Today’s response to Wendell Berry’s essay “The Gift of Good Land” comes from Ragan Sutterfiel, a writer and farmer who has contributed to Flourish magazine in the past. “The Gift of Good Land,” was published thirty years ago, and we reprinted it in the Fall 2009 issue of Flourish Magazine to celebrate Mr. Berry’s work, but also to provoke some questions: How has the natural world, and efforts to steward it, changed in these 30 years? How has Christianity changed? What is still relevant about Mr. Berry’s words today? What have been our successes and failures as creation’s stewards in these three decades? Where do we go from here?
We’ve asked a wide variety of Christian thinkers, writers, and leaders to respond to Mr. Berry’s essay, taking into consideration these questions and their own relevant experiences. Here is Ragan Sutterfield’s reflection.
Father Forgive Us: A Response to Wendell Berry’s “The Gift of Good Land”
By Ragan Sutterfield
Wendell Berry’s fellow Kentuckyian Thomas Merton once wrote that “To say that I am made in the image of God is to say that love is the reason for my existence, for God is love. Love is my true identity. Selflessness is my true self. Love is my true character. Love is my name.” “The Gift of Good Land” is essentially an essay about how to live in this reality; how to live as a creature born of love and called to charity toward our neighbors.
For Berry the question of charity cannot be an abstract one—it must come down to the question of how we supply our wants and needs in the world, how we make our living. “If ‘the earth is the Lord’s’ and we are His stewards,” writes Berry, “then obviously some livelihoods are ‘right’ and some are not.” We cannot set out to make our living, if we are to be neighborly, by depriving and destroying our commonwealth—our common gift of good land. “Is there not, in Christian ethics,” asks Berry, “an implied requirement of practical separation from a destructive or wasteful economy?”
I think it would be difficult in the face of the Biblical witness and Christian tradition to answer anything to this question but “yes, there is a requirement for practical separation.” But how do we realize this separation when we are situated in a deeply fallen world? I can barely leave my house without involving myself in some way with the satanic aspects of the economy. If you are reading this essay you are also involved in them in one way or another, because I am writing it on a computer that is pulling its power from an electrical grid that is destructive and wasteful, and you are likely reading on a computer or by a light that is doing the same.
So how do we respond to this situation in which we are uncharitable simply by participating in many of the common place activities of our economy? I struggle with this question and I think that this struggle should be our first response. We must not simply excuse our participation in the uncharitable economy, but constantly question ourselves and our participation. We should find those places where we can escape from this economy wherever and whenever we can—buy local food from farmers we know; reduce our use of electricity; seek good, truly productive work; walk more and drive less. We must also recover, as the theologian Kelley Johnson has suggested, the Christian traditions of both corporate and personal confession and penance. We must confess the areas of our lives where we have been uncharitable, and we must do acts of penance to help us understand fully the impact of our destruction. Perhaps we can think of practices like planting trees as acts of penance connected to confession rather than as ways to simply excuse our guilt.
In all of this we should be reminded that God is God, the creation is His, and we are lost in our sin and ignorance. However we live, we live by grace and in that grace we can accept, give, and offer thanks for the abundance of God’s charitable creation. May He guide us to lives of constant love for Him and all of our neighbors.
Ragan Sutterfield writes and farms in his native Arkansas. He is the author of Farming as a Spiritual Discipline, available from Doulos Christou Press.