Race, Conservation, and Kindness

Wendell Berry on the destructiveness of distance and its remedy.

9780871568779I’m reading Wendell Berry’s classic The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture and he’s helping me think about an unsettling dynamic I see in certain white people when it comes to talking about race and acting on the ideas they talk about. In a chapter titled “The Ecological Crisis as a Crisis of Agriculture” Berry writes about well-meaning conservationists whose ideas about and actions toward the environments actually damage it. How these unintended consequences come about is important and, I think, may shed light on the harmful impact of certain assumptions held by earnest white people.

Berry begins with the limits of any organization.

One reason that an organization cannot properly enact our relationship to the world is that an organization cannot define that relationship except in general terms, and no matter how general may be a person’s attitude toward the world, his impact upon it must become specific and tangible at some point.

He is thinking about environmental organizations which, however good their intentions, have to deal in generalizations and, to some extent, abstractions. They are concerned with nature and the environment as essential concepts deserving of great advocacy and support. But, however necessary these generalizations may be for an organization, they obscure the particularities of the places they represent. It’s one thing to say that the environment is worthy of our protection; it’s rather different to speak about weather patterns, soil composition, and the migratory habitats of a specific plot of ground. The former is the purview of advocates while the latter can only be spoken about by residents.

I’m a frequent participant in or observer of conversations with white people about race. Sometimes these conversations involve diverse participants and other times they are homogeneously white. What matters in these conversations, as it relates to the dynamic I mentioned above, is that these white participants view themselves as informed to the realities of race and racial prejudice. We might call them “good white people” for the way they contrast themselves with other, less informed and less compassionate white people. (I’m prone to these tendencies so I write with some knowledge about this dynamic.) Berry’s observations about the generalizations made by environmental organizations seem similar to the troubling abstractions I hear from these white conversation partners. Their language is seasoned with concepts that may have been picked up on a blog or at a conference – centering, intersectional, asset-based development – but which require no specificity. The concepts themselves can be immensely helpful, but detached from place and people they take on the same generalizing sound that troubles Berry about environmental organizations.

Berry quotes from a letter sent to him by a rural man who cares deeply for the ecological health of his region while bristling at how distant environmentalists erase people like him from their advocacy.

What I’ve noticed around here with the militant ecology people (don’t get me wrong, I, like you, consider myself one of them) is a syndrome I call the Terrarium View of the World: nature always at a distance under glass…

I don’t care about the landscape if I am to be excluded from it. Why should I? In Audubon magazine almost always the beautiful pictures are without man; the ugly ones with him. Such self hatred! I keep wanting to write to them and say, ‘Look! my name is David Budbill and I belong to the chain of being too, as a participant not as an observer (nature is not television!) and the question isn’t to use or not to use but rather how to use.’

This man’s complaint is not about conservationist groups’ motives; he shares those in common with them. Rather, he’s annoyed that their distance from the land they claim to care about has forced them to deal in idealized generalities which render people like himself and their place as caretakers of the land invisible or irrelevant.

In conversations about race, white people who think of themselves as woke to racial nuance and prejudice can demonstrate a similar posture. Their language and assumptions often deal in vague and idealized notions about people. This white person genuinely cares about these communities of color but has very little actual relational connection with them. They remain an abstraction which can be discussed and debated without ever having to be consulted, much less submitted to in love.

Back to the environmentalists. By advocating from a distance, Berry believes they end up harming the land they claim to love. While not nearly as destructive as those who willfully exploit a place for profit, the idealized and abstracting lens through which the environmentalist views a place blinds him to the actual place and to the people who’ve long made their home within it. Action, when it comes in the form of advocacy or policy, will be weighed down by the unintended consequences that come with distance. How can you really know the possibilities and perils of a place if you’ve not made it your home?

In contrast to the incoherent visions for a place by those who don’t belong to it, Berry suggests the idea of “kindly use.”

The land is too various in its kinds, climates, conditions, declivities, aspects, and histories to conform to any generalized understanding or to prosper under generalized treatment. The use of land cannot be both general and kindly – just as the forms of good manners, generally applied (applied, that is, without consideration of differences), are experienced as indifference, bad manners… Kindly use depends on intimate knowledge, the most sensitive responsiveness and responsibility. 

Obviously, kindly use can only really be employed by those near enough to the land to treat it kindly. Only they – farmers, residents, caretakers – have enfleshed access to dirt and trees and weather systems to imagine what will be best for the land and its inhabitants.

Kindly use, as we come back to the well-intentioned but distant white people, is kindness. It’s immensely possible to read all the important books about race, watch the latest documentaries about the many ways racism evolves within our American way of life, and attend social justice conferences and rallies without ever being kind. And this is simply because kindness depends on relationships with actual flesh and blood people. Kindness cannot be shown to an idea, however good and righteous it might be. Kindness can never by general, abstract, or vague; it must always be specific. Being kind requires proximity and knowledge about that person and her life.

That any of this is not intuitively obvious to some of us is a cold reminder about the power of race to depersonalize what must always be personal, to distance what requires closeness. There is nothing human about the abstractions of race and basic kindness demands that we push past them- not with agendas and foregone conclusions, but with the desire – maybe long buried – to be more fully persons, living not among generalities and stereotypes but alongside flesh-and-blood whose fates and hopes become our own.

“…we have only colonized more and more territory eastward of Eden.”

We can appropriate and in some fashion use godly powers, but we cannot use them safely, and we cannot control the results. That is to say that the human condition remains for us what it was for Homer and the authors of the Bible. Now that we have brought such enormous powers to our aid (we hope), it seems more necessary than ever to observe how inexorably the human condition still contains us. We only do what humans can do, and our machines, however they may appear to enlarge our possibilities, are invariably infected with our limitations. Sometimes, in enlarging our possibilities, they narrow our limits and leave us more powerful but less content, less safe, and less free. The mechanical means by which we propose to escape the human condition only extends it; thinking to transcend our definition as fallen creatures, we have only colonized more and more territory eastward of Eden.

-Wendell Berry, “Two Economies” (1983).

The Problem of Plugging In

An article I wrote in January for my denomination’s magazine, The Covenant Companion, has been posted (as a PDF) online.  In “The Problem of Plugging In” I drew from a couple of Wendell Berry’s essays to discuss the power of metaphors and the way our language hinders or aids spiritual growth.

Your church has problems. So does mine. It takes little observation to know this is true; a quick glance around any congregation reveals challenges, mistakes, and disagreements. Those of us who have participated for any length of time in church life are not surprised by these problems. We may actually interpret our issues as evidence of God’s grace. After all, even our most complex problems are simply expressions of our own inadequacies and evidence of God’s loving and mysterious choice to include us in his redemptive mission.

But despite this silver lining, problems need solutions. Apathy about evangelism is a problem that needs a solution. Stunted spiritual growth is a problem that needs a solution. Anemic worship, stingy stewardship, racial divisions, shallow community, disinterest in justice, and disregard for prayer are all problems churches face that need solutions.

Again, there is nothing especially interesting about churches with problems; it’s the solutions—ministries, strategies, programs, and campaigns— that are noteworthy. Where do our solutions come from? What are the assumptions behind them? Are our members well served by the ways we address our problems?

In 1978 writer and farmer Wendell Berry began his essay “Agricultural Solutions for Agricultural Problems” with a discussion about the powerful ways our metaphors shape the solutions we seek. “It may turn out that the most powerful and the most destructive change of modern time has been a change in language: the rise of the image, or metaphor, of the machine.” This industrial metaphor, according to Berry, replaced language that was “biological, pastoral, agricultural, or familial.” He goes on to show how the industrial solutions favored by modern “agribusiness” can easily be traced back to a mechanical understanding of how the world works. This is a world of input, feedback, and efficiency.

Download the article to finish reading.

“…the man at the end of the Protestant road…”

I am, maybe, the ultimate Protestant, the man at the end of the Protestant road, for as I have read the Gospels over the years, the belief has grown in me that Christ did not come to found an organized religion but came instead to found an unorganized one.  He seems to have come to carry religion out of the temple into the fields and sheep pastures, onto the roadsides and the banks of rivers, into the houses of sinners and publicans, into the town and the wilderness, toward the membership of all that is here.  Well, you can read and see what you think.

-Wendell Berry, Jayber Crow.

Berry’s take on the common view that Jesus didn’t found an “organized religion” is perfect in its whimsy and wisdom.

“…more than anybody wants to hear.”

Telling a story is like reaching into a granary full of wheat and drawing out a handful.  There is always more to tell than can be told.  As almost any barber can testify, there is also more than needs to be told, and more than anybody wants to hear.

Wendell Berry, Jayber Crow.

Confession, Huckleberry Finn, and Beloved Community

During my sermon from Nehemiah 1 on Sunday I paused and asked for reflection from the congregation.  I’d pointed out that, as part of his prayer, Nehemiah confessed his own complicity in the fate that had befallen his people.  In verse 6 he says, “I confess the sins we Israelites, including myself and my ancestral family, have committed against you.”  I asked for the congregation’s feedback because, in my experience, confession of the kind Nehemiah demonstrates is an uncommon experience for most Christians. Sure enough, one of our members pointed out how difficult it is for him to understand how he could confess on behalf of someone else.  This is, after all, what Nehemiah does in his prayer: he not only confesses his complicity, he also asks for forgiveness on behalf of his people who did not obey God’s “commands, decrees and laws.”  I relate with this members’ dilemma with this passage; it’s one I share.

In 1987 Wendell Berry wrote an essay, “Writer and Region,” in which he explored some of the themes of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn.  One of these is “the yen to escape the Territory.”

There is also the Territory of historical self-righteousness: if we had lived south of Ohio in 1830, we would not have owned slaves; if we had lived on the frontier, we would have killed no Indians, violated no treaties, stolen no land.  The probability is overwhelming that if we had belonged to the generation we deplore, we too would have behaved deplorably.  The probability is overwhelming that we belong to a generation that will be found by its successors to have behaved deplorably.  Not to know that is, again, to be in error and to neglect essential work, and some of this work, as before, is work of the imagination.  How can we imagine our situation or our history if we think we are superior to it?

Most of us probably don’t consciously think this way, but historical self-righteousness is likely our hidden assumption.  When confronting the ugliness of history it’s simply natural to imagine myself always choosing to fight with the good guys.  Surely I would have been one of the few enlightened white men who would have forsaken my privilege so as to stand on the right side of history.  Probably not.

As Berry notes, this self-righteousness severs me from a real historical narrative; I stand outside of history, superior to it.  This must be one of the reasons many of us find the idea of confession on behalf of our fore-bearers to be confusing or even intolerable: confusing because there is no real connection with my ancestors; intolerable because I would have acted differently in their circumstances.  In contrast, Nehemiah comes from a people and religion that understood their association across generations.  His confession on behalf of his people comes from historical humility.  He knows who he comes from and doesn’t question whether he’d have acted any better in their circumstances.

Without this clear connection with our history the idea of confession, beyond our own personal and immediate actions, will always feel like an unnatural stretch.  Is it possible to reclaim our history, including the undesirable parts that merit our confession?  Later in his essay Berry suggests a definition for “beloved community,” and this seems to me the most hopeful way forward.  The beloved community is marked by, “common experience and common effort on a common ground to which one willingly belongs.”

Willingly belonging to such a community places us within the trajectory of history.  Being rooted in common experience, effort and ground converts us from historical self-righteousness to a realization that we come from somewhere and have been shaped by those who came before us. Whether or not such a community is possible or even desirable for most people today is a more difficult question to consider, but without it the Biblical idea of corporate confession will always remain an odd concept.