Christians and Conservation: Reflections on 'Sex, Economy, Freedom and Community' by Wendell Berry

Wendell BerryIn the same way that Evangelical Ethics by John Jefferson Davis startled me awake to the necessity of a Christian understanding of and engagement in the major ethical issues facing the church today, Wendell Berry, in Sex, Economy, Freedom and Community, with his winsome (and sometimes powerfully sarcastic) writing style, provoked me to begin to think more purposefully about our obligation as Christians to promote and care for the local community.  Although I did not agree with all of Berry’s conclusions and ideals, I did glean helpful and instructive principles that I believe are Biblical and are thus beneficial to the local communities in which we, as Christians, work and live.

To sincerely and proactively care for and cultivate the health of the local community is simply another way in which we fulfill Christ’s commands to be salt and light (Matthew 5:14-16) to love our neighbors as ourselves (Matthew 22:39), and to exercise proper dominion over the world God has entrusted to us (Genesis 1:26).  Yet, it seems (at least to me) that the Protestant church, in more recent times, has neglected these commands and their application to the local community.  Has this unfortunate trend been the result, as Berry maintains, of an unwitting embrace of dualism (106ff)?  Has the Church wrongly bought into the idea that matter is bad and the soul is good, and therefore developed a theology of evangelism that is only concerned to save souls but disregards the care of the body; and by implication, those things that feed and nurture the body?  Although it is not within the scope of this essay to determine from where the lack of community awareness has originated, it does appear that the conservative Church has a truncated understanding of what it means to seek to do what is best for the communities in which we live.

One way that we can care for the local community is through conservation.  According to Berry, our pursuit of a healthy community is incomplete without proper care of nature.  Berry writes, “If we speak of a healthy community, we cannot be speaking of a community that is merely human, we are talking about a neighborhood of humans in a place plus the place itself: its soil, its water, its air, and all the families and tribes of the nonhuman creatures that belong to it” (14).  If one understands a healthy community to consist as such, it is inevitable that we will have to consider the conservation of that community’s land and resources.  Conservation, then, becomes a moral imperative.  Berry continues,

From the standpoint of such a community, any form of land abuse—clear cut, a strip mine, and overplowed and overgrazed field—is an alien and as threatening as it would be from the standpoint of an ecosystem.  From such a standpoint, it would be plain that land abuse reduces the possibilities of local life, just as do chain stores, absentee owners, and consolidated schools (15)

Thus, we need “local revision of our methods of land use and protection” (17).  This means, primarily, establishing self-sufficient local communities whose economies do not depend on industries that are outside of the community.  These self-sustaining communities cannot bring “destructive industries” into the community in order to create jobs; rather, and as an example, “food that is consumed locally ought to be locally produced on small farms, and then processed in small non-polluting plants that are locally owned” (17).  We also “need to increase cooperation among all local economic entities: households, farms, factories, banks, consumers, and suppliers” (17).

Berry’s conclusion is that if we do not oppose the “standardless aims of industrial communism and industrial capitalism…The aims of productivity, efficiency, limitless growth, limitless wealth, limitless power, limitless mechanization and automation…  [and] unlimited economic growth” (12-13), we will inevitably destroy our local communities and consequently our nation.

Berry’s call to conservation is far more pervasive than what most of us think of as conservation: turning off the tap water when we are not using it, taking shorter showers, placing bottles and cans in their respective recycling containers, car-pooling.  He is calling (most of) us to a wholesale reshaping of our idea of community and the importance of creating self-sustaining cities and developing a harmonious balance between a community and its land.  Toward the end of Berry’s second essay (“Conservation is a Good Work”), he gives several practical ideas as to how we can rebuild local economies and create self-sustaining communities.

In many ways I think Berry is correct: the rapid growth of technology and industry has created a situation where our ability to do something (construct another factory, raise another building, plunder another forest) has exceeded our moral reflection on how we should go about it, or if we should go about it at all.  It does appear that in America, sincere concern for land and solid reflection on the long-term effects of an industrial and commercial presence on local community life has been displaced by the mere desire for wealth; few seem to be thinking far into the future, and the American industrial machine seems to be racing far ahead of those who would claim to be its masters.

It is at this point that I am afraid that some Christians (like me) are tempted to disregard such issues as even far less than secondary.  The common response is, “We must be about the Great Commission, primarily.  As soldiers of Christ Jesus, we cannot become entangled in civilian affairs.”  I give hearty agreement to this statement, but only inasmuch as it stands as a general principle, not as a reaction to the idea that we must consider the long-term effects of the use of our land.  As those who care for the souls of men, our love for their eternal welfare should also be coupled with a love for their temporal welfare; we should seek what is best for man in all things, and that would mean a proper stewardship of the earth so that current and future generations can enjoy the bounty of God’s creation.  A desire for one’s eternal joy does not negate a desire for their temporal joy; godly love is concerned for both.

The governing question in all of this must be, “What is best for man?”  As we reflect upon and directly involve ourselves in the local economic, industrial, commercial, and environmental decisions made in their community, a love for mankind must penetrate all of our thinking.  How this looks practically is where Wendell Berry’s book is very helpful.  He prompts us to think of what truly is best for man in regards to the communities we live in, how they should be constructed, and how we might stave off careless and shortsighted abuse of land by large-scale industry.

On the other hand, however, we cannot make the mistake of concluding that industry in and of itself is bad, or that constructing another building is inherently evil.  Sometimes what is best for a community will be the overtaking of a forest in order to supply homes for families.  Nevertheless, deliberate or negligent waste of earthly resources is not an allowable for Christians simply because we have been entrusted with the Great Commission.  On the contrary, our love for others displayed in a balanced understanding of and care for our local community will serve to adorn the gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, and demonstrate that the gospel of Christ is good news for the whole man, not just his soul.

Questions remain, however, especially in regards to how this is to happen practically.  Should we seek to return to an agrarian society?  Should we say no to new cars and new homes?  Should I sell my SUV?  Is it a moral imperative to carpool?  Are we in sin when we do not use or provide recycling facilities?

In regards to this last question, I am reminded of a conference that I attended nearly four years ago.  At this particular conference, I was blessed to sit with approximately three-thousand other men and hear excellent preaching and teaching about the pastoral ministry.  For our refreshment, we were provided with an endless amount of water bottles each day.  A few days into the conference, my friend noted, while observing the garbage cans inundated with water bottles, that there were no recycling containers on campus.  To him this was a shame and a waste.  Was it?  As I reflected on his comment, I began to sense that the absence of recycling containers for this amount of people at a conference known for its powerful preaching and doctrinal fidelity appeared to be out of place.  Certainly, I will take no recycling containers over weak preaching and heretical doctrine any day, but to have solid preaching and biblical commitment without a concern for recycling the massive amount of water bottles did seem, as it were, incongruous.  Perhaps my friend is weird.  Perhaps he is right on.

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