The Quietest Fight
God and Country is an essay I've been stuck on for more than a half year now. In it, Wendell calls out the Church for putting its interests above its faith. "If it comes to a choice between the extermination of the fowls of the air and the lilies of the field, and the extermination of a building fund, the organized church will elect -- indeed has already elected -- to save the building fund." The irony, he says, is that unlike the building fund, which can be rescued with money from anywhere and anyone -- only one thing can save the birds and lillies: religious sentiment. Berry isn't the first to brandish the Church a sellout.
I've struggled with the essay not because it's hard to get, but because just the opposite. It's too complete. The argument is tight as a vacuum pak and I find I have nothing to add to it. Not for the first time, I'm left to wonder why I don't blog about something more malleable than the cut diamond that is a Wendell Berry essay.
But then, as has also happened before, I find myself returning to something he's written which offers a glimpse of what Wendell believes, rather than thinks. Rereading the section, I notice my heart rate slowing. The words bring relief -- like the exhale after holding your breath. That most famous of his poems, The Peace of Wild Things, has this same effect.
It happens at the end of the essay, as Berry is admitting his estrangement from organized religion.
Though, he says, the path to righteousness is not through the institutional church, neither is it a solitary endeavor. We ought to be gathered together somehow. One reason, among many, is that "we all belong, at least, to the problem." Wendell often reminds that no matter our individual choices and personal positions, every one of us has given our proxy to the destructive and oppressive economy. We are all, even Wendell, complicit in the ruination around us because the industrial/financial economy is totalizing -- there's no way to be outisde of it. (See "Going Total"). This is a depressing truth, and hard to accept. We are all in this mess together and, to quote Ben Franklin, we are going to either hang together or assuredly, we will hang separately. (See "The Root of It All")
He then quotes Philip Sherrard, a British author and theological thinker, from The Rape of Man and Nature:
There is...a price to be paid for fabricating around us a society which is as artificial and as mechanized as our own, and this is that we can only exist in it only on condition that we adapt ourselves to it. This is our punishment.
Yes, Wendell says -- to an extent, we are all undergoing this punishment. And then comes the paragraph that I am so touched by. Wendell writes:
But as Philip Sherrard well knows, it is a punishment that we can set our hearts against, an adaptation we can try with all our might to undo. We can ally ourselves with those things that are worthy: air, water, earth, plants and animals; human families and communities; the traditions of decent life, good work and responsible thought; the religious traditions; the essential stories and songs.
In one sense, there's nothing profound in this. It encourages us to keep up the good fight for a future that values life on Earth, and not just human life, and the cultures that have enriched and enlarged our lived experience. But the remarkable part for me is how he says to do this.
Set your heart against it.
Against what? Agains all of it! Against the injustice. Against the oppression. Against the tyranny. Against even our own sense of guilt and inconsequence. All these unsurmountables -- try with all your might to undo them.
There's something winsome in this, which is why it works so well for me. Greg Brown lyrics come to my mind -- the simple sweetness of living, loving and hurting. The willful little boy with an upthrust chin. Folded arms. The too-heavy rock that he tries to lift anyways.
What's absent here is that most adult of advice. "Change" is the word you expect to hear -- what you always hear, preached from Mount Wisdom. But knowing that systems have to change isn't the same as knowing what to do, or how to do, or if our doing matters at all.
What does "change" even mean now? Change is as much a part of the problem as the solution, given the rapid warping of everything from democracy to the atmosphere. That most intractable of all our problems is literally called "Climate Change," for heavens sake.
As a matter of course, I'm doing my "change" thing and likely you are too. I'm pretty sure my carbon footprint is smaller than it was last year. I share political power more effectively than I used to, though still not as well as I hope to. I'm especially proud of how I've permanently allied the place I work with our local water, plants, air and animals through a newly constructed gathering place called Universal Plaza.
We all do our thing, and some of us are doing it really well. But the "Machine," which is Paul Kingsnorth's take on the total economy, grinds on, mercilessly. Mr. Kingsnorth no longer believes that stopping the Machine is even feasible. We are living in Fantasia, with brooms begetting more brooms and water begetting more water. The latest scene is the freakout over AI systems like ChatGPT. The sentient folks in the room can only look on and stand back, helpless as babes.
All to say that, for me, and for others who feel the wrongness and pain of our modern predicaments -- the Change Prescription is problematic. A) It doesn't scale. Even if I change, the problems remain; B) It doesn't matter. Consider that although entire countries have reduced their GHG emissions, we burned more fossil fuels last year than ever before, and in full recognition of the horrors of climate change. C) It doesn't work. We aren't good at change. Try changing your diet, or your exercise routine; that in itself is a colossal accomplishment for an adult human. And our held beliefs about liberty, personal safety, property rights, human rights, guns, immigration are the hardest things to change of all. They are also the rebar inside all our systems, including the biggies like the Economy, Organized Religion, Money, etc.
There's an irony that in this hyper-changing world, where so many people are experiencing change and simultaneously wishing for or working for change, so many feel stuck. Even Doug Rushkoff, one of the most positive and productive thinkers I've come across, is prone to exasperation in this regard. These are cataclysmic times, and figuring out what to do is exhausting and confusing.
"Set your heart against it" is a different way. It's counsel that captures both the humility and defiance that are simultaneously felt, and required, by tiny individuals in this dehumanizing time. It suggests that change might follow, but doesn't leap ahead to that outcome. Instead, like so much of what Wendell has to teach, it urges an inward steadying -- a fortification of something that's already there. Not to change, per se, but to hold fast to what we already are, to what we already know.
We know the things that are worthy. We don't need to change to take joy in the sound of running rivers, the graceful flight of "fowls of the air," the dance and song and colors and even the language of people from other places. In many ways now, our job should be NOT to change but to stay true to who we are.
Rushkoff is the captain of Team Human; he wants us to find the others and to experience awe; Universal Plaza was built to remind us of our shared humanity and our one shared planet.
Wendell's way, both in his example and his counsel, is to summon the quietest fight -- to find that still, small voice within. It is the voice that bespeaks our inextinguishable human demand for peace and justice. It is a voice that will never be silenced, and which echoes Gods' words to Elijah, which the prophet heard softly and directly, far from any church, in another time of great fear and abject exhaustion.