Friday, February 17, 2012

Religion and Roots: The Danger of a Monolithic Story Part II

Contexts such as this are key, and for me so is etymology. I am drawn to the fact that in Greek, Hebrew, and, to a certain extent, Latin, spirit and wind and breath (nouma, ruach, spiritus) are the same. When people said one, they said all three. This wordplay retains awe for flux and a reverence for mystery, holding both the fragility and resilience of life. In Latin, religion can mean either “to gather around again” (re-legere) or to “bind back to” (re-ligare). In this sense, many things become extremely religious (see Footnote) and the dividing walls of hostility constructed between groups begin to look foundationally weak. Because of this I try to entertain different definitions: I don’t want all my eggs in one basket.

Another definition is that religions are embodied cultural-linguistic traditions. As such, there is nothing I can do about the influence various forms of Christianities have had on me. They have informed me and shaped my language and my being, and ultimately my becoming. During a particularly antagonistic existential sojourn, the words of Wendell Berry unsettled, and continually unsettle, me:

“[T]here are an enormous number of people—and I am one of them—whose native religion, for better or worse, is Christianity. We were born to it; we began to learn about it before we became conscious; it is, whatever we think of it, an intimate belonging of our being; it informs our consciousness, our language, and our dreams. We can turn away from it or against it, but that will only bind us tightly to a reduced version of it. A better possibility is that this, our native religion, should survive and renew itself so that it may become as largely and truly instructive as we need it to be” (Berry, 1993, pp. 95-96).

In response, I must admit that the the Torah, the prophets, the gospels, and the epistles (not to mention the long winding history and tradition afterward) are my home in more ways than one. Whatever else they are, these stories are a reservoir of human folly and wisdom, empire and creation wrestling in concert throughout the ages. This has nothing to do with the rabbit-holes of Absolute Truth and Direct Revelation. In my mind, declaring that there is one true religion is akin to claiming that there is one true and absolute place, language, poem, painting, or musical composition. Some are certainly better composed than others, and gardens are better than garbage dumps, but nothing is that exclusively absolute.

Let me tell an inadequate story in the manner of Jesus’ agroecological parables in the gospel of Mark: Christian history and tradition is like a great farm, which grew out of the influences of even more ancient agroecosystems. At times, the farm has exponentially expanded as the most dominant farmers fought and stole arable land and workers from neighboring farms; they would indeed incorporate techniques and knowledge from the conquered farm into their own, but often at the cost of the death of the conquered. Much of the land has been abused and scarred with destructive methods that took little notice of contours, watersheds, and past practices, all in the name of Maximizing Profits. But over in the many marginal spaces, the minority reports have been busy all along cultivating the fertility and fecundity of the topsoil, embracing biodiversity, conversing with neighboring farmers, and producing good fruit. Many of these marginal gardeners left throughout the years, believing the soil to be poisoned beyond remediation and the abuses of the farm calling for indefinite trials of separation. However, many stay, not because they agree with the dominant farmers or because they think their farming is the only way in which to care for the land. They stay because they feel health and memory in the soil, because they taste some good fruit, and because they learned their marginal practices on that land in the first place. If all the marginal gardeners left, the farm would decay into absolute ruin and they would simply have to squat on another farm just as conflicted as the one they left.

I still wrestle with which kind of farmer I am in this tale. I do know that I am committed to radical hermeneutics (to borrow from John Caputo) and radical discipleship (to borrow from Ched Myers). The former deconstructs our stories by exposing their utter contingency: “God” is a cultural and historical construct shaped over time. The latter is caught up in the poetics of story, digging to the roots of our socioeconomic crises by dwelling within the roots of our stories: “God” is the wild ruach that in the naming refuses to be named. Because in the end stories are all we have, all that gives us shelter and all that drives us out into the cold. We are sustained and subverted by our stories in their contingent reality. Radical hermeneutics recognizes that God and love are endlessly translatable: “Is love a way of exemplifying God or is God a way of exemplifying love?” (Caputo, 2001, p. 25) However, radical hermeneutics agrees with radical discipleship that perhaps this is the wrong place to look for any sort of translation. The only translation that matters is our translation into the language of action and the movements of love. Religions are also related through this translatability: something is always lost in translation, but something is always gained.

Which brings me back to the particularity and universality of trees. In a forest ecosystem, the roots of trees will often graft together, or will at least be connected as fungi share nutrients from root to root. Maybe this is a way religious traditions and worldviewing are connected: root grafting, not twig grafting. The multiplicity of human cultures grows from natural biodiversity, which is vital for the health of the world. Similarities and differences revel together in the mutuality of cooperation and competition. Maintaining such a dynamic equilibrium will only happen if human societies and cultures learn from the structures and functions of their local ecosystems that exhibit self-renewal and resilience, stability and mutability, rootedness and longevity.

The superficial tolerance of interfaith dialogue is exposed by this perspective. Prothero is right to critique an insipid uniformity that declares all religions as the same, for good or ill. Both sides fear difference because in their minds difference must entail violence. But conflict is necessary: we learn from challenging stimulation, and ecosystems require disturbance to thrive. An associated, and deeper, problem is that interfaith dialogues, or bashing the faithful, often have no shared place. They have no context and therefore vaporize in abstraction without life lived together. Conversation needs someplace to give it context, some embodied reality that can grow and breathe. Uniformity ironically subsidizes hyper-individualism even amidst talk of community: we are all connected, just so long as connectedness doesn’t require anything. Maybe community can be understood as the interdependent relationship and mutual belonging between a place, its inhabitants, and their stories. Relatedness to our neighbor, both human and nonhuman creatures, determines how we act in the world. We won’t save places we don’t love, and we can’t love places we don’t know, and we can’t know places with which we aren’t intimately familiar. The same goes for people. Perhaps some exceptions are conceivable, but proximity matters: where I live, who I live there with, and how I live define my relationship to the world.

Maybe these are the roots of religious nature and practice. Or at least, a way to reinterpret them.

Footnote: In fact, I think Prothero excluded the three greatest religions of the modern world: capitalism, nationalism, and technological progress. Many people, no matter what their traditional religious heritage, adhere to some permutation of these modern myths. Belief is ultimately not what you say, but what you do.


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

Caputo, J. D. (2001). On religion. New York: Routledge.

Kupperman, J.J. (2010). Theories of human nature. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company.

Prothero, S. (2010). God is not one: The eight rival religions that run the world—and why their differences matter. New York: HarperOne.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Religion and Roots: The Danger of a Monolithic Story Part I

I stumbled across a problem as I read through Stephen Prothero’s God is Not One. My worldview chart in front of me, I read chapters on Christianity, Confucianism, and atheism (as well as Kupperman’s excellent chapter on Marx), skimming Buddhism, Daoism, Judaism, and Yoruba. And my pen, prepared to document three diverging worldviews, rarely scratched the surface because I knew that worldviewing differences do not simply occur between worldviews but within worldviews. Certainly, generalities can be made, which is why a book like Prothero’s is possible, but it is nearly impossible to determine what religious adherents think in the abstract. In fact, too much generalizing can be dangerous: we construct monolithic designations that are then forced down on people we have not even met, instead of letting definitions rise up out of the singularity of an encounter with the other.

Prothero does do an extraordinary job of allowing the good and the bad, the beautiful and the ugly, the joyous and the tragic to sit in tension with one another. Because, in the end, that is life, and religion is after all a response to life, observation and participation. “By their fruit you will know them,” and religious fruit has been some of the most sweet and the most bitter. Put another way, the church is a whore, but she has also given birth to some of the world’s most devoted servants. And yet, my concerns about monolithic generalizations still stand. A good friend, after reading Prothero’s chapter on Islam, admitted to an extreme prejudice toward that religion because of its views on women. This is certainly something that concerns me, but this concern is not relegated only to Islam. And to say that Islam has a view of women makes no sense in light of hermeneutics, the varied sects and traditions within Islam, and the fact that not all devout Muslims suppress women. The danger for my friend is that this chapter could blind her to actual Muslims who do not share those views, to other Koranic passages, and to alternative interpretations (Footnote: I should add here that this friend has since visited with a Muslim classmate who began to dispel preconceived generalizations, an encounter which only supports my claims). It would be irresponsible to gloss over texts of terror, but it would also be irresponsible to assume that our superficial readings are automatically accurate. One New Atheist-sounding friend decries the absolute evil of religion while claiming Gandhi and Martin Luther King as heroes; he explains that they were men ahead of their time who tapped in to universal scientific values by inadvertently eschewing their confining religious trappings. My only response to such violent reductionism was laughter.

So let us imagine that a conflict erupts, or festers. And let’s assume it’s in the Middle East. And a Christian, a Confucian, and an atheist rush to the scene in order to diagnose the cause of the Israel/Palestine struggle. A Christian might say that human sin is the underlying problem and salvation will, as the word implies, save; a Confucian could confess that order is called for, because this conflict smacks of the human dilemma of chaos; and an atheist might laugh at both and say reason will wash away the blood flowing because of religion itself. At this point, I can’t help but ask which Christian walked up: a Southern Baptist fundamentalist or a Latin American liberation theologian, or a more moderate third option? And what exactly is meant by sin and salvation, because such narrative concepts have meant extremely different things? Did the Confucian come from Beijing or from Boston, and from what time period in Chinese history? And was this a friendly or angry atheist: Terry Eagleton or Christopher Hitchens? I could probably relate what some friends might think who fall along these spectrums, but even they are so diverse, constituted by constellations of byzantine intricacy.

Religion does not have a pure Platonic essence separate from history and culture, time and place. Come to think of it, nothing does. There is no universal image of a tree: people tend to imagine leaves and bark familiar to where they grew up. In this way, universality is only achieved through particularity. Furthermore, religion is a Western term and it is not until the modern European Enlightenment that everything gets unthreaded and relegated to their own little islands. As I read Prothero, I could not keep things so unthreaded, and I certainly could not locate my “worldview” in one single chapter. I couldn’t help transgressing those boundaries. My heritage is Christian, but there was much in the chapter with which I no longer resonate (including classical theism; even though it’s overly simplistic, for the sake of shaking things up I like to joke with Christian and atheist friends that I’m religious, not spiritual). As I read about Confucianism, I nodded in full agreement concerning virtue ethics and community, but scribbled question marks in the margins next to defenses of patriarchy and rigidly hierarchical government. While I might pass for an atheist in some circles, the grating one-note diatribes of the New Atheists and other fundamentalists remind me of Jim Carrey in Dumb and Dumber: “Hey, wanna hear the most annoying sound in the world?!”

Perhaps my past reading in these areas, not to mention my relationships with flesh and blood, has ruined me to short distillations that sum up an entire historical tradition in a simple problem/solution equation. As good as Prothero’s book is (specifically his nuanced introduction and conclusion), the fact that a Western academic is briefly distilling ancient evolving traditions is important to keep in mind. Of all the religions discussed, I am the least unfamiliar with Christianity and I know it to be profoundly complex and interpretable, though I certainly think there are worse interpretations and better interpretations (usually ones aware of sociopolitical and literary context). Considering Prothero’s description of atonement and Christian history, his Episcopalian upbringing seemed to be an inevitably important player: streams within religions do not simply differ on externals, but also on the internal meaning as well. Having said that, I wonder what Hindus, Buddhists, and Yorubans would say to their respective treatments. Maintaining a conjoined sense of particularity and generality may be difficult, but it is necessary. As such, I don’t think the problem is inherently ignorance about other religions; it is the arrogance that assumes that even in our ignorance we know everything there is to know about the religious other. Humility and hospitality offered generously toward the unknown, toward the stranger and alien in the land, makes the most sense, because we would certainly not want someone to define our identity before having met us. “Do unto others . . .”

Our identities are shaped by streaming tributaries that converge in our lives, sometimes gently and sometimes turbulently. I have a mosaic of influences that continues to deconstruct and reconstruct me: literature and literary theory, communitarianism, Continental philosophy, bioregionalism and permaculture, natural and social sciences, Critical Theory, philosophy of religion, postcolonial histories, socioliterary and historical-contextual biblical interpretation, not to mention experiences, conversations, and all the things of which I’m not even aware. If there is predestination then it must be how we are somewhat determined by our own stories, our own historical, cultural, geographic, genetic contexts. We are only free in that determination.

My father is a family doctor who dedicated twenty years of his life to serving the uninsured in the impoverished Appalachian Mountains of East Tennessee. We moved to rural Jellico when I was two years old in order to pay off medical school debt before relocating to Honduras. However, my parents’ roots supplanted their plans and they devoted themselves to revitalizing the struggling non-profit healthcare center, community hospital, and country clinics. Those hills and its people and their stories spoke too deeply to leave.

They spoke deeply, nourishing like Southern hospitality, porch conversations and folk music, four-part harmonies and leaves turned into chimes by the wind, dogwood flowers and honeysuckle in the spring and fiery colors in the Autumnal hills. They spoke deeply, haunting like twelve-year olds getting pregnant, a Xanax-addicted girl whose landlord collected the monthly rent from her bed, drug rates and chronic unemployment proportional to major urban centers, a woman with a labyrinth of scars across her stomach from when her mother doused her in gasoline and drew the scars with cigarette fire, a dying town and raped mountains sucked dry by coal mining. My dad often told me that any understanding of the world or of God, whatever that means, must first make sense in the generational poverty and strip-mined mountains in Appalachia, at the gates of Auschwitz, or the walled ghettos of the West Bank and Gaza. Most do not. Without such understandings, I will smugly declare that my reality is normality while ignoring that it is in many ways a fa├žade constructed from the ruins of other lives and places. I will decide that I have no past and therefore no responsibility to the past, the present, the future, or to place. The stories I was told growing up, and in which I strive to reside, re-imagined religion, fundamentally and etymologically, as what binds us back to the wreckage and gift of the beautiful risk of life. From before I can remember, these stories—of history and literature, of people we knew, and parables and narratives from religious traditions—have informed me and shaped me, renewed me and subverted me.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

The Nature of Work: Earth, Community, and Healing Alienation Part III

Activist and theologian Ched Myers asserts that some early monastic communities provide an example of just such a transformation. Certain monastic communities believed that the project of civilization is constructed on the centralization and exploitation of wealth; if that is the case, then communities should become as self-sufficient as possible (Myers, 1994, p. 182). Furthermore, they claimed that exploitation and wealth stratification stem from the alienation of human labor, so in order to restore dignity and respect (as opposed to humiliation and shame), they centered their communal lives around shared manual, and therefore unalienated, work (ibid, p. 182). Contemporary examples include the worker-owned cooperatives of Mondragon (Clark, 2002, pp. 397-399); the agrarian local democracies of Kerala, India (ibid, pp. 399-400); and the grassroots cleanup and urban agriculture of the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative in Boston (ibid, pp. 401-402), to name only a very few.

Such examples highlight the need for meaningful engagement with other living things which, as mentioned previously, can help heal trauma (Suzuki, 2007, p. 257). In a statement that supports the notion of a permaculture farm and education center, Suzuki points out that mental health is enriched through horticultural activities: “gardens are becoming an integral part of the healing therapies at schools, nursing homes, hospitals, prisons and more” (ibid, p. 257). Not only is this due to humanity’s need for intimacy with the natural world, but due also to the connection between the mind and body, both of which are engaged by good work just as they are engaged by art, music, dancing, and repetitive rhythms, all of which excite the hypothalamus while simultaneously suppressing self-conscious orientation (Clark, 2002, p. 228).

Recognizing this connection is crucial to this argument because, as Mark Clark states, the human mind is the body “plus all its relationships” (ibid, p. 162). We cannot escape the intricate web of relatedness, even within our own bodies. Our bodies cannot heal alone, as if they existed in isolation (Berry, 2002, p. 99), because healing is conviviality (ibid, p. 99), which includes the deep felt needs of belonging and purposeful meaning. The process of healing restores the connections within our bodies (Clark, 2002, p. 228) and between our bodies and the world. In fact, the word health stems from an Old English word meaning wholeness, and so healing is the renewal of wholeness.

Peter Levine emphasizes this wholeness in his research on the physiological effects of trauma. He declares that the “key to healing traumatic symptoms in humans is in our physiology” (Levine, 1997, p. 17). Animal bodies, including humans, have evolved instinctual mechanisms that keep them safe, including the freeze/immobility strategy (ibid, p. 95), which “often leads to human trauma” (ibid, p. 97) because of our learnt inability to discharge extreme trauma energy (ibid, p. 35). However, animals rarely suffer from trauma because, once they determine the threat has passed, “they often begin to vibrate, twitch, and lightly tremble” (ibid, p. 97), which are the “organism’s way of regulating extremely different states of nervous system activation” (ibid, p. 98). Because of this, wild animals should be our teachers in trauma healing because they portray “nature in balance” (ibid, p. 98). If we humans allowed the fluid and adaptive biological response to run its course we could ameliorate the symptoms (ibid, p. 37). Therefore, humans have much to learn by studying and experiencing the natural world because not only are we healed by acknowledging our connection to nature, but we are also healed by imitating nature. This gives further credence to permaculture and bioregionalism (see McGinnis, 1999; Carr, 2004).

Much more elaborative and practical work must be done, including detailed accounts of specific case studies, but this sketch provides a developing basis for future praxis. Even so, I am committed to participating in the cultural renewal of communities that foster an “ethic of interdependence, partnership, and limiting violence (Schirch, 2004, p. 15) and that also recognize their place within natural ecosystems. Furthermore, recognition of connection to nature and to one another through imagination and the creativity of shared work manifest restorative justice and trauma healing.

A permaculture farm and education center can take seriously the nature and practice of community articulated here, and restorative justice could benefit from this definition that potentially addresses social harms as well as ecological devastation, in which humans are also offenders. Sustainability, maintaining a dynamic equilibrium, can only make sense if human societies and cultures learn from the structures and functions of their local ecosystems that exhibit self-renewal and resilience, stability and mutability, rootedness and longevity. Meaningful work and actual craft can also be provided for people, especially as urban agriculture and eco-building spread more and more widely. And in this case, viable jobs and skills transform alienation by fusing with the therapy of the natural world and the therapy of engaging both the mind and the body in creative acts. The traumatic effects on offenders of harming others can be just as crippling as the victims’ experience (Yoder, 2005, p. 14), which only strengthens the argument made here. These diversified places of play, education, and work “create safe spaces in which to heal” (Schirch, 2004, pp. 46-48) for both victims and offenders, separately and possibly together through forms of Victim Offender Conferencing.

Lorraine Stuzman Amstutz laments that a critical issue in VOC and other restorative justice approaches is its currently individualistic nature (Stuzman Amstutz, 2009, p. 80) even though community is central to restorative justice processes. This is understandable to a certain extent, because VOC is usually seen as a curative rather than a preventative. However, locating this process in an agroecosystem begins to erode the dichotomy between preventing and healing and gives the communal aspect of restorative justice some livability, without which it vaporizes in abstraction and the status quo persists. The name Victim Offender Conferencing almost begs for this to occur: in Latin, to confer simply means “to bring together.” An integrative vision weaving together nature, community, healing, and work is worthy of a restorative name.


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

Berry, W. and Wirzba, N. (Ed.). (2002). The art of the commonplace: The agrarian essays of Wendell Berry. Berkeley: Counterpoint.

Block, P. (2009). Community: The structure of belonging. San Francisco: Berret-Koehler Publishers, Inc.

Carr, M. (2004). Bioregionalism and civil society: Democratic challenges to corporate globalism. Vancouver: UBC Press.

Clark, M. E. (2002). In search of human nature. New York: Routledge.

Davis, E. F. (2009). Scripture, culture, and agriculture: An agrarian reading of the bible. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Gilligan, J. (2001). Preventing violence. New York: Thames & Hudson.

Holmgren, D. (2004). Essence of permaculture. Retrieved June 30, 2011, from Holmgren Design Services Website:

Kupperman, J.J. (2010). Theories of human nature. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company.

Levine, P. A. (1997). Waking the tiger: Healing trauma. Berkeley: North Atlantic Books.

McGinnis, M. V. (1999). Bioregionalism. New York: Routledge.

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

Schirch, L. (2004). The little book of strategic peacebuilding. Intercourse: Good Books.

Stuzman Amstutz, Lorraine. (2009). The little book of victim offender conferencing: Bringing victims and offenders together in dialogue. Intercourse: Good Books.

Suzuki, D. with McConnell, A. & Mason, A. (2007). The sacred balance: Rediscovering our place in nature. (3rd ed.). Berkeley: GreyStone Books.

Yoder, C. (2005). The little book of trauma healing: When violence strikes and community security is threatened. Intercourse: Good Books.

Zehr, H. (2002). The little book of restorative justice. Intercourse: Good Books.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

The Nature of Work: Earth, Community, and Healing Alienation Part II

Rooted in “ecological science and systems theory” (Holmgren, 2004, p. 4) as well as community research, religious traditions, and native cultures of place (ibid, p. 6), permaculture stems from three interrelated ethical maxims: “Care for the earth (husband soil, forests and water)”; “Care for people (look after self, kin and community)” ; and “Fair share (set limits to consumption and reproduction, and redistribute surplus)” (ibid, p. 6). Furthermore, the word permaculture not only means permanent and sustainable agriculture but also permanent and sustainable culture (ibid, p. 1). Bill Mollison, one of the co-originators of the concept, maintains that a stable social order is not possible without some form of permanent agroecology (Carr, 2004, p. 150) and method of human habitat design, which has too often reinforced our schism with nature (Suzuki, 2007, p. 261). Permaculture’s design principles are applicable from the home garden scale to entire cities (Carr, 2004, p. 152) as well as to politics and economics. In permaculture’s view, caring for people and caring for the earth cannot be divorced from one another, and caring for the former cannot happen without caring for the latter. Human societies can and should be based on mutualisms in natural ecosystems, such as mycorrhizal fungi on tree roots, in order to foster a “fundamental ethic of interdependence and kinship” (ibid, p. 150).

This suggestion is not an impossible pipedream. David Suzuki reminds us that for nearly all of human existence we lived wholly immersed in nature and are still utterly dependent on it (Suzuki, 2007, p. 255). Ninety-nine percent of human existence has been lived in small egalitarian hunter-gatherer/horticultural band societies that imitated their bioregional habitats (ibid, p. 248), which was and is the norm for many indigenous cultures. Because of this ecological context of human evolution, Suzuki argues, it is extremely probable that the human genome has “a genetically programmed need to be in the company of other species” (ibid, p. 256). The biologist and myrmecologist E. O. Wilson coined the term biophilia to describe this engrained need, defined as “‘the innate tendency to focus on life and life-like processes,’” thus producing an emotional connection between humans and other forms of life (ibid, p. 256) that will certainly be culturally shaped and embodied. Because of this, Suzuki asserts that it is scientifically verifiable that human creatures have an evolved need for intimacy with nature and, citing Roger S. Ulrich, purports that much of humanity’s search for meaning and fulfillment depends on our relationship to the earth (ibid, p. 259).

Mary Clark agrees by claiming that purposeful meaning and a sense of belonging comprise two of humanity’s most basic needs (Clark, 2002, p. 364). These two central needs, along with the need for nature, have enormous power to heal trauma, and Clark also references research by Ulrich which suggests that views of nature substantially reduce time needed to recover from surgery (ibid, pp. 226-227). On a similar note, inmates in a Michigan state prison with cell windows viewing farms and forest required twenty-four percent fewer medical visits than inmates with windows facing the interior courtyard (Suzuki, 2007, p. 257).

Moreover, Clark stresses that humans need interactive communities, which means “belonging in a physical place, shared by known others,” because without “this grounding in [our] physical surroundings,” community disintegrates into apathetic societies (ibid, p. 395). As perceptual psychologist James J. Gibson notes, sentient beings can only survive if they actively explore their surroundings, which requires that they actually physically move through them (ibid, p. 164). This physical movement concretizes and contextualizes recognition of place and begins to uncover both preventative and curative approaches to trauma and violence. Indeed, Clark suggests that the nature and practice of community presented here, which reflectively roots humanity within the earth’s ecosystems, can begin to address both our human and environmental problems (ibid, p. 306). We won’t save places we don’t love, and we can’t love places we don’t know, and we can’t know places with which we aren’t intimately familiar. Perhaps some exceptions are conceivable, but proximity matters: where I live, who I live there with, and how I live define my relationship to the world.

From his Kentucky farm, Wendell Berry submits that the name of this relationship to the world is work, and the name of an appropriate relationship to the earth is good work (Berry, 1993, p. 35). For Berry, good work is given shape in particularity, because the diversity of the world and of those who work is contextually shaped and named (ibid, p. 36). But this particularity is informed by the common need to consciously and carefully decide “[h]ow we take our lives from this world, how we work, what work we do, how well we use the materials we use, and what we do with them after we have used them” (ibid, p. 109) because caring for the earth is an ancient responsibility, and one that must be done well if humanity is to survive (Berry, 2002, p. 46).

Clearly, by work I do not mean any task done in exchange for payment or something grueling which distracts us from more productive pursuits. I mean work, at least good work, as the union of the body and mind in creative and responsible engagement with the world. In this case, work and play are not antithetical. Permaculture’s rigorous design principles and cooperatively-managed agroecosystems reduce the amount of labor hours because they let ecological succession to take its course, thus allowing far more leisure time. This is important because, as psychiatrist James Gilligan notes, unalienated labor is only possible if it expresses “spontaneous and voluntary creativity, curiosity, playfulness, initiative, and sociability—that is, the sense of solidarity with the community, the fulfillment of one’s true and ‘essential’ human nature as ‘social’ and ‘political’ animals, to be fulfilled and made human by their full participation in a culture” (Gilligan, 2001, p. 103).

This articulation resonates with traditional societies that believed good work is the en-fleshing of wisdom, which is not only intellectual but is “any activity that stands in a consistently productive relationship to the material world and nurtures the creative imagination” (Davis, 2009, p. 144). Imagination must include the ability to conceive of others not ourselves, including humans, nonhumans, and places, and so work, if it is to be good work, in one place cannot deal destructively with other places. If society is interconnected, then this imagination must be focused on victims and offenders as well.

Unfortunately, modern Western societies have unimaginatively prized the intellectual at the expense of the physical and the ordinary, even if such work is skilled, to the extent that such work is shamed (ibid, p. 144). While Karl Marx never questioned capitalism’s foundation on progressive industrialism, and so did not make the distinction made here between work and good work, he nevertheless attacked this alienation of labor. According to Marx, modern life is tainted by alienation, which can only be remedied by the fair opportunity to pursue a desirable life (Kupperman, 2010, p. 145), understood as “a balanced work life and also satisfactory connections with other human beings in general” (ibid, p. 143), which should sound familiar by now. The present division of labor, however, prevents this balance because workers are alienated from work: they have no ownership or input into the kind of work being done (ibid, p. 148) because they are mechanistically relegated to one simplified task in an operation system (ibid, p. 149). As such, alienation chips away at any possible participation in meaningful community (Clark, 2002, p. 25). Economic and social arrangements must be transformed in order for diversified modes of fulfilling work to take place. Such could be the case in networked and diversified urban or rural permaculture systems that viewed work like Berry and Gilligan, a movement already happening.

Friday, February 10, 2012

The Nature of Work: Earth, Community, and Healing Alienation Part I

Humans are inextricably connected to the earth. We inhabit, breathe, drink, and eat this strange blue globe that is our only home. The oldest religious traditions recognized this scientific fact by weaving stories, almost myths-as-memory, which describe humans as creatures crafted from the dirt: adam and adama, human and humus, culture and cultivate. Indeed, the plurality of human cultures grows from natural biodiversity. And we are social animals, dependent for better or worse on other lives beyond ourselves. The peacebuilding practice of restorative justice recognizes this by believing that society is interconnected (Zehr, 2002, p. 19), a belief that reframes crime as the cause and effect of damaged relationships (ibid, p. 20). According to medical biologist and physicist Peter Levine, damaged relationships and disconnection from a sense of belonging lie at the root of violence and trauma (Levine, 1997, p. 266). If this is true, then the proper response to crime, to the “violation of people and interpersonal relationships,” is the obligation to make things as right as possible (Zehr, 2002, p. 19), which includes the rehabilitation of the offender.

But rehabilitation to what? If crime is both personal and societal (ibid, p. 12), and these two are interconnected, then simply rehabilitating offenders to this broken locus, especially after the alienating and shaming force of prison, can perpetuate the cycle of violence, certainly evident in recidivism and incarceration rates (see Gilligan, 2001). The current legal system also alienates victims in the emphasis on crime as an offense to the state. Biologist Mary E. Clark points out that excessive physical or psychological trauma, such as that experienced in crime, alters the very structure of the brain, and if healing does not occur after the initial stress, then victims may not be able to integrate into healthy and comfortable social settings (Clark, 2002, p. 63). If restorative justice is right, however, then situating crime in the nexus of social relatedness demands the restoration of society itself, which should include the realization that we are also embedded in nonhuman life.

Which brings me once again to the intimate human connection with the natural world. This realization is necessary for right relationships and a healthy culture. And so is the need for belonging and for participation in meaningful and creative work. I am therefore arguing for the union of unalienated work, nature, community, healing, and place. This union can deeply inform preventative and responsive approaches of restorative justice and trauma healing. The topic is personal because it foresees work I hope to do in the future with a close group of friends. In order to embody the proposed argument and vision of this paper, we have discussed the potential of a permaculture farm and education center as a site for restorative justice and trauma healing. A permaculture-based agroecosystem could serve as an ideal place for the emotionally and physically draining meetings of Victim Offender Conferencing. Furthermore, the farm could be a transitional home for people recently released from prison and who have struggled with addictions and homelessness where viable skills and crafts are learned and a sense of belonging is cultivated.

In a way, such a farm and community would microcosmically incarnate an alternative configuration of society envisioned by restorative justice. Meaningful work and practical skills are important and cannot be undervalued, and neither can the sense of belonging found in authentic community. The nature and practice of community is vital to the vision presented here. A working definition of this elusive term must be offered in order to ground the following conversation. The term has been stretched like a balloon in contemporary parlance, evidenced in expansive expressions such as the “academic community,” the “online community,” the “global community,” etc. Such combinations might realize our interconnectedness, but they also dilute “community” of any bioregional emphasis, local mutuality, and ultimately interdependence. This modern dilution, or delusion, depends on what Mary Clark labels the Billiard Ball Gestalt, which sees everything as “isolated, discrete objects that have distinct boundaries” (Clark, 2002, p. 6), a worldview which geneticist and environmentalist David Suzuki contends ultimately confines humans to their own minds as “separate individuals acting on and relating to other separate individuals and on a lifeless, dumb world beyond the body” (Suzuki, 2007, p. 275). And so community ironically retains a pathological individualism (ibid, p. 263): we may be connected, but only as long as nothing is required of us.

This worldview results in fragmentation, loneliness, separation, and the fear of death, summed up in the word alienation: “[w]e are strangers in the world, we no longer belong (ibid, p. 275). Systems based on extreme individualism, like the legal/judicial structure, result in overcrowded prisons (Clark, 2002, p. 331) and heighten an offender’s experience of alienation (Zehr, 2002, p. 16). Clark offers the Indra’s Net Gestalt as an alternative hermeneutic, in which we interpret the world as connected, interdependent, and interacting in bodies, economies, social arrangements, and ecosystems (Clark, 2002, p. 9). While not an absolutist picture of reality (ibid, p. 12), Indra’s Net has the potential to counter alienation by cultivating a sense of belonging. Societal beliefs have a habit of constructing the behaviors they articulate, and so the question becomes which reality we wish to inhabit.

Design consultant and writer Peter Block contends that “[c]ommunity is fundamentally an interdependent human system given form by the conversation it holds with itself” (2009, p. 30), stressing context as belief systems and ways of speaking (ibid, p. 15). This is surely true, so at times we must shift our context, or perhaps reinterpret and re-imagine it. But, like a community, a conversation itself is also given form, and therefore must take place in and with someplace. Context is certainly linguistic, but it is also economic, sociopolitical, religious, biological, ecological, and geographical. For a conversation to have any function, let alone meaning, it must have a context that shapes the conversation’s incarnation and is in turn shaped by it.

Block’s definition, though very useful, must paradoxically be narrowed and expanded. Activist, writer, and farmer Wendell Berry defends just such a paradox. “By community,” he writes, “I mean the commonwealth and common interests, commonly understood, of people living together in a place and wishing to continue to do so. To put it another way, community is a locally understood interdependence of local people, local culture, local economy, and local nature” (1993, p. 119). With this definition he narrows Block’s designation by repeating the word local, claiming that community must be rooted, and expands it by introducing nature, recognizing that community is not restricted to human structures but incorporates the nonhuman as well: a community “is like an ecosystem, and it includes—or it makes itself harmoniously a part of—its local ecosystem” (ibid, p.155). In fact, Berry claims that if we are speaking of a healthy community then we must speak of more than humans, because we will be talking about a place and all its inhabitants: the neighborhood of humans and “its soil, its water, its air, and all the families and tribes of the nonhuman creatures that belong to it . . . All neighbors are included” (ibid, pp. 14, 15).

Block concurs, and beautifully articulates, that community is centrally about belonging (2009, p. xii), thus clarifying that it is relatedness to our neighbor, both human and nonhuman creatures, that determines how we act in the world. Community can then be understood as the interdependent relationship and mutual belonging between place, its inhabitants, and their stories. Clark believes that understanding and practicing this can help to restore the balance of traumatized brains, in which “the normal integration between motivational and cognitive regions of the brain” has been severely disrupted (Clark, 2002, p. 225). She argues that humans experience an overwhelming need to belong to some form of caring community (ibid, p. 228), which aids in restructuring the traumatized brain by “building an emotional bonding of trust” that is crucial for the body to heal itself (ibid, p. 225). Permaculture constructively envisions the practicality of this definition and how it correlates with nature, work, and healing.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Forgiveness and Life Together

Forgiveness, like most concepts of any worth, is notoriously difficult to define. This is unavoidable, because such definitions must inevitably emerge from the ethos of specific times and locations in which that particular definition holds meaning. After all, the word ethos stems from the same root as ethic, both referring to character, custom, spirit, and habit. While I agree with Gayle Lenore Macnab’s statement that forgiveness is not easy or simple (53), it can at least suggest a certain rhythm because of cultivation within a community. Indeed, communities cannot survive without something like forgiveness, which is both biologically evolved and culturally refined. Perhaps forgiveness is necessary at times because some acts are so unspeakable, so unforgivable, that reparation for and sense of them can never be made. French philosopher Jacques Derrida suggested that maybe forgiveness, if it exists at all, exists only where there is the unforgivable; its possibility happens only in its impossibility. Certainly, people cannot and should not be demanded to forgive, but can we confess that the refusal to do so could produce slavery to the past that will project that fracture into the future? Forgiveness, as Macnab points out, reclaims life for the victim by leading to a path of “health and growth” (57).

Forgiveness, as Macnab rightly acknowledges, is not the longing for a different past, because “the past cannot be changed” (56). If the past could be changed, then there would be nothing to forgive, and if it could be forgotten than forgiveness would cease to exist (54). Forgiveness necessitates remembering. Like the cycle of seasons, forgiveness opens up a radical transformation of the past and a reinterpretation of time. Forgiveness is like a palimpsest: parchment on which ink has been erased to make room for something new even as the previous indentation remains. The past is not changed but re-formed, because forgiveness is going back to the future.

Macnab makes the important observation that forgiveness is not “[d]ependent on the offender’s request for forgiveness” (54), an observation which effectively reverses dominant societal logic. For many, forgiveness cannot happen unless the offender is repentant. Macnab challenges this logic, and in doing so allies herself with ancient wisdom such as the parable of the prodigal son. In that story, there is no reason to assume that the son is repentant when he decides to return home; his decision is due more to the fact that he is wallowing with the pigs. But his father, watching his son come down the road, does not know why he returns, only that he does return. The father runs out on the road and embraces his child, who now cries out that he is not worthy and should work in the fields to repay his debt. In this story, forgiveness creates repentance and the past can be transformed.

The Steps Toward Conflict Prevention Project (STEPS) is a remarkable program and an crucial conversation partner around justice and peacemaking. Marshall Wallace and his partners have recognized that communities have the unmatched potential to offer subversive alternatives to violence. Such examples are vital, life-giving, because they provide current manifestations of what resistance to violence and restoration of wholeness can look like.

Wallace notes the centrality of identity in the formation of such resistant and restorative communities (70). But identity is given an interesting and important twist: identity is often tied to ethnicity, but in STEPS cases identity is rooted in ethics (71). As mentioned in the previous reading response, ethics are closely related to ethos, which is the customs and habits and spirit of the community. In the STEPS cases, these ethics, or the ethos of the community, appear to be intentionally cultivated, which means to refine, inhabit, or till, like fertile topsoil which invites, indeed requires, future inputs and improvements. This intentionality consciously and critically joins the wisdom of the past with concrete practices in the present to address the potential of the future. The art of living together is required because radical acts such as compassion, forgiveness, hospitality, and love must be practiced with neighbors if they are ever to be offered to enemies. The alternative community from the Ghazni province in Afghanistan preserves and reinterprets local culture and tradition through music, education, and consensus-based decision-making (72) and inevitably poses a haunting question to current societies all over the world.

This question is also strikingly posed to peacebuilding practitioners. Often, it seems, peacebuilders want to address root causes but don’t want to put down roots. In my experience, peacebuilding activists frequently lack community like the ones mentioned by Wallace. 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, the founder of the L’Arche communities, 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.” Activists can be 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. With models like the Ghazni province, the Muslim community in Rwanda, and the Colombian peace villages, that alternative future appears more tangible and more livable.