Wendell Berry, a story of an old bucket, and a sense of place

Below is a beautiful, powerful story.  As you read it, consider several things.

First, what practices does Wendell Berry engage in that enable him to notice that bucket, to “really” notice that bucket, and then to reflect on the meaning of the bucket?
Second, how do Berry’s reflections on woodland community and human community inform your “place,” your community? Are there deficiencies in your understanding and practice of “place” Berry draws out? Are there hopeful, engaging things in your understanding and practice of “place” that Berry affirms? Please comment below.

For many years, my walks have taken me down an old fencerow in a wooded hollow on what was once my grandfather’s farm. A battered galvanized bucket is hanging on a fence post near the head of the hollow, and I never go by it without stopping to look inside. For what is going on in that bucket is the most momentous thing I know, the greatest miracle that I have ever heard of: it is making earth.

The old bucket has hung there through many autumns, and leaves have fallen around it and some have fallen into it. Rain and snow have fallen into it, and the fallen leaves have held the moisture and so have rotted. Nuts have fallen into it, or been carried into it by squirrels; mice and squirrels have eaten the meat of the nuts and left the shells; they and other animals have left their droppings; insects have flown into the bucket and died and decayed; birds have scratched in it and left their droppings and perhaps a feather or two. This slow work of growth and death, gravity and decay, which is the chief work of the world, has by now produced in the bottom of the bucket several inches of black soil…The old bucket started out a far better one than you can buy now. I think it has been hanging on that post for something like fifty years.

However small a landmark the old bucket is, it is not trivial. It is one of the signs by which I know my country and myself. And to me it is irresistibly suggestive in the way it collects leaves and other woodland sheddings as they fall through time. It collects stories, too, as they fall through time. It is irresistibly metaphorical. It is doing in a passive way what a human community must do actively and thoughtfully. A human community, too, must collect leaves and stories, and turn them to account. It must build soil, and build that memory of itself- in lore and story and song- that will be its culture. These two kinds of accumulation, of local soil and local culture, are intimately related.

In the woods, the bucket is no metaphor; it simply reveals what is always happening in the woods, if the woods is left alone. Of course, in most places in my part of the country, the human community did not leave the woods alone. It felled the trees and replaced them with pastures and crops. But this did not revoke the law of the woods, which is that the ground must be protected by a cover of vegetation and that the growth of the years must return- or be returned- to the ground to rot and build soil. A good local culture, in one of its most important functions, is a collection of the memories, ways, and skills necessary for the observance…of this natural law.

If the local culture cannot preserve and improve the local soil, then, as both reason and history inform us, the local community will decay and perish, and the work of soil building will be resumed by nature. A human community, then, if it is to last long, must exert a sort of centripetal force, holding local soil and local memory in place. Practically speaking, human society has no work more important than this.” (Berry, TWOLC, pgs 153-55)

A courageous stand for sustainability

I sat down to read Eastern Mennonite University’s Crossroads alumni magazine tonight at my parents’ home.  The focus of this specific edition is on sustainability and EMU’s commitment to sustainability as an essential lifestyle.  I was struck by the message just inside the cover from President Loren Swartzendruber that sums up in a beautiful and straightforward way what sustainability means to EMU and should mean for Christians.

“This issue of Crossroads highlights more than 100 EMU alumni who are making major contributions to the sustainability movement around the world.  We believe that caring for God’s creation is a theological and faith imperative, as well as a matter of good science, and that sustainability practices should not be dependent on one’s political persuasion.  We do not believe it is God’s intention that humans should take a cavalier attitude toward the environment, a point on which we may differ from some segments of the faith community.  We believe that sustainability practices should begin with how we care for ourselves physically, organize our family and community life, and promote a healthy approach to living that encompasses every aspect of human existence.”

– Loren Swartzendruber, President –

That’s a good, courageous, truthful word, brother!

I deeply appreciate the leadership President Swartzendruber has provided EMU, and this statement is a further confirmation for me of his wisdom and integrity.  I’m proud to be an alumni of an institution that models this courageous stance.  I hope this quote is widely disseminated, reflected on, and acted on.  My post in my small corner of the universe is a part of that desire for others to see and hear.

A King born in a cave, who reigned in poverty, who expelled enemies by giving his life for them

I can’t get over the Sunday scriptural reading from November 21st. It was “Christ the King” Sunday, so readings focused on, as you might imagine, the kingship of Jesus. We heard from the prophet Jeremiah, from Paul’s letter to the Colossians, from Jesus’ crucifixion at the end of the gospel of Luke, and the “song” of Zechariah from the beginning of Luke. The readings are intentionally set up to trouble the reader, I think, though I’m not sure many people really paid attention in a deeper way to what was going on both in and between the readings. What they set up for us is the disturbing way that Jesus showed his kingship, and most disturbing, how a revolution that is Jesus-centered turns our idea about what is good and worthy to pursue completely on its head. So, so disturbing, and so so deeply challenging to me even more today than ever before.

Consider the passages and what they present to us. Jeremiah speaks of  “a King who will reign wisely and do what is just and right in the land,” and “In his days Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety.”

How might the Israelite people, either in their time of exile or their occupation by a series of powerful nations one after another, have heard that passage? They would have expected the Messiah (literally translated “anointed one”) to be another King David. A warrior king. Because that’s what Jeremiah is saying, right? How else can “Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety” be interpreted? Practically, Israelites would have (and did) expect a warrior king who would kick out the infidels and restore Israel as a kingdom. That’s the Messiah Israelites were led to look for.

Then there’s Zechariah, who had a clear visitation from God and a family member with an equally clear visitation (Joseph and Mary). He knew something special was happening. And he even had the audacity to speak in the present tense, not the future tense. Zechariah said the Lord “has come to his people and redeemed them,” (not “the Lord will come” but the Lord “has come”) and “He has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David (as he said through his holy prophets of long ago), salvation from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.” Zechariah proclaimed that the long-awaited salvation had arrived, and he speaks in the tradition of Jeremiah of salvation, not an ethereal salvation “from sins” Christians often speak of, but instead salvation “from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.” Zechariah was expecting a King David, a warrior king who would kick out the infidels and restore Israel as a kingdom.

This is where the story gets dicey and really interesting if we’re familiar with the story of Scripture. Zechariah and his son John (the Baptist) were in the extended family of Mary, Joseph, and Jesus. They had experienced messages from angels themselves. They trusted that Jesus was to be the Messiah. Mary visited Elizabeth and they shared joy over the blessing from God on their lives. There was great expectation in that family system for what would happen. John baptized Jesus as a coronation and a proclamation of who he was, for God’s sake!

Now consider the gravity of a situation that arose midway through Jesus’ ministry. John was imprisoned for his inflammatory statements to the powerful, and while in prison, he did a curious thing.

When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent his disciples to ask him, “Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?”

Jesus replied, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.”

I don’t think it’s possible to overstate how shocking this passage is. It may be one of the most shocking passages in the entire Scriptures. John knew Jesus was the Messiah, right?!

Besides being family,
besides knowing one another,
besides visits from angels,
besides miraculous pregnancies and births,
besides booming voices from the heavens
proclaiming “This is my son, whom I love, in whom I am well pleased,”
besides all that, John bluntly said, “I have seen and I testify that this is God’s Chosen One.”

Yet this very same John (and, I’m sure, his father) is asking now, “Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?” In essence, John was saying what others who were convinced who the Messiah would be were saying; “This Jesus is not and cannot be the Messiah.” It is even more telling that in his ministry, Jesus’ mother and brothers come to talk him down and he rejects even them. Everyone around Jesus tended toward three basic beliefs:

1) He’s electrifying to listen to even though we know little of what he is saying (crowds)
2) We’re utterly confused but along for the ride because we get to be powerful when he reigns (disciples)
3) He’s disturbingly misguided (with two subheadings under this one)
a. He needs to be corrected of his ways and reminded of his “call” (family)
b. He needs to be eliminated before he leads the nation further into error (Religious authorities, and
eventually, the Roman government)

Jesus’ kingship was revealed in a radical, truly revolutionary way in his ministry, and met its climax in his arrest, trial, and crucifixion. The last two passages in the lectionary deal with the disturbing end of Jesus’ revolution that we have unfortunately become numb to through talking the cross to death while deeply missing the point for hundreds of years.

Seeking to marry Jeremiah 23 with Luke 23 is a messy, messy thing to do if we take the surface messages of the two seriously. Jeremiah 23 says the Messiah will “reign wisely,” and Luke 23 says he meets his demise like tens of thousands of other would-be agitators against Rome: a grisly death by crucifixion. On the surface, one of the two is dead wrong.   Kings don’t reign by bleeding out beside common criminals.

Deeper, though, at the heart of the passages is the question of power. An apt question might be, “Is it possible to reign not through crushing enemies but by suffering for them?” Another apt question raised by the Zechariah passage is, “Is it possible to be rescued from the hands of enemies while still being occupied and dishonored by them?” These are troubling questions. And they should be even more troubling to those of us who live in America and think we know how to define freedom and power. Our answer is, repeatedly, “No, you can’t be free when under the power of another.” and “No, you cannot reign from a position of weakness.” We think we know how authority is expressed. This goes from childishly naive  to blatantly evil when we claim to be a majority Christian nation and yet our expression of power is diametrically opposed to the one we call Lord, Authority, and Teacher.

“Yes, but, have you not read Revelation?!” some Christians arise to cry out. “Jesus comes back with a robe dipped in blood and with a sword to crush his enemies. The cross was just for forgiveness of sins, a moment with no real teachable truth for our lives today. It was God’s gift to us in place of his wrath.”  As Pastor Mark Driscoll in Seattle (and avowed biblicist) said, “In Revelation, Jesus is a pride fighter with a tattoo down His leg, a sword in His hand and the commitment to make someone bleed.” Sounds straight-forward, right? But for a biblicist (speaking for a host of others who claim to respect the authority of the Scriptures) Pastor Driscoll is extremely sloppy in his reading of Revelation 19. First, Jesus’ sword is not in his hand but “coming out of his mouth.” And second, though his robe is indeed dipped in blood, we are not told where from. I would suggest the second point is intimately related to the first.

What could it possibly mean for the sword to come out of Jesus’ mouth rather than being in his right hand? Is this inconsequential, just a shifting of body parts and the sword being most important? Or is it very consequential, changing the meaning of Jesus’ invasion significantly? To grapple toward an answer, I propose a basic question.

What invader have you ever heard of whose sword either came out of or was grasped by his mouth? When you answer, as you should, with “none,” then we move to the next question.

“This must be a metaphor, then. What is this a metaphor for in the apostle John’s view? What does he mean?”

A hint of an answer comes in Matthew 10 where Jesus says, “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.” In the immediate literary context, this “sword” refers to families being divided down the middle. In the wider context of Jesus’ ministry, he never picked up a sword to divide anything, instead saying to Peter “Put your sword back in its place, for all who draw the sword will die by the sword.” So the “sword” Jesus is referring to, and the “sword” I’m suggesting John is referring to, is the testimony of Jesus, his word. Jesus’ teachings and adherence to them is what splits people apart, even families, as persons view followers of Jesus as dangerously naive or pitiful idealistic idiots. So, Revelation most likely is not about Jesus’ ultimate violent conquest but instead about how Jesus’ teaching separates those who long for truth, who long for what we were created for, and those who settle for lesser versions that are more comfortable. And the robe dipped in blood may very well be the blood of Jesus, not the wicked. This could be the Apostle John’s statement to the early church about the nature of the conquest of Jesus. It is unlike any other conquest…so unlike any other conquest, in fact, that it looks like dangerous idealism to others captured by another way.

This brings me back to the troubling nature of the passages of Scripture on Christ the King Sunday; which in their troubling nature uncover the troubling nature of Jesus himself. In Jesus we are forced to reconcile

kingship with servant love;
reigning with giving;
revolution with peacemaking;
rescue with the status quo continuing;
“saved from enemies” with continuing occupation and subjugation;
salvation with suffering.

Troubling readings that strike at the root of our humanity and all we find meaningful and true.
A true upside down kingdom that will not let us rest until the day we return to the dust.

Hard.
Painful.
Worth it.

On excess desire…

This poem from Wendell Berry’s Leavings collection has been particularly appropriate for me this past week both in our Black Friday celebration of consumption and in needing to be reminded of my own limits. We either live in the name of more, or we live in the name of God’s abundance and enough. And our societies’ future will rise and fall on this same awareness.

A man’s desire, overwhelming
as it may seem, is no greater
than that of the male chickadee
or the yellow-throated warbler
at his high ecstatic song, no smaller
than that of the bull elephant
or whale. And so we come,
whichever way we turn, to plentitude.
The fullness of a cup
equals that of the sea- unless the mind
conceive of more, longing for women
in disregard of the limit
of singularity, gluttonous beyond
hunger, greedy for money in excess
of goods, lusting for Heaven
in excess, not only of our worth
which would be most humbling,
but of any known human power
of delectation. And so the mind
grows a big belly, a sack full
of the thought of more, and the whole
structure of enough, of life itself,
which is never more nor less
than enough, falls in pieces.
In the name of more we destroy
for coal the mountain and its forest
and so choose the insatiable flame
over the green leaf that within our care
would return to us unendingly
until the end of time.

Choosing to vote

Over the last few years, I’ve been traveling an interesting road regarding my personal perspective on government, power, social change, and how I participate in our society.

To give you a little tour of my story, in high school, I was intrigued by my government and history classes, but mostly as a carbon copy of the political beliefs of my parents. I still remember several epic conversations I had with other students where we spouted our parents’ beliefs in funny ways.

Matt Whitten, me: “Ronald Reagan should be rotting in jail now for the Iran/Contra scandal.”
Jon Roller, Abe Halterman, et al, “Ronald Reagan was Moses escorting the hostages out of bondage to freedom!”

Very few of us had the ability at the time to gain thoughtful distance from our parents’ perspectives. I recall senior year observing my classmate Matt Wade shifting from uncritically conservative to something different as he asked himself bigger questions and was willing to deal with the discomfort of his thoughts.  However, Matt was more the exception than the rule. So those of us with parents who were involved in political thought and action found ourselves participating, if only regurgitating what we heard around the dinner table.

I shifted, then, to college where, in spite of my basic selfishness and hedonism the first several years, I was drawn to the political process. I for a time considered pursuing a track that could prepare me to work for the State Department. I chose to major in International Affairs, which blended political science with economics, geography, foreign language, and history. I voted in that time period, even going out on a disgustingly dreary, rainy day in 2000 to canvass registered Democrats to get out and vote, with the colors from my raincoat leaching onto my pants and making a general mess. College also represented my rejection of the specifics of Christianity in favor of what I believed to be practical need. I remember telling my grandfather that Jesus wasn’t practical and that I believed Saddam Hussein needed to be taken out. The spring of 2002 I publicly debated Susan Lowe on the subject of pre-emptive war in Iraq, and argued the affirmative.

The death of my close friend Alex Naden April 29, 2003 proved to be a transformational moment for me. It provided the motivation for me to recognize the destruction of my self-focus and the devastating answer to the question “Who am I?” (my answer: “I have no idea because I’ve tried so hard to be something others would like and accept). This rekindled a commitment to Jesus in me and launched a journey of great pain and great joy since. I’ve learned to cherish God first, to observe and follow Jesus centrally, and to orient my desire toward those goals. Many of those goals; the needs of the poor, the rights of unborn children, the responsibility of peacemaking, a society of greater equality across the board, etc have deeply impacted my outlook on the American political process. I’ve become a bit of a black sheep since that time period, not fitting into the liberal or conservative camps, and struggling deeply with that. I have observed the political activism of the Christian Coalition and Moral Majority and maintained a visceral disgust at their methods and their goals. I have observed the political activism of the Human Rights Campaign, the National Organization of Women, and Planned Parenthood and gained a visceral sense of disgust with their methods and goals.

I became cynical, but never gave up.  In 2004, I appreciated the humility and struggle of John Kerry (who quoted Lincoln, “We trust, sir, that God is on our side. It is more important to know that we are on God’s side.”) over the religious certainty of George Bush (“I am driven with a mission from God. God would tell me, ‘George go and fight these terrorists in Afghanistan’. And I did. And then God would tell me ‘George, go and end the tyranny in Iraq’. And I did). So, even as I faced uncertainty over how my convictions made me uneasy with both candidates, I continued to believe it to be my responsibility to pay attention and to make my voice heard in the ballot box.

Over the last couple of years, I have realized my responsibility far beyond casting my vote. I have begun to write elected representatives, joined with others through groups like Cincinnati Faith and Justice to advocate together for a more just society, and began to practice more consistently with my church family toward our local answers to injustice. Along the way, I have had my eyes opened to see how government plays a vital role in encouraging or destroying life in our communities. I do believe that the “government is best that governs closest,” but I don’t believe in the extremely limited government some of my more conservative friends do. I think many of my friends don’t account for the deep selfishness of our society when they call for charity instead of taxation. I do not believe the church can provide for our society’s needs at the scale that government initiative can provide. And yet I believe the church is to be the focus and answer on the human relationship scale for poverty in the world.

I just had a conversation with a friend from our community over voting. He and many others I know take the same tack in choosing not to vote that I just do not understand. I want to take several of his main points and address them, not to pick on him, but because I hear them all so often. I’ll quote him in full, then address each thought individually. He said,

“I have a couple reasons for not voting. First, there isn’t a candidate that fully stands for what i believe. So its basically choosing the lesser of two evils. Second, lobbyists. Money talks and unfortunately i don’t have enough to influence anyone in power. Third, why are we asking the world to do what the church isn’t willing?”

First, there isn’t a candidate that fully stands for what I believe,
so it’s basically choosing the lesser of two evils.

On first glance, this seems to be a common sense statement. If I don’t feel fully comfortable with any political candidate, why vote? But I have some follow-up questions after that. Do we choose friendships on this basis? Do we choose (and stay) in workplaces on this basis? Do we date and marry persons on this basis? I would suggest not. And if we do, I would wonder if we will ever stop withholding ourselves from relationship based on that question, so that when we find we don’t have persons who “fully stand for what we believe,” we hop to the next, and the next, and the next.  This is a lifetime of shallow relationships and false security.  I just don’t find that to be a healthy approach to any issue in society. Part of the responsibility of adulthood and wise citizenship is caring enough to walk into the complexity of problems and invest energy, time, and resources into making sound decisions along the way. To abstain from making decisions based on the marker of “fully” agreeing is a recipe for relational disaster, as I see it.

Second, lobbyists. Money talks and unfortunately I don’t have enough to influence anyone in power.

Yes, it is true that money talks, and yes, it is true that I don’t have enough to influence anyone in power. Again, these statements ring true on face value. But that statement is based on individual wealth and influence. Even the most powerful corporations (while defined under the law as an individual) aren’t based on the power of one, but of collective action to achieve a purpose. One of the great saving influences in America has been when individuals have gotten sick of the corruption that results from the powerful stomping on them and have left the cynical distance of individualism to band together to create change. One great practical reminder of what these citizens can accomplish is the passing of the Fair Hiring policy here in Cincinnati on August 4th of this year. Another long-term example of this choice is the career of Ralph Nader, who by force of will and evangelizing the call to citizen action, has had a huge impact on American society. In neither example have the involved parties had a ton of money, but chose a path of sustained commitment with one another to work for change.

So, yes, by ourselves as a collection of isolated individuals, we are virtually powerless. But together we become a force for change in our society that ripples out through society in ways we don’t understand. And it starts with caring enough to think about the problems of our society and participate in the political process. Our vote is an integral part of that commitment.

Third, why are we asking the world to do what the church isn’t willing?

As I’ve already hinted at above in my personal story, the church should have a complex relationship with society. In one sense, we are called to withdraw from our societies so we can gain perspective and pay attention to our unique call in the world. The Apostle Peter said it most directly, teaching, “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession.” The church is a nation unto itself called to obey a different ruler, with different priorities, and a different distinctive lifestyle. We are citizens of God’s kingdom first.

But simply because we must prioritize in this way does not make our societies unimportant. The decisions of governmental leaders deeply impact our society, and we are also called into the midst of our societies with the desire to bring hope, healing, and social transformation. So the complex decisions we make in participating in the political process, while no longer the most important thing, are still vital and necessary. Or, as Lauren Winner put it,

(Some) see not voting as a compelling act of faithfulness, witness, and politics. But, especially in a world where love of neighbor is tied to citizenship, not voting may be equally seen as a kind of quietism—quietism that a Christian who must be active in the world cannot afford.

My generation is a generation of cynical beliefs about politics and our society. We carry a “live and let live” attitude with others. We believe we are powerless. And in this system where our personal comfort and security is most important, we are right. But we are called out of cynicism into thoughtful, collaborative action for the common good. We are called to love our neighbor enough to wade into the complexity and pain of the American political process to bring about reforms that benefit everyone.

Please join me in voting tomorrow as a simple statement that  we aren’t willing to quit on one another.

Psalm 96: Reorientation of the universe

PSALM 96

O sing to the LORD a new song;
sing to the LORD, all the earth.
Sing to the LORD, bless his name;
tell of his salvation from day to day.
Declare his glory among the nations,
his marvelous works among all the peoples.

For great is the LORD, and greatly to be praised;
he is to be revered above all gods.
For all the gods of the peoples are idols,
but the LORD made the heavens
.

Honor and majesty are before him;
strength and beauty are in his sanctuary.
Ascribe to the LORD, O families of nations,
ascribe to the LORD glory and strength.
Ascribe to the LORD the glory due his name;
bring an offering, and come into his courts.

Worship the LORD in holy splendor;
tremble before him, all the earth.

Say among the nations, “The LORD is king!
The world is firmly established; it shall never be moved.
He will judge the peoples with equity.”

Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice;
let the sea roar, and all that fills it;
let the field exult, and everything in it.
Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy
before the LORD; for he is coming,
for he is coming to judge the earth.

He will judge the world with righteousness,
and the peoples with his truth.

Nathan, you are not the center of the universe and the epicenter of meaning in the world. You were created by a Being much greater then you, who therefore has a claim on your life that cannot be surpassed.  Do not put this Being in a box, do not create a grab-bag of thoughts that sound nice for describing this being while ignoring uncomfortable ones.

No, humble yourself.
Pledge allegiance and fidelity to this God above all other allegiances.
Pledge to see the world the way He does, and alter your lifestyle and worldview accordingly.
Tremble before God and trust His commands more than you trust your own feelings about what is right and good and worthy to pursue.

Reorient,
and find in that reorientation
that you become more fully you than you ever could have known.

A Black Friday reflection…

cobalt Just a couple thoughts to offer today.  I’ve had a chance to think in the last year or so about this “freedom” Americans often claim our army is fighting for.  I hear it everywhere in our society as a phrase to clobber both naive pacifists and traitorous liberals with different ideas about how Iraq should have been handled.  As I’ve wrestled with what this is all about, I’ve done my best to keep my ears peeled eyes open for others working through this same issue.  I happened to come upon an interview online of one of my mentors-through-proxy (Internet and books substituting for face to face interaction) Stanley Hauerwas that shocked me. I didn’t know what to make of it at first, but as time has passed, it’s making more sense to me.  Check it out;

“In his reflections on Sept. 11, Hauerwas uses the term ‘American imperialism’ matter-of-factly. He’s not afraid to humanize those who flew jets into buildings on Sept. 11, and to point out what he calls ‘the loneliness of the American people,’ a loneliness he says is tied to their pursuit of happiness.’On Sept. 11, Americans were confronted by people ready to die as an expression of their profound moral commitments,  Hauerwas said in his Silk Hope talk earlier this year. ‘Their willingness to die stands in stark contrast to a politics that asks of its members in response to Sept. 11 to shop.’  

‘Americans are, for the most part, good, decent and hardworking people, but so were the people that supported the Nazis.’  Hauerwas said he worries about ‘how goodness can become deeply corrupted by its innocence….most of the time innocence is deeply immoral because it is such a lie not to acknowledge that we live in a very complex world that we benefit from, and we don’t have to acknowledge the havoc our benefits depend upon.’  

While those who loathe the United States are willing to die as an expression of their hatred, Hauerwas said U.S. citizens have no comparable moral conviction on which to base their lives.  “A people who have been bred to shop then can quickly become some of the most violent people in the world,” Hauerwas said, “exactly because they’re dying to have something worth dying for. 

 

Before you get too upset (like I initially did), read the quote five or six times, then take a couple hours (or months) the chew on it from time to time.  I’ve come to see it as deeply insightful over time.  The question he raises is relevant; what does “freedom” represent in America, and at what cost is that American freedom perpetuated?  

Example after example in the last few months has proven to me Stanley’s suggestion that “freedom” in our society directly translates to “shopping.”  If it does not, what is the comparable conviction Americans have to bring that they’re willing to fight for?  The right to vote?  Maybe so, but check out the percentages of folks that exercise that right when the time rolls around.  Right to freedom of religious expression?  How many American folks are really, I mean really, deeply invested with the whole of their lives in the religion (often Christian) they claim? Precious few.

So what IS the mark of American (and by extension, Western) society that takes up most of our attention, time, energy, thoughts and dreams?

I’d suggest it’s cash money, the jobs it takes to get more, the marketing that competes for us to exercise our right to buy their stuff, and the sheer amount of stuff we can buy with that cash.    

Our “holidays” of Christmas and Easter are perfect examples of this.  If those who claimed to be Christian truly deeply valued and respected the two most holy celebrations of their year, they would be up in arms about the mockery our secular society has turned them into. Heck, witches and black-magic practicioners should be pissed at how secularism has changed the height of their year (Halloween) into an avalanche of candy and cute little costumes.  In short, consumerism has taken every day holy and sacred to competing traditions, subverted them, and marketed them under completely different pretenses and seeking different ends.  So now we have Santa Claus (the original Saint Nicholas has to be rolling over in his grave), The Easter Bunny, Thanksgiving football and excess amounts of turkey and stuffing, and Valentine’s Day (a boon for the diamond and Hallmark card industries) as examples.  More examples exist, and they all reveal the central value our society upholds; money, what it takes to get it, and (for marketers) more and more innovative ways to convince consumers they need to spend it on YOUR product. 

Which brings us to Black Friday, the official holiday of the hallowed First Day of Christmas Shopping, the most profitable day of the year for businesses and the height of capitalism.  The day where we consumers camp out at our Best Buys and Kohls and JCPenneys and shopping malls so that at midnight or 4 am or 6 am (whoever opens first) we may spend our money on things we don’t need.  But we have the right to!  

Nobody tells me where I can or can’t spend my money, not no A-rabs or dem Chi-nese or nobody!  

And THIS, my friends, is why Stanley Hauerwas is so spot-on in his diagnosis of our society.  We have nothing to fight for in our society but a vague notion of freedom in need of definition.  And the definition has come to mean the right to shop.  We claim freedom of choice, yet our naivete about our individual capability to make good choices as if we weren’t slaves to marketers reveals not only that we aren’t free, but that we’re overconsumed and cynical and bored.  The system keeps us entertained but unfulfilled, and we are shocked by the possibility that someone would give up that right and fight to recover another vision of what life is to be about.  It’s a clashing of civilizations, the dominant one secular (NOT Christian) and competing visions daring to suggest their commitment is more life-giving and worthy of sacrifice. 

This is a series of unfinished and slightly incoherent thoughts, I’m sure, but Black Friday in all its glory shoved me back to the place inside me Hauerwas twisted into a mess with his comment.  I’d encourage you to wrestle with it.

 In closing, I’ll leave you with one of the most prophetic bands I know of around these days, “The Cobalt Season”, and some of the lyrics from their deeply honest lament/hopeful song “Like Jesus“;   

 

And friends, Romans, countrymen

Won’t you lend me your ears?

This Holy American Empire

Gotta tell you it’s crumblin’ down

To the ground

 

’Cause everything’s for granted

And nothing is for sure

So let’s grab a Starbucks baby

And let’s spend a little more

 

Forget about the dreams we had

Just work and sleep until we’re dead

Are we blind to what’s ahead?

 

Oh Lord, how long?

 

When memory’s for granted

Nothing is for sure

And history goes round and round

As we long for something more

 

We lie and wait for better days

With hope and fear and joy and dread

Or just ambivalence to what’s ahead?