Land, Family, Failure, Prayer

Yesterday my article “Land, Family, Failure, Prayer: Reflecting on Wendell Berry’s Farmers’ Manifesto” appeared in the Progressing Spirit newsletter. The full article is available, to subscribers only, here. You can also read Wendell Berry’s poem online here. It’s a wonderful (if challenging) poem, and I encourage you to read it.

An excerpt from the article appears below, with a few afterthoughts from me:

Farming is and always has been a way of life that benefits from inherited, localized knowledge. It does not reward the new and newfangled, although it does embrace mindful, grounded experimentation.

… In pre-modern (pre-capitalist) Japan you’d be likely to encounter whole villages made up of a single extended family or cluster of three to four extended families all working the same land. Longevity on the land was honored, with a line of distinction drawn between families who settled the land prior to reaching the land’s capacity for development and those who arrived after. The latter class of families was not allowed to develop new land and had to wait for a plot of land to open up in the natural ebb and flow of family generations before they were allowed to claim a spot. In the meantime, they earned their right to that land by working for the ancestral families, building up knowledge and experience, proving they could be trusted. Not coincidentally, new families were not permitted to invite the ancestral god of the village into their homes until they had lived as many as five generations there.

I continue to be awestruck by how drastically industrialization has transformed the meaning of family. True, it made possible the wonderful freedom of individuality–the ability to choose for oneself how one would like to live. That definition of individual freedom now presumes to be the American Dream rather than a larger, more complex dream achieved by families and communities together, in unity.

What I’m trying to say is that freedom too often comes at the expense of community. In particular, industrialization of society took away the ability of a community to count on a person belonging to it and therefore the ability to leverage the privilege to belong over against the need to pull one’s own weight. Now, because it is possible to opt out of one community and join another at will, all too often that is what we do. If we don’t like the rules, we leave. To refuse some freedoms and advantages for the sake of a community’s health is the mark of maturity in a person, yet the temptation to stretch for ever greater and greater freedoms is just so powerful!

So is there a happy medium between belonging as a non-negotiable in a community, and finding ways to overcome outmoded rules that unnecessarily oppress members of a community and threaten the vitality of it? How do we find a reasonable balance between freedom and belonging?


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