A clear-headed, moral economic understanding…

I’ve been doing some reading for a class I’m taking at Xavier, and in the midst of a wonderful essay by Wendell Berry, I found one of the clearest statements about the present economy and our economic goals. So often, you have to read the words of brilliant writers and thinkers ten times through, looking up their million-dollar words in dictionaries, to finally get their meaning. This writing, however, is clear, accessible, and easy to understand with a little bit of work.  If we apply the same energy to thoughts like these that we do to clearing out our schedule to watch the X-Factor, we might find our intellectual capacities expand beyond where we thought we were previously capable.

Enjoy, chew on this gift from Wendell Berry, and let’s practice this vision of a better economy together!

We live, as we must sooner or later recognize, in an era of sentimental economics and, consequently, of sentimental politics.

Sentimental communism holds in effect that everybody and everything should suffer for the good of “the many” who, though miserable in the present, will be happy in the future for exactly the same reasons that they are miserable in the present.

Sentimental capitalism is not so different from sentimental communism as the corporate and political powers claim.  Sentimental capitalism holds in effect that everything small, local, private, personal, natural, good, and beautiful must be sacrificed in the interest of the “free market” and the great corporations, which will bring unprecedented security and happiness to “the many”- in, of course, the future.

The economic theory used to justify the global economy in its “free market” version is again perfectly groundless and sentimental.  The idea is that what is good for the corporations will sooner or later- though not of course immediately- be good for everybody.

That sentimentality is based, in turn, on a fantasy:  the proposition that the great corporations, in “freely” competing with one another for raw materials, labor, and market share, will drive one another indefinitely, not only toward greater “efficiencies” of manufacture but also toward higher bids for raw materials and labor and lower prices to consumers.  As a result, all the world’s people will be economically secure- in the futureIt would be hard to object to such a proposition, if only it were true.

The “law of competition” does not imply that many competitors will compete indefinitely.  The law of competition is a single paradox: Competition destroys competition.  The law of competition implies that many competitors, competing without restraint, will ultimately and inevitably reduce the number of competitors to one.  the law of competition, in short, is the law of war.

This idea of a global “free market” economy, despite its obvious moral flaws and its dangerous practical weaknesses, is now the ruling orthodoxy of the age.  Its propaganda is subscribed to and distributed by most political leaders, editorial writers, and other “opinion makers.”  The powers that be, while continuing to budget huge sums for “national defense,” have apparently abandoned any idea of national or local self-sufficiency, even in food.  They have also given up the idea that a national or local government might justly place restraints on economic activity in order to protect its land and its people.

Unsurprisingly, among people who wish to preserve things other than money, there is a growing perception that the global “free market” economy is inherently an enemy to the natural world, to human health and freedom, to industrial workers, and to farmers and others in the land-use economies; and furthermore, that it is inherently an enemy to good work and good economic practice.

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Neighbors, neighborliness, conflict, and listening

As I spent a bit of this evening bent over a kitchen drain that wouldn’t do what it’s intended to, which is drain, and as several attempts at unclogging said drain took time, I took to reflecting a bit.  In the past, I may have moved on to the next thing I desired to do or was curious about, hopping to the “next important thing,” but I’ve been learning to take the moments where things aren’t working as planned, where the universe is not cooperating with my agenda, to instead take a moment…

…and listen.

I try to listen for God, yes, and I do believe I hear God’s whispers in these times of listening.
But I most often hear me.
The inner me that’s trying to stay alive as I swamp myself with all the things “outer me” must attend to.
“Outer me” keeps a restaurant client from giving me the thousand-yard-stare when they asked for “More strawberry jam, please” more than a minute ago.  “Outer me” keeps me from running into my bicycle into the back of that Camaro on the south side of Reading that is so hard to make out in deepening dusk on the commute home.
In short, outer me is that necessary part that kept one alive several thousand years ago, on the watch for predators; that sense that even today helps Darfurians detect the hoofbeats of Janjaweed from several miles away.

But I generally am not on the verge of being attacked by a vicious attacker, and though I need that sense of outer awareness a bit more when I’m on the bike, if I always hop from thing to thing to thing to thing to thing that seems appropriate at the time, I starve “inner me” into a shadow of what I am intended to be.  I know this to be true because as others called me to slow down and listen, I found “inner me” to be naked, emaciated, and huddled in the corner; unable to do anything more that be acknowledged for awhile, before strengthening enough to speak. Culturally, we collectively have gotten good at starving this “inner me,” and it is fine poets, musicians, and conversations that draw us into our need for this essential component of who we are…if we’ve made the choice to slow down and listen to them.

So, I leaned on my forearms and stared at the brackish water for a bit.

Then, *crack* *BOOM!!!* fireworks went off down the street as they often do.  For some reason our neighbors who tend to spend their time lolling around the neighborhood during the day, stopping periodically to walk half a block to the corner and peer down Carter Ave, looking for some unspecified thing, then turning around for more front stoop sitting…for some reason these same persons awaken with energy to keep the neighborhood awake with periodic mortar rounds. And God knows where they get the funds for those fireworks.

I don’t know what to do about this.  I’m starting to get to know these folks.  Names aren’t easy yet, but they’re recalled better over a little conversation.  We talk about this and that; nothing too essential to either of us.  But we’re talking, and I’m trying.  In some ways we’re at a sensitive enough place in our relationship where if I came bursting out of the apartment like a bat out of hell and yelled some random angry phrase in their faces about disrespect, sleep, and life, I could destroy what little foundation I’ve built.  But maybe not.  I’ve chosen to stay inside tonight.  Maybe they’ll stop, and maybe not.  Either way, Wendell Berry begins to speak beyond my frustration. He speaks softly at first, then more authoritatively and confidently when I pay more attention, and the brackish water gets out of focus as I turn inward further.

“When a community loses its memory, its members no longer know one another.  How can they know one another if they have forgotten or have never learned one another’s stories?  If they do not know one another’s stories, how can they know whether or not to trust one another?  People who do not trust one another do not help one another, and moreover they fear one another.”  (Berry, “The Work of Local Culture” WAPF? 157)

In my desire to know my neighbors, I have tried to frame Berry’s bracing words in a more positive, action-generating way:

“When a community gains and holds its memory, its members know one another.  They know one another because they’ve learned and hold one another’s stories.  Because they know one another’s stories, they know that they can  trust one another.  People who trust one another help one another, and moreover they love one another.”

So, tonight, I will accept the lesson of the sink to slow down, remember, and be reminded of my responsibility to participate in building the kind of community where we know one another; share, re-share, and are reminded of our common stories; where we seek to trust; help; and love one another.

May it be so.

Know, trust, fear Know, trust, love

Below is my favorite quote ever from Wendell Berry.

It reminds me to value our place.  Because we value our place, we choose to invest in the people, soil, animals, and ecosystem that surround the place, and to “be” in our place; to be present, visible, available, and reflective on how we function in our place.

“When a community loses its memory, its members no longer know one another.  How can they know one another if they have forgotten or have never learned one another’s stories?  If they do not know one another’s stories, how can they know whether or not to trust one another?  People who do not trust one another do not help one another, and moreover they fear one another.”  (Berry, “The Work of Local Culture” What Are People For? 157)

Framed positively to encourage work towards a goal:

“When a community gains and maintains its memory, its members know one another.  They know one another because they remember and continue learning one another’s stories.  Because they know one another’s stories, they know they are more likely to trust one another.  People who trust one another help one another, and moreover they love one another.”

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)

An excerpt from the sermon to be shared at Cincinnati COB…

Since Jesus prayed centrally, “God, may your kingdom come and your will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” and Cincinnati Church of the Brethren’s place on earth that you have chosen is Walnut Hills, Cincinnati, with Wendell Berry ringing in our ears, beyond all the sexy ideas about mission and growth; maybe the most important, most essential quality of your work as a congregation is actively and thoughtfully learning the stories of the people here in Walnut Hills, gaining the trust of the people of Walnut Hills, and seeking to follow the Lord as Shepherd for this place. It’s letting our mission be determined by our place, and committing to a place for an extended period of time, intentionally being present in a way that deeply listens, invests, and prays for God’s will to be done in our place.

Our Vineyard Central church family in Norwood is struggling through this very issue too. We have a sexy phrase that we’ve created and put up on our website: “Practicing resurrection in West Norwood and encouraging it everywhere.” Now, if we want to move beyond the sexy phrase and listen to the wisdom of Berry, practicing resurrection IN WEST NORWOOD means establishing west Norwood as the focus of our ministry. We have said West Norwood will be our place. In order for this to have a practical reality, we must spend a significant amount of time in West Norwood. This does not necessarily mean we have to live there, but it does mean we need to deeply invest there.

A number of us, because we want a more natural flow to this commitment, have moved into the neighborhood; in theory, because living IN WEST NORWOOD means we will more easily practice resurrection there. But we find a significant barrier comes up whether we move in or not: we don’t know the people here, we may not share the same desires as the people here, we don’t know the story of the community, the story of the people, we lack the connection needed. We don’t know the place where we are.

Full text of the sermon here.

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.

Men Untrained to Comfort

When I read this poem, I think of A.L. Garrison, Galen Myers, Oliver Cline, Paul Cline, Emerson Fike, and others who are/were tough as nails and fit this story. I dedicate this to the men who inspire me to work hard, to welcome pain for a greater cause; for a world in need of good dependable men. The poem is by Wendell Berry.

Jason Needly found his father, old Ab, at work
at the age of eighty in the topmost
tier of the barn. “Come down!” Jason called.
“You got no business up there at your age.”
And his father descended, not by a ladder,
there being none, but by inserting his fingers
into the cracks between boards and climbing
down the wall.

And when he was young
and some account and strong and knew
nothing of weariness, old man Milt Wright,
back in the days they called him “Steady,”
carried the rastus plow on his shoulder
up the high hill to his tobacco patch, so
when they got there his mule would be fresh,
unsweated, and ready to go.

Early Rowanberry,
for another, bought a steel-beam breaking plow
at the store in Port William and shouldered it
before the hardly-believing watchers, and carried it
the mile and a half home, down through the woods
along Sand Ripple.

“But the tiredest my daddy
ever got,” his son, Art, told me one day,
“was when he carried fifty rabbits and a big possum
in a sack on his back up onto the point yonder
and out the ridge to town to sell them at the store.”

“But why,” I asked, “didn’t he hitch a team
to the wagon and haul them up there by the road?”

“Well,” Art said, “we didn’t have but two
horses in them days, and we spared them
every way we could. A many a time I’ve seen
my daddy or grandpa jump off the wagon or sled
and take the end of a singletree beside a horse.”