Wendell Berry: Poet and Prophet [An Interview with Bill Moyers]

Not too many people have the wit and wisdom of Wendell Berry. Coupled with his erudite insight and, as Bill Moyers says, clairvoyance, Berry has been a voice of critique and hope for multitudes of people over the past several decades. Longevity in an age of immediacy and instant amnesia is a testament to the level of perennial relevance found in Berry’s words.

Yet beyond his words, his actions have spoken volumes. He does not merely write from a place of privilege and comfort; no, he writes as a farmer living on a family farm overlooking the Kentucky River and participates in sit-ins in that same state’s halls of assumed power. All that to say, the particular and the local he writes of flow directly from a life lived in the particular and local.

I have read many of Berry’s works and have – quite honestly – been changed and challenged for the better. Please watch the above interview regardless if you’ve been a follower for years or have never heard of him. Then pick up one of the following books. I pray you will allow the candor, angst, humor, and, above all, intermingling of hope and love to transform you.

The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture

What Are People For?

Sex, Economy, Freedom, & Community

Jayber Crow

The Way of Ignorance: And Other Essays

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Beauty From the Margins: Drawings by “Stan”: A Series Called “Weather”

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Works of art participate in our lives; we are not just distant observers of their lives. They are in conversation among themselves and with us. This is a part of the description of human life; we do the way we do partly because of things that have been said to us by works of art, and because of things that we have said in reply. – Wendell Berry in the essay “Style and Grace”

This is the second installment of drawings from my friend Stan. In case you missed the first part, here is the drawing that started it all with a description of what this series is all about. At its core, people with intellectual disabilities have been relegated to the margins of our society. With this, their gifts have been sidelined or destroyed all together by the various medications and institutions seeking to fix and make more functional. I hope to open some eyes, hearts, and hands through the loving gifts of Stan.

This is a series he did recently called, “Weather.” Or as he would say, “It’s the wedder.” There is a connection between them all and, as Berry says above, they “are in conversation among themselves and with us.”

What does this series say to you?

How might you respond to them?

Complicity, Confession, and Forgiveness Within the (Missional) Church

Complicity

The past 10+ years my wife and I have been involved in (what is typically called) “church planting.” Our efforts have taken place in differing settings, differing states, and approached with differing methodologies. The work we have engaged in has been called a host of names and adjectives ranging from “rebel” and “liberal” and “heretic” to “missionary” and “organic” and “lovely.” These names weren’t only labeled upon the work, but were assigned to me and, at times, my friends as well.

They all came from other Christians.

Working on the periphery of the traditional – some may say, institutional – church circle has been an interesting time. The view from the margins has allowed me to see the above remarks come from both ends of the theological spectrum. Interestingly enough, it has also come from within and among the ecclesiatic margin(s) as some of us see others within our tribe as not _______ enough or not _______ enough.

And, in full disclosure, the above names and adjectives have also come from my mouth and heart and directed towards others. Reciprocity has definitely been given.

Within all of this I have noticed a frightening trend: Many times we are not aware of our complicity within the problems we are addressing. Unlike the generation before us, we have not separated ourselves from the world because of their “unbearable sinfulness.” No, the missional movement has become one where we have entered into the world as ones sent. What I have seen, however, is how in our sentness, we have now set our eyes upon a new enemy: our brothers and sisters within the Church.

  • We leave this community because of the anger problems of some people. Yet it is our anger at them that drives us away.
  • This community doesn’t hold deeply enough to pacifism. Yet in my conversations with others I do violence to them through my verbal attacks.
  • I want to work to eradicate human trafficking. Yet my addiction to pornography, an industry responsible for sex slavery, and sleeping with my girlfriend isn’t a problem.

In short: we point out the brokenness in others, yet are hesitant, blind to, or belligerently unwilling to expose and deal with our own. As a result, we respond gracelessly towards perceived gracelessness and so perpetuate the very thing we originally saw as a problem.

Wendell Berry brings this to our attention in the following excerpt on the green movement:

This [ecological] redemptive movement is not yet seen clearly enough, even by the people in it, as a common effort for the common good is perfectly understandable. Undoubtedly it began in the only way it could have begun. Its many organizations have necessarily defined themselves by the singular problems they have addressed:

‘The river is being polluted. Save the river. Stop pollution. No to the polluters.’

‘We are losing our architectural inheritance. Save the inner city. Stop the demolition. No to the wreckers.’

This is clear enough. If we are sympathetic, the only possible objection is that it is incomplete; it does not go far enough. The effort is not only defined by the problem but is limited by it. An effort that is defined only or mainly by a problem is negative necessarily. And under the rhetoric of Save and Stop and No there lies an odd and embarrassing fact. Who is polluting the river? Well, among others, we are, we members of Save the River, who flush our toilets and use the latest toxic products only a little less thoughtlessly than everybody else. Who is wrecking the inner city? We are, of course, we members of Save the Inner City, who drive our cars and shop at the malls and the chain stores only a little less thoughtlessly than everybody else. It doesn’t make any difference that we mostly don’t have an alternative to doing as we do; we still share the guilt. In a centralized, specialized, commercialized, mechanized society such as ours, we all are necessarily, and in considerable measure, helping to cause the problems we are helping to deplore and trying to solve. – Wendell Berry, “The Purpose of a Coherent Community” in The Way of Ignorance, p 74-75. (emphasis added)

This is true not only in the particular movements mentioned by Berry, but from within the Church – the people-movement started by Jesus to give human beings their lives back. The problem, therefore, doesn’t merely manifest itself as pollution or urban decay, but is a problem at the core of each us: sin.

For many, “sin” is not a word denoting any form of experiential bliss. This is mainly due to a bludgeoning over the head or shame-ridden guilt for not living up to an often limiting list of what holiness looks like. As a result, it is a word eradicated from the vernacular of many people. However, it is a reality needing to be addressed. A simple definition I have employed is sin is the wielding of our power over others to their detriment and our (assumed) gain. We see its effects in every facet of our life, not only our individual lives, but in our corporate ones as well.

Again, in short, we are all broken people. All of us.

As James K.A. Smith states,

We confess not only personal or private sins and transgressions; the moment of confession owns up to our complicity with all sorts of evil that disorders the world and corrupts creation. In short, we humans confess our failure to heed the call to be human, to be God’s image bearers to and for the world. As a result, sin is not only personal and individual (a violation of a relationship); it also becomes inscribed into the cultural institutions of our human making (a refusal of our commission to be God’s vice-regents). – James K.A. Smith, “Practicing (for) the Kingdom” in Desiring the Kingdom p. 178. (emphasis added)

Again, I have noticed a tendency within the missional conversation to be the ones proclaiming the power plays of the “non-missional” while turning a blind eye to our own. And, as implied above, it is not merely an individual thing, but one that tends to mutate and grow as individuals form communities where demonizing can more easily occur. What happens is a furthering of divisiveness where tethering should be found.

Confession

Part of the underlying problem is our propensity for the excarnational. We would rather confess our sins in individual prayer than with and to our brothers and sisters. Not that this type of prayer isn’t necessary, but when it is the main manner in which we commune with God – and thus our primary spiritual mode: individually – it can give us an imagination of the spiritual life that is anemic.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer explains,

In confession the break-through to community takes place. Sin demands to have a man by himself. It withdraws him from the community. The more isolated a person is, the more destructive will be the power of sin over him, and the more deeply he becomes involved in it, the more disastrous is his isolation. Sin wants to remain unknown.

In confession a man breaks through to certainty. Why is it that it is often easier for us to confess our sins to God than to a brother? God is holy and sinless, He is a just judge of evil and the enemy of all disobedience. But a brother is sinful as we are. He knows from his own experience the dark night of secret sin. Why should we not find it easier to to go to a brother than to the holy God? But if we do, we must ask ourselves whether we have not often been deceiving ourselves with our confession to God, whether we have not rather been confessing our sins to ourselves and also granting ourselves absolution. And is not the reason perhaps for our countless relapses and the feebleness of our Christian obedience to be found precisely in the fact that we are living on self-forgiveness and not a real forgiveness? Self-forgiveness can never lead to a break with sin; this can be accomplished only by the judging and pardoning Word of God itself.

God gives us this certainty through our brother…As the open confession of my sins to a brother insures me against self-deception, so, too, the assurance of forgiveness becomes fully certain to me only when it is spoken by a brother in the name of God. Mutual, brotherly confession is given to us by God in order that we may be sure of divine forgiveness.

It is not the experience of life but experience of the Cross that makes one a worthy of hearer of confessions…The Christian brother knows when I come to him: here is a sinner like myself, a godless man who wants to confess and yearns for God’s forgiveness. – Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Confession and Communion” in Life Together, p. 112-119. (emphasis added)

We often don’t realize our complicity due to our lack of confession. As Bonhoeffer beautifully articulates, it is this confession of the hidden that brings us into community with others. The exposing of limits and weaknesses links us together as we give credence to our need for each other; we can’t do this alone, we weren’t meant to do this alone.

Confession is the acknowledgment of both our reliance upon and wrongful usage of power. If it is our selfish wielding of power (sin) that isolates, it is our confession which initiates the binding process. In doing so, we bring to light our power-centric identities so more cruciform ones based on our mutual weakness can begin to emerge. It is from here that we begin to see our interdependence.

When we don’t confess to real people in real time, we don’t allow for community. This isolation doesn’t occur solely on the level of the individual person, but on the level of community as well. Communities think they are not complicit within particular problems and make enemies of others in their finger pointing. I’ve seen it over and over: Church ______ doesn’t live life with ________ Church because of x,y, and z. So, instead of engaging in Christ-centered mission within the same neighborhood, they engage in church-centered politics. We exchange kingdom life for church politics.

And the world scoffs.

So, what would happen if we took communal confession seriously? What would happen if our Sunday gatherings incorporated confessional prayers that then overflowed into our weekly dealings with each other? What would happen if a Jesus-community confessed their angst and ire towards their fellow Jesus-community across the street because they struggle to see them as something other than competition? Could we begin to see mutual mission for the sake of our neighborhoods?

Forgiveness

The forgiveness we offer has to match the grace given in the making of our confessions. In other words, we don’t offer a shallow forgiveness that keeps us isolated. Rather, the grace extended to us by others in their confessions needs to be reciprocated in our pardon.

Again, James K.A. Smith:

Here again, in confession and assurance of pardon, we meet a moment where Christian worship runs counter to the formation of secular liturgies that either tend to nullify talk of guilt and responsibility or tend to point out failures without extending assurance of pardon. On the one hand, Oprah-fied secular liturgies tend to foster an illusory self-confidence (‘Believe in yourself!’) that refuses to recognize failure, guilt, or transgression, castigating such things as ‘negative energy’ that compromises self-esteem. The we-can-do-it confidence of these liturgies of self-affirmation offers assurance without confession. On the other hand, many of the secular liturgies of marketing play off of our deep knowledge of our faults and failures, but transform them into phenomena that yield shame but not guilt. In response, they promise not forgiveness or pardon, but opportunities to correct the problem via various goods and services. In this sense, they seem to require a confession but make no promise of pardon or promise. – James K.A. Smith, “Practicing (for) the Kingdom” in Desiring the Kingdom p. 178-181. (emphasis added)

If there is to be any dealing with the mutual complicity we share in, we must confess our brokenness, and then offer forgiveness as we move towards a mutual tethering. If confession is the acknowledgment of our power-wielding, forgiveness is the disarming of this power. It is the paradoxical weakness we present to each other for our mutual re-formation. It is the extension of grace and love towards the other that is the essence of community. If our power-wielding gives birth to isolation, forgiveness gives birth to community; if our sin leads to death (isolation), forgiveness leads to life (community). Through each other we tangibly receive the grace of God and begin to realize that forgiveness is not solely between us and God, but is a “horizontal” reality found between us.

And for the missional church this must be at the forefront of our theology and praxis. It does us no good to be described as missional – extending the love of God towards others – if we do not consider our fellow brothers and sisters worthy of this extension.

There is no step-family in the kingdom of God. We are one family.

Jesus once told Peter he should forgive his brother 70 x 7 times. In order for this to happen, we have to be living life with each other, bumping into each other, upsetting each other, and yet mutually submitting to each other in the way of Jesus. Humility needs to lead the way as we learn to live in community with each other, with other fellow Jesus-communities, and the world. Recognition of our complicity leads to confession which leads to forgiveness which leads to community.

“…all creatures live by participating in the life of God” – An Excerpt from Wendell Berry’s The Burden of the Gospels

I think Jesus recommended the Samaritan’s loving-kindness, what certain older writers called ‘holy living,’ simply as a matter of propriety, for the Samaritan was living in what Jesus understood to be a holy world. The foreground of the Gospels is occupied by human beings and the issues of their connection to one another and to God. But there is a background, and the background more often than not is the world in the best sense of the word, the world as made, approved, sustained, and finally to be redeemed by God. Much of the action and the talk of the Gospels takes place outdoors: on mountainsides, lake shores, river banks, in field and pastures, places populated not only by humans but by animals and plants, both domestic and wild. And these non-human creatures, sheep and lilies and birds, are always represented as worthy of, or as flourishing within, the love and care of God.

To know what to make of this, we need to look back to the Old Testament, to Genesis, to the Psalms, to the preoccupation with the relation of the Israelites to their land that runs through the whole lineage of the prophets. Through all this, much us implied or taken for granted. In only two places that I remember is the always implicit relation – the practical or working relation – of God to the creation plainly stated. Psalm 104:30, addressing God and speaking of the creatures, says, ‘Thou sendest forth thy spirit, they are created…’ And, as if in response, Elihu says to Job (34:14-15) that if God ‘ gather unto himself his spirit and his breath; All flesh shall perish together…’ I have cut Elihu’s sentence a little short so as to leave the emphasis on ‘all flesh.’

Those also are verses that don’t require interpretation, but I want to stretch them out in paraphrase just to make as plan as possible my reason for quoting them. They are saying that not just humans but allcreatures live by participating in the life of God, by partaking of His spirit and breathing His breath. And so the Samaritan reaches out in love to help his enemy, breaking all the customary boundaries, because he has clearly seen in his enemy not only a neighbor, not only a fellow human or a fellow creature, but a fellow sharer in the life of God.

When Jesus speaks of having life more abundantly, this, I think, is the life He means: a life that is not reducible by division, category, or degree, but is one thing: heavenly and earthly, spiritual and material, divided only insofar as it is embodied in distinct creatures. He is talking about a finite world that is infinitely holy, a world of time that is filled with life that is eternal. His offer of more abundant life, then, is not an invitation to declare ourselves as certified ‘Christians,’ but rather to become conscious, consenting, and responsible participants in the one great life, a fulfillment hardly institutional at all.

To be convinced of the sanctity of the world, and to be mindful of a human vocation to responsible membership in such a world, must always have been a burden. But it is a burden that falls with greatest weight on us humans of the industrial age who have been and are, by any measure, the humans most guilty with desecrating the world and of destroying creation. And we ought to be a little terrified to realize that, for the most part and at least for the time being, we are helplessly guilty. It seems as though industrial humanity has brought about phase two of original sin. We all are now complicit in the murder of creation. We certainly do know how to apply better measures to our conduct and our work. We know how to do far better than we are doing. But we don’t know how to extricate ourselves from our complicity very surely or very soon. How could we live without degrading our soils, slaughtering our forests, polluting our streams, poisoning the air and the rain? How could live without the ozone hole and the hypoxic zones? How could we live without endangering species, including our own? How could we live without the war economy and the holocaust of the fossil fuels? To the offer of more abundant life, we have chosen to respond with the economics of extinction.

If we take the Gospels seriously, we are left, in our dire predicament, facing an utterly humbling question: How must we live and work so as not to be estranged from God’s presence in His work and in all His creatures? The answer, we may say, is given in Jesus’s teaching about love. But that answer raises another question that plunges us into the abyss of our ignorance, which is both human and peculiarly modern: How are we to make of that love an economic practice?

That question calls for many answers, and we don’t know most of them. It is a question that those humans who want to answer will be living and working with for a long time – if they are allowed a long time. Meanwhile, may Heaven guard us from those who think they already have the answers.

– Wendell Berry, “The Burden of the Gospels,” in The Way of Ignorance p. 135-137