I’ve been reading a book of Wendell Berry’s essays, and I came across one that hasn’t let go of me.
In his essay, “Think Little”, Berry compares the major movements that have occupied our nation in recent decades — civil rights, the peace movement, the environment — and makes the claim that they all stem from the same root.
War and oppression and pollution are not separate issues, but are different aspects of the same issue.
The mentality that exploits and destroys the natural environment is the same that abuses racial and economic minorities, … that makes war against peasants and women and children with the indifference of technology …
He goes on to say that we would be fools to believe we could solve only one of those problems without tackling all of the others.
Part of the problem we have historically run into when trying to solve these issues is that we tend to turn them into a Cause.
When we turn a problem into a Cause, we simplify a complex matter and attempt to power our response by impatience, guilt, and short-term enthusiasm.
When we turn a problem into a Cause, we turn it into something that is “served by organizations that will self-righteously criticize and condemn other organizations, inflated for awhile by a lot of public talk in the media, only to be replaced in its turn by another fashionable crisis.”
Public responsibility is absolutely part of the solution — we should continue to bother the government and not allow them to be comfortable with easy solutions — but we must go beyond protest and political action.
Rather than attempting to increase government, reaching for change through a program or a law, we could do a completely crazy thing.
We could first begin solving the problem ourselves.
If you are worried about the damming of wilderness rivers, join the Sierra club, write to the government, but (also) turn off the lights you’re not using, don’t install an air-conditioner, don’t be a sucker for electrical gadgets, don’t waste water.
It is easier to protest, easier to contact our representatives, than to give up our own comforts for the Cause.
Of course we need better government, but more than that we need better minds, better friendships, better marriages, better communities. We need people and families who don’t have to wait for an organization to lead the way, but can make necessary changes on their own.
When we turn the brokenness of this world into a Cause, we are pushed and pulled from one new focus of outrage to another.
When we root our understanding of what we see in our culture in the reality given by our Creator, however, even “amid the outcries for the liberation of this group or that, we will know that no person is free except in the freedom of other persons, and that our only real freedom is to know and faithfully occupy our place — a much humbler place than we have been taught to think — in the order of creation.”
Art Credits: Black Men Praying by Aymara Mejia; Mortar Men photo by Ustinov
I’ve been thinking about work lately.
The idea of work has changed a great deal over the centuries, but more recently (relatively speaking) it has undergone a more dramatic change. In the beginning, we were created to work.
And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it.
The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it.
We were made to do significant and meaningful work and we were made to do it well.
Mankind moved from the practice of each person or family creating all that they needed themselves to the practice of families gathering together in villages and having specific people working to make what was needed for everyone (the metal smith making tools for the hunters, the potter making jars to hold water, etc.). Yet now, in our modern age, we have moved even farther down this road. Now we have work that is solely for the purpose of earning money.
No longer do we consider whether a work is good in itself, nor do we consider whether an unnecessary work is done well. It has, in fact, become necessary that work is not done in a way that is good. How else would people continue to consume, and workers therefore continue to have work, if the products being made were not designed to wear out quickly?
There is still plenty of work that is both good in itself and that is good to do well: agricultural laborers, doctors, teachers, artists, and many others do work which they would do even if there were no pay to be had in it. Yet there is another whole category of work that has no significance and no importance. It was only created to allow the maximum number of people to be employed.
Employing people is not an evil, of course. It was an act of love that led from talk of reducing the “surplus population” to talk of reducing unemployment. The danger is that this has led us to forget that unemployment is not an end in itself. We want people, as C.S. Lewis put it, to be employed only as a means to their being fed – believing that it is better to feed them even for making bad things badly than for doing nothing.
Perhaps this view is correct, but it should not lead us into forced appreciation for work that is not good.
I, of course, have no comprehensive plan or brilliant strategy for ending this sort of endless cycle of meaningless jobs producing poor quality products that are consumed briefly and then discarded, requiring a new replacement product. Yet perhaps it is something just to recognize the problem and the insanity of the idea of meaningless work.
Just as the Christian has a great advantage over other men, not by being less fallen than they nor less doomed to live in a fallen world, but by knowing that he is a fallen man in a fallen world; so we shall do better if we remember at every moment what Good Work was and how impossible it has now become for the majority. ~ C.S. Lewis
One of the areas in which I see this most clearly is in Christian art. It is another topic for another essay to discuss whether or not there even IS such a thing as Christian art but, as Madeleine L’Engle said, if it is bad art, it is bad religion, no matter how pious the subject. When art is done well it testifies to God, even if the artist does not know God.
Provided he is an artist of integrity, he is a genuine servant of the glory which he does not recognize, and unknown to himself there is ‘something divine’ about his work. ~ Madeleine L’Engle
In the same way, work that is done well, even if the worker does not personally believe in God, testifies to the glory of God. It is not an insignificant instruction of Paul’s that whatever we do, we should work at it as if we were working for God rather than only for men.
Whatever we do, whether we are leading a meeting or scrubbing a toilet, whether we are painting the sunrise or designing a bookshelf that will be put together by a young father, we are to do good work.
We may have to earn our living by taking part in the production of objects which…would not be worth producing – the demand or ‘market’ for them having been simply engineered by advertisement. Beside the waters of Babylon – or the assembly belt – we shall still say inwardly, “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, may my right hand forget its cunning.” ~ C.S. Lewis
In this way we will testify to the glory of God and will draw others to Him so that they, too, may bask in His presence.
What do you think? Should anything be done about work that is unnecessary or of poor quality? Can anything be done? What about your own job: would you still do it if you did not need the income to survive?
Art credits: photo of factory by Henno Jacques; Ford assembly line photo from Wiki Commons; The Water Lily Pond painting by Claude Monet
edited from the archives
By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.
I’ve been thinking and praying quite a bit lately about love.
About deep, sacrificial love.
About the sort of love that shows Jesus to the world all around.
We have a rare opportunity right now, as we continue to live through this global pandemic, to show love in a way that makes Jesus irresistible.
This appears to me the kind of situation Jesus might have been talking about when he told his disciples that the world would know they follow Jesus by the way they love.
A situation in which the rest of the world is closing in, protecting itself, shutting others out.
A situation in which it is physically dangerous to open up, help those around us, welcome others in.
Jesus gave this command very near the day he would give up his physical life because of love.
We, the Church, could be showing the world how different the love of Jesus is.
Most of us are, instead, behaving exactly the same way as the world.
Quarreling rather than submitting. Fighting rather than helping. Becoming the problem rather than acting as the peacemakers.
We are losing a tremendous opportunity to show the world the sacrificial love of Christ.
My friends, I am going to take a risk and use, as an example of this, a topic that I have stayed away from before now.
What is the outward sign of caring for those around us that the non-Christian world most clings to?
But do masks even work?
It doesn’t matter. Most people outside the church think they do.
But I should be free to choose for myself.
We are free. And our freedom should always choose love that puts the other first.
Of course there are valid reasons for not wearing masks; I don’t mean to imply that all contexts and all circumstances are the same. I only mean for us all, myself included, to ask the Holy Spirit to help us examine our hearts behind the choices that we make.
The sacrificial love of Jesus puts caring for the needs of others, even if it is only the perception of caring for others, before the physical comfort and safety of ourselves.
Dear friends, these words of mine may not do any good. They may only stir up anger. But before you lash out at me or anyone else, consider what it means to call yourself by the name of Jesus.
We, the Church, are the body of Christ. Whether or not masks or vaccines or anything else works is really beside the point.
What do people outside of Jesus perceive to be the main way to care for others throughout a pandemic?
What do they see us doing?
Art credit: Jesus Washing the Feet of His Disciples by Albert Edelfelt