realized the real impact of what Utah Phillips said. When we create and play our own music, we refuse to allow it to be commodified. We create and play music for its own sake. We refuse to allow the market and commodification machine to define what is legitimate for us.

It’s easy to relegate this kind of activity to something called a “hobby”, by which we mean to pat someone on the head and say, “That’s nice that you like to pretend. Just remember that the big boys are the ones who make the real music”. This is true for “hobby farmers” or any other number of activities that people do for their own sake without the need to make a profit from it. The music we create on our own terms should not be relegated to the kiddie table. It is a serious human activity that stands against a consumer culture, economic system and advertising industry that wants to commodify everything in order to satisfy the insatiable hunger of the infinitely expanding growth economy.

So write poetry and novels, paint and write music. Don’t sell it to anyone, but give it away for free. Make your own house, food, chairs, clothes, etc. and don’t watch any shows or read any magazines to figure it out. Find a friendly old man in your neighborhood with a garage full of tools and ask him to help. Carve out parts of your life and soul and refuse to allow them to be turned into something that is either commodified or called a “hobby”.