Response to Randi Rashkover (2): This Land is Your Land

Willie Young,
Endicott College

Randi Rashkover’s essay raises an important question regarding the relationship of prophetic discourse to issues regarding land. Do the prophetic calls for justice for the poor, in invoking the jubilee, necessarily forget the role of resting/restoring the land? And how should one think about land, in relation to issues of justice?

In reading her essay, I kept wondering: what is the connection between restoring the land and democracy? What are the political dimensions of a liturgical conception of land? One entry into these questions is the central place that land occupies in the work of Wendell Berry, as it figures as a thread linking creation, democracy, and community. His approach to caring for the land, and his emphasis on local economy, both lend significance to what it might mean to restore the land, in the context of the jubilee; moreover, such restoration is crucial for his conception of democracy, enabling alternative approaches to questions of racial and economic justice.

I mention Berry, as well, because his work occupies a distinctive place in discussions of traditionalism and democracy. While Berry is traditionalist—like Hauerwas, Milbank, and MacIntyre—Jeffrey Stout praises his work highly—declaring The Unsettling of America the “best book on environmental ethics,” and The Hidden Wound a central work on race in America. [1] In this light, relating his work on land to Randi’s liturgical re-figuring of land will indirectly situate her scriptural reasoning in relation to Stout’s pluralistic approach to democratic discourse.

1. The Land as Gift: Cultivating humanity

If, as Rashkover suggests, one considers the land as gift, then this requires recognizing that the land is entrusted to one. It is given, but not simply for whatever use one chooses. Rather, land is given to serve God—and, in Genesis, for stewardship. This suggests that our fulfillment lies in a certain relation to the land, which is neither outright possession (which would be exploitive and destructive), nor simply selling for profit, nor a simply “scenic” preservation that would not be integrated with serving human goods. The proper use, then, requires that the land can be given to others. A gift, to rephrase Derrida, does not have a single recipient, but one must receive it as if one is to give it again.

However, as a gift, the land also has its own integrity—its history, composition, and vitality. It is a particular place, with its own unique features. To fail to recognize these fails to appreciate the gift, and can prevent continued transmissions. It is only through diligent care for the land, practiced over time and perhaps over generations, that one could come to know this history, and see the land display its integrity. But, moreover, to see that the land has a history and life that go beyond its human use, points us toward the Sabbath of resting the land, and letting it be restored and healed.

2. Resting the Land

If the jubilee celebrates the Sabbath, and thus serves as a period of rest, what does this mean for resting the land? For whose sake does it rest? Does it rest from supporting and sustaining humanity, or so it may glorify God?

In Berry’s work, resting the land draws together a number of practices. One rests the land through crop rotation, preventing the soil’s exhaustion. One does not overproduce, in the name of economic security and low urban food prices, using practices which strip more bushels of topsoil from the land per acre than the land yields in produce. Resting the land, moreover, requires attention to its patterns, rhythms, and idiosyncracies, so as to let it produce what it can “because that is what the land can produce at the least cost for the longest time.” [2]

Another form of resting the land is to allow its “wildness” to grow, permitting spaces in which the land’s vitality can flourish free of human use. [3] Such resting of the land, as part of the life cycle of a farm, contrasts strongly with the modern practice of agribusiness. Nowhere is the contrast stronger than in Berry’s novel, Remembering , which chronicles a (largely autobiographical) journey from the thickets of modern agriculture to a return to caring for the land, and to an alternative vision of human community. Thus, resting the land may be a part of the jubilee, and recognizing the intrinsic goodness of creation. But, again, what is the connection with democracy?

Being Neighborly: Local Economies

The question of the survival of the family farm and the farm family is one version of the question of who will own the country, which is, ultimately, the question of who will own the people. Shall the usable property of our country be democratically divided, or not? If many people do not own the usable property, then they must submit to the few who do own it. They cannot eat or be sheltered or clothed except in submission…To renounce the principle of democratic property, which is the only basis of democratic liberty, in exchange for specious notions of efficiency or the economics of the so-called free market is a tragic folly. [4]

One of the crucial features of the jubilee is, as Rashkover has pointed out, the return of the land to its owners. Those who have sold land, to get out of debt, or because of poverty, are thus restored to ownership. It is, then, as Robert Gibbs pointed out in a previous issue of this journal, a vision of a community in which families reside on independent plots of land, and this is central to the community as a whole.

In Berry’s work, such a vision of community is inseparable from restoring the land: only through maintaining family farms, of an appropriate scale, can one give the land the care and attention needed to rest it properly. Thus, farms of 80-100 acres—as opposed to 2,000 on modern industrial farms—are of the appropriate size, and he chronicles how they support families in ways that avoid debt and provide for rich community life (at an admitted economic cost). On such a scale, twenty-five families could farm efficiently the land currently farmed by one family, distributing the property of the area far more widely than is currently the case.

As the quote above indicates, it is in such property ownership that Berry sees the possibility of an enriched democratic discourse. Without it, the Jeffersonian politics which sees each family as independent, on some level, from broader economic forces, would fail. Local economies which served their communities, and become self-sufficient through their crop diversity, would be more resistant to economic pressures which have driven many families out of farming, and which press industrialization in ways that (Berry argues) may render human labor, and thus humans, irrelevant. On small plots, citizens could have the freedom and resources to speak up and resist forces that threaten to overwhelm all values other than the almighty dollar. Local economies create the material conditions for democratic discourse, as power and property are not concentrated in the hands of a few.

Moreover, though its sentimentality must be acknowledged, this vision of small farms is also a vision of neighborliness. When Berry describes the work on small farms, it is work that is often done together, with neighbors helping one another. Local economies are fundamentally noncompetitive, based on cooperation rather than competition. The shared work—shared between neighbors, between races, and between men and women, create bonds of solidarity, as well as occasions for conversation. Technology, as part of the competitive economy, divides workers from one another—rendering some surplus to requirements—and divides people from the land itself, preventing the engagement that enables a considered respect for the land itself.

These are just some preliminary thoughts on the significance that the land may hold for prophetic discourse. Does the jubilee call for an environmental ethic? Does it ask us to rethink labor and land, along with practices of lending, as part of the ordering, or economy, of creation? The questions raised by Berry’s vision are not, I think, the questions many would initially associate with a scriptural reasoning approach to questions of land. But, in thinking through the material, economic conditions with which democratic discourse may rise or fall, it highlights other aspects of this issue which demand consideration, and I’d like them to have a hearing.

I would add that there are clearly a number of democratic issues which the communities held up by Berry failed to address—most notably, as he himself would admit, the issue of race. And yet, here, perhaps scriptural reasoning, as a modification of a traditional practice, provides a suitable analogy for re-visioning communities. In SR, we are all “landed” on our own traditions—in proximity to one another, and working together, and yet still fundamentally independent in how we order our worlds. We may learn from one another, and the shared labor has its own value. Perhaps, then, the challenge becomes not simply to have local economies, but to have religiously and culturally diversified local economies, so that the bonds of work and solidarity described above would extend to address problems left unresolved. That is a far larger issue than can be tackled here, and it really can’t be addressed by one person. But perhaps these issues provide a path towards such discussions.


[1] Jeffrey Stout, Democracy and Tradition , p. 134.

[2] “A Good Farmer of the Old School,” in Home Economics (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1987), 158.

[3] See “Preserving Wildness,” in Home Economics , and “Margins” in The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture (New York: Avon, 1977).

[4] “In Defense of the Family Farm,” in Home Economics , p. 165.

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