Some Thoughts on Community

My readings last week were a collection of essays by Wendell Berry regarding community. This is a topic of real pertinence to my work with Shalom Farms, an organization that recognizes itself as a “community development project” (quoted from the website About page). Community development is a relatively new and admittedly ambiguous category of work. The phenomenon of community is surely as old as humanity itself – so why this recent emergence of organizations like Shalom Farms working in community development? Is community – in principle and practice – threatened? If so, why might its restoration be deemed a worthwhile pursuit? And how might we make it a successful one?

To approach any of these questions we must first ask a more fundamental one – what is community? This question, seemingly the most basic of all, is not easily answered and perhaps not actually answerable in any final way. There are likely as many articulations of community as there are entities that identify themselves as such. So I will turn to Wendell Berry on this matter as he is, if not an expert on, then at least a true devotee of community. In his essay “Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community,” Berry posits that community “has to do first of all with belonging,” that is, “it is a group of people who belong to one another and to their place” (Art of Commonplace, 161). Berry is adamant that this relationship of belonging is not simply characteristic of but in fact unique to community – it is what distinguishes community from any other collection of individuals. “We would not say,” he reasons, “We belong to our public,” but we do indeed say, “We belong to our community” (161). This belonging is not an abstract common sentiment; rather it is a recognition of and a response to what Berry calls “the constraints of community life” (163).

Thus belonging and responsibility emerge as hallmarks of community in Berry’s formulation. That is, members of a community share in a sense of mutual belonging “to one another and to their place” understood and actualized in real responsibility to the life of that community – those members and the common ground beneath them. Equipped with this working (albeit incomplete) definition of community, we can return to the original questions.

How might we explain the recent emergence of organizations working in community development?

This question is perhaps sufficiently answered via the question that follows – is community in peril? But first, we would do well to note that current efforts in community development reflect not necessarily a lack or need but unquestionably a value judgment. It is quite clear that many peopleperceive that community is under threat and that they are disturbed by this reality, as evidenced by their effort to change it. That is, we believe community – however it is conceived – is something of great value and, if endangered, entirely worthy of saving.

So, is community – in principle and practice – threatened?

Berry’s writing resounds with an unequivocal “yes” to this question. He alternatively cites globalization, industrialization, capitalism, radical individualism, and “the present economic and technological monoculture” (162) as serious threats to the livelihood of communities. Most basically he faults the ascendency of the private interest in the public sphere. As Berry sees it, the thrust of modern politics is the single-minded protection of individual liberties under the law. This emphasis is, Berry suggests, dangerously misplaced, for “one individual represents no fecundity, no continuity, and no harmony” (162). What’s more, “the individual life implies no standard of behavior or responsibility” (162). Thus, “freedom” is misconstrued “as a license to pursue any legal self-interest at large and at will in the domain of public liberties and opportunities” (163). “People,” Berry writes, “are instructed to free themselves of all restrictions, restraints, and scruples in order to fulfill themselves as individuals to the utmost extent that the law allows” (163).

The deep irony Berry distills is that in this globalized, industrialized, capitalistic, technological age, most people are actually “free to make very few significant choices” (163). The “freedom” we have achieved has landed us in “a rootless and placeless monoculture of commercial expectations and products” (164). Berry writes, “The net result of our much-asserted individualism appears to be that we have become ‘free’ for the sake of not much self-fulfillment at all” (164). As we assert our independence, turning away from community interests and responsibilities, we become more reliant upon systems that scarcely recognize our humanity, much less our individuality. Berry puts it powerfully – “if you are dependent on people who do not know you, who control the value of your necessities, you are not free, and you are not safe” (166). It would seem that the principle and practice of community are indeed in peril. Forces internal and external to themselves threaten to disintegrate communities as individuals become decreasingly accountable to the lives of those near to them and increasingly subjected to dependence upon a placeless economy. Any real sense of belonging or responsibility to a life other than our own or a place other than our private property is being unremittingly dissolved in the modern political, social and economic climate.

Is community restoration a worthwhile pursuit?

Again Berry’s answer is unmistakably affirmative. Championing community for Berry is perhaps the worthwhile pursuit and certainly definitive of his project as a writer, theologian, farmer, and neighbor. But let us explore for a moment ourselves the value of community and its worthiness of defense. On the most basic level, community is necessary for our survival. If this alone seems too basic or mundane a justification for protecting community, may I suggest that our ingenuity and adaptability as a species sustain themselves over time by that same force. Culture, wisdom and tradition too depend entirely upon community for their accumulation and transmission. On a more explicitly theological note, community has essential ontological significance and an eschatological aim: we are told in scripture that where two or more gather in Christ’s name, He is there with us; we proclaim our belief in “the communion of saints” in our creed; we pray to a God who is community – three in one; we talk about the Church as the Body of Christ – many parts but one body; and we announce the Kingdom of God in which all will finally be brought together in Christ. Then the survival of community is absolutely necessary for our physical, cultural, and spiritual survival, and thus unarguably a worthwhile pursuit.

How do we restore community?

We have determined that community is under threat and that it is deeply important that we respond. Now, how do we begin to enact that response? This question is surely as broad as the prior query regarding the meaning of community and is a topic to be given further consideration in future blog posts. But for now it is perhaps useful to look to areas where there is already a concerted effort to restore community. Of particular interest to Wendell Berry, Shalom Farms, and me are community efforts in the food movement. Community gardens and CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture) are becoming fixtures in cities all over the US. People are reclaiming a sense of belonging – to a watershed, a food shed, a local economy – and are embracing the responsibility that follows as they confront the realities of “neighbors downstream,” food deserts, and shared finite resources. Food is the great equalizer and a powerful revelator of our interdependence – we all must eat and we are all fundamentally dependent upon other creatures to do so. It is only natural then that food would impart a sense of belonging and responsibility to our fellow creatures and the places we inhabit. For Christians, food takes on even greater significance and unifying power. Jesus Christ gives Himself to us as food, and that food is our Communion. As Christian communities gather around the table, they become that which they receive: the Body of Christ. This Communion is a foretaste of the great heavenly banquet we await in faith and announce in our living.

Berry’s prognosis on the current state of affairs is a grim one. But his hope in the power of community is as real and as deep as his love for this troubled, miraculous, broken and blessed world. I will conclude this post not with any cohesive conclusion but a poem that conveys that hope:

A Vision
by Wendell Berry

If we will have the wisdom to survive,
to stand like slow-growing trees
on a ruined place, renewing, enriching it,
if we will make our seasons welcome here,
asking not too much of earth or heaven,
then a long time after we are dead
the lives our lives prepare will live
there, their houses strongly placed
upon the valley sides, fields and gardens
rich in the windows. The river will run
clear, as we will never know it,
and over it, birdsong like a canopy.
On the levels of the hills will be
green meadows, stock bells in noon shade.
On the steeps where greed and ignorance cut down
the old forest, an old forest will stand,
its rich leaf-fall drifting on its roots.
The veins of forgotten springs will have opened.
Families will be singing in the fields.
In their voices they will hear a music
risen out of the ground. They will take
nothing from the ground they will not return,
whatever the grief at parting. Memory,
native to this valley, will spread over it
like a grove, and memory will grow
into legend, legend into song, song
into sacrament. The abundance of this place,
the songs of its people and its birds,
will be health and wisdom and indwelling
light. This is no paradisal dream.
Its hardship is its possibility

Better a Kikuyu than a Luo

On Sunday after church, I met a Kenyan Quaker who shares both my name and my age. We also share similar tastes in beer and music. However, despite our similarities, one possession remains exclusively his: memories from Kenya’s post-election violence in 2007 and 2008.

Eric was living in the slums of Nairobi at the time, which saw some of the worst clashes that eventually claimed an estimated 1,300 lives. Although Eric’s account of having been witness to rape and murder was disturbing, more disturbing still was the calm, matter-of-fact tone with which he recounted those chaotic weeks, including the death of one of his close friends.

How is it that this hopeful nation of pious Christians and Muslims, which leads the region in education and development, could have descended into a state of chaos that saw scores killed, an untold number raped and beaten, and an estimated 650,000 people displaced and sent into hiding? Unlike Rwanda and Burundi, where the presence of two, distinctive tribes fomented mutual distrust and climaxed in bloody conflict, Kenya possess no less than forty-two tribes which are physically indistinguishable from one-another. Under such conditions, how can wanton violence arise?

The answer is that the violence had both everything and nothing to do with tribalism. Based on what I’ve read and heard in the last three weeks, I will try to provide my version of the narrative:

When the British colonized Kenya, they employed what was by then a typical strategy of ‘divide and conquer.’ Individual Kenyans–who belonged to disparate and fluid sub-tribes whose particularities were ignored–were organized into immutable ethnic units on the basis of common language and moved into territories whose boundaries Britain had literally drawn in the sand. Although Kenyans had not previously adhered to the concept of strict land ownership, this arbitrary redistribution of territories (which rewarded the most cooperative tribes with the largest and most fertile ‘grants,’ and punished the tribes that actually resisted British rule) nevertheless saddled Kenya with strong intertribal animosities that still simmer today. Violent skirmishes over land boundaries remain a regular occurrence – but it must be stressed that land, rather than tribe, is the real issue behind those clashes.

The British also chose to groom two tribes, the Kikuyu and an elite cadre among the Luo, to be their proxy rulers. Those two groups therefore share a grossly disproportionate amount of wealth, power, education and opportunity as compared to all other Kenyans, and the result is a class divide that masquerades as a tribal one. The Kikuyu in particular, who constitute the largest, richest and most powerful tribe in Kenya, are the target of many negative stereotypes resulting from their envied position. It is the Kikuyu, I have been told, whose wives beat their husbands, and who raise homosexual children, and who are lovers of money.

But how do these tribal identities, which were reinforced and made to oppose one-another through colonial manipulation, play out in the elections? David Zarembka, the lead coordinator of my NGO and a hero of mine, explains:

“This is how tribalism is used by politicians for their own benefit. First, the politician proclaims that he or she is the leader of his or her tribe. In order to get their fair share of government resources, the tribe must support their leader. If it does not, then other tribes which do support their leader will get the resources and the tribe that does not will be left destitute. If the leader is convincing enough and get[s] 90% or more of this tribal vote, he will be [the] indisputable leader of the tribe. With this, he or she will negotiate a position in the government [by pledging his or her tribe’s votes to a political coalition]. In the end, the ‘tribal’ leader has hoodwinked his tribe because the benefits will accrue to him or her and his or her families and closest supporters. The average citizen will see little benefit. When that leader is accused of corruption or misuse of office, he or she will wave the tribal flag so that his or her tribesmen will unite behind him or her, stating that this is a political ploy to destroy the tribe. For reasons that I can not understand, this works. Regardless of the fact that few benefits trickle down to the average tribal citizen; that the tribal leaders’ family and cronies become exceedingly wealthy; that this tribal politics destroys the unity of the country; and that conflict rather than a working together to improve the whole nation results, this unjust system continues” (A Peace of Africa, 199-200).

And, when in 2007 Kenya’s current president Mwai Kibaki, a Kikuyu, blatantly stole the election, tribal machinations were blamed as the root cause of democracy’s despoilment. The resulting feelings of confusion, betrayal and rage, supercharged by and understood through Kenya’s tribal framework, unfortunately had no other recourse but to be catalyzed into violence, which “was frequently enhanced by the concept, ‘You are trying to kill me, so I will kill you first.’ Of course, the other side thinks the same thing so preemptive violence occurs” (222), and hence the scenes of utter chaos that Eric witnessed. All of that being said, it is a fortune beyond fortunes that most of the post-election damage occurred to property rather than people, and that the death toll did not approach even 1% of the figure from Rwanda’s tribal conflagration.

Additionally, hope exists. There’s good reason to believe that the 2013 elections will proceed much more smoothly than the 2007 ones. The area where I’m staying, Kakamega, which is overwhelmingly Luya, is evenly split between Mudavadi, a Luya, and Odinga, a Luo, which seems to indicate that voters are moving beyond their basic tribal loyalties. Indeed, even a large number of Kikuyus support Odinga, despite the availability of Kenyatta, a Kikuyu, as a candidate (although it could also be a factor that Kenyatta is currently being tried by the International Criminal Court!). On the flip side, however, the Luo continue to support their candidate exclusively, which suggests to me that the transformation toward true democracy is slow and by no means ubiquitous. It’s worth noting that when I asked my host to confirm that the Luo are ninety-nine percent in favor of Odinga, he corrected me: “point nine.”

As always, the Bible contains great precedents that, if promulgated and understood, could do much to help. Colossians 3:11 tells us that “there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.” This same sentiment is echoed in 1 Corinthians 12:13: “For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body–whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free–and we were all given the one Spirit to drink.” If Kenyans, and indeed the world at large, were to implement this lesson of radical egalitarianism, there would be no tribalism, classism, chauvinism or any negative -ism imaginable.

But we live in a fallen world, and any improvements that Christianity can offer must occur incrementally. To that end, my organization and I held a two-day workshop this week, during which we introduced approximately twenty representatives of Kenyan Quaker meetings to a program entitled Turning the Tide (TtT). The purpose of the program, which was introduced by British Quakers as a response to the 2007-8 post-election violence, is to provide Kenyan activists with tools and methods of thought that can be used to analyze social issues, break them down into manageable sub-issues, identify potential allies, and finally campaign to fix said issues. The program was well-received, and I am hopeful that the grassroots efforts that TtT empowers will have a real effect on creating an engaged, informed and effective electorate in Kenya–one that is powerful enough to resist the ideological and political manipulations of Kenya’s cruel power-brokers.

I was also very pleased that a portion of the TtT program was dedicated to the examination of Romans 12:17-8, where Paul exhorts Christians to “live at peace with everyone” and to “not repay anyone evil for evil.” Another noteworthy lesson centered around an interesting interpretation of Matthew 5:38-41, where Jesus’ instruction to turn the left cheek in fact is a form of nonviolent resistance, insofar as Biblical Israelites slapped people with the back of their right hand, and thus slapping the left cheek would require a difficult contortion of the arm. Also, it was claimed that Roman officials were only allowed to compel subjects to carry their luggage for a distance of one mile, and thus Jesus’ instruction to go a second mile was actually intended to get those Roman officials in trouble with their superiors. Finally, the injunction to give a prosecutor one’s shirt also when taken to court for one’s coat was again interpreted to be a form of nonviolent resistance, insofar as doing so shames the prosecution for being so cruel, and would probably result in the prosecutor giving up the case out of embarrassment. Although I find the historical validity of these claims dubious, I nevertheless was pleased to see the Scriptures used as a justification for nonviolent resistance to the corrupt misuse of power.

After the workshop, as I warmed myself around a campfire with a dozen Quaker men, a heated political discussion erupted between them. Thankfully they were speaking in English, and I was able to follow along in its entirety. The energy, conviction and optimism that characterized their discourse was entirely unlike the apathy, cynicism and manufactured platitudes that typify American political debate, and even more surprising was the humor and lack of ill will that was present even during their fiercest moments of dissension. In the United States, as any American reader knows, the subject of politics is usually avoided precisely because Americans cannot remain civil when they disagree.

Early on in the discussion, I was relieved to hear all of the men affirm the notion that votes should be cast based on platform rather than tribal interest. Yet, toward the end of the discussion, that sentiment vanished when someone polled for everyone’s opinion regarding a hypothetical runoff between Kenyatta and Odinga, and someone immediately quipped “better a Kikuyu than a Luo.” To my surprise, the rest of the men quickly and quietly indicated their agreement. Clearly, the tribal specter is by no means defeated.

It may take generations, but slowly and surely tribalism is receding in this county. May God, assisted by the grassroots efforts of the African Great Lakes Initiative, speed its timely departure.


Last week, I gave a heuristic answer to the question regarding a proper relationship between Christianity and technology. To summarize, I recommended that Christians disabuse themselves of the idolatrous notion that technology can “save” us, or that it can reliably provide us with a more satisfying life, and I concluded that we should take periodic ‘fasts’ from technology, because doing so can give us a more objective perspective on whether or not a given technology is indeed conducive to our happiness, and–much more importantly–to our spiritual betterment.

As I reflect on my writings, however, I notice that in my analysis I treated happiness and spiritual betterment as synonymous. Was I actually fair in doing so? Or is the path of God sometimes (or often!) less gratifying than… the other path?

I quoted a passage from Jaques Ellul’s The Technological Society last week that is rather pertinent to this investigation. I will reproduce it presently, in full: “Religion is no longer the framework of society… [r]ather, it integrates itself into society, adjusts to it, and adopts the notion of social utility as its criterion and justification” (56, emphasis added). Here Ellul contends, by claiming that technology has forced Christianity to argue its case on the basis of utility, that previously Christianity did not depend on its alleged utilitarian superiority to prove its primacy. By extension, Ellul would predict that a Christianity which cannot prove its “social utility” will, in present times, be abandoned and forgotten.

In Kenya at least, Ellul would seem to have a point. So far I have attended one church service, and indeed the two-hour sermon focused exclusively on the protection God affords to His faithful. Radio stations, television programs and magazine editorials regularly proclaim the same message: God intervenes on the behalf of God’s followers. Privately, multiple individuals have expressed to me their belief that He will grant anything that is asked for “in faith” (a thought which does seem to have some Biblical precedent; see Luke 12:31), and the same people have on several occasions asked me to assuage, in my capacity as an amateur theologian, their confusion over why bad things happen to good people. Above all, however, this apparent tendency of Kenyans to believe that Christianity affords a superior life is best exemplified by the status of Joel Osteen’s name as a household one; indeed, when I tell people that I am from Houston, they almost always ask if I’ve seen the great prophet of prosperity theology (which I have, once, much to the delight of my Kenyan friends and neighbors).

But for Ellul’s claim to be fully correct, it must also be demonstrated that Christianity did not previously rely on any claim to be the superior system for achieving social utility. To this end, we will examine the Didache, one of the oldest surviving Christian documents, which details the early theology and church practice of mid-first century Christian communities. It declares:

“There are two ways, one of life and one of death, and [there is] a great difference between the two ways. Therefore the way of life is this: first, to love the God who made you; second, your neighbor as yourself; and all that you would wish to not happen to you, also you do not do to others. […] But the way of death is this. First of all, it is filled with evil and cursing, murders, adulteries, expressions of lust, acts of sexual immorality, thefts, idolatries, acts of magic, robberies, false witnessing, acts of hypocrisy, acts of duplicity, deceit, pride, malice, stubbornness, greediness, abusive language, jealousy, arrogance, haughtiness, boastfulness. Persecutors of the good, hating the truth, loving the lie, not knowing the reward of righteousness, not joining the good or righteous judgement, not caring for the good but the evil, from whom gentleness and patience [are] far removed, loving what is worthless, pursuing reward, not having mercy on the poor, not toiling for the downtrodden, not understanding the one who made them, murderers of children, corrupters of the creatures of God, rejectors of the needy ones, oppressors of the afflicted, defenders of the rich, lawless judges of the poor, [people] steeped in sin” (1.1-2, 5.1-2).


So the Didache, and by extension our earliest-known church traditions, seem to consider the Christian faith to be the greatest guarantor of a happy, satisfying and peaceful life. This conviction was codified by the third-century theologian Origin, who claimed explicitly: “[W]e promise, openly and not in secret, that they will be happy who live according to the word of God, and who look to Him in all things, and who do everything, whatever it is, as if in the presence of God” (Contra Celsus, Book III, Chapter 57). Origen further challenges the pagans, “[L]et him prove that the end which is predicted by any of the others is superior to that which we promise, and consequently that it is true” (Chapter 81).

Apparently, Origen was perfectly confident in Christianity’s ability to provide a superior utility compared to any other philosophy or religion, and indeed he rested the very validity and acceptability of the faith on that ultimatum. Ellul’s claim that Christianity has, only in modern times, “adopt[ed] the notion of social utility as its criterion and justification” therefore seems to be false.

However, our conclusion is missing one important detail: a closer look at the nature of this so-called utility.

Although the early Christians certainly believed that Christian “love and humility provide human beings with a powerful way of disarming such a violent society as theirs and ours” (Roberta Bondi, To Love as God Loves, 10), and thus that a Christian society would possess greater social utility than a non-Christian one, they also recognized that individual Christians “entered… upon a life of danger” that would not allow them, “when it was their fate to be slain as sheep, on any occasion to resist their persecutors” (Origen, Chapter 27, 3). Early Christianity, then, was a far cry from the religion promulgated today; God was not expected to reliably intervene for the material or otherwise temporal benefit of Christians; rather, a great many followers of Jesus faced lives that were poor, nasty, brutish and short. So how could Origen possibly contend that Christianity is the fast-track to happiness?

Origen could make this claim because happiness, to the early Christians, meant something quite different from our modern interpretation of the same. We moderns tend to define happiness as a warm and pleasant but fleeting feeling, perhaps originating from the receipt of a gift, intimacy with a loved one or a moment of simple relaxation. But the early Christians saw happiness not as a temporary feeling but as a lasting, existential state of being, acquired when one possessed “freedom from the enslaving quality of appetites and emotions” (Bondi, 23). Understanding this distinction, we can now see why Joel Osteen and Origen both promise their listeners happiness, yet one predicts new cars, spouses and promotions while the other foretells of persecution and martyrdom!

I’ve now been in Kenya for almost two weeks, yet due to problems with the financial apparatus of the small NGO I am working for, my partners and I have been unable to secure the funding we need to hold workshops on the new Kenyan Constitution, and we have also had to cancel or postpone our training of election observers for Kenya’s upcoming general elections. This was at first a huge disappointment to me; now one-quarter of my time in Kenya has passed, and I haven’t done any of the work that I came here to do. However with each passing day, my frustration is replaced with a deeper understanding and appreciation of Jesus’ meaning in the words of Luke 14:11, “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

Seeking (and and having no other choice but) to humble myself, I have adopted the profession of the fundi–a workman–and I have spent my days clearing land with a machete, mixing cement by hand, shoveling, milking cows, cooking and installing windows. I’ve actually learned a number of useful skills this way, as well as a very interesting smattering of Swahili, and, although the workshops and trainings are expected to begin at long last next week, I at this point would not mind if they were again postponed in favor of more manual labor alongside the Kenyan yeomanry.

A wise man advised that during my time in Kenya, I should refrain from ‘jumping into action,’ as Americans are wont to do, and that I should instead take some time to ‘listen for the Spirit,’ as it were. In a sense, the last two weeks have provided me with the opportunity to do exactly that. Each day I come home from my labors tired and dirty, to a house without running water and with sporadic access to electricity. And I love it. Freedom from technological and recreational distractions seems to sharpen my mind, focus my thoughts and improve my capacity to bond with people. Subsequently I take a splash bath, and then I share a simple dinner with my hosts–a doting and gracious couple of English teachers in their mid-fifties–with whom stimulating conversation is always had. Finally I retreat to my room, which is not much larger than a closet, where I read, I pray and I think.

The early Christian ascetic, Abba Moses, exhorted other monks to “sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything” (quoted in Bondi, 75). My room, in all its simplicity, and its proximity to other seekers with whom meals and much agape are shared, allows me to approximate the situation of these monks, and indeed I try to follow Abba Moses’ exortation to the letter. But what I did not anticipate, and what I am so thankful for, is thesublime contentment that this simple, communal and contemplative life is giving me.

Jaques Ellul was correct after all; the “social utility” that modern Christians increasingly demand is totally different from the deeply personal and spiritual utility that Christianity previously guaranteed. That previous utility, which I am thankfully being allowed to glimpse, takes the form an existential satisfaction with the world–and rebukes any notion of happiness as tangible but fleeting moments of worldly pleasure. Unfortunately, American and Kenyan churches continue to promise their followers measurable, temporal success, setting their parishioners up for a lifetime of disappointment, insofar as “[a] life that takes its meaning from eating, or sex, or owning things can never be fulfilled, because the desires can never be permanently satisfied” (60). Thus, my original question, investigating the relative happiness of Christians versus the adherents of any other system of belief, is ultimately misguided, because Christianity cannot, should not, and was never intended to be described as a way of feeding the temporal cycle of desire; rather, Christianity is a vehicle for the transcendence of our animal nature, whereby “[w]e become more humanby gaining freedom from the enslaving quality of appetites and emotions, [and] more able to love as we move toward God” (23, emphasis added).


I have been in Kenya for less than a week now, and the culture-shock is only beginning to wear off. Where to begin in describing this place? Travel from one location to another is done in overcrowded matatus – vans in which twenty or more people are packed like sardines – and they are infamous for their removal of speed regulators and their flouting of attempts at government regulation. Schoolchildren in brightly-colored uniforms trek many miles to and from their parochial schoolhouses. Packs of wild baboons creep out from the forests, scavenging through piles of roadside waste for unclaimed edibles. Aggressive Kenyan businesswomen climb the corporate ladder, testing the boundaries of traditional African gender roles. Masai tribesmen cling precariously to their pastoral legacy, weaving their cattle through city traffic in search of grass on public lands and undeveloped properties. Indian expatriates – who dominate local business – hawkishly monitor the work of their African employees. Work crews dig drainage ditches and pave roads using a combination of iron-age tools and 21st-century machinery. Second-hand suits fly off the shelves of local markets, and second-hand novels sell at a premium to industrious Kenyans seeking to perfect their English. Orphans–the product of AIDS and a powerful bathtub liquor called chang’aa–drift like ghosts through the city, clutching bottles of glue underneath their noses.

Common to all of these images is one theme: that of a society in transition. Technology and Westernization promise Kenya reform, renaissance and plenty, but come with a high price of squalor, pollution and cultural abnegation. An African proverb, I am told, warns that “only a fool tests the depth of a river with both feet.” Why, then, does Kenya unquestioning embrace these new forms of technology and wealth, without any apparent reservation?

I have posed this question to several Kenyans since my arrival, and the responses I’ve received have been eye-opening. Apparently the elders of Kenya’s many tribes have indeed expressed frequent discontentment with Kenya’s changing cultural landscape, but never have their rumblings coalesced into a systematic traditionalist, reactionary or Luddite movement. Also, Kenyans at large place a high value on their cultural traditions (e.g. the primacy of family, polygamy, the separate dining of men and women, taboos against homosexuality), but the same Kenyans, or at least those that I’ve spoken to, knowingly accept that most if not all of these cultural values are in decline due to the influence of Western technology and culture. To them, it appears a fair price to pay for the material benefits of a 21st-century, consumerist lifestyle.

Worldwide polls reveal, however, that the correlation between technological/material ‘development’ and happiness is both sporadic and weak, and in light of the negative byproducts and cultural homogenization that modernity entails, one is left wondering whether the tradeoff is worthwhile at all. Indeed, humans possess what John Dyer calls a “moving target” for our happiness, where improvements to technology simultaneously increase our expectations, triggering a cycle where we endlessly pursue newer and more powerful technologies without regard for their consequences, with the delusional perception that the next breakthrough in technology will finally bring about our fulfilment, which it never does.

This is the Kenyan dilemma, and it provides me with the perfect impetus for my own confrontation with a question that has long haunted me: What is the proper relationship between Christianity and technology? That is to say, can Christianity deal with the relentless, steamrolling frontier of technology in a way that culls its benefits while reducing its harms?

The most obvious stances on technology are the complete rejection of all technology, which would reduce humans to naked animals, and the complete acceptance of all technology, which would posit that humans are in no position to separate ‘good’ technologies from ‘bad’ ones. This latter position is called instrumentalism, and it holds that the use of a technology – rather than the technology itself – is what possesses a moral dimension. The most familiar example of this position is the statement: “Guns don’t kill people; people kill people.”

Can it also be said that “Nuclear weapons don’t kill people; people kill people”? Or does the same line of thought apply to heroin, weaponized anthrax or gas chambers? No; clearly technologies that can only be used for evil, even according to the instrumentalist position, are wholly evil insofar as they fail to produce one positive implementation. So it would seem to be the case that there are, in fact, intrinsically bad technologies, and that, to some extent, technology is not beyond our judgement.

However, the overwhelming majority of technologies fall into a moral grey area, having both good and bad uses. Fertilizer, for instance, can increase the crop yield of a starving village, or it can increase the blast radius of a terrorist’s bomb. Since they have no intrinsic moral dimension, should such technologies be accepted unconditionally, so long as they are not used for evil?

No. Scripture indicates that some ‘neutral’ technologies nevertheless need to be used prudentially, because they possess secondary effects that might be deleterious to our spiritual well-being. In 2 John 12, for example, the apostle explains that “I have much to write to you, but I do not want to use paper and ink. Instead, I hope to visit you and talk with you face to face, so that our joy may be complete.” Note: John could have transmitted his full message via correspondence, but he wisely observed that ‘complete joy’ and spiritual edification are best achieved through a voluntary ‘fasting’ from this convenient but impersonal mode of communication. Another example: when Jesus appeared to the disciples for the third and final time, he prepared a charcoal fire and a simple meal of fish and bread (John 21:9). We see here that God incarnate chose to use a simple technology in lieu of miraculous mana or multiplying loaves, because this way He sent a more egalitarian and deeply personal message to the world.

“We shape our tools, and thereafter our tools shape us,” wrote John Culkin. For this reason we ought to exercise caution in which tools we use, how we use them, and with what frequency we employ them. Is there a formula, then, that can be applied to deduce when it is and isn’t prudent to use a morally neutral technology? That is to say, how can we know when the use of a technology is hazardous to our spiritual health?

This question is more important now than ever. Jacques Ellul, a new favorite theologian of mine, holds that modern “technique” poses a unique danger to humanity, in that it “is the main preoccupation of our time” such that “no human activity escapes this technical imperative” (The Technological Society, 21). Previously, “Christianity condemned luxury and money,” and “‘Is it righteous?’ was asked of every attempt to change modes of production or of organization. That something might be useful or profitable to men did not make it right and just” (37). But with the help of “the philosophy of the eighteenth century,” which “was utilitarian and pragmatic,” technology supplanted religious concerns as the primary measure of all things, and due to its “superiority of manifesting itself in a concrete way and of leaving its tracks for all to read” (46), we today witness “a kind of secularization of religion,” where Christianity “integrates itself into society, adjusts to it, and adopts the notion of social utility as criterion and justification” (56). Without religious and cultural constraints, “[t]echnique has been extended geographically so that it covers the whole earth. It is evolving with a rapidity disconcerting not only to the man in the street but to the technician himself. It poses problems which recur endlessly and ever more acutely in human social groups. Moreover, technique has become objective and is transmitted like a physical thing; it leads thereby to a certain unity of civilization [the cultural homogenization I bemoaned earlier], regardless of the environment or the country in which it operates” (78). So what is our answer to this rapidly growing problem?

John Dyer proffers in his book, From the Garden to the City, that “[i]nstead of living our lives according to the values of new technology,” we should “determine what our values are first and attempt to use our tools in service of those values” (157). But this is an imperfect solution. Advances in technology, and particularly the advances of modern technology, cause “complication, distraction, and chaos rather than simplicity, contemplation, and order” (165), and we typically cannot predict the changes that these technologies engender until they have already come to pass. For instance, studies indicate that internet saturation literally rewires our neural pathways, worsening our memory and shortening our attention spans, in much the same way that writing obliterated our former ability to memorize entire Socratic dialogues or oral sagas. But humanity had no way of foreseeing these changes, and in fact it is at all times impossible to make an objective, fully-informed decision regarding the adoption or rejection of a new technology.

But the imperative remains: insofar as “[a] good portion of the Christian life requires the ability to concentrate and focus on on ideas over long periods of time, to read and memorize Scripture (not search for it online), and to love God with our hearts and our minds,” “[w]e have to work against these tendencies in order to maintain balance between the natural and the unnatural” (165). One solution is to freeze technology at some point, as the Amish did. However, any level of technology chosen would be completely arbitrary, and, as John Dyer wisely notes, “we’ve not been called to go backward in time but to live faithfully in our own age” (176). The other answer, and indeed the the one I find most compelling, is to routinely “see what happens when we put boundaries on it [technology]” (177), with contemporary examples including ‘fasts’ from computers, the internet, Facebook, and other technologies that we can identify as detrimental to our spiritual health in excessive quantities. Of course, more discussion, more introspection and more skepticism of cutting-edge technology is also key to the Christian’s successful pilgrimage through a world of accelerating technical cacophony.

We are fortunate to have the example of John, who found that ‘complete joy’ often does not accompany the use of our most recent technical achievements. That said, one can only hope that Kenyans come to believe the same before their cultural heritage is lost completely, and before the sicknesses of modernity and urbanization, masquerading as the golden calf of technological salvation, contribute further to suffering, unrest, or worse.

And the Last Shall Be First

Last week I attended Lobby Day for Bread for the World in Washington, DC with two of my co-workers at Shalom Farms. Bread for the World is a non-partisan ecumenical Christian advocacy group that works to promote policy that ends hunger here in the States and abroad. Christians from all over the country gathered in the capital last Tuesday to urge our representatives in government to “create a circle of protection around programs vital to hungry and poor people in the U.S. and around the world.” As I listened to the inspired and articulate speakers from Bread for the World and participated in conversations with fellow Bread lobbyers and Senate and Congressional staff people, I was reminded of Leonardo Boff’s presentation of liberation theology in Cry of the Earth, Cry of the Poor.

Boff explains that liberation theology begins with the poor, that is, “the poor occupy the epistemological locus.” It is from the standpoint of the poor that we are able, not only to “conceive of God, Christ, grace, history, the mission of the churches, the meaning of the economy, politics, and the future of societies and of the human being,” but also recognize “to what extent current societies are exclusionary, to what extent democracies are imperfect, to what extent religions and churches are tied to the interests of the powerful” (107). According to this paradigm, the success of a nation cannot possibly be determined by its GDP nor can the success of a church be measured by the donations it collects each Sunday. Rather, liberation theology looks to “the least of these” as indicators of the health, efficacy and moral soundness of systems and society as a whole. As Boff puts it, “from the standpoint of faith, the poor represent the suffering Savior and the supreme eschatological judge” (109). For Boff, the verdict is clear – the situation of poverty is a social sin, and we are all gravely culpable (109).

Liberation theology places the “last” – the marginalized and victimized – first and so denounces and disrupts the systems of inequality that produce such a class of people in the first instance. For Boff, this “option for the poor” must be enacted – “it means assuming the place of the poor, their cause, their struggle, and at the limit, their often tragic fate” (107). This is exactly the message and mission of Bread for the World – to advocate for those in need and to confront the powers that directly or indirectly produce that situation of need. A speaker at Lobby Day identified Moses’ prophetic mission as a fitting model. Moses’ demands of Pharaoh challenged the economic, political, and cultural norms of the day, effectively dismantling the very fabric of an unjust society. In the tradition of Moses and so many other instruments of God’s redemptive action in the world, Bread for the World seeks the liberation of the poor by “speaking truth to power.”

Boff, however, insists that authentic liberation is possible only when it originates in the poor themselves – that is, when “the poor become the agents of their own liberation” (108). If this is so, is there a place for advocacy? Or is the work of Bread for the World in vain? If we ourselves enjoy some level of privilege – human rights, civil liberties, public services, self-determination, health care, education – are we disqualified from working to secure these same opportunities for the vast majority of the world’s population that is not so fortunate? Surely this cannot be.

While Boff is adamant that “Only when the poor trust in their potential, and when the poor opt for others who are poor, are conditions truly created for genuine liberation” (108), he does not dismiss the participation of the “haves” in the liberation of the “have-nots.” On the contrary, Boff calls us to be “allies of the poor” (108). But this implies a particular kind of relationship. We must move beyond and indeed far away from any paternalistic model of “charity.” Instead, we must recognize the poor not simply for what they lack but for what they have – “culture, ability to work, to work together, to get organized, and to struggle“ (108). What’s more, Boff tells us, we must humbly acknowledge our own poverty:

It is not only the poor and oppressed who must be liberated but all human beings, rich and poor, because all are oppressed by a paradigm – abuse of the Earth, consumerism, denial of otherness, and of the inherent value of each being – that enslaves us all. (113)

Thus we come to find that liberation can only be realized by a collaborative upheaval of what Boff calls “the logic of means at the service of an exclusionary accumulation” and a collective adoption of  “a logic of ends serving the shared well-being of planet Earth, of human beings, and of all beings in the exercise of freedom and cooperation among all peoples” (114).

Like Bread for the World, Shalom Farms, the food security non-profit I’m working with this summer, advocates for the hungry. However, where Bread seeks change on the governmental level, Shalom is largely a grassroots effort working in neighborhoods, schools and church communities. I am becoming more and more convinced that it will take immense efforts and great faith in policy and on the ground to alleviate hunger, poverty and all forms of injustice. And that in both of these arenas it will be critical to maintain what Boff has emphasized and what scripture teaches – that the last shall indeed be first.

Lived Theology, Embodied Theology

The phrase “lived theology” has been turning over in my head for the past several weeks in anticipation of my Lived Theology internship – What does it mean for theology to be lived? What are the implications of such a theology? How might theology be brought to life in one’s being? At some point during this first week of my intership I struck upon the idea of embodiment – that lived theology is embodied theology. Of course to live in this world is to be embodied. From the tiniest single-celled microorganism to the tallest redwood, to you and me, all that lives in this reality finds physical expression in a body. Thus theology that is lived would be theology that is embodied – word made flesh. As I come to recognize theology as something that is necessarily realized in embodiment then I can begin to think about my own embodied nature – and those of all the creatures that surround me – in what I believe to be a more reverential, humble, and ultimately truthful way.

The thinkers whose writings will accompany my work and theological reflection this summer have already proven instructive in this idea of embodiment. Modern agrarian mystics Wendell Berry and Norman Wirzba and Brazilian eco-liberation theologian Leonardo Boff in particular write extensively on the theological significance of the physicality of the world and the bodies that inhabit it. In his essay “Christianity and the Survival of Creation,” Berry urges us to move beyond the body-soul dualism that has for centuries broken man into two distinct parts, a body and a soul, placing the latter far above and before the former in theological import. Berry instead recognizes man as “a single mystery,” reminding us of the creation narrative which affirms that “The breath of God is only one of the divine gifts that make us living souls; the other is the dust” (314, The Art of Commonplace). Unlike so many antiquated modes of religious thought that denounce the material realm in an effort to access the spiritual one, Berry’s agrarian theological sensibility holds that “God too loves material things; He invented them” (301, The Art of Commonplace).

The brilliant and sometimes bewildering 14th century mystic Meister Eckhart was certainly of the same mind when he wrote, “Earth cannot get away from heaven: let the earth drop downward or rise upward, heaven still penetrates it” (4, Sermons, Writings and Sayings). Thus a lived or embodied theology cannot be of that dualistic mentality that confuses escapism for piety, rather it must be firmly rooted in the sacred dust of our own body-souls and dwell richly in this good Earth. Such a theology will revere the sacred in not only the community of mankind, that is the Mystical Body of Christ, but in what Boff calls the “cosmic community” as it recognizes the “radical interdependence of living systems” (106, Cry of the Earth, Cry of the Poor). Berry describes this same “radical interdependence” in his own words when he writes, “Between any two humans or any two creatures, all Creation exists as a bond” (297, The Art of Commonplace). Norman Wirzba, in his agrarian mystic essay “The Dark Night of the Soil,” similarly affirms that you and I are essentially “communal and relational;” that each one of us is “a creature formed and sustained through the dynamisms of soil and soul” (153, Heaven’s Earthly Life).

A theology that upholds the sanctity of our bodily existence will concern itself deeply with the manifold relationships that sustain our creaturely state of radical interdependence. Thus, our recognition of ourselves as living bodies lays the groundwork for an ethic that preserves the sacred in the whole membership of God’s creation. Wirzba writes,

There is a correspondence among creatures, a mutual and created harmony and sympathy, that finds its unity and wholeness in God. If we are to come into the presence of God, we must learn to find our place in this created correspondence and live responsible and charitably within it (151, Heaven’s Earthly Life).

Berry too writes of the charity that is required by and grows from what I am calling an embodied or lived theology. “Charity even for one person does not make sense except in terms of an effort to love all Creation in response to the Creator’s love for it” (298, The Art of Commonplace). For Berry, to “love all Creation” is not at all the sentimental abstraction it may seem; rather it is the profound, relentless, and above all practical work of “right livelihood.” He describes the requirements of “complex charity,” writing, “Real charity calls for the study of agriculture, soil husbandry, engineering, architecture, mining, manufacturing, transportation, the making of monuments and pictures, songs and stories” (298, The Art of Commonplace), for charity cannot be practiced without skill. Thus, the response to a true recognition of the sacred in ourselves and our fellow creatures is the pursuit of a living and a society that is “responsible to the holiness of life” (309, The Art of Commonplace). This is the difficult yet necessary project of lived theology and the project that I hope to engage through my work this summer.