Conversations Fifty Years Ago

You think having them today is rough, consider Wendell Berry’s experience:

While at Stanford, Berry witnessed several outdoor meetings called by black students for the purpose of establishing a Black Studies program on campus. In Berry’s recollection, the meetings were what historian Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn has called a “harangue-flagellation” ritual in which the black students condemned the white students and faculty for their racism and the whites in attendance nodded in agreement mixed with occasional applause.[30] In another situation on campus, Berry found himself in the middle of a civil rights protest. When a student in the protest heard Berry ask his companion a question in his Kentucky drawl what was going on, his accent prompted the response, “You damned well better find out!”

Berry thought there was no way for him to speak meaningfully in that context, and so The Hidden Wound is what he would have said had the moment allowed it. He wrote it during the winter break in the Bender Room at Stanford University’s Green Library. The essay was motivated by the feeling that the civil rights milieu at the time was at a stalemate and would stay there if the focus on power eclipsed other possible ends. Though Berry agreed that racism was a moral evil and political problem, he thought the most visible sentiments guiding these events were dangerous. Just as in his writing about agriculture, nature, and land—and in his, “A Statement Against the War in Vietnam,” delivered at the University of Kentucky the winter before—he fought abstractions and the separations that oversimplify: of means and ends, of thought and emotion, intentions and actions.

He wrote that the “speakers and hearers seemed to be in perfect agreement that the whites were absolutely guilty of racism, and that the blacks where absolutely innocent of it. They were thus absolutely divided by their agreement.” In his interview with hooks he said more simply: “I thought guilt and anger were the wrong motives for a conversation about race.” People can be more “dependably motivated by a sense of what would be desirable than by a sense of what has been deplorable.” By arguing that power is a necessary part of the discussion, but no more necessary than love, Berry refused the false dichotomy between structure and personal responsibility. During the demonstrations, in contrast, “one felt the possibility of an agreement of sorts, but nowhere the possibility of the mutual recognition of a common humanity, or the possibility of forgiveness and reconciliation, or the possibility of love.”

So why is it that adding Jesus to discussions of racism only heightens a sense of what is deplorable?

Yet, even some activists are willing to listen to Berry:

The Hidden Wound, an extended essay in which Berry traced the grim legacy of slavery and racism in Kentucky, and his family’s role in the perpetuation of these evils, was the result. The book was not widely read on publication in 1970, but it has been granted a second life through republication and the sustained admiration of poet, essayist, and activist bell hooks, another Kentuckian who went to Stanford a decade after Berry and later, partly due to Berry’s influence, returned to Kentucky. Since she returned to Kentucky to teach at Berea College in 2004, hooks has been teaching from The Hidden Wound and wrote a sustained reflection on it in Belonging: A Culture of Place. An interview with Berry follows the reflection.

Family and Sabbath

Darryl G. Hart and Camden Bucey converse about family and Sabbath through the writings of Wendell Berry.

Download the audio

Books by Wendell Berry

Caritas in Flagrande

Caleb Stegall over at Front Porch Republic has already asked a good question about a recent evangelical statement, “Doing the Truth in Love,” that commends the pope’s recent encyclical Caritas in Vertate to the wider evangelical world. Caleb asked, “how many evangelicals does it take to comment on an encyclical?” The answer is a whole lot more than the teamsters it takes to change a lightbulb. The answer to Caleb’s question is 68, the number of evangelicals who signed “Doing the Truth in Love.” The answer to the question about the teamsters is “10, you gotta problem with that?”

Maybe it is oldlife’s current obsession with neo-Calvinism, but we couldn’t help but notice a strong attraction of Kuyperians to Benedict’s encyclical. The Protestant statement backing the pope originally stemmed from a Center for Public Justice effort, and a number of neo-Calvinists added their signatures, among them our favorite Byzantine-rite Calvinist. The convergence of neo-Calvinists and the Roman church’s pontiff does not prove our repeated contention here that a preoccupation with worldview turns the confessional and ecclesial lobes of one’s brain into jello. But it does add to the mix of examples that show neo-Calvinists to be promiscuous in their discernment.

Meanwhile, the neo-Calvinist theological interpretation of Benedict is not reassuring. DTL states:

In Christ’s death and resurrection, God removes all that stands in the way of right relationships between God and the world, among humans, and between humanity and the rest of creation. Human development is included in this restoration of all things to right relationship.

This is the typical neo-Calvinist cosmological rendering of redemption, the license that tells Christians they need to save the world – not just the lost tribes in Africa, but also the kitchen sink. Is it really possible that Benedict is a neo-Calvinist? What would Abraham Kuyper, who thought Rome had nothing to offer the modern world, say?

We do not want to suggest that Benedict or any other pope cannot be read for insight and wisdom. In this case, oldlife has yet to read the encyclical. But would the evangelical signers of DTL also be willing to draft and sign the books by other authors who possess a lot of wisdom about the economy and globalization – say Niall Ferguson or P. J. O’Roarke?

And what about Wendell Berry? Is he chopped liver? Almost twenty years ago he wrote:

Properly speaking, global thinking is not possible. Those who have “thought globally” (and among them the most successful have been imperial governments and multinational corporations) have done so by means of simplifications too extreme and oppressive to merit the name of thought. Global thinkers have been and will be dangerous people. National thinkers tend to be dangerous also: we now have national thinkers in the northeastern United States who look on Kentucky as a garbage dump. A landfill in my county receives daily many truckloads of garbage from New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. This is evidently all right with everybody but those of us who live here. (“Out of your Car, Off Your Horse,” 19)

So why no statement recommending The Unsettling of America to evangelical readers. Berry had some of us thinking about the problems of globalization a while ago. It didn’t take the Bishop of Rome to get us to do it. And we didn’t have to issue a declaration and seek signatures to call attention to our debt to Berry.

Mind you, if Benedict actually agrees with DTL when the statement says, “globalization has indeed lifted millions out of poverty, primarily by the integration of the economies of developing nations into international markets. Yet the unevenness of this integration leaves us deeply concerned about the inequality, poverty, food insecurity, unemployment, social exclusion—including the persistent social exclusion of women in many parts of the world—and materialism that continue to ravage human communities, with destructive consequences for our shared planetary habitat” – if that’s what the encyclical affirms, then maybe a Berry declaration is in order. As Stegall notes, “Take it from me, sitting in the belly of the beast, when Evangelicals ask you for a ‘serious dialogue’ about ‘new models of global governance,’ reach for your gun. Or your rosary.”

Beyond globalization, Benedict, and Berry is the cringe produced by watching low church Protestants jump on the papal bandwagon. Could it be that evangelicals get more mileage out of siding with the pope than even a popular American author? Impugning motives is always unwise, but why don’t these evangelicals worry just a little bit about coming off as Vatican groupies?

Sorry for the cynicism, but any good Protestant knows something is wrong when those who are not in fellowship with the Bishop of Rome, and who remain tarnished by the condemnations of Trent, are so eager to recommend the chief officer of the church whose jurisdiction their communions have purposefully renounced.

What You Buy in Las Vegas, Stays in Las Vegas

Actually, that was not the point of Jeremy Beer’s post over at Front Porch Republic.   It was instead to encourage a way to support local businesses in local economies made up of local residents.  It is called the 3/50 Project.   And its logic is simple: “Pick 3.  Spend 50. Save your local economy.”  That is the affirmation.  The denial is “Reject Starbucks. Avoid Walmart.”

Speaking of Front Porch Republic

Caleb Stegall, a descendant of five generations of Covenanter preachers — so you know he must be good (and odd), tells about his experience with preparing a hog to go to the butcher.  Aside from being funny, it is a reminder to all of us would-be agrarians that the trade off between soul-killing office work and body killing farm work is a deal that most of need to keep.

Is (or Was) Sam Walton Your Neighbor?

(From NTJ, January 1998)

A report on NPR about a sermon by a priest in the Church of England prompted some thoughts about the implications of the Eighth Commandment. The news service copy indicated that this priest had told his parishioners that shoplifting from supermarket chains was not stealing. His reasoning was that such chains were putting the village food markets out of business and, thus, destroying the social fabric of English town life.

This priest’s teaching is not what we would prefer to hear in the pulpit. It does appear to be something of a stretch to say that shoplifting is not theft. And, no doubt, the character of English town life changed long before supermarkets and malls began to show up in the UK. Just ask the Luddites. But his admonishment does raise some interesting questions about how we observe the Eighth Commandment.

For instance, among the sins forbidden by this commandment, according to the Westminster Larger Catechism, are “oppression” and all “unjust or sinful ways of taking or withholding from our neighbor what belongs to him.” Which might mean that chains like WalMart, McDonalds and Winn Dixie, may actually excessively burden and deprive our neighbors who run local businesses from what would normally belong to them were it not for the consolidation of wealth in corporations and their ability to buy goods in mass quantities and distribute those goods throughout the world. As long as our only consideration in purchasing any item, from food to houses, is simply the lowest price, we will always be suckers for chains and the services they provide.

Continue reading “Is (or Was) Sam Walton Your Neighbor?”