How Much Hope is In Change?

2

For some reason, for several days the following excerpt from Wendell Berry’s writings has kept circulating through my brain. It’s a longish passage, but one I come back to over and over, and can’t totally figure out why. I think this passage says something to us in the scholarly vocation, but I cannot yet shape it into words. The passages come from Berry’s Sex, Economy, Freedom and Community: Eight Essays.

“All the institutions that ‘serve the community’ are publicly oriented: the schools, governments and government agencies, the professions, the corporations. Even the churches, though they may have community memberships, do not concern themselves with issues of local economy and local ecology on which community health and integrity must depend. Nor do the people in charge of these institutions think of themselves as members of communities. They are itinerant, in fact or in spirit, as their careers require them to be. These various public servants all have tended to impose on the local place and the local people programs, purposes, procedures, technologies, and values that originated elsewhere. Typically, these ‘services’ involve a condescension to and a contempt for local life that are implicit in all the assumptions—woven into the very fabric—of the industrial economy.

“A community, especially if it is a rural community, is understood by its public servants as provincial, backward and benighted, unmoved, unprogressive, unlike ‘us,’ and therefore in need of whatever changes are proposed for it by outside interests (to the profit of the outside interests). Anyone who thinks of herself or himself as a member of such a community will sooner or later see that the community is under attack morally as well as economically. And this attack masquerades invariably as altruism: the community must be plundered, expropriated, or morally offended for its own good—but its good is invariably defined by the interest of the invader. The community is not asked whether or not it wishes to be changed, or how it wishes to be changed, or what it wishes to be changed into. The community is deemed to be backward and provincial, it is taught to believe and to regret that it is backward and provincial, and it is thereby taught to welcome the purposes of its invaders. (Wendell Berry, Sex, Economy, Freedom and Community, 152-153)

“It is certain that communities are destroyed both from within and from without: by internal disaffection and external exploitation. It is certain, too, that there have always been people who have become estranged from their communities for reasons of honest difference or disagreement. But it can be argued that community disintegration typically is begun by an aggression of some sort from the outside and that in modern times the typical aggression has been economic. The destruction of the community begins when its economy is made—not dependent (for no community has ever been entirely independent)—but subject to a larger external economy…” (Wendell Berry, Sex, Economy, Freedom and Community, 125-126)

Maybe you can help me figure out what I’m hearing here…

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I'm 60 years old, professor of Old Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky. I love my wife of 36 years, my three adult children and children-in-law. I love our three horses, two cats, and whatever other creatures decide to call our place home. I hate mowing grass, hanging pictures or shelves, or anything involving punching or drilling holes in walls. I love my job of studying and teaching the Old Testament. I've recently contracted a fierce interest in archaeology. I also enjoy guitars, jazz, vintage firearms, airplanes, photography, drystone masonry and, visiting the lands of the Bible.

2 COMMENTS

  1. If I am reading the excerpt correctly, Berry is discussing how people and institutions who wish to affect social change tend to see themselves as possessing something that is of value or usefulness and the people they serve as having a deficiency. This mindset is rooted in a power dynamic that is unhealthy to both parties. Most often, there is little positive change and much damage done as the one party becomes egotistical and imposing in their “benefactor” role and the other becomes withdrawn, oppressed, and bitter in their passively receptive role as change (which may or may not even apply to their own unique context) is foisted upon them. I like to think of this dynamic as “mission abuse.” One party is seen as inferior to the other, rather than standing as equals in mutual edification. Neither party truly learns anything, and the systemic problems that stand at the root cause of social inequity in both contexts are not addressed. The solution seems to be that we must approach our mission fields as learners who understand that God is already there, working in ways that we have yet to discover. We have to learn to treat everyone as if they have something to offer–some wisdom or commodity that they can contribute–and keep everyone on equal footing. I don’t think that attempts at change are necessarily the problem, but the way we go about trying to affect change.

    I wonder what this would look like if we applied it to the educational system? Traditional education in America places the instructor as the bearer of knowledge who disseminates that knowledge to the students, who are seen as deficient in knowledge. Granted, students are there to learn things they do not know, but is the goal most effectively reached through this polarized power dynamic in the classroom? We have already seen that students, in general, seem to be more successful in settings of group discussion and activity than straight lecture. Why? I think it is because they are placed in an atmosphere in which everyone present is recognized as holding unique knowledge and experience, and there is more equal ground in which they may learn from each other. This is not to negate the importance of professors or their knowledge. Certainly, their wisdom and expertise is honored, but it is possible to honor the wisdom and expertise of the students as well, and to acknowledge that they have unique things to bring to the table. Lecture does have its place, but I don’t think it is beneficial for that to be the only method of teaching (and most current research would agree). I have found that professors who act more as facilitators of dialogue in the classroom and an atmosphere of mutual learning have helped me succeed far more than those who only read to the class from their PowerPoint slides. This is not simply because lecture classes are boring and don’t hold students’ attention (the information itself is usually interesting), but because curriculum based solely on lecture and dissemination of information does not encourage the kind of thinking that helps students truly learn, nor does it foster the confidence that we have something to contribute.

  2. This has resonated with me from a couple of perspectives–all in regards to the United Methodist Church. I will try to make sense of it:
    The most obvious way it speaks to me is the way the progressives/liberals are trying to force their views on homosexuality on everybody through legislation at the denominational level.; they are very good at belittling anybody who is not is in agreement. What is ironic, the local PFLAG chapter openly admits the south Texas community where I live is not ready; the time and place of their meetings are never publicly announced for security reasons. That assessment is confirmed by a local Lutheran Church who experienced a melt down over the issue and it was ugly; it is hard to say if anybody came out “on top”; it was the minority pro contingent who were forced out; they formed a new church but have not gained traction in the community. Reaction spilled over into the local UMC. I tremble at the thought of what would happen if this local UMC church had to face a similar decision.
    But it also speaks to the way the UMC is trying to “save itself” as a denomination. In the local church, this played out in the arrival of a pastor who knew what needed to change; he found some supporters for his program of “do this and they will come” ; woe unto those of us who felt like we were being run over by an earth-moving machine–the problem was not so much what he wanted to do but the heavy handed way he went about it put people on the defensive–he had all the answers, the rest of us did not know squat. I monitored attendance during his tenure; although new faces appeared, there was no significant change in attendance–for every person gained, somebody left. On the surface, the appearance was he was doing great “new” things to save the church. Reality is the dust has settled, we are on the third pastor down the road but the church is not what it was; attendance/participation is at a 25 year low; people have disappeared.
    I have spent my own time away from the church; I have been back in worship for almost a year, but am unsure how much I should get involved–both things play into my hesitancy because I know the detrimental effects of “outsiders” deciding what is best for a community.

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