The Importance of the Unnamed
In podcast episode 5, while discussing the economics of Christian community, I said, “I would prefer to use as few words as possible to describe what we are doing [building local economies based on justice and charity].” This of course was rather ironic, coming in the middle of an hour long conversation involving some 8,000 words! In context, however, the “words” referred to are ideological or political “labels,” such as “conservative” or “socialist.” This preference for “not naming” stems from several different principles.
Most pragmatically, “naming” oneself or one’s movement can unnecessarily antagonize others. We live in a time of polarization and division which has affected our nation, world, and Church; as Pope Francis says in Fratelli Tutti, “Nowadays it has become impossible for someone to express a view on any subject without being categorized one way or the other, either to be unfairly discredited or to be praised to the skies.” (Paragraph 156) Since the kinds of local projects I’m advocating are not “liberal” or “conservative,” “Democrat” or “Republican,” “Left” or “Right,” it would be counter productive to antagonize neighbors by the use of such labels.
This unnecessary divisiveness among neighbors points to something deeper; these labels are divisive precisely because they are unreal, false universals that prevent us from interacting with the glorious diversity of reality, blinding us to the particular persons and situations around us. Saying “Democrat” or “Conservative” allows us to homogenize and write off millions of fellow human beings, but the neighbors next door are not Democrats or Republicans, even if they might identify as such; they are human beings like us, made in the image of God, with many interests, cares, and concerns beyond politics or ideology. We share more than we might realize, particularly at the local level. Abstraction, naming, categorizing, gives a certain kind of power. Yet that power comes at the cost of isolation and depersonalization, making hatred and division much more likely.
As Christians, our relationship with Christ should be our sole identity; “Here there cannot be Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free man, but Christ is all, and in all.” (Colossians 3:11) And for the Christian, there can only be one fundamental outlook on others, an outlook of love. Ideologies are unloveable; erroneous ideologies may need to be opposed by the light of the Gospel message. This opposition, however, can’t be applied to the human beings around us. Deeper than any political, ideological, racial or even religious division, we all share a fundamental unity as members of the human race, as Pope Francis has reminded us in his recent encyclical. He challenges us to show a radical respect for others: “At a time when various forms of fundamentalist intolerance are damaging relationships between individuals, groups and peoples, let us be committed to living and teaching the value of respect for others, a love capable of welcoming differences, and the priority of the dignity of every human being over his or her ideas, opinions, practices and even sins.” (Fratelli Tutti, paragraph 191) A good first step towards practicing such respect and love would be to drop divisive labels and embrace the freedom that comes from a shared identity as children of God.
Poverty, Justice, and Peasant Economics
A version of this essay was presented at Denver Faith and Culture in 2017
How should Christians relate to God’s creation? First and foremost, we should be thankful for it, we should be in awe of it; but our relationship with creation goes beyond that of an admiring spectator. We are part of creation, and we interact with it. We are called on to tend the garden, to rule over the beasts of the earth; in short, we are called on to practice economics.
“Economics” comes from the same Greek root word which gives us the word ecology: oikos, the home. Economics studies the provisioning of the home, the feeding of the family. Ecology studies the home God has made for us.
All economic activities start with the gift of the land given to us by God, because economics consists in the application of labor, human effort, to the land. Similarly, all economic activity should end in the giving of gifts, the tribute of worship to God and the gift of food and shelter to family and neighbor.
In our efforts to redeem society, we must realize the primacy of economics. Leisure is first in intention, but economics is the first in order of actuality. If we are not able to feed and clothe ourselves, we will not be able to produce art or liturgy or politics. Similarly, if a society’s economic order is unjust and works against human dignity, the culture of leisure in that society will become degraded.
Today, our economic system is brutal, unsustainable, and unjust. Simply by participating in our economy we are supporting injustice, the enslavement of the poor and the destruction of the environment. This injustice will undermine all our cultural efforts, which will become just another trendy hobby of the rich. In the end, we will have built a “good life” that would have been familiar in the ancient world; leisure and culture for the upper class, slavery for the others. If we can not restore a right relationship to the land, none of our other attempts at societal renewal will bear fruit.
There are many ways a society can organize its economic relationship to the land, ranging from the clan solidarity of hunting tribes to the vast slave empires of antiquity, and these various forms largely determine the type of culture a given society will produce.
I purpose that in our quest for a just economy we can learn from one form in particular, that of the peasant.
Today the word carries connotations of poverty and backwardness, but all it truly means is production for consumption instead of for trade. It is a simplification of economics in which an individual family or small group of families controls all the economic factors; land, labor, capital, and consumption. Cutting down a tree to heat one’s house is an example of peasant economics. So long as the primary focus is on self-provisioning, it is still peasant production. The adjective “peasant” says nothing as such about technology use or wealth.
I’d hasten to add that many goods can not be produced this way, and no healthy society can consist solely of peasant production. Primary goods, such as food, shelter, and clothing, as well as the tools to produce these, can and have been provided by peasant villages. There is a bit of a blurry line here, I admit; there was division of labor in a peasant village. A blacksmith may shoe his own horse, but will spend much of his time shoeing horses for others. However, the blacksmith is part of the village; he will live his whole life with the other villagers. Just so, there was some division of labor in most peasant families. But the focus was on the self provisioning of the unit. In this way, the village can be seen as the literal and functional extension of the family. Secondary goods, such as computers, television sets, smart phones, and fluorescent lights can not be produced in a peasant fashion, not solely because of their complexity but because of the economies of scale necessary to their manufacture. Secondary goods, however, are not essential to life, and can’t be allowed to dominate the economic order to the detriment of primary goods.
We are called to live lives of Christian poverty, though not of destitution. As Matthew’s Gospel tells us, God knows we have need of “all these things”; the primary goods of food, clothing and shelter. But as Luke’s Gospel warns us: “Woe to you who are rich, for you are receiving your comfort in full.” And as Matthew’s Gospel warns us, our wealth can make entrance to heaven as difficult as the passage of a camel through a needle. If we are to be followers of Christ who came to earth poor and humble, we must shun unnecessary wealth. Some secondary goods are necessary for a full life, but when we live in a society where the bulk of our income is spent on secondary goods, we can guess we have made a mistake. A life spent seeking for comfort and fashion instead of sufficiency is not a Christian life.
In fact, because we spend so much on secondary goods our primary goods are shoddy and unsustainable. In the USA we spend less than ten percent of our income on food, and then wonder why farmers can’t make a living and our soil is eroding away. Italians spend 30 percent of their income on food, because they still realize the food is important. If we want a right relationship with the land we must stop spending our lives in a hunt for secondary consumer goods.
It also should be noted that I’m not advocating the rejection of any technology that can’t be produced by a peasant village; I am advocating relegating such technology to its proper place in society. Also, the Gospel condemnation of wealth is a hard saying. It will take a long journey of Faith to arrive at Christian poverty. But when we find ourselves living much more comfortably and wielding much more power than the rich of Christ’s time, we must begin to ask some hard questions. I don’t have all the answers; each Christian must discern with much prayer their proper relationship to wealth.
In exchange for relocalizing our production and eliminating surplus secondary goods, what will we gain? A better quality of primary goods has already been touched on. Beyond that, simplified peasant economics frees us in many ways, from dependence on markets, from ecological destruction, from the support of empire, and from the financialized imagination.
Among these, the most obvious is freedom from markets. Alternative market farming is currently trendy, and small scale farmers are often locked into an intensive process of providing fancy salads for urbanites. This type of farmer faces competition from “Walmart Organic” with minimum standards and slave worked fields in Mexico or China. The competition has conditioned the customer to expect cheap food, which is only made possible by vast mechanization, government subsidy, debt, ecological destruction and social exploitation. If we eat our own crops and build our own furniture, we can meet our own needs without reference to market values.
Looking farther afield from our individual plots or farms, we should take note of Uncle Sam. Potatoes grown and eaten on the peasant plot are duty free. If we sell our potatoes or tomatoes, taxation will take a cut before we buy our bread and beef. Do we support what our government uses our tax dollars for? From local town councils funding shoddy development to the Pentagon buying million dollar bombs, our taxes fund waste, evil and destruction.
Between the sale of the turnips and the purchase of the bread, our money will presumably sit in a bank. What is the bank up to with our money? Who are they funding? Bureaucrats and other parasites are only too willing to suck the wealth out of our local communities. The less liquid it is, the less they will be able to get. Potatoes grown and consumed on a peasant plot are revolutionary; they threaten the established order while building the new. They free us from the support of empire and exploitation, because they are not financialized or monetized.
At a deeper level, that is exactly the point. Monetization itself is the enemy. In theory the farmer on his combine or the CEO at his desk are providing for their families, just as is the turnip grower. But it is much easier for us to realize this in the third case. Money’s purpose is to abstract; it is artificial and corrupting, becoming an end of its own. It has always been a tool of managers, bureaucrats, and imperialists, given their inability to directly interact with the local, particular, and real.
Proponents of the globalized market economy claim that individual vice or virtue, the quality of the product produced, and its effect on society are irrelevant to the common good. In fact, they do not scruple to base a vision of the common good on the selfishness of individuals, claiming that our evil is magically turned to good by the all powerful hand. But if we let our minds run idle, without direction and intentionality, evil creeps in. Similarly, when our economic life lacks intentionality, evil inhabits it. In fairy tales a snuffed candle may end a life, or a shattered crystal may break a spell. And in our modern economy, such a trivial thing as buying a new shirt may kill another half a world away, or destroy a home we’ve never seen. The Bible says that love of money is the root of all evil. Why love of money, and not of, say, turnips? Because money is pure, abstracted power. We can have an unlimited desire for profit. The love of any real thing, while it can become evil if it is not properly ordered, still involves an outward turning towards something other than self. The love of money, in contrast, easily becomes a love of power and security for oneself, even if one tries to use that power for good.
In contrast, inhabitants of other cultures did not feel this profit motive. Instead, they were motivated by more local and concrete concerns; family, local society, religion. They could, and did, misuse these local relations; but the lines were more clear cut. Greed was not admired as it is today, because the greed of one impacted those around him, not those half a continent away. By avoiding the use of currency, we can strike a huge blow in the favor of reality, sanity, and meaning in our lives. We can “reincarnate” our relationships by dealing in the local and particular instead of the abstract and far away.
As St. John Paul II said, faith that is not inculturated is not truly Faith. There can be no point at which we draw a line: “Faith Stops Here”. Our faith must be central to our economic life. We exist for the glory of God. All else must be subordinated to this. All our work and art and craft should exist to praise him; to support his worship directly, or to feed and clothe ourselves that we may continue to praise him, or to raise up the next generation to praise him here when we have joined the great song of praise in heaven. One can offer even the most futile tasks to God: but weak mortals that we are, we need all the reminding that we can get. And so our goal must be to reconnect the broken cycles of our lives so that every economic act may flow to its proper end of love; love of our families, love of our friends, love of our homeland, and ultimately love of the God in whose image we are made. Human life was broken in a garden, and restored in another. To restore our society, body and soul, we must return to our gardens.
The Redemptive Difficulty of Community
Everyone knows that interacting with other people can be difficult, whether the others in question are family, friends, fellow parishioners, or just the folks across the street. Given that attempts at building community involve increased interaction with others, it should be obvious that expectations of finding “perfection” or “escaping problems” in community life are naive. Someone starting out with such expectations will likely find only dissatisfaction and will soon be looking for another, supposedly better community someplace else. Realism is critical, and there is no way to run away from ourselves; if we have problems in one place or situation, we’ll likely have the same problems wherever we go.
Important as this realism is, I want to go farther and suggest that community is a good way to find troubles and difficulties; not merely in the sense that living in closer contact with others is always a messy and difficult process, but that the trouble of community is in a certain sense the reason community is desirable.
That might sound crazy; why would we want to find trouble? Don’t most people have enough troubles of their own? In fact, that is one of the perceived benefits of wealth; it insulates one from other people’s troubles and allows one to freely choose associates. In podcast three, Peter Land described how he found a greater sense of community among the poor as opposed to the rich. In rich communities, houses and yards are large, and the inhabitants can afford travel, leisure activities, private transportation, and expensive “toys;” the result is that neighbors don’t see one another as much.
The fact that this kind of “social insulation” is only possible for the rich should suggest to us that it is not entirely desirable from a spiritual point of view. (After all, Christ said it was hard for the rich, not the poor, to enter heaven.) In fact, in the same podcast we discussed the different kinds of poverty, and how spiritual poverty often coexists with material wealth, precisely because the wealthy are able to indulge an illusion of being in control, and so are less likely to recognize their dependance on God.
St. Augustine describes how our enemies are given to us by God to “exercise us,” and G. K. Chesterton pointed out that Christ told us to love both our enemies and our neighbors, because they are frequently the same people! In any community, there will be a wide range of personalities and outlooks, and the resulting conflicts will “exercise” us, strengthening our spiritual muscles, and mortifying our selfish inclinations. In fact, just as we only realize the extent of our physical weakness when we start working out, we’re likely to feel that we’re quite saintly and self-less until we start rubbing up against other human beings in all their stubborn contrariness.
On another level, sharing troubles and struggles with others in community is the only way we can develop compassion, which is literally a “suffering with.” St. Paul tells us to bear one another’s burdens, sharing in the joys and sorrows of others; but this is only fully possible in community, by the sharing of a common life. In doing so, we’ll be imitating Christ, who had compassion on the crowds and on humanity in general, to the point of dying with us that we might rise.
If we try to carry the burdens of others by our own strength, we’ll be crushed by the weight; we’ll soon by envying the rich their insulated suburban lives. If we carry the burdens of others as a participation in the sufferings of Christ, we are bearing the burden of Christ, carrying His yoke, which is ultimately easy and light because He bears it with us. As Christ promised, where two or three are gathered in His name, He is there among us, in the sacred reality of the Mystical Body of Christ. Our neighbors are not just training exercises for us; they are part of us, and we are part of them; with them, for them, we lay down our lives so that we may rise again to eternal life with Christ our Head.