Who are we? One of the ways we might describe ourselves is as members of communities. Or at least we used to be that. Wendell Berry has been doing some remarkable writing on the nature of communities and in an essay he published a few years ago he ties together concern for the environment, civil rights and racism, industrial production, pornography, greed, gardens, social justice, and the destruction of local communities. Oh, he also ties in religion. That’s a mighty long rope you need to tie all that together!
The underlying argument Berry makes is that the kind of mentality that creates a strip mine that destroys the earth (using the earth as an instrument for financial gain) is the mentality that seeks to maximize profit for a huge extractive farming operation and is the mentality that abuses racial and economic minorities and makes war on civilian populations. It’s, as Berry says, “The mentality that destroys a watershed and then panics at the threat of flood… that gives institutionalized insult to black people and then panics at the prospect of race riots….” Click here for the whole article!
The kind of thinking here is what you might call “instrumentalizing.” It reduces a whole human being (or a meadow, or a neighborhood) to some part. Maybe a consumer, maybe a cult hero, maybe a beautiful model, maybe an enemy. It reduces the land to something we use and use up. It reduces God’s creatures to being valuable only when they are valuable to us. It’s one of the dangers of living in a pornographic era. This kind of reductive thinking is everywhere around us. It’s taking a part for the whole, and then using up the part. When it’s no longer useful to us (when we can’t make money out of it), we get rid of it. Think of the language of “monetizing,” when you turn everyone and everything into a profit center.
Think of spin doctors and our misuse of language. The optics become the most important thing. What could be a way to share ideas and weave together meaning turns into shouting matches. Think of our senate and filibusters. The truth gets lost in the shouting and shoving. Think of our way of protesting these days. We are using words as weapons. We shouldn’t be surprised when every interaction between us turns into a battle. Who’s the smartest person in the room, or the most beautiful or charming or dominating. When everyone is an object, then every personal interaction is a chance to manipulate and get what I want. Without limits. I can be as greedy as I want because I have no connection to you, or to anyone or to any place.
In “Hell Hath No Limits,” Berry goes after the foolish idea that we live in a limitless world. The “credo of limitlessness clearly implies a principled wish not only for limitless possessions but also for limitless knowledge, limitless science, limitless technology, and limitless progress. And, necessarily it must lead to limitless violence, waste, war, and destruction.” In the same essay, he writes, “We are not likely to be granted another world to plunder in compensation for our pillage of this one… We are, in short, coming under pressure to understand ourselves as limited creatures in a limited world.” Here’s the article!
In Berry’s line of thinking, we are well served by being as local as possible. It’s not simply a question of using fewer resources… it’s also a deeper question of how we might connect to each other. Does the Catholic Church have anything to say about this? Of course we do! The church’s structure of parishes has been extremely local from the very beginning. The “oikos (gk),” the home, is next to the “paroikos” the parish (it’s the root of the word “parochial.”) Like in a home, where you are born into a family (we don’t choose our families), in parish you are born into something. The parish offers a set of relationships that are not something we choose. They are given to us simply because we live in a particular place. And in some parts of our city, they hold together the fabric of the city itself. Here, I’m talking about old Chicago neighborhoods where there are still some pretty dense networks of families and friendships. In the church, a person is baptized into the Body of Christ. This connection with the church includes the present moment, and the past, and the future. It includes everyone in the territory of the parish, Catholic or not, believer or not. This is the kind of connection we hope no one “unchooses.” Why?
Back to the problems we face as a culture. Where might we answer the questions of meaning? Of love, of belonging to someone and someplace? In our parish. On our block. With our neighbors. Where might we sit down and talk with someone we share space with? Where might we extend a hand to help an actual person? How might we practice kindness and compassion, or honesty or neighborliness? We can’t do these things online, after all. Where might we sit down and have a meal and a glass of wine and talk about evil, or good, or hope? Where might we exchange ideas with someone who thinks differently? We won’t probably do these things at the shopping mall, or on the expressway. We might do them at the corner bar, in our neighborhood, or at our parish! Being face to face with a real human being is what we need to heal our world. We can’t control what’s happening in the Ukraine, or with Covid, or with whatever disaster is being thrown at us by the media. We can talk with our neighbors. And, maybe we start with our enemies! Remember the command of Jesus, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.” (Lk 6:27) Can this kind of thing change the world? Of course it can!