Monday, September 26, 2011

Agricultural Sustainability

Sustainability is an extremely elusive concept: the more one tries to define it the more it slips through one’s fingers. The word seems, as a rule, more general than specific. But it is largely abstract because definitions are often place-less. Definitions have no particular place in mind in which sustainability can put roots down and stick around for awhile. Certainly some generality is necessary, but without particularity holding this generality down it will float away. Applicability is key.

The original Brundtland definition was too abstract and overly anthropocentric. To be fair, anthropocentrism is not necessarily bad: a jellyfish would be medusacentric. And Brundtland’s and Robert Solow’s neoliberal economics are not the only manifestation of anthropocentrism. Wendell Berry could be considered anthropocentric because he is endlessly passionate about the life and health of human communities. But he is also deeply biocentric because he realizes that human life and health cannot come at the expense of what sustains it and because it cannot come at the expense of the life and health of our home and our nonhuman neighbors, who surely have just as much, if not more, of a right to live on this planet as we do. This synthesis is fertile ground for defining sustainability

A good definition of agricultural sustainability will be so burdened with adjectives that any speaker will trip over it. Ecology, the study of the household, is vital in this discussion, because it connotes the complex relationships of mutuality between various parts to create the whole. Health does not exist in isolation, but in beneficial membership to the entire household. Any definition that is worth its salt will recognize the complex relatedness between social, political, economic, ecological, and cultural issues. If the house is divided against itself it will not stand.

Agricultural sustainability imitates the diverse patterns and relationships of local ecosystems in order to sustain human and nonhuman communities in a particular place for as long as possible. Imitation is an important distinction: agricultural sustainability does not necessarily seek to recreate local ecosystems, but instead seeks to emulate local ecosystems. As such, it makes ends and means as commensurate as possible: it will not impede the land’s inherent ability for renewal and it will reduce (and ultimately eliminate) dependence on non-renewable energy except as a rare supplement. Agricultural sustainability contextually emerges from the study and practice of the whole household, characterized by self-renewal and restoration, stability and mutability, rootedness and longevity. It conserves and preserves biodiversity, soil fertility, watershed integrity, and sociocultural equity while maintaining a sustaining yield. Agricultural sustainability is bioregional and organic, which means it fosters community and culture, respects the limitations and gifts of carrying capacity, and defects as much as possible from dependence on an exploitive economy. It necessitates revitalized communities to care for the land, which should be redistributed into more cooperative ownerships or so people have the opportunity to work productive land (which is not just a Jeffersonian vision, but also a biblical-prophetic one and a distributist-economic one). Urban farming and the gardening of cities must also play a key creative role. None of this will happen overnight with the flick of a magic wand. Agricultural sustainability is a dynamic conversion.

Agricultural sustainability requires storytelling, consciously and critically joining the wisdom of the past with concrete practices in the present to address the potential of the future. As such, it builds up local tradition and culture like topsoil that preserves wisdom but also invites, indeed requires, future inputs and improvements. Marginal places and people must be welcomed in reconstituted communities and restructured systems that also imitate ecosystems (balance, resilience, vitality, diversity, mutuality, etc.) and harmonize with local ecosystems. Neighborliness will be emphasized. Limits must be set on production and consumption, which means that the ratio of farmer to acreage must be decreased. Distribution of surplus will be important as well, because distribution of food poses a greater threat to sustainability than the production of food.

As humans, we must address our needs, but we must do so with the realization that we are not the only, or indeed the most important, species inhabiting this planet. Evolution (and some religious traditions) bears witness to our interconnectedness and interdependence with the earth and fellow creatures. This tension will be a tightrope that cannot be walked in the abstract but only in responsible concrete practices. Sustainable agriculture is the mediator between the health of human culture and the health of the earth because it depends on the permanent renewal of both.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Conflict Transformation Style Assessment

Personality profile tests are tricky for me. Not necessarily because they require limiting labels (as if human beings can, or should, escape limitations), but because they deal out de-contextualized situations and prefabricated options. The profile did prove useful, but as I took it I wanted to know what subject was being discussed in the group, who my fellow groups members were, where we were having the discussion, etc. The context would greatly determine my role within it and my response to it.

Even so, I find it interesting that my adjudicated style, Affiliating/Perfecting, is considered the activist style, something with which I resonate. I am committed to the grassroots and middle-range sectors of peacebuilding, to place and to people, and this style seems appropriate for these commitments. In our corner enclave of similarly-profiled classmates, we discussed common themes of our (past and future) work: strong values, willingness to question authority, cooperation, passion, engagement, loyalty, etc. Unfortunately, perverted manifestations of these convictions can breed elitism and even hatefulness, arrogantly dividing the world into good guys and bad guys with little room for nuance or critical questions. There is a fine line between confronting dehumanization and dehumanizing those you confront. That fine line, however, is a tightrope that must be walked: sides must be taken, because neutrality votes for the oppressor. But activists must stand firm on unsettled ground, because we can never be smugly certain, as if we are sole recipients of the Revelation of Absolute Truth. Ironically, this ambiguity embraces convicted action, but action seasoned with interrogatory ethics: asking questions of the systems and structures of the world while simultaneously asking the same questions of ourselves, exposing our own contingencies and construction. Such an ethics, so needed in every conflict transformation style, would be radical in the etymological sense of the word: routing out the roots of our socioeconomic and political injustices and retrieving the roots of our sustaining and subversive stories. In this radicalism, the synthesis of loving our neighbors and loving our enemies is vital.

As classmates in other groups shared their styles and experiences, distinctive lines blurred like a gradual shading of color into color, each style contributing to a mosaic of peacebuilders. Instead of differences dominated by hierarchy and distrust, a diversity of gifts emerged characterized by the collaboration of organizers, facilitators, analyzers, reconcilers, and activists. Indeed, I saw myself in several other styles, since my work has required harmonizing, directing, and certainly analyzing. But the energy for my commitment to marginalized and dispossessed people and places has come more from an “affiliating/perfecting” spirit, from an activist bent, which has grown from deep roots in my life.

I grew up in the Appalachian Mountains of Tennessee, one of the poorest areas of the United States, where my father was a family doctor working with a community healthcare center, clinic, and hospital dedicated to the uninsured. My family has also crafted a close connection to Israel and Palestine over the past forty years. Like many American Christians, my family championed Israel despite knowing little about the Palestinian perspective, even though we had Palestinian friends for as long as we had Israeli friends. Over the last ten years, however, my family’s perspective on the conflict has progressively shifted (perhaps due in part to an interrogatory ethic) from one of steadfast support of Israel to an intimate connection with the plight of the Palestinians. I have worked as a journalist in Ramallah with the Palestine Monitor, a web-based news source committed to “exposing life under occupation.” I traveled throughout the West Bank, writing several articles about the village of Ni’lin, whose olive groves and roads were (and are) fractured due to the construction of the separation wall. I witnessed and engaged with villagers, as well as Israeli and international activists, nonviolently protesting the confiscation and devastation of their land. And I watched and felt the effects as police and military repeatedly responded with teargas, rubber-coated bullets, and live fire. I served as a writer and editor with Musalaha (“reconciliation” in Arabic), which is committed to uniting Israeli Messianic Jews and Palestinian Christians. I was given a list of Israelis and Palestinians to interview and then incarnate my skeletal notes as stories about encounters with the other and events of reconciliation, which was published as a book in December. I also worked with the Al-Basma Center, a creative and restorative place for people with developmental disabilities. Through activities like olivewood carving, recycled card-making, weaving, making fuel from sawdust, a greenhouse, drama, speech therapy, and hygiene classes, the students are taught practical and artistic skills and the belief that they are vital members and contributors to their community. The marginalized of the marginalized are welcomed as fully human.

These experiences, and my placement in the style assessment, highlight the necessity of praxis. Reflective practitioners understand the relatedness of conflict transformation styles, a relationship that advocates addressing root causes of violence, tending the connected branches of the peacemaking tree, and testing the soil of conflict and the inequitable distribution of power and privilege (Enns & Myers, 2009, p. 44). Unfortunately, activists sometimes lack the attentive patience and hospitable openness this requires. The subsequent danger of this style is burnout, the edge of which I have seen myself in only a short amount of time. This danger seems attributable to a wide variety of reasons, but I think certainly to a lack of familiarity with (or even respect for) the other branches of the tree, such as analyzing and preserving, accommodating and harmonizing. Also, in my experience activists often lack community. A group of individuals committed to the same goal or having the same conversation does not constitute community: they share nothing but ideas, which can be fleeting. Healthy activists and movements seem to be grounded in a sustaining community with shared space, time, resources, memories, values, and practices. Jean Vanier suggests that “To struggle for a cause it is best for people to be rooted in a community where they are learning reconciliation, acceptance of difference and of their own darkness, and how to celebrate . . . A community that does not celebrate is in danger of becoming just a group of people that get things done” (2010, p. 169, 97). Activists are so preoccupied with the future that they forget response-ability to the present moment. We need prophetic communities that microcosmically cultivate a restorative culture and imagine what the alternative future looks like right now.

Similarly, activists can also emphasize ends too much. I might very easily burn out if I thought results were the most important thing, that my work will definitely achieve all my goals, that I can ‘save the world’ and ‘feed the hungry’ and ‘create world peace.’ To think on that scale, I would be forced to conjure up grand abstract schemes that might look eerily similar to those with grand abstract schemes to ‘take over the world.’ Both operate by massive top-level implementation which ironically necessitates destructively reductionist thinking. Clearly, ends can never be ignored, especially for those in the belly of the beast. And the end goal of nonviolent direct action is negotiation and, if possible, reconciliation. Means and ends must be as commensurate as possible. But idealism about achieving those ends will only sow seeds for cynicism, a common trait amongst activists I know (myself included). Idealism leads to abstraction which leads to failure which leads to burnout. Activists may need deeper and more concrete reasons than absolute assurance and quick realization of ends, which may or may not come. In the end, there may be no such thing as peace. In the end, there is only peacemaking.


Enns, E. and Myers, C. (2009). Ambassadors of Reconciliation Volume II: Diverse Christian
Practices of Restorative Justice and Peacemaking. Maryknoll: Orbis Books.

Vanier, J., & Whitney-Brown, C. (ed.). (2010). Jean Vanier: Essential writings. Maryknoll:
Orbis Books.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

A House Divided: Reflection on Lederach's Building Peace

I know someone who has hoped to make a career out of working in occupied Palestine. During a discussion about the imminent Palestinian bid for statehood, he quipped that, if the request succeeded, he might be out of a job before he even gets started. He probably meant it sardonically, but the implication seemed to be that a Palestinian state would solve everything, as if abject poverty, community disintegration, Muslim-Christian hostility, political infighting, ecological destruction, and IDF-mimicking police forces would just suddenly vanish in the wake of a salvific state. In the end, there may be no such thing as peace. In the end, there is only peacemaking.

John Paul Lederach knows that peacebuilding must delve much deeper than statist perspectives (1997, p. xvi). I appreciated his acknowledgment of the symptomatic residue of structural and systemic diseases (ibid, p. 57). While the actual surface of conflict must be addressed (and, at times, must be addressed in the very moment in which the encounter summons us to respond), the root causes that grew into what we see must also be tended to; further still, the soil around the roots might need a little testing as well. Deformed roots will continue to sprout if we ignore infected soil. Imbalances of power and privilege make for uneven ground.

I was treading on familiar ground when Lederach discussed reconciliation (ibid, p. 23-35). I served as a writer and editor with an organization called Musalaha, which means “reconciliation” in Arabic. Musalaha is committed to creating space for reconciliation (ibid, p. 29) between Israeli Messianic Jews and Palestinian Christians, hoping to then build bridges to the distant shores of mainstream society. Even so, Musalaha struggles to fully test the soil of conflict. While they do occasionally discuss historical harms and trauma, mercy and forgiveness are given a much bigger plot of land than truth and justice. Musalaha attempts to walk a string-thin line. They are in an extremely volatile situation as an NGO predominantly funded by Evangelical Christians, many of whom still ardently support Israel. The director (a Palestinian with Israeli citizenship) says he has “an itch for justice” and is ready for Musalaha to speak more boldly. However, if they cry justice for their beloved country too loudly, many Israelis won’t come to conferences and retreats. But if Musalaha continues a more neutral stance on political issues, Palestinians will consider their silence as normalizing the occupation and they may not come much longer either. There will be no peace without reconciliation through justice, which, as Cornel West reminds us, “is what love looks like in public” (Dillon, 2008).

A friend of Lederach’s once exclaimed that truth, mercy, justice, and peace meet in a place called reconciliation (1997, p. 29). This spring, I worked with some of my closest friends in Mozambique at a resource center and organic farm called Malo Ga Kujilana (MGK), which in Chiyao means “place of reconciliation.” More literally, the name translates as “the place of coming together,” etymologically referring to the reparation of a marriage after separation. This actual place incarnates the reconciliation of people with their neighbors and of neighbors with the earth. MGK partners with local villages to nurture imagination and wholeness through sustainable agriculture, non-monetary micro-loans, nutrition programs, sanitation initiatives, storytelling, and living life well together. This concreteness seems absent in some peacebuilding discussions and programs. Lederach is right to emphasize partiality and advocacy (ibid, p. 50) because relationship is the alpha and omega of conflict and peace (ibid, p. 26) and must therefore have a specific locus (ibid, p. 29). In the effort to be socially relevant, peacebuilding may have lost some of that prophetic voice. Often, it seems, peacebuilders want to address root causes but don’t want to put down roots. I am not extremely sympathetic to conflict junkies: transience breeds abstraction, around which the danger of global thinking revolves. Those with grand abstract schemes to ‘save the world’ don’t always think that differently from those with grand abstract schemes to ‘take over the world.’ Both must operate on reductionist assumptions and the myth of the White Man’s Burden. Indeed, the most successful global thinkers have been imperial governments and multinational corporations (Berry, 1993, p. 19). This is in no way a call for withdrawal; on the contrary, isolation can be just as dangerous and justice necessitates imaginative conversation and respectful generosity for the plurality of the world’s local places (ibid, p. 50). No place is wholly free while another is enslaved, no place wholly healed while another is diseased. However, I do have questions as to whether massive ‘global solutions’ to ‘global problems’ will be any less destructive than the problems which they seek to solve. Contrary to popular belief, I think size does matter.

I am not haunted and convicted by the land between the river and the sea because of the “Israel-Palestine conflict,” which is such an overwhelmingly abstract concept. We certainly need our helpful heuristic devices, but they often morph into meta-narratives that gloss over, or erase, complexities and particularities. So I do not go because of “the Conflict.” I am convicted because of names, faces, stories, and places. And, increasingly, I am convicted of names, faces, stories, and places in my own homeland. Americans sometimes travel far away from home to realize that their neighbors are suffering too. I think it may be easier for Americans to romantically care about the effects of global inequity (starving kids on the other side of the world) than to care about the affects of that inequity (‘free’ economic forces and systems based on what Dr. King called the giant triplets of racism, militarism, and materialism). Those questions are too hard to ask because the answers expose our complicity in those causes. We can’t just withdraw and pretend like systems and structures don’t need to be changed.

I think critiques of the withdrawal of the ‘quiet in the land’ have been valid, but I worry that for the sake of validity peacebuilders have sacrificed vitality. Lederach hints at the need for an image or vision of the future toward which we are building (ibid, p. 76-7), but in my mind this deserves much more attention. We need communities that microcosmically cultivate a restorative culture, prophetically imagining what the alternative future looks like right now. These visions must be practiced in a rooted community, like MGK, the Amish, Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salaam, a Gandhian ashram, Buddhist sanghas, or Christian monastic movements (old and new). I think we should advocate for a kind of withdrawal: defection from oppressive systems and practices in order to inhabit something better. All addicts need rehabilitation, and rehabilitation requires limitations, accountability, and commitment. But I must constantly recognize that my ability to defect is in many ways due to my privilege within the very system from which I am withdrawing, which therefore means I must also work to carve out alternatives for others and help dismantle unjust structures.

Because of this, I am admittedly biased toward the grassroots and middle-range sectors (Lederach, 1997, p. 39). I do think policies need to be changed, but I think most changes in policies have been the result of community organizing and movements by the most disenfranchised, whether it be civil rights, unemployment benefits, health and safety standards, food and drug regulations, fair housing statutes, etc (Myers, 1994, p. 218). Gandhi didn’t achieve relevancy by moving to the capitol and attempting to reform the Metonyms on their terms. He had an influential voice with the Powers that Be, but he also lived out his future vision in the present in the marginal places of the world. Proximity matters: where I live, who I live there with, and how I live there define my relationship to the world. Aside from water and shit, not much of anything ever trickles down (Lederach, 1997, p. 45), especially ‘reagonomically’: the pipes always seem to get clogged, or just re-routed. The top-level seems like a vacuum into which good-hearted people can get sucked because they believe they can change something that has such overpowering centripetal force. This is what empire does: colonize the good intentions of the noble who desire to force the flow in a centrifugal direction. I am honestly cynical that this works, because the top-level can colonize people who didn’t work in that sector (and therefore weren’t even on the payroll). Martin Luther King is a sentimental bobble-head on a broken record player: “I have a dream! I have a dream! I have a dream!” Thank goodness! We never have to hear what that dream actually entailed, especially the dreams he had and planned to proclaim right before he got shot in the head. Jesus of Nazareth is muzzled as the meek and mild Savior and the privatized poster child for the empire that executed him as a political dissident. We piously say that if we had lived in the time of our ancestors we would never have killed the prophets. Instead, we would just automate them by replaying decontextualized (and depoliticized) sound bites and giving them annual national holidays. Can David ever defeat Goliath on the giant’s terms?

Lederach relates the excellent societal metaphor of a House (ibid, pp. xv, 37). He notes opposing theories about how to approach this House (ibid, p. 37), but he seems to think that all levels and approaches have legitimacy (ibid, p. 60). Surely they are interrelated, but are they equally legitimate? This is an honest question, not a loaded one, one that constantly disturbs my settled answers. I am not suggesting that we can ignore the power of the top-level and how it relates to the middle-range and grassroots sectors. After all, the top-level can build a wall through my olive groves whether I acknowledge it or not. He may indeed be right, but I think there is a difference between acknowledging its existence and accepting it. The blueprints of our House called for liberty and justice for all, but the actual foundation was built on white supremacy, patriarchy, and oligarchy (Myers, 1994, p. 203). This House in which we live was built more by enslaved Africans than by free Europeans, and we evicted the previous inhabitants whose House (or should I say, Houses), while more structurally simple, was far more sound and secure (perhaps because it was simple). The opposing theories mentioned by Lederach seem to me to lie at the heart of the matter. One approach believes social injustices are a personal and policy problem: the House needs some slight adjustments and some redecorating, but it’s structurally fine. The other approach thinks that these injustices stem from the very history and formations of economic and political structures themselves: the House cannot simply be repainted, but might be in need of extensive renovation.

Because a House divided against itself cannot stand.


Berry, W. (1993). Sex, economy, freedom, and community: Eight essays. New York City:
Pantheon Books

Dillon, J. (Producer, Screenwriter/Director). (2008). Call+Response [Motion Picture]. United States: Fair Trade Pictures.

Lederach, J. (1997). Building peace: Sustainable reconciliation in divided societies. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Institute of Peace

Myers. C. (1994). Who will roll away the stone?: Discipleship queries for first world christians. Maryknoll: Orbis Books.