Agrarianism for the rest of us

December 1, 2021

Editor’s note: This month, we are celebrating the 25th anniversary of The Christian Citizen by reprinting articles that previously appeared in print only or on an early version of our website. This article first published in Volume 1, 2009.

Without fanfare or public attention, the year 2007 marked an unprecedented turn in cultural development. For the very first time in human history, the number of people living in cities was greater than the number of people living in the country. A mass exodus from the land—whether forced or voluntary—has become a global phenomenon. Some free-market economists and other observers agree with Karl Marx that this migration is an unqualified good because the trajectory of civilized life demands a release from “the idiocy of rural life.” Still others wonder if the march away from, and sometimes against, the land are not signs of a diminishing culture, or, perhaps even a distortion of humanity’s place on earth.

It would be foolish to underestimate the cultural significance of mass urbanization. What is at issue is not simply a change in location. Far more important are the transformations, brought about by urbanization, in the ways we see, feel, work, appreciate, value, celebrate and accept responsibility. When people lose affection for and a practical understanding of the land; when they find themselves in a state of ecological amnesia; or when they fail to see how their well-being is inextricably tied to the well-being of farmlands, forests, and wetlands; it is inevitable that they will turn their energies to projects that exhausts, degrade or destroy the sources upon which all life depends.

The developments related to urbanization merit sustained consideration as caretakers of creation. How can we care for creation if we are not in a position to appreciate what it means or entails? What if the patterns and priorities or urban and suburban living are opposed to healthy and vibrant creation? Our preoccupation with work and shopping has caused us to take little notice. Urban consumerism insulates us from creation, making it much harder for us to know how to live responsibly within it.

Agrarianism, particularly as espoused by Wendell Berry, Wes Jackson, Liberty Hyde Bailey, and Sir Albery Howard, proposes cultural forms that promote the health of the land and culture together. This viewpoint is significant because agrarians believe that people belong on the land and, therefore, have a responsibility to use it wisely and justly. Proper use of the land, however, depends upon having sufficiently detailed knowledge of its limits, potential, and requirements. Appropriate land use calls for people who work daily with the land to care properly for it. Contrary to profiteers who see creation simply as a resource to be exploited, agrarians contend that restraint and respect are virtues that are fundamental to our ability to live in sympathy and celebration with creation.

Agrarianism is a way of life that teaches us how to till and keep God’s life-giving garden (Genesis 2:15). Although most of us aren’t farmers, we are all called to work, eat, play and celebrate in ways that honor God and preserve the gift of creation.

All of us are, in some ways, agrarians. We need to adopt agrarian sensitivities and responsibilities even so much as paying attention to how we eat. Fr most people food has become a commodity purchased from a store. Our only concerns are that it is affordable, fresh, and unblemished, quick and easy to prepare. We also want it to be available year-round and in plentiful supply. And yet, anyone who has ever farmed or raised livestock knows that our food system is built on unrealistic assumptions. Hidden from our view are the destruction of soils, depletion of fresh water, poisoning of our habitats, and deplorable conditions endured by animals and fowls on farms and in processing plants. We are shielded from these grim realities by glitzy advertising and marketing of our food as a commodity.

Food is costly and precious. Obtaining food always presumes the drama of life and death. In order for us, or any living creature to eat, plants or other animals must die. We need God’s divine breath to continuously animate the face of the ground (Psalm 104:27-30).  Farmers have always understood this because they experience daily the practical requirements of vital soil, healthy plants, and well-cared-for animals. For them, food is never a commodity. It is a gift that comes with a history of struggle, loss, fruitfulness, and grace. Their most important work is to aid life by nurturing the geo-bio-chemical and social processes that make for tasty and nutritious food.

We can all eat more responsibly and justly. But to do so, we must adopt an agrarian mindset that is attentive to where food comes from and how it produced, distributed and prepared. A necessary first step, therefore, is to disconnect from a global, industrial food system that exploits fields, animals and farm workers alike. Under this system, food is produced far away and travels on average 1,300 miles to get to your table, which means we can’t know if it honors God or creation.

A better way is for us to grow some of our food ourselves. It doesn’t need to be much. A few vegetables in patio pots or on a windowsill will expose us to the fragility and grace of life, and teach us to be responsible, grateful eaters. Buying from local sources, like farmer’s markets or Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), will hep reduce global warming, preserve open spaces, stop the sprawl of chain stores and help us become more informed about our food and those who produce it.

Agrarianism is a way of life that teaches us how to till and keep God’s life-giving garden (Genesis 2:15). Although most of us aren’t farmers, we are all called to work, eat, play and celebrate in ways that honor God and preserve the gift of creation.

Norman Wirzba is the Gilbert T. Rowe Distinguished Professor of Christian Theology and senior fellow at the Kenan Institute for Ethics at Duke Divinity School. At time of writing, he was the research professor of Theology, Ecology, and Rural Life at Duke.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.

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