Skipping stones on Lake Huron.
Wendell Berry on the destructiveness of distance and its remedy.
I’m reading Wendell Berry’s classic The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture and he’s helping me think about an unsettling dynamic I see in certain white people when it comes to talking about race and acting on the ideas they talk about. In a chapter titled “The Ecological Crisis as a Crisis of Agriculture” Berry writes about well-meaning conservationists whose ideas about and actions toward the environments actually damage it. How these unintended consequences come about is important and, I think, may shed light on the harmful impact of certain assumptions held by earnest white people.
Berry begins with the limits of any organization.
One reason that an organization cannot properly enact our relationship to the world is that an organization cannot define that relationship except in general terms, and no matter how general may be a person’s attitude toward the world, his impact upon it must become specific and tangible at some point.
He is thinking about environmental organizations which, however good their intentions, have to deal in generalizations and, to some extent, abstractions. They are concerned with nature and the environment as essential concepts deserving of great advocacy and support. But, however necessary these generalizations may be for an organization, they obscure the particularities of the places they represent. It’s one thing to say that the environment is worthy of our protection; it’s rather different to speak about weather patterns, soil composition, and the migratory habitats of a specific plot of ground. The former is the purview of advocates while the latter can only be spoken about by residents.
I’m a frequent participant in or observer of conversations with white people about race. Sometimes these conversations involve diverse participants and other times they are homogeneously white. What matters in these conversations, as it relates to the dynamic I mentioned above, is that these white participants view themselves as informed to the realities of race and racial prejudice. We might call them “good white people” for the way they contrast themselves with other, less informed and less compassionate white people. (I’m prone to these tendencies so I write with some knowledge about this dynamic.) Berry’s observations about the generalizations made by environmental organizations seem similar to the troubling abstractions I hear from these white conversation partners. Their language is seasoned with concepts that may have been picked up on a blog or at a conference – centering, intersectional, asset-based development – but which require no specificity. The concepts themselves can be immensely helpful, but detached from place and people they take on the same generalizing sound that troubles Berry about environmental organizations.
Berry quotes from a letter sent to him by a rural man who cares deeply for the ecological health of his region while bristling at how distant environmentalists erase people like him from their advocacy.
What I’ve noticed around here with the militant ecology people (don’t get me wrong, I, like you, consider myself one of them) is a syndrome I call the Terrarium View of the World: nature always at a distance under glass…
I don’t care about the landscape if I am to be excluded from it. Why should I? In Audubon magazine almost always the beautiful pictures are without man; the ugly ones with him. Such self hatred! I keep wanting to write to them and say, ‘Look! my name is David Budbill and I belong to the chain of being too, as a participant not as an observer (nature is not television!) and the question isn’t to use or not to use but rather how to use.’
This man’s complaint is not about conservationist groups’ motives; he shares those in common with them. Rather, he’s annoyed that their distance from the land they claim to care about has forced them to deal in idealized generalities which render people like himself and their place as caretakers of the land invisible or irrelevant.
In conversations about race, white people who think of themselves as woke to racial nuance and prejudice can demonstrate a similar posture. Their language and assumptions often deal in vague and idealized notions about people. This white person genuinely cares about these communities of color but has very little actual relational connection with them. They remain an abstraction which can be discussed and debated without ever having to be consulted, much less submitted to in love.
Back to the environmentalists. By advocating from a distance, Berry believes they end up harming the land they claim to love. While not nearly as destructive as those who willfully exploit a place for profit, the idealized and abstracting lens through which the environmentalist views a place blinds him to the actual place and to the people who’ve long made their home within it. Action, when it comes in the form of advocacy or policy, will be weighed down by the unintended consequences that come with distance. How can you really know the possibilities and perils of a place if you’ve not made it your home?
In contrast to the incoherent visions for a place by those who don’t belong to it, Berry suggests the idea of “kindly use.”
The land is too various in its kinds, climates, conditions, declivities, aspects, and histories to conform to any generalized understanding or to prosper under generalized treatment. The use of land cannot be both general and kindly – just as the forms of good manners, generally applied (applied, that is, without consideration of differences), are experienced as indifference, bad manners… Kindly use depends on intimate knowledge, the most sensitive responsiveness and responsibility.
Obviously, kindly use can only really be employed by those near enough to the land to treat it kindly. Only they – farmers, residents, caretakers – have enfleshed access to dirt and trees and weather systems to imagine what will be best for the land and its inhabitants.
Kindly use, as we come back to the well-intentioned but distant white people, is kindness. It’s immensely possible to read all the important books about race, watch the latest documentaries about the many ways racism evolves within our American way of life, and attend social justice conferences and rallies without ever being kind. And this is simply because kindness depends on relationships with actual flesh and blood people. Kindness cannot be shown to an idea, however good and righteous it might be. Kindness can never by general, abstract, or vague; it must always be specific. Being kind requires proximity and knowledge about that person and her life.
That any of this is not intuitively obvious to some of us is a cold reminder about the power of race to depersonalize what must always be personal, to distance what requires closeness. There is nothing human about the abstractions of race and basic kindness demands that we push past them- not with agendas and foregone conclusions, but with the desire – maybe long buried – to be more fully persons, living not among generalities and stereotypes but alongside flesh-and-blood whose fates and hopes become our own.
For the man who taught me to fly through danger.
Were the safety belts green? It’s how they appear in my memory: thick, smudged green canvas laying tight across my lap, the two ends brought together by a simple metal attachment. I remember it now and the whole thing seems primitive, hinged metal locking into its looped opposite, the whole thing clamped together by pressing down hard against the wooden knob connected to the hinged latch. Was the knob painted red? Was it really made from wood?
You, of course, sat in the pilot’s seat. Through my child’s eyes I see you squirming into place behind the instrument panel and steering yoke of the six-seat Cessna; the two retrofitted metal rods slicing my view through the windshield were reminders about how little room for error there was during those jungle flights. They were made to keep the small cabin from collapsing in a worst case scenario. Your helmet was another obvious hint as was your version of the safety belt. Yours was no more sophisticated – the same green belts and the simplest of closures – but it had the added seriousness of a shoulder harness that hung down from the fuselage above your head, draped over your sweaty t-shirt, before latching together with that same wood and metal closure.
Am I getting the details wrong? Maybe the safety belt was more impressive than I remember. I’m sure it was important; you’d never turn over the engine until everyone was buckled in, the loud metal thunk was audible proof that we were as secure as it is possible to be while bumping around a few thousand feet up in the tropical air inside 3,500 pounds of aluminum dodging thunderstorms while aiming for what can only generously be called a runway- a just-long-enough patch of dirt and grass scraped into a hill, or snaking alongside a river. On every final approach that I can remember, whether craning my neck from the back or next to you peering over the panel full of knobs and gauges, you’d reach up and grab that crash bar, leaning against your shoulder harness as though to feel for its integrity, all while staring at the quickly approaching horizon. The droning engine dropped an octave, you did a sort of subtle shimmy as if to awaken all the senses and then leaned firmly back into your seat, ready to guide your passengers and cargo down for another landing.
It’s been a long time since you squeezed into that stuffy cockpit. I was just beginning high school when we left South America and since then you’ve done a lot of different things but you left flying behind when we returned to the states. I’ve been thinking about those days over the past few months as you approach your ordination. Maybe the thought began because the two seem so distant, unrelated. You’ve been a pastor, officially, for about a decade and now, after the long process determined for both you and me by our denomination, you’re going to make your promises to the church. The nondescript hotel conference hall in Detroit where you’ll be ordained is miles away from those small airplanes loaded with food or patients or mail, lifetimes away from Mom standing in the kitchen describing the rapidly changing weather slowly and clearly in Spanish into the staticky radio as you decided whether to try to make it home to put Anne Marie and me to bed or spend the night in a hammock, beneath mosquito netting and a thatched roof.
It’s different, isn’t it, pastoring? Different from being a pilot I mean, but different from most jobs. Over these years you’ve pastored a young church in Sacramento that met in a gym, in a very small town in the Californian mountains, on a beautiful island in the Pacific Northwest, and now across the river from Manhattan. You’ve pastored across ages, regions, ethnicities, and experiences. I’d say you’ve stuffed a lifetime of ministry into these short years except that you’d already had a lifetime of ministry when you moved into the pastorate. It’s been unpredictable for you as it is for most of us in this strange vocation. Your experience seems to be a reflection of what it means to be a pastor. We deal with the unpredictable, though it’s usually of a variety more mundane than the sudden thunderstorms which scrap flight plans or an emergency call to pick up the critical patient in a remote village.
I could be wrong, but I think you love the quiet, surprising nature of pastoring. You’ve never needed the spotlight and this, I assume, helps you notice the important glimpses of revealed truth that others miss: the passing comment, the lingering after worship, or simply following up on the intuition that something specific has changed in the life of that person. It shouldn’t be so, but I still get surprised by the eclectic crowd that makes its way to your office, to your favorite coffeeshop, to the dinner table to sit and eat with Mom and you where you listen more than you talk so that when your guests return to whatever passes for normal they know they were heard, they know that God hears. This, for sure, is a life saver when the world seems against you.
A Lament for Philando Castile in the Words of Diamond Reynolds and her Four-Year-Old Daughter
On July 6, 2016 Philando Castile was killed by Jeronimo Yanez, a Minnesota police officer. Sitting next to him was his girlfriend Diamond Reynolds who, once Philando had been shot, began live-streaming the tragic scene while pleading to God for his life. Her four year-old daughter watched it all from the back seat. Today officer Yanez was acquitted. After the verdict Philando’s mother said what so many know: “The system in this country continues to fail black people and will continue to fail us.”
The following is a lament for Philando Castile in the words of Diamond Reynolds and her daughter as recorded on her live-streamed video.
Oh my god please don’t tell me he’s dead. Please don’t tell me my boyfriend just went like that.
Please don’t tell me this. Lord please Jesus don’t tell me that he’s gone. Please don’t tell me that he’s gone. Please officer, don’t tell me that you just did this to him. You shot four bullets into him, sir. He was just getting his license and registration, sir.
You made us retreat before the enemy, and our adversaries have plundered us. You gave us up to be devoured like sheep and have scattered us among the nations. (Psalm 44:10-11)
Where’s my daughter? You got my daughter?”
[Daughter crying in background]
Please don’t tell me he’s gone. Please Jesus no. Please no. Please no don’t let him be gone Lord.
Please don’t tell me my boyfriend’s gone. He don’t deserve this. Please. He’s a good man, he works for St. Paul Public school. He doesn’t have no records of anything. He’s never been in jail, anything. He’s not a gang member, anything.
All this came upon us, though we had not forgotten you; we had not been false to your covenant. Our hearts had not turned back; our feet had not strayed from your path. (Psalm 44:17-18)
You cover him Lord. That you allow him to still be here with us Lord. Still with me… Lord. Please Lord wrap your arms around him. Please Lord make sure that he’s OK, that he’s breathing Lord. Please Lord you know our rights Lord, you know we are innocent people Lord. We are innocent people. We are innocent people. We are innocent. My four-year-old…
How long will the enemy mock you, God? Will the foe revile your name forever? Why do you hold back your hand, your right hand? Take it from the folds of your garment and destroy them! (Psalm 74:10-11)
[Child] I’m scared.
Don’t be scared.
[Child] It’s OK mommy.
I can’t believe they just did this I’m fucking, fucking…fuck! [screams].
[Child] It’s OK, I’m right here with you.
Why should the nations say, “Where is their God?” Before our eyes, make known among the nations that you avenge the outpoured blood of your servants. (Psalm 79:10)
Y’all please pray for us, Jesus, please y’all.
Photo: Lorie Shaull.
It is the devil’s own work to take the stories Jesus told (and the many other stories that provide so much of the content of our Scriptures) and distill them down to a truth or a moral that we can then use without bothering with the way we use them- unconnected from the people whose names we know or the local conditions in which we have responsibilities, apart from what we know about Jesus, who tells the story. The devil is a great intellectual. He loves getting us to discuss ideas about God. He does some of his best work when he gets us so deeply involved with ideas about God that we are hardly aware that while we are reading or talking about God, God is actually present with us, and the people whom he has placed in our lives to love are right there in front of us…
In order to respond rightly to this voice, this Word-made-flesh voice, we must listen and answer in our actual neighborhoods while eating meals of tuna casserole and spinach salad in the company of people who know us and whose names we know: our spouses and children, friends and fellow workers, just for a start. Nothing in general. Nobody anonymous. No disembodied or unvoiced words.
– “Sir, Let it Alone,” a sermon from Habakkuk 3 and Luke 13 in the wonderful collection of Peterson’s sermons, As Kingfishers Catch Fire.
This confession from a L.A. screenwriter about why she goes to church is pretty great. These three paragraphs about the faith of atheists were my favorite, but you should read the entire thing.
The single most annoying thing a nonreligious person can say, in my opinion, isn’t that religion is oppressive or that religious people are brainwashed. It’s the kind, patronizing way that nonreligious people have of saying, “You know, sometimes I wish I were religious. I wish I could have that certainty. It just seems so comforting never to doubt things.”
Well, sometimes I wish I had the certainty of an atheist. I wish I could be positive that there was no God and that Sundays were for brunch. That dead people stayed dead and prayer was useless and Jesus was nothing more than a really great teacher.
But I believe too much, at least sometimes, to be certain about that. Sometimes I feel like I believe almost everything the church teaches and sometimes I feel like I believe almost nothing, but if I’m anywhere from one to 99 percent on the belief scale, my response is the same. If it’s more than zero, I should go to church.
– Dorothy Fortenberry in the LA Review of Books.